Chance or cultivation? Farmers’ protests in Germany and the far right

20 February 2024

By: Paula Matlach and Sara Bundtzen

This Dispatch is also available in German.


In view of the nationwide farmers’ protests in Germany, ISD found links between some farmers who played a key role in organising the protests and larger conspiracy theorist and far-right networks that go beyond Germany. These actors were found to be drawing on well-known far-right and populist narratives, including the ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy and climate change denialism. Though many protesters may be unaware of the dangerous context of the narratives and symbolism used, this nonetheless indicates a potential for (spontaneous) mobilisation and a breeding ground for far-right ideology. 

Repeated use of anti-democratic symbolism  

One flag repeatedly displayed during the farmers’ protests shows the Landvolk (peasants) symbol, a white plough and red sword on black background. The origin of the symbol lies in the Landvolk movement of 1920s and 1930s, which originated in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where farmers protested against cheap imported grain, low prices and high interest and taxes. The Landvolk movement and the associated symbol represent a “blood and soil” nationalist ideology that propagates antisemitic and anti-democratic attitudes 

In the 20s and 30s, the movement also found sympathisers outside of Schleswig-Holstein under the slogan ‘Fight the Jewish parliamentary system’. In addition to tax strikes, rallies and delivery boycotts, radicalised members conducted bomb attacks on town halls and district offices. The leader of the movement, farmer Wilhelm Hamkens, alleged that the causes of the crisis laid not only in inflation, war reparations and trade agreements, but loans of the “international-Jewish big capital”, which aimed to “seize agriculture” and to “enslave the German people” 

Images 1 and 2: The Landvolk flag displayed at protests on 4 January (left) and 8 January 2024 (right). 

During the most recent wave of farmers’ protests (which have been active since December 2023), some protestors have displayed flags with the symbol, but organisers have denied any links between the symbol and the far right. In June 2020, roughly 500 farmers and more than 300 vehicles recreated the Landvolk symbol as a protest, which was organised by a local farmer and politician. The farmer publicly called for “proudly” showing the symbol to “unify farmers”, ignoring its antisemitic and nationalist meaning in a video posted on Facebook. The farmer is a member of Freie Bauern (Free Farmers), which had published a statement claiming the 1928 demands of the Landvolk movement were “legitimate” and while “strategic mistakes were made”, today “no one should be ashamed of displaying the flag”. 

Image 3: Screenshot from a Telegram channel showing an aerial shot of the 2020 protest. 

Recent protests have also included active calls for the “removal” or “death” of the government. On 18 December 2023, during a speech by Cem Özdemir (Green party), farmers from the farmers’ association Freie Bauern tossed red, yellow, and green bales of straw (a reference to the parties of coalition government) in a chipper. Video footage was shared on the Freie Bauern YouTube channel, garnering more than 32K views, and by the Facebook page of the farmers’ association Land schafft Bindung e.V. (56K followers). The page also posted a photo of a sign with a picture of Özdemir captioned with “battue, indicating a “hunt” of the politician.

Images 4 and 5: Farmers’ protest in Berlin on 18 December 2023, shared by farmers’ associations on YouTube (left) and Facebook (right). 

The use of such symbols, as well as attempts to legitimise the Landvolk symbol by separating it from its historical meaning (and farmers’ apparent ignorance of its history), indicate a potential for far-right mobilisation within the farmers protests. For the far-right, the unknowing use of anti-democratic and nationalist symbols by protestors can enable the spread of far-right sentiments and ideas into new communities. 

This is because those who – knowingly or unknowingly – use such symbols are in doing so reproducing signifiers of anti-democratic and nationalist sentiments.  

Potential for offline mobilisation  

On 4 January 2024, roughly 250 to 300 farmers spontaneously trapped Robert Habeck (Green Party), the German Vice Chancellor and Minister for Climate Action, who was returning from a private vacation on a public ferry. According to German police the situation was “heated” and, following a two-hour standoff, the ferry eventually had to depart without the minister disembarking due to security concerns. As the ferry took off, around 25-30 people tried to get on board the ferry but were held back by police 

An investigation by German national newspaper Zeit Online revealed that the ferry protest originated from the far-right milieu and was organised via WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels. According to Zeit Online, a woman who ran as a candidate for the AfD and shared QAnon conspiracies learned which ferry Habeck planned to return on and shared this information with a local agricultural contractor, who has been documented to display flags with the symbol of the Landvolk movement. The information was then posted in a WhatsApp group, claiming: “ATTENTION !! Robert Harbeck (sic) invites you to a citizens’ dialog today at 4:45 pm at the Schlüttsiel ferry port! He wants an infinite amount of interest. Let’s do him a favour and come with everything that has wheels!” 

The message spread rapidly in local farmers’ chat groups, AfD-affiliated and far-right Telegram channels. 

Image 6: Message inviting people to join a “citizens dialogue” on 4 January 2024, shared on Telegram. 

The protest drew condemnation from both government and opposition figures, and the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) – the largest and most influential farmers association for German agriculture – distanced itself from this protest. However, some local farmers who participated in the blockade were later found by ISD analysts to publish rebuttals on social media, actively playing down the protest, denying any connections to the far right (by positioning themselves as “victims” of the media) as well as the need to distance themselves from the “few” who ran towards the ferry.  

An interview with a farmer who took part in the protest, reached 146k views on YouTube. Speaking to freelance journalist Martin Lejeune (who is a former activist in the Querdenken conspiracy movement), the farmer stated that the “invite to come to the ferry port came from somewhere” and denied any security concerns or attempts to “storm” the ferry, arguing that “the idea that regular people from the countryside would be violent is far-fetched but of course the better headline”. He also slated politicians for pursuing “policies against our own country” – insinuating a populist dichotomy of “the people” versus “the elites”. The interview was reported on by the German-language edition of The Epoch Times, an alternative news outlet known for fuelling far-right disinformation and conspiracy theories. The ferry blockade and subsequent reactions not only serve as manifestations of the links between some local farmers and the far right, but showcase the potential for offline mobilisation that originates from these links.  

National and international ties between local farmers and far-right and conspiracy theorist actors 

Propagation of the ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy and climate change denialism at farmers’ symposium in Berlin 

On 10 September 2023, farmers organised a conference in Berlin that invited prominent figures of the far-right and conspiracy theorist scene. The event was livestreamed on a YouTube channel, garnering 56k views. In another video shared on the same channel, a farmer who has gained prominence, Jann-Harro P. (a board member of farmers’ associations Freie Bauern and a state branch of Landwirtschaft verbindet Deutschland (LsV-D)), invited farmers and citizens to attend the event. A Facebook page affiliated with the protests (91k followers) shared a link to the livestream. The event was joined by Renate Lilge-Stodieck, co-founder and editor of The Epoch Times (German-language edition), who covered the event in detail. 

Among the speakers were former president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (VfS) Hans-Georg Maaßen, who has promoted antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories, including claims of “anti-White racism”. At the farmers’ symposium, Maaßen shared xenophobic and “anti-woke” sentiments, alleging that “the political left in Germany wants mass migration, a transformed society and to choose its own people”. He discredited the media as “state media”, which played the “role of shields for this eco-socialist government” and proclaimed, “I am a sceptic, and I don’t believe in man-made climate change”, receiving loud applause.”

Also welcomed as “experts” were Klaus Ermecke, a known climate sceptic, as well as Markus Krall, who previously maintained close connections with the conspiracy theorist and Reichsbürger movement, warning of “government indoctrination and propaganda”. 

Images 7 and 8: Hans-Georg Maaßen and other speakers at the farmers’ symposium in September 2023, livestreamed on YouTube and shared on Facebook. 

One farmer, Jann-Harro P., took the stage to, among other things, to give opinions on the goals of Agenda 2030, the “Club of Rome”, the World Economic Forum, the IPCC, and “NGOs” who, according to him are behind a looming misanthropic transformation of society. 

Angelika Barbe, a Member of the Board of Trustees of the AfD-affiliated Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, spoke at the event and reported on it in the extreme right blog PI-News. Barbe claimed that Germany was a “fascist dictatorship”, demonising Klaus Schwab and “the elites”, propagating the conspiratorial theme of the ‘Great Reset’. Barbe alleged that Europe was on “the road to enslavement” as the WEF planned to “ban dairy products, meat and private cars before 2030″. She also claimed that COVID-19 vaccinations would “limit people’s brain capacity and ability to think”, leading to the “loss of their memory and personality”. 

Both organisers and speakers portrayed doomsday images of a corrupt and evil government, while situating themselves as victims of “the media” and mocking the descriptions “far-right” and “antisemitic” as left-wing political attempts to silence them. All speakers received applause. The event actively platformed known far-right and conspiracy theorist actors, establishing links between them and the organisers of current farmers’ protest.  

Farmers’ protests organised by local Gelbwesten (Yellow Vests)  

Image 9: Message sharing details of the farmers’ protest on 8 January 2024, organised by the Yellow Vests. 

The self-proclaimed Yellow Vests in Kiel are a local political movement, which previously organised rallies against COVID-19 vaccinations, the “WHO pandemic treaty” and the “early sexualisation of our children”. On 8 January 2024, the nationwide farmers’ protest day, the Yellow Vests organised a “truck-tractor-car-convoy”, calling for the coalition government to be removed (“Ampel muss weg !!!”). The protest was co-organised by farmers including a board member of LsV-D, and farmer Jann-Harro P. as a key-note speaker who ISD analysts noted had previously spoken at a Yellow Vest protest on 4 November 2023, proclaiming that his farm outlasted the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the “Nazi-henchmen” and it would outlast the current German state (BRD). 

Ties to a Dutch far-right pundit and the Farmers Defence Force  

On 8 January, farmer and federal spokesperson of LsV-D, Anthony L., gave an interview to Dutch pundit and activist Eva Vlaardingerbroek, who previously proclaimed on Tucker Carlson that “Dutch farmers have had enough and are courageously fighting back against the Great Reset”. On X, Vlaardingersbroek shared a picture with her and Anthony L., stating that farmers have “enough manpower to put up a real fight against the globalists” warning that “No farmers = no food” and “If they fall, you’re next.” The post received 13.7k reposts and 47.4k likes, including a comment from Elon Musks’ account, “Support the farmers!”   

Images 10 and 11: Eva Vlaardingersbroek interviewing farmer Anthony L. on 8 January 2024, shared on X and YouTube.  

Anthony L. shared the interview on his YouTube channel, garnering 86k views. Vlaardingerbroek asked, “Why are the politicians coming after you? Why do they want to destroy you?”, to which the farmer replied that they “want our land to build industry and houses for refugees”. Anthony L. stressed a fight against “the elites” who “are trying to get rid of us”. Vlaardingerbroek also alleged that “carbon dioxide and nitrogen are a lie, it is a pretext”. 

German and Dutch farmers have in the past exchanged advice on strategies. In 2022, local farmers in Schleswig-Holstein met with two of the leaders of the Dutch Farmers Defence Force (FDF), Sieta van Keimpema und Jos Ubels, for a “farmers’ breakfast”. In 2019, van Keimpema accused the Dutch government of provoking “civil war” and claimed the Dutch army would be used to fight against the farmers. Both van Keimpema and Ubels previously exchanged strategies with Polish farmers. In their meeting with the FDF leaders, the German farmers (all of whom associated with the farmers’ associations Freie Bauern and LSV-D) shared climate misinformation such as the claim that cattle would not result in increased greenhouse gases. The Dutch leaders offered strategic advice, saying “we only organised protests when the momentum was there. […] The timing must be right. One idiot in politics has to say something and then we have to say NOW. Everything must be prepared for this.” 

Farmer speaks with the far-right movement Hearts of Oak, livestreamed on Rumble 

On 11 January 2024, farmer Jann-Harro P. gave a 45-minute interview to Peter Mcilvenna from the British far-right organisation Hearts of Oak. Hearts of Oak was founded by far-right activist Tommy Robinson and YouTuber Carl Benjamin (also known as “Sargon of Akkad”), along with former UKIP members who claimed they were “increasingly alarmed at the world wide woke agenda”. The movement set out to “create a populist Free Speech Alliance aimed at countering the cultural Marxism that pervades all areas of our lives”.  

Images 12 and 13: Live interview of Jann-Harro P. with Hearts of Oak, shared on Facebook and Telegram.

The interview was livestreamed on Facebook and Rumble, where it gained over 45K views. It was also shared in the Telegram channel of the political movement Pegida, considered far-right extremist by the Saxon office for the protection of the constitution. In the interview,  Jann-Harro P. denounced the IPCC and climate change science, alleging that the “focus on carbon dioxide is fully nonsense”. He also claimed that “NGOs” and the Green party would seek to “degrow the population” as they would see humans as “disruptive factors”. He then suggested that Northern German farmers were “indigenous people” and thereby the government’s climate action “would not be able to seize their land”. The farmer indicated that the protests would seek to grow, by uniting workers’ movements. Mcilvenna closed the interview saying that “we are cheering you on here in the UK, hoping you have huge success”.  

Spokesperson of the farmers’ association talks to far-right channel AUF1  

On 12 January 2024, farmer Anthony L., federal spokesperson of LsV-D, spoke on the far-right Austrian TV channel AUF1, which previously allowed right-wing extremist and AfD politician Björn Höcke to propagate racism and anti-migrant hate, and consistently cultivates an apocalyptic mood and propagates doomsday scenarios. In 2023, the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia banned AUF1 from broadcasting in Germany; however, it is still broadcasting via livestreams and on YouTube.  

Image 14: Screenshot of Facebook post by farmer Anthony L., promoting his interview with AUF1.

Anthony L. shared the interview with his 104k followers on Facebook, warning the German government that “if it won’t correct its errors, it must go”. He alleged that the government’s climate policy foresees killing half of the livestock population, suggesting hyperbolic government overreach in addressing the climate crisis. He repeated the entirely theoretical and unconfirmed claim that Ireland wants to execute 200,000 cows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reiterated that the government could “no longer stop the movement”, warning that the farmers were well networked and “could continue to protest in shifts”. 

Populist and conspiratorial sentiments at farmers’ rally in Berlin  

On 15 January, Anthony L. further spoke at a protest event of the Freie Bauern in Berlin. In his speech, he described the German society as “sick”, blamed “the media” for “stirring up hate against farmers”, and reiterated doomsday descriptions typical of right-wing populist rhetoric. He mocked economic cooperation and development, repeating false claims according to which Germany is among other things “shoving billions up India’s ass” and paying billions for “cycle paths in Peru”. He broadly labelled development aid projects as “pure ideology” and added that “a woman in Africa” would not need “solar panels on her roof, but an education”, thereby painting an inaccurate vision of a zero-sum relationship between Germany and other countries in line with populist rhetoric and promoting a racist and patriarchal perception of Western cooperation with countries in the Global South.  

Conclusion 

Several organisers and participants of the recent farmers’ protests are drawing on populist and far-right narratives and symbolism, propagating them both offline and on social media platforms. The farmers’ apparent ignorance of antisemitic and nationalist symbolism such as the Landvolk flag, as well as their attempts to legitimise the use of populist rhetoric, indicate a potential breeding ground for far-right ideology. 

Both the spontaneous ferry blockade in 2024 and past protests such as the recreation of the Landvolk symbol in 2020 mobilised around 250-500 protesters, although they were local to the state of Schleswig-Holstein. Even if those who participated were unaware of ties to the far right or the meaning of the Landvolk symbol, both incidents highlight the potential for both spontaneous and premeditated mobilisation that originates from a far-right and/or nationalist starting point. Both private WhatsApp groups and channels as well as Telegram played an important role in organising not only local protests but larger farmers’ protests in Germany. Further, local farmers often rely on Facebook and YouTube to livestream events or call for protests. 

 A closer look at some of the farmers who played prominent roles in the current iteration of the protests shows an international network of farmers, alternative media, conspiracy theorist and far-right actors that promote climate change denialism, antisemitic conspiracies, and a disregard for their democratically elected governments – both offline and online. A reoccurring theme is the populist conceptualisation of “the corrupt elite vs. the pure people”, manifested in portrayals of farmers as “victims” of their “elitist” government and “woke” policies. However, by disregarding the context of the narratives and networks they engage with (and sometimes applaud), some local farmers are playing a dangerous part in platforming and promoting far-right actors and ideology.