Last weekend, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Berlin to rail against the minimal health and safety restrictions put in place by the German government to curb the spread of COVID-19. The rally, which was organized by the German group Querdenken 711—and which saw hundreds arrested for attempting to storm the parliament building, among other things—represented the ongoing rise of conspiracy theorists in Germany, particularly those affiliated with the QAnon cult. And Querdenken 711 had a very special anti-vaxxer guest at the rally: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of one of America’s most prominent political dynasties.
Querdenken 711, whose name loosely translates to “Thinking Outside the Box 711,” had tried to invite other controversial world leaders to the rally before landing Kennedy. On Aug. 7, the group’s Twitter account tweeted at Donald Trump, calling him “the only American President who has not started a war,” despite his record escalating the U.S.’s foreign conflicts, and cordially invited him “to speak on the subject of ‘peace.’” Three days later, the account tweeted at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, asking him, too, to speak about “Peace in Europe,” apparently ignoring Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine. (Members of Querdenken’s many Telegram channels noted that Putin might be too busy with the escalating tensions in Belarus to attend.)
In a last-ditch effort to score a major speaker outside of their own ranks, the group finally tweeted at Kennedy, asking him to join them on stage for “freedom and peace” on Aug. 19. Kennedy had already signaled his interest in the growing “anti-COVID” movement in Germany. On Aug. 11, his anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense, published a letter by an anonymous “Friend in Germany” on the organization’s website. Four days later, Querdenken 711 founder Michael Ballweg offered an official public invitation during a speech in Hamburg.
Kennedy’s organization, Children’s Health Defense promotes the notion that COVID-19 health regulations support Bill Gates’s “globalist” agenda for mandatory vaccinations as part of a conspiracy led by Big Pharma. In a strange statement to the podcast of TruePundit, spread on German QAnon channels, Kennedy insisted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seeks to poison “an entire generation of Americans” with a COVID vaccine. TruePundit is described as “a political conspiracy website with a far right-wing bias” by the site Media Bias Fact Check and has also been written up by the fact-checking site PolitiFact for misinformation.
On Aug. 28, a lawyer and member of a local chapter of Ballweg's organization, called Querdenken 731, broke the news that Kennedy was coming to Berlin. It is unclear how Kennedy managed to bypass the travel restrictions banning American citizens from entering Germany. Querdenken could not be reached for comment. The Daily Beast also reached out to Kennedy via the contact form at the website of his organization, Children’s Health Defense, but did not hear back.
Claiming to represent Kennedy, the lawyer Markus Haintz went on to hold a joint panel with Kennedy on the day of his arrival. Also joining Kennedy and Haintz on the panel was Heiko Schöning, founder of anti-vaccination group Ärzte für Aufklärung (“Doctors for Enlightenment”) and regular speaker at Querdenken events. Later that day, Kennedy appeared at the Brandenburg Gate in front of a large picture of Mahatma Gandhi alongside Schöning and Haintz, and declared, “Tomorrow, I will speak to the largest crowd in German history. We are expecting over one million people from every nation in Europe protesting Bill Gates’s bio security agenda… and the Pharma-sponsored coup d’etat against liberal democracy.”
When Kennedy arrived to speak on the main stage the next day, the crowd was a fraction of the size of the one that gathered to hear President Obama speak in Berlin in 2008.
Kennedy took to Instagram to tell his followers that the far-right rally that tried to break into parliament had nothing to do with the protest he attended, and that there were absolutely no far-right activists or conspiracy theorists at his event. One of the photographs he himself uploaded appears to disprove his claim, as there is a man with what seems to be a T-shirt referencing QAnon filming from before the press pit with a tripod just yards in front of him. QAnon channels have now switched to claiming that the so-called “storm on parliament” was a false flag. Kennedy played right into the narrative by calling the far-right attendants “agents provocateurs.”
While Querdenken and Kennedy have not necessarily been forthcoming to media in the West, Kennedy did grant an interview to Russian media, RT, on Aug. 29, published the next day. RT also published parts of Kennedy’s speech to the rally. A leaked EU report states that “Pro-Kremlin media outlets have been prominent in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, with the aim to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems.”
The news of Kennedy’s arrival put German QAnon Telegram channels into a frenzy. The conspiracy theorists, many of whom are obsessed with JFK, had been hoping for a resurrection-style reappearance of the 35th U.S. president, but were mostly content with his nephew filling in. Members had long been sharing Kennedy’s attacks on Bill Gates. Some QAnon followers have even fantasized about Kennedy throwing Bill Gates in Gitmo.
Admiration for Kennedy and hatred for Gates connects QAnon conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists and the more mainstream corners of anti-COVID activism. Kennedy’s interview, “Perspectives on the Pandemic” has been widely shared by Querdenken activists. Anti-Bill-Gates shirts and signs are a common sight at Querdenken protests. Ballweg—a tech entrepreneur and self-styled apolitical freedom activist—denies any connection between the event featuring Kennedy and the group that attempted to break into the parliament building in the wake of Querdenken’s protest, but the speeches he’s been giving throughout the summer seem to tell a different story.
At the first large protest in Berlin on Aug. 1, Ballweg cited the QAnon slogan, "Where we go one, we go all" in front of a cheering crowd. At the same event, he was photographed talking to Nikolai Nerling, a former primary school teacher who was convicted for incitement by a German court after denying the Holocaust in front of students at the concentration camp memorial in Dachau. Nerling would later film himself jumping over the barricades in front of the parliament building.
Ballweg also dog-whistled his support for Reichsbürger (“Imperial Citizen”), a movement similar to the “sovereign citizens” in the U.S., by calling on protesters to research the term “peace treaty.” (Reichsbürger believe the German government to be a puppet state controlled by the Allied forces, pointing to the lack of an official peace treaty after WWII). Members of the group were among the far-right protesters who tried to break into parliament on Saturday.
Telegram channels in Germany had previously spread the rumor that Trump made Kennedy his ambassador, and Kennedy was on his way to the Russian embassy where he would sign the eagerly awaited peace treaty and usher in a new government. The position of ambassador to Germany has been vacant since May.