The Curious Case of a Vegan Chef Who Became Germany’s Leading Anti-Government Figure
A vegan chef has become the leading figure behind a movement of dissatisfaction with the measures against Covid-19 in Germany. The curious case illustrates the impact of fake news.
Vegan chef with an attitude
In 2009, Attila Hildmann became Germany’s first vegan chef with a significant outreach. Within few years, he became a household name in the German cooking and lifestyle scene. First, he started his own blog about the vegan lifestyle — at this point vegan products were hardly available in German supermarkets. On his blog and YouTube channel he taught his followers how to prepare vegan versions of German popular dishes. The books he published sold well enough to soon allow him a comfortable living.
In addition, Hildmann cultivated an eccentric public persona and caught the media’s attention. He posed topless, showing off his muscular physique. He purchased a Porsche with his logo on the side — V for vegan. His background story added the necessary spice to his brand: Hildmann was born in 1981 in Berlin to Turkish parents but was adopted at only three months by a German family. He has spoken publicly about his struggles with being overweight during his youth and getting into legal troubles.
The death of his father marked the starting point for Hildmann’s metamorphosis. The then 19-year-old blamed the high meat consumption for his father’s early death. In his view, it was the high cholesterol that led to the fatal cardiac arrest. Hildmann turned his life around and began working out and eating mainly vegan. His motivational story inspired thousands of people — he has sold more than one million copies of his cookbooks. He paired his vegan cooking with animal rights activism, which was highly praised by non-governmental organizations.
With rising popularity, Hildmann opened two vegan restaurants in Berlin and participated in various tv shows. His company “Attila Hildmann Empire” distributes nutritional vegan products. His behavior, however, started to throw people off. Viewers noticed his condescending demeanor towards others, the arrogant tone in competitions and the way he mainly spoke in superlatives about himself. After a negative restaurant review in the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel in 2017, he insulted the journalist and forbid the entire staff to ever visit again. Later, he revoked his decision but threatened to seek for harsher consequences in case of more negative publicity. However, the police noticed that he was posing with a pump gun when he invited the staff of Tagesspiegel to his restaurant.
Political stances and conspiracy theories
By this point, Hildmann had started to address political topics. He criticized the influx of refugees in 2015, stating that the integration was a difficult topic to discuss due to Germany’s past, which “leads to the self-mutilation of German culture and values.” In 2016, he explained on his Facebook website that he believed that warmongers were leading the country and no party represented his interests. Hildmann used his platform on Facebook to spread concerns and worries about the impact of refugees on the domestic security. Portraying immigrants as serial rapists and potential terrorists in front of his 100.000 followers on Facebook, the chef was already on the way to redirect his focus from vegan cooking to angry rants.
In 2018, he was involved in an argument with the police due to a parking issues. The argument escalated and the vegan chef was asked to do a drug test. Later, he complained on Instagram about his treatment by the police officials and added: “Nobody will break me. One day I will rule this country.” More and more often, the authorities have become a target of his furious rants on social media.
Then Covid-19 changed everything. The German government’s policies to end the pandemic triggered something in Hildmann. While the death rate remains moderately low, the authorities forbid large gatherings and venues like cinemas are only allowed to be open if they follow a social distancing concept. Additionally, masks have been introduced to public spaces like supermarkets and public transport after initial confusion about their effectiveness.
Few weeks into the pandemic, Hildmann started to mix crude antisemitic conspiracy theories with militant language. His theory: Zionists and Bill Gates want to reduce the world population to a total of 500 million people. In his worldview, “communists, satanists and Zionists” plot a large-scale genocide on the German people and Hitler only wanted to protect the country. In comparison to chancellor Angela Merkel, the fascist dictator was “a blessing”, according to the conspiracy theorist. By now, any crude topic can be found in his universe: organized pedophiles, 5G, secret organizations ruling the world, aliens, chemtrails — it’s all there.
As Instagram has banned his profile following the crude content he shared and Facebook has deleted certain postings which violate the community guidelines, Hildmann has switched to a new medium: Telegram. The Russian messenger does not implement strict community guidelines. Nearly 80.000 people follow his channel and read his angry outbursts, conspiracy theories and calls for a coup against the German government. He is convinced that the German military — the Bundeswehr -, US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin would support him. Recently, Hildmann claimed, he will be head of the German state. He spreads his message mostly via audio files, which he calls “Mein Kampf” — the title of Hitler’s manifesto.
The power of Telegram
The lessons which can be drawn from the Hildmann case are about the power of persuasion via messengers and alternative media websites. He himself claimed that he has not been interested in politics until recently but websites like RussiaToday “awakened” him. The number of “alternative media” outlets have been growing — and they are so plentiful that they can convincingly mimic a version of reality, which explains all the wrongs and inequalities with secret powers controlling the innocent.
For many observers, the crude and absurd turn of a conflicted and troubled public personality, appeared entertaining in the beginning. However, the vegan chef proves how easily he can agitate his followers via Telegram. Within a few months, he established a loyal fan base, which is ready to follow his instructions. He has called his audience to flood critical journalists with e-mails and has published their personal data.
Regularly, he organizes protests against the governmental policies against Covid-19, feeds fears about a civil war and portrays himself as a hero who claims that the secret service intends to kill him. His anti-government stance attracts followers from the left and the right. On August 28th 2020, dozens of thousands protested against the government — partly with the Nazi flag and antisemitic symbols in front of the parliament. Hildmann was there, he mobilized his followers to be present at the demonstration. He was briefly arrested and later released. The radicalization via Telegram continues.