A video of a racist German Covid rebel breaking into a haka, which went viral here, highlights an unusual trend of haka in western Europe’s new age and self-empowerment scene, writes Anke Richter
When tens of thousands of Germans took to the streets over the past months to protest mask-wearing and lock downs, hippies united with conspiracy believers, libertarians and anti-vaxxers. Far-right extremists even tried to storm the Reichstag in Berlin. Not only the Nazi-evoking waving of German Empire flags has caused concern overseas, but a haka on the sidelines. The performer of the Māori ritual is described by media as a racist “Reich citizen”.
The clip from a “Best of ‘Hygienedemos’” video by Spiegel TV made the rounds in New Zealand last week. TVNZ, Newshub and the New Zealand Herald reported it, some falsely attributing it to the Berlin mass rally in August. The footage, from a protest in Stuttgart in May, shows two men and two women in red T-shirts performing a haka while their kids are watching.
They are part of the fast-growing initiative “Querdenken 711”, organised to resist the virus control measures by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and what they see as a violation of their civil rights. The slogans on their T-shirts say: “I’m beautiful, I’m whole, I’m wild, I’m free” and “The fire of love burns inside me”.
One of the haka performers is Stephan Bergmann, now the spokesperson for ‘Querdenken 711’ who believes a “satanic force” is behind the coronavirus restrictions. According to his website, he is a “sun dancer”, “trance coach” and “discoverer of the Motherdrum healing” who sells hand painted native-American drums for up to 2980 Euro per piece.
The self-proclaimed shamanic therapist runs the “Verein für indianische Lebensweisen” (“social club for American-Indian lifestyles”) in the Swabian village Althütte where he offers sweat lodges and “powwow ceremonies”. After the haka, the father of four who is known at the German protests as the “guy in the red shirt” speaks into the camera. “This brings power, power for the earth, the power of fire in your heart”, he says breathlessly. Asked whether it would help against the coronavirus, he blurts out that it would help against “the fake” and then beats his chest, shouting “te waka!”
Not fire in the heart, but anger in the belly is what Karaitiana Taiuru, a Māori culture advisor in Christchurch felt when he watched the video. For him, it is mocking Māori culture. “This particular haka, Tōia Mai, was used in times of war and celebrates a chief”, he says. “It is also copyright protected and must be attributed back to the Ngati Toa tribe. I’m surprised by such behaviour still occurring, considering the widespread international coverage of cultural appropriation.”
Taiuru also finds it appalling because the coronavirus that Bergmann calls “fake” is killing more indigenous people than other ethnicities around the world. “From a New Zealander’s perspective, I’m offended that our cultural icon is being used to promote a cause that Aotearoa does not believe in. As a ‘team of five million’, we practise safe distancing and lockdowns.” A recent study from the University of Canterbury shows the risk for Māori of dying of Covid-19 is 50 percent higher than for non- Māori.
Designer and academic Johnson Witehira, whose contemporary street art is displayed in Wellington’s CBD, is not impressed either: “The last thing we need is these clowns using our culture to support their inappropriate protests.“
To misuse the haka around the world for commercial and ideological reasons is nothing new. The German insurance company Arag filmed a haka for their cinema commercials in 2017 and was accused of “cultural theft”. French lawyers were heavily criticised in January when they staged a haka against pension reforms. The latest German version by ‘Querdenken 711’ wasn’t the only one to express anti-media, anti-science or anti-government sentiments since the coronavirus outbreak. In late July, Israeli protesters who claimed on Facebook to be fuelled by an online “Wild Love Festival” performed a spontaneous haka in Jerusalem.
And ‘Plandemic – Indoctrination’, the second instalment of the conspiracies-based film that was launched in mid-August from the US, has a flash second of New Zealand haka scenes to support its message of uprising. The emotionally laden pseudo-documentary suggests the pandemic was planned by corporations and wealthy people. It has been deplatformed by YouTube, Facebook and TikTok.
Apart from the cultural appropriation of the Stuttgart haka, there is also rising concern about Stephan Bergmann’s political affiliations. The newspaper Der Tagesspiegel documented with screen shots that the anti-coronavirus activist has posted more than 30 racist quotes and Islamophobic cartoons on Facebook, one warning about the “mixing of races”, another one mocking hijab-wearing women. He promoted a white supremacist video that describes how the German people are apparently systematically decimated by “tribal warriors from Africa” and “masses of Muslims”. Bergmann has since called the article “lies”. Questioned by Spiegel TV about those posts, he said he wasn’t able to find them and claimed to have a “heart for people” and many friends and family members “from different continents”. He did not want to answer questions by Newsroom unless he could authorise the whole article.
An investigation by another publication revealed Bergmann has links to the extreme right. In a YouTube video, Bergmann explained the salvation of the world would come from the “human soul” of the German people. In another video, Bergmann is seen pubicly embracing a right-wing activist and convicted holocaust denier. For Kiel-based lawyer and neo-Nazi expert Alexander Hoffmann, the drum-banging, long haired, love-talking Bergmann is an atypical “Reich citizen”. “Their ideology is the same as that of the Christchurch mosque shooter”, Hoffmann, who was a co-plaintiff lawyer in the five-year long court case against the right-wing terrorist group NSU in Munich, told Newsroom. “It’s the ideology of the ‘Great Replacement’ manifesto and deeply racist.”
International Māori expert Dr. Rebecca Burke, a historian in Bochum (Germany), was shocked to hear this. “What the f…k are these people doing?!”, was her reaction after she had been sent the offensive video three times. “It’s really bad that someone with this kind of Nazi thinking would declare war on our government with a haka.”
Haka have become popular in the western new-age scene as a self-empowerment tool but are mostly not taught in the proper way, she says. Burke works closely with New Zealand-born and Kopenhagen-based lawyer Kane Harnett-Mutu (Nghati Kahu) who is one of the few recognised haka trainers in Europe. He calls Stephan Bergmann’s haka “absurd”. “They are doing a ritual that is not German and done by a race they feel is inferior. It makes zero sense.”
Anke Richter is a Christchurch-based freelance reporter and correspondent for the German media