Condemn, condone, converge: German extremist and conspiracist responses to the Israel-Gaza crisis

By: Michel Seibriger

23 November 2023

This Dispatch is also available in German.


Following the terrorist attack by Hamas on 7 October and the subsequent Israel-Hamas conflict, a wide-range of ideologically driven extremist[1] and conspiracist actors in Germany have been exploiting the conflict to further their own goals – a trend that is simultaneously being observed across geographies. In Germany, drawing on both the crisis and governmental reactions to it, a broad array of far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists, as well as broader conspiracy communities, have responded by directing hate towards minority groups, expressing support for violence and spreading disinformation about the conflict.

Assessing the first month of reactions to the crisis, this article focuses on online responses of actors considered extremist by relevant authorities (although not all activity analysed is necessarily inherently extremist according to ISD’s definition) and known harmful conspiracy theorists. It also explores the potential of such online activities for real-world harm.

Overarching trends and narratives include:

  • The Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s largest far-right political party, has expressed solidarity with Israel and promoted anti-Muslim language and tropes. However, it has not presented a united front in its positioning thus far.
  • When referring to the Israeli government and pro-Palestinian demonstrators, other far-right groups have responded by displaying common  antisemitic[2] and anti-Muslim tropes.
  • Far-left groups expressed their solidarity with Palestinians immediately after the attacks, with the Samidoun Network celebrating Hamas’ violence by distributing sweets in the streets of Berlin and sharing the distribution on social media.
  • Some Islamist extremist groups in Germany condoned Hamas‘ violence. They sharply criticised the German government for infringements on the freedom of assembly and speech, and alleged police brutality, particularly in Berlin.
  • Conspiracy theorists spread disinformation questioning the official narrative of the 7 October attack, including claims that the Israeli government knew about it in advance, or purporting the involvement of a ‘deep state’ plot.

Far-Right Responses

Xenophobic and anti-Muslim reactions in Germany’s far-right; internal debates within the AfD

Germany’s diverse far-right landscape has used the crisis in Israel to further polarise the political debate and fuel hatred against Muslims in the country. The AfD, along with other far-right political parties (“Junge Nationalisten, Junge Alternative, III. Weg), media outlets (Compact) and “influencers” (Nikolai Nerling, a convicted Holocaust denier and self-proclaimed “people’s teacher”) serve as relevant case studies for these responses.

Notably, the AfD has struggled to establish a unified position on the crisis in Israel and Gaza. Disagreements have emerged about the right wording and tone of reaction. While Tino Chrupalla, the leader of the AfD parliamentary group, called for diplomacy and expressed grief for “all who died in the war,” his deputy, Norbert Kleinwächter, publicly disagreed emphasising the AfD’s commitment to fighting “Islamist terror.” In a tweet that received over a thousand likes, the AfD’s regional youth branch (Junge Alternative) in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg criticised Germany’s unwavering support for Israel,   asserting it would “stand first and foremost with Germany.” This was a contrast to the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU, the second largest German parliamentary group) youth party’s call to “stand with Israel.” The AfD was set to vote on a position paper in which they reconcile these differing opinions in mid-October, but as of current writing no such consensus paper has been released.

Two tweets by the “Young Alternative” Baden-Wuerttemberg, the regional youth branch of the AfD, claiming that the “Young Union” would stand first and foremost with Israel (pointing to a pro-Israeli demonstration by its members), while they would “stand first and foremost with Germany, and to no other country.”

Image 1: Two tweets by the “Young Alternative” Baden-Wuerttemberg, the regional youth branch of the AfD, claiming that the “Young Union” would stand first and foremost with Israel (pointing to a pro-Israeli demonstration by its members), while they would “stand first and foremost with Germany, and to no other country.”

While the official party position of the AfD is a matter of discussion, xenophobic rhetoric characterises the party’s reactions to the crisis. Sven Tritschler, the vice chairman of the North-Rhine-Westphalian AfD state parliamentary group rhetorically asked why a pro-Palestinian protestors “and their ‘Palestinian’ kin do not go back where they came from” in a Facebook video that has received tens of thousands of likes. The post did not make a distinction between those protestors who were German citizens and those who were not.

AfD politician rhetorically asking why Palestinian protestor who is seen shouting at Berlin police does not “go back where you came from.”

Image 2: AfD politician rhetorically asking why Palestinian protestor who is seen shouting at Berlin police does not “go back where you came from.”

One Member of Parliament even went so far as to conduct interviews using deceptive practices in Berlin’s Neukölln borough at the site of a banned demonstration, aiming to selectively highlight strong reactions towards the war. The MP did not disclose his affiliation to the AfD party and instead deceptively posed as reporter for these interviews. He proceeded to ask questions such as whether the protestors condoned violence against police. The AfD politician in question has frequently voiced conspiratorial rhetoric such as his support for ‘remigration’ on social media, a euphemistic term referring to the forced deportation of migrant communities. This term is often associated with the conspiratorial ’Great Replacement Theory’.

Anti-Muslim and anti-Israeli responses by far-right actors

Beyond the AfD, several prominent figures affiliated with the German far right have simultaneously labelled Israel as a “terror state,” while disparaging pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany. Relevant examples of these reactions include the self-proclaimed “people’s teacher”, Nikolai Nerling, the far-right magazine ‘Compact’, and right-wing extremist parties such as “Der III. Weg” (The Third Way) and the “Junge Nationalisten” (“Young Nationalists”).

Nerling, who was convicted of two counts of sedition in 2022 and is known for his antisemitic and holocaust-denying views directed his focus towards labelling Israel as a “terror state” that needs to be “stopped.”   He retweeted several posts by the right-wing extremist party “Der III. Weg” that included similar messaging. Despite initially using the hashtag #freepalestine, this extremist party later announced it would not express full solidarity with Palestinians until the “German areas occupied by Arabs were freed”, implicitly echoing anti-Muslim claims related to the abovementioned ‘Great Replacement’.   Simultaneously, the ’Young Nationalists’, the youth brand of the extremist party “Die Heimat” (“The homeland”, formerly the National Democratic Party or NPD), tweeted a call for sanctions to be imposed on Israel on the day of the Hamas attack.

A tweet by the youth branch of the right-wing extremist party “The Homeland”, accusing Israel of “murder” and calling for sanctions against Israel on the day of the Hamas attack.

Image 3: A tweet by the youth branch of the right-wing extremist party “The Homeland”, accusing Israel of “murder” and calling for sanctions against Israel on the day of the Hamas attack.

“Not our war” and conspiracy theories about prior knowledge of the attack

Compact, a far-right magazine which the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution calls “assuredly extremist”, reacted to the crisis in Israel by spreading several conspiracy theories on YouTube. These videos were shared, among others, by conspiracy theorist influencer Oliver Janich and accounts associated with the Reichsbürger movement on Telegram.

Reusing a decade-old video, Compact claimed that Israel’s nuclear capabilities were made possible by German support and in doing so, fuelled fears that nuclear escalation could lead to a third World War. Another Compact video called “Israel: not our war” (with over 67k views) was shared by the far-right fringe party “Freie Sachsen” (Free Saxons) on Telegram. It used the same “Germany first, then the rest of the world” framing as the “Junge Alternative” (“Young Alternative”) in Baden-Wuerttemberg on X as well as a number of other fringe accounts on Facebook in the weeks after Hamas’ attack.

The thumbnail of a YouTube video called “not our war!”

Image 4: The thumbnail of a YouTube video called “not our war!”

The Compact video casts doubts on the legitimacy of the very nature of Hamas’ attack and Israel’s reaction to it by claiming that “without this attack Israel would have never been able to prepare this ground offensive, which begs the question whether the whole thing was staged.” In a Telegram video that has almost 45k views, Martin Sellner, the former leader of the Identitarian Movement Austria, mirrored the claims that Israel’s casus belli was staged by calling the Hamas attack “entirely petty”, while giving Israel the opportunity to strike back with full force. Going a step further, David Berger of the far-right blog Philosophia Perennis raised the question of whether Hamas’ surprise attack may have been a “deep state” operation, rather than an intelligence failure.

In this section, ISD uses a definition of far-right in line with far-right expert Cas Mudde, who conceptualises “far-right” as an umbrella term that includes both radical right-wing and extreme right-wing actors. Mudde states that both radical and extreme right-wing actors believe that “inequalities between people are natural and positive,” but have differing attitudes towards democracy. Radical right-wing actors are not against democracy in principle, while extreme right-wing actors reject democracy as a form of government.

Far-Left Responses

Solidarity and mixed reactions in Germany’s far left

German far-left groups[3] showed mixed reactions to the unfolding crisis in Israel. Some organisations expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause in the immediate aftermath of the attack, demanding freedom for Palestine and highlighting the context of Israel’s occupation and settlement policy, and historic displacement of Palestinians. Samidoun, the “Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network”, made headlines for excusing and glorifying Hamas’ violences. Other far-left organisations’ reactions to Hamas’ violence were more subdued, ranging from not addressing the terrorist organisation by name to explicitly condemning it in public statements.

Anonymous users on the German left-wing site Indymedia— a website labelled “left-wing extremist” by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution— have posted several blogposts.   The page frequently features calls for violence and statements by individuals looking to take credit following extremist attacks. The “open posting” website featured one post called “official statement by the borderless and transnational left and anarchists” which was published on 19 October and last viewed for this article on 20 November.   It said it “deeply condemns Hamas’ brutal crimes against Israeli civilians,” while maintaining Israel’s settlement policy and the displacement of Palestinians was a “substantial reason for the conflict we are seeing right now.”

The statement expressed solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian opposition groups that “fight capitalist wars, occupation, conscription […]” as did the “internationalist left.” In doing so, it mirrored common antimilitarist sentiments that are characteristic of the extreme left-wing and anti-imperialist groups such as the coalition “Perspektive Kommunismus” (“perspective communism”) which issued a similar statement on 19 October. Another anonymous long-read blog post on Indymedia called for pro-Palestinian supporters to distance themselves from Hamas, while at the same time referring to Israel as “children murderers,” claiming they are not substantially different to Hamas.

Samidoun, the “Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network”[4], sparked outrage with a post on Instagram on the day of Hamas’ attack that showed members of the group handing out sweets in Berlin‘s Neukölln borough to “celebrate the victory of the resistance.” The group regularly advocates for the release of prisoners in Israel who have ties to the secular PFLP (“Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”), classified by the EU as a terrorist organisation. Following the announcement that Samidoun would be banned, the group issued a statement strongly criticising this move, and has been sharing a number of videos that show alleged police brutality in Berlin during pro-Palestinian demonstrations.   The network also shared a post from two days after the Oct 7 attack that received over a thousand views on Telegram that claimed the “resistance had dealt serious blows against the Zionist colonial regime” and proclaiming the “victory of the Intifada.”

The Samidoun Network shows one of its members handing out sweets on 7 October, the day of the Hamas attack on Israel, to “celebrate the victory of the resistance.”

Image 5: The Samidoun Network shows one of its members handing out sweets on 7 October, the day of the Hamas attack on Israel, to “celebrate the victory of the resistance.”

Islamist Extremist Responses

Islamist extremist responses: Moral outrage and claims of Western hypocrisy

German Islamist extremist groups[5] generally expressed support for Palestinians, with the level of support ranging from expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian cause to directly condoning Hamas’ violence or (indirectly) calling for violence. Reactions from the groups Muslim Interaktiv and Generation Islam are emblematic of this range. Both groups have been characterised by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution as ideologically close to the banned “Hizb ut-Tahrir” organisation.

Neither of these groups condemned Hamas’ attacks or expressed sympathy with the 1,400 Israelis that were murdered on 7 October. However, they were both strongly critical over the civilian casualties from Israel’s military response to the attacks as well as alleged “state repression” and infringements on freedom of speech in Germany following the attacks. The Muslim Interaktiv channel denounced Western ‘double standards’ amid the unfolding crisis across a series of YouTube Shorts, many of which were also shared on Instagram.

In a post with ~1.8K views on YouTube and 3.8K likes on Instagram, Muslim Interaktiv accused European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of hypocrisy due to her condemnation of Russia cutting off water and electricity supplies in Russia one year ago, while failing to do the same when it came to Israel responding with a similar technique. Another Shorts clip with 2.6K views claimed the German government was the “number one hypocrite” due to its support for Israel, and mockingly asked whether it was still trying to “repay your debt”, in reference to the Holocaust.

Both Muslim Interaktiv and Generation Islam on TikTok accused Israel of committing war crimes in its campaign against Hamas: the former pushed allegations that the IDF was using white phosphorus munitions (which Israel denies), whereas the latter accused the IDF of having conducted airstrikes on the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza in a TikTok video with 7.7K views (a claim which is unconfirmed at the time of writing).

The TikTok videos with the highest reach by Generation Islam were one referring to Israel as a “colonial project” and calling for the end of the “rule of vassals” (24.6K views) and part one of a four-part series that “exposes Zionism” which explores the history of the “occupational regime” and accuses Western media of “devious tactics” (18.4K views).

QAnon-affiliated channels: Third World War and various conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorists and channels have reacted to the crisis in Israel by spreading harmful disinformation and conspiracy theories about events in the Middle East. Notably, they repeat common antisemitic tropes. These channels have been expanding their audiences since the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly via social media platforms such as Telegram. ISD has been monitoring this spread, as well as the digital networks of vaccine sceptics and anti-vaxxers in Germany and the proliferation of posts propagating the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory on Facebook.

Exploring German-language QAnon-affiliated channels and “conspiracy influencers” with a wide reach on Telegram provides insights on how conspiracy theorists interpret the crisis in Israel. While both German-language “influencers” and QAnon-affiliated pages spread a number of conspiracy theories, only the latter intertwined antisemitic tropes.

QAnon-affiliated pages were quick to disseminate posts that fuelled fears of a rapid escalation of the crisis such as it being a “direct danger for Europe”, false claims that Germans had to get ready to “die for Israel” and that German soldiers may be deployed. Telegram channels affiliated with QAnon also shared the conspiracy theory that the crisis in Israel was part of a larger effort to start a new world religion through a third World War. Allegedly, this plan was first expressed in a letter written by confederate general and Freemason Albert Pike in 1871. Another post by the Telegram influencer Eva Hermann with over 32K views similarly made the claim that the conflict in Israel was the start of a third World War, but this time the result of Iran‘s war “against the West.”

More broadly, there has been a proliferation of antisemitic tropes around a Zionist elite controlling the media, or Jewish people taking money from the West. This can be seen, among others, in a cartoon shared on Telegram with 2.1K views containing conspiratorial tropes such as symbols for Satanism and Illuminati, as well as Pepe the frog. It portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in military clothes and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a wolf with horns, each with a Satanic badge on their arm. In the same vein, several posts on another channel proclaimed the “demolition of the artificially installed state Israel” that was allegedly controlled by Satanists.

A cartoon shared on Telegram showing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on receiving ends of aid sent from the United States is ripe with common conspiracist and antisemitic tropes.

Image 6: A cartoon shared on Telegram showing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on receiving ends of aid sent from the United States is ripe with common conspiracist and antisemitic tropes.

Reactions to the crisis attempted to spread a number of harmful conspiracy theories, but fell noticeably short of displaying a concerted narrative, instead propagating for a general distrust of ruling elites and mainstream media that is typical for these channels.

Conclusion

This analysis has looked at extremist and conspiracist responses to the ongoing crisis in Israel across the ideological spectrum in Germany. It has shown that a diverse set of extremists in Germany used the crisis to further polarise the political debate and spread harmful conspiracy theories, with most groups converging on their distrust against the governmental responses to the crisis. Reactions included portraying Israel as an “oppressor” or “terror state”, condemning Germany’s infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, as well as alleged police brutality and even purporting that the crisis was a false-flag operation.

Despite this shared distrust, far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists in particular lack a cohesive narrative, assigning blame to both Israel and Palestinians. Far-right and conspiracy groups relied on anti-Muslim and antisemitic narratives, whereas Islamist extremists focused their criticism on the German governments’ reaction to the conflict. In this context we see the simultaneous promulgation of both deep-running anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments and conspiracy theories, as well as manifestations of xenophobia and Islamophobia, in the context of the crisis.

 

Footnotes

  1.  ISD defines extremism as the advocacy of a system of belief that claims the superiority and dominance of one identity-based ‘in-group’ over all ‘out-groups.’ It propagates a dehumanising ‘othering’ mind-set that is antithetical to pluralism and the universal application of Human Rights.
  2.  ISD is using the working definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). For more information on antisemitic comments online following Hamas’ attack on Israel, please see our Digital Dispatch.
  3. There is no broadly agreed upon definition of the far left, and the scholarship on such groups in contemporary Western societies is much less developed than research on the far right. Far left groups, actions or networks are typically rooted in Marxist, socialist or anarchist ideologies, and pursue an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and radically egalitarian, anti-fascist agenda, typically with an internationalist outlook. Following Mudde and political researcher Luke March, and resonating with the differentiation of the far right, a distinction should be made between left-wing radicalism and extremism, where the latter groups are anti-democratic, and the former advocate fundamental political and economic changes without being anti-democratic per se.
  4. The Berlin Office for the Protection of the Constitution had started observing Samidoun this summer, calling it a “supporter network for PFLP” in its press release from 27 June. Due to its links with the Marxist-Leninist PFLP, Samidoun is listed in this category. The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution lists PFLP under “foreign-related extremism” in its Annual Report 2022.
  5.  ISD defines Islamism as political ideologies that utilise Islamic symbols and traditions in pursuit of socio-political objectives.

False and unverified claims proliferate online following Trump assassination attempt

Unverified claims about the attempted assassination of former President Donald Trump proliferated across social media in the 24 hours following the incident and continue to spread in the absence of more detailed factual information about the shooter. ISD identified the main false claims being promoted and how they mutated and spread across platforms.