Catalysts For Radicalization: Covid-19, Conspiracies and Two German Singers
Autor: Kiran Bowry & Maximilian Kreter
„Außer der Reihe“ bildet neben den Projektbeiträgen eine weitere feste Reihe des „Denken ohne Geländer“-Blogs. Diese bietet Forscher/-innen am HAIT sowie Gastautor/-innen Raum für Beiträge zu aktuellen Themen, die eng mit den Forschungsschwerpunkten am Institut verbunden sind. Die Bandbreite möglicher Perspektiven und Schwerpunkte ist groß. Sie reicht von der Einordnung aktueller politischer und gesellschaftlicher Ereignisse in bestimmte historische, geographische oder kulturelle Kontexte über unkonventionelle, episodische Einblicke in den Forschungsalltag bis hin zur kritischen Auseinandersetzung mit theoretischen oder methodischen Entwicklungen in den Geistes-, Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften. Im folgenden Beitrag setzen sich Kiran Bowry und Maximilian Kreter mit der Rolle der beiden deutschen Sänger Michael Wendler und Xavier Naidoo in Bezug auf die Covid-19-Pandemie und damit einhergehenden Radikalisierungsprozessen auseinander.
Celebrities have a profound impact “on the knowledge we retain, the attitudes we adopt, and the decisions we make, including those that affect our health”. This influence is particularly prevalent during the global health crisis of the COVID-19-pandemic. In Germany, a large group of celebrities stood out by launching and promoting anti-lockdown campaigns (#allesdichtmachen #allesaufdentisch), aiming at lifting COVID containment measures. While some presented their criticism in an unagitated and factual manner, others were conspicuous by their strident, extreme, anti-scientific, and/or populist statements on the pandemic. Two German celebrities in particular attracted attention for their less pertinent but unyielding conspiracy theoretical views during the pandemic – the singers Xavier Naidoo and Michael Wendler. Both were personally radicalized by Attila Hildmann, a former cook and businessman for vegan nutrition and the most prominent figure among COVID conspiracy theorists. Due to their celebrity status, the individual radicalization stories of Naidoo and Wendler have acted as catalysts for societal radicalization. They carry far-right extremist conspiracy narratives into the middle of society and give impetus to the established radical right. How did Xavier Naidoo and Michael Wendler radicalize during the pandemic and to what extent do their stories accelerate societal radicalization?
Before The Pandemic: Naidoo’s and Wendler’s Musical and Political Pathways
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Naidoo and Wendler already were known to many Germans. Naidoo achieved his musical breakthrough as a soul and R&B singer in 1998, with his debut album reaching the top spot on Germany’s album charts. His songs “Dieser Weg” (This Way) and “Danke” (Thank You) became anthems and soundtracks while Germany hosted the 2006 FIFA World Cup – cementing him as a musical household name. Naidoo was a regular guest on popular German TV shows, including as a jury member for the casting shows “The Voice of Germany” and “Deutschland sucht den Superstar” (German equivalent of American Idol). Naidoo’s ejection from the latter jury in early March 2020, shortly before COVID-19 measures were introduced, heralded the end of his commercial success. His expulsion was due to a video in which he teased a song with xenophobic content and a late consequence for Naidoo’s 22-year spanning history of far-right, conspiracy-theoretical statements. Back in 1998, he described himself as a “racist, but without regard to skin color”. Ten years on, his song “Raus aus dem Reichstag” (Out of the Reichstag) picked up on anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives and in an interview in 2011, he unveiled his affinity to the extreme right-wing ideology of the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich) movement: “We are still an occupied country, Germany has no peace treaty, and accordingly Germany is not a real country”. In 2014, he publicly spoke at a Reichsbürger rally.
Compared to Naidoo, Schlager music singer Michael Wendler found success less because of his musical prowess than his polarizing personality and omnipresence in the boulevard press. His musical breakthrough came in 2007 with the song “Sie liebt den DJ,” (She’s in love with the DJ), reaching the seventh place on the German singles charts. His fifth and most successful studio album “Unbesiegt” (Undefeated) lasted 36 weeks on the German album charts. Numerous TV appearances made him known to a larger audience outside the musical world and gained him a permanent presence in the tabloid media, propelled by participating in the reality shows “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here” and “Celebrity Big Brother”. In 2020, Wendler’s wedding with a then 19-year-old and 27 years younger woman was the subject of a buzzworthy TV soap. Despite limited musical credentials, Wendler joined the jury of “Deutschland sucht den Superstar”, similar to Naidoo. Four months later, Wendler, who was unbeknownst for his political statements, had to leave the jury due to the spread of conspiracy narratives about the COVID-19 virus.
The Pandemic’s Radicalizing Effect
Naidoo’s and Wendler’s previous levels of politicization and radicalization, in turn, influenced the radicalizing effect of the pandemic. For Naidoo, who already spouted conspiracy narratives and far-right opinions in pre-pandemic times, the pandemic opened up new opportunities to spread his views. Naidoo doubted COVID-19 measures from the outset of the pandemic, denying the existence of viruses in general. In contrast, he later ceased to deny the COVID virus and accused the government of using the virus as a weapon against the elderly to ease the burden on pension funds. In June 2021, Naidoo’s song “Ich mach da nicht mit” (I’m not taking part), together with the rap group “Rapbellions”, was inundated with anti-Semitic conspiracy myths surrounding the COVID-virus and vaccinations: “Your poison can’t get into our bodies.” In the song, the rapper named “Scep” seizes on the Deep State conspiracy myth and calls for violence: “Make alarm, arm yourself, destroy the Deep State.” The song’s video shows violence-glorifying footage of a vaccination center blown up in a fictional terror attack.
Wendler barely emerged as a political figure before the pandemic radicalized him. Hence, compared to Naidoo, more time elapsed until his radicalization became publicly visible. As he previously never expressed extremist views, his radicalization unfolded more instantaneously. About half a year after the first COVID-19 measures, he published a statement in which he accused the federal government of “gross and serious violations of the constitution” and all mainstream media of spreading fake news. Shortly afterwards, he professed on his Telegram channel that freedom of expression did not apply in Germany, and the country was no longer a democracy. Although Wendler, unlike Naidoo, denies having a far-right, anti-Semitic worldview, he regularly shares content from QAnon supporters and far-right publishers and platforms.
Playing Into The Hands Of The Far-Right
With the increased radicalization during the pandemic, Naidoo and Wendler ideologically and willingly moved closer to the actors of the organized far-right who conversely were eager to utilize their popularity and protrude further into the center of society. Despite some of his concerts being banned in early 2021, Xavier Naidoo remains active in the domestic music industry. Since the pandemic, Naidoo has ultimately broken cover ideological, openly cooperating with Germany’s organized far-right music scene. In May, he released a video for a song called “Heimat” (home). This song was recorded together with Reichsbürger and Truther activist Michael Grawe, lead singer of the far-right band “Kategorie C” (Category C), and many anti-COVID-19 activists such as Hannes Ostendorf, Youtube-Influencer Oliver Janich and the former AfD-politician Heinrich Fiechtner. Soon afterward, Naidoo intensified his ties to the far-right with the song release of “Deutschland krempelt die Ärmel hoch” (Germany rolls up its sleeves) – a cynical allusion to the German government’s vaccination campaign slogan. The song’s video underlines how deep Naidoo has musically and politically delved into networks of the far-right, cutting the cords to his successful mainstream career. Among the video’s main protagonists were the president of the now-dissolved outlaw motorcycle gang “Bandidos Essen East”, Christian Willing, and the closely linked militant extreme right groupuscule “Steeler Jungs”.
While Naidoo remained in Germany, Michael Wendler retreated to the US, where he had resided part-time before his radicalization, for two reasons: On the one hand, Wendler faces less judicial resistance and public condemnation in the US, allowing him to spread his blend of Reichsbürger-ideology, anti-vax-propaganda, and holocaust trivialization more freely to his followers in Germany. On his Telegram channel, he frequently shares fake news and conspiracy myths of Attila Hildmann and other so-called “independent experts”. Moreover, he shared posts of AfD-politicians and most recently called for illegal demonstrations by the “Free Saxons”, a fringe regional far-right party in Saxony. On the other hand, Wendler suffered financial hardship throughout his career. To evade prosecution in Germany and ease his financial straits, Wendler has, according to German yellow press, quoted here, struck up a cooperation with the German far-right publisher “Kopp Verlag” by sharing affiliate links for their publications, resulting in a presumable income of $41.380 in one single month.
Celebrities As Catalysts For Societal Radicalization
The pandemic had the same but different radicalizing effect on Naidoo and Wendler – mainly based on the previous degree of politicization. In contrast to other German celebrities and despite presumably irreversible damage to their careers, they have not budged from their conspiracy narratives. Their degree of radicalization can thus be considered advanced, as their open cooperation with the far-right shows.
Due to their popularity, Naidoo and Wendler act as accelerators for an overall societal radicalization effect of the pandemic. According to Baybars Örsel, director of the International Fact-Checking Network from the Poynter Institute, celebrities should be aware of their “amplification capacities” to avoid spreading falsehoods. Another study by Reuters Institute at Oxford University proved that “most engagements with coronavirus falsehoods came via social media posts by politicians, celebrities and influencers”. Wendler’s new radicalization serves as a particularly daunting example as his conspiracy narratives reach fans and people who, like himself before, were largely apolitical. He thus carried conspiracy narratives into the midst of society. According to a representative study from June 2020, one-third of German society is susceptible to these narratives. Also, the study concludes that the adoption of these narratives is not limited to a particular population group: “We find this in East and West, among old and young, men and women”. Both Naidoo and Wendler are capable of influencing diverse population groups as they have a wider reach than private individuals and a more heterogeneous reach than political parties. More gravely, these two prominent COVID-related radicalizations have valorized the far-right movement.
Zitiervorschlag: Kiran Bowry/Maximilian Kreter, Catalysts for Radicalization: Covid-19, Conspiracies and Two German Singers. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 06.04.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2703
Bild 1: Bild 50 – Ausschnitt by Demo Foto (CC-BY-2.0).