They came here to stay. Their cars with license plate numbers from the North Sea coast, Berlin and Bavaria are parked out in front of the Château Aheloy on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. The apartment complex in the town of Aheloy is considered a stronghold of German-speaking corona truthers and so-called "Querdenker," that hodgepodge of anti-government conspiracy theorists who have waged an ongoing campaign against all measures aimed at combatting the pandemic.
A security guard keeps watch just inside the iron gate at the entrance. Those who say they are interested in moving in are led to Dirk Gelbrecht, a man from northern Germany who founded a group on Telegram last January called "German Emigrants in Bulgaria." Now, less than one year later, his group has grown to more than 2,500 members.
Among those who have moved into the Château, Gelbrecht is the voice of authority. The stoutly built man wearing a black hoodie makes his disdain for journalists clear right from the start, indicating that he has no need for unannounced visits from the press. "For you, we’re all just tin foil-hat wearing yokels," Gelbrecht rants. "You just want to shove us into a corner and stand us up against the wall."
Is it true that Germans and Austrians end up here in an effort to escape strict anti-corona measures back home? "We are a private, multi-generational community," Gelbrecht responds vaguely. "Among the residents are poverty-stricken retirees like my parents." Around 60 expatriates are now living at the Château Aheloy, he says, adding that it is expected to soon swell to 100. "We are being approached by more and more people who want to leave."
The "C-19 Idiocy"
Gelbrecht is silent when asked if he personally takes the coronavirus seriously, whether he has been vaccinated. But a look at the Telegram chat group provides some answers. Gelbrecht complains in the group about the German "C-19 idiocy" – with "C" standing for COVID – and demands that those responsible in the country be turned over to the International Court of Justice. "The dishonest and hypocritical political and media system in Germany must be destroyed," he writes.
Before it comes to that, we have another question: Does the unofficial Château boss describe himself as a Querdenker? The term, which, pre-COVID, used to be reserved in Germany for those who think outside the box, "has lost its original meaning," Gelbrecht says. "True Querdenker were people like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking." He primarily views himself as a savior for the desperate. "Many Germans are growing increasingly concerned that they will be excluded if they don’t get vaccinated, that they will no longer be able to take part in society and that they will be forced to have their children vaccinated."
In Germany, currently, residents must show proof of vaccination or recent recovery from the coronavirus to shop in many stores or to participate in many aspects of public life, like spending time indoors at restaurants or bars.
Anti-vaxxers at a demonstration in Saarbrücken on Dec. 19Foto: BeckerBredel / IMAGO
Mostly out of sight of the public at large, a group of corona-skeptics interested in leaving Germany has joined forces in the messaging app Telegram. And a significant number of them have headed for Bulgaria, the EU’s poorhouse. Properties have been purchased or rented, with a clear preference being shown for the Black Sea coast between Burgas and Varna. The dream: life in a country where no "chin diapers" or "filter bags" have to be pulled on over nose and mouth, where the unvaccinated can still receive service in restaurants and where children can be sent to "free learning groups" on the beach.
Many of those who have already fled to Bulgaria or are planning on doing so are women. There is the operator of a Rhineland farm "free of animal suffering" who is concerned about Bulgarian regulations pertaining to the entry of cows, sheep and pigs. There are the self-proclaimed "lion mothers" who want to bring their children to safety in Bulgaria and are establishing "villages of the new era" for that purpose. Mostly, though, it is a collection of people with rather exotic career callings: From the "online midwife" to the "expert for deep relaxation," from a "life crash coach" to an expert for "grief, birth and pregnancy companionship," there is a fair amount of German expertise on offer that nobody in Bulgaria really needs.
The new arrivals are primarily attracted by temperatures that still hover around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade in early December combined with affordable prices. And they aren’t deterred by the horrific corona statistics that Bulgaria has amassed. The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate – more than 4,000 per million residents – of any country in the European Union. Almost a tenth of the population has already been infected, and the vaccination rate, despite all the warnings issued by the government, is only around 30 percent. In Aheloy, an unappealing outpost that lived off discount tourism during communism, a local says: "For historical reasons, we distrust everything that comes from the government."
Escape from a Dictatorship
The Germans, ensconced in their fortress with a pool and tennis courts at the edge of town, find the Bulgarian skepticism refreshing. Ines, an unvaccinated older woman from the Lichtenberg neighborhood of Berlin, made it to Aheloy via Warsaw and Sofia. She describes her departure as though it were an escape from a dictatorship. "I simply could no longer stand the measures that were in place there."
Now, she is living in a small apartment for which she pays 232 euros per month. Every Tuesday, she joins other Germans for brunch in the Provence Hotel, where she hears news and fake news from back home. "In Germany, the roads and highways are soon to be closed so that nobody can travel unnoticed from one state to another," she claims with a straight face – before heading out for a walk on the beach.
Another German expat named Ursulina chose her target country primarily based on, according to her, "where it is easiest to stay under the radar – and that makes a country with such a low population density and rather 'lazy officials' quite attractive." Still, though, "here, too, the 'Great Reset’ is being implemented." The term "Great Reset" refers to a June 2020 Global Economic Forum initiative to reorient capitalism. Among corona truthers, it has come to refer to a vast conspiracy myth according to which the global financial elite are seeking to use the pandemic to install a new, pro-corporate world order.
For people like Ursulina, there is a grand plan behind everything, and she calls the pandemic a "plandemic," with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allegedly in a leadership role. The foundation has long been exploring the dangers of a possible pandemic and provided financing for an October 2019 event held by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Global Economic Forum during which a "fictitious coronavirus pandemic" was simulated.
"I don’t know if there is a global agenda behind it all, but one thing is certain: Life in Germany used to be freer," says Château boss Gelbrecht, before he orders a coffee with "maslo" at a beachside restaurant, an order which produces a discreet smirk from the waiter. "Maslo" means butter, but he meant "mlyako," which means milk. Gelbrecht’s Bulgarian is still a work in progress, as are his plans for the future. Together with Stanko Gyurov, who owns the apartment complex, he is planning to establish a few shops, an additional pool and a beer garden for the new arrivals. "Stanko can hardly believe his luck," says Gelbrecht. "He used to rely on the four-month high season, and that was it. Now, he has guests all year around thanks to the expats."
The vacation apartment complex Château AheloyFoto: Hristo Rusev / DER SPIEGEL
It is definitely true that life during the pandemic is much more relaxed in Bulgaria. Shoppers do have to wear masks in the Lidl supermarket, where the new arrivals can buy a taste of home in the form of Black Forest ham or German beer. But in smaller shops and restaurants, rules are largely ignored, which the German expats celebrate as a bit of regained freedom. "No social distancing, no lockdowns or curfews," exults a woman from the Rhineland, who goes on to announce an additional bit of good news. In Sofia, she has discovered "gluten-free organic cookies and vegan bars."
Freedom and Democracy
Svetoslav Todorov, a young doctor at the university hospital in Burgas, says he has a hard time understanding the behavior of the immigrants from Germany. "It is almost criminal, because they aren’t just irresponsible with regard to themselves, but also for others." Fully 108 beds on three, green-linoleum floors, are reserved for COVID-19 patients in Todorov’s hospital – along with the extremely serious cases that land in the intensive care unit in a different wing of the building. Patients of all ages, half naked and wrapped in diapers, are hooked up to ventilators there.
If they could see the suffering of those with extreme symptoms, how would the incoming German-speaking émigrés react? People like Emanuel, who has bought himself a spot in Aheloy for a "bargain basement price" and who can hardly wait to leave "Absurdistan" (Germany) for the Balkans? Women like Nikola, a teacher who is frustrated by the corona containment measures implemented by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who she calls "Frau Ferkel," with "Ferkel" meaning piglet in German) and who is looking for a new challenge in the east? And what does Armin Elbs have to say about it all, a man who was until recently one of the most prominent Querdenker in Austria and who now lives in Bulgaria?
Elbs, a burly man with a goatee and a master’s degree in health sciences, was active in organizing demonstrations against coronavirus measures in both Austria and Germany in summer 2020. During an appearance in a park in Vienna, he accused the government of then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of having embarked on a "path of illegal terror and of establishing camps." Elbs also appeared at gatherings in Stuttgart and Ravensburg, announcing his support for "freedom and democracy."
Since arriving in Bulgaria, however, Elbs has fallen silent. He did not respond to several queries from DER SPIEGEL. He told an acquaintance that he had initially considered emigrating to Ecuador, but he ultimately chose Bulgaria because he saw the extremely low vaccination rate as evidence of a recalcitrant population.
Elbs has allegedly moved out of Château Aheloy to a more rural location, where another Austrian apparently also lived, a businessman named Gregor M. who was reportedly arrested a few weeks back and deported to his homeland. He and others are under investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption for "aggravated fraud" related to cryptocurrencies. The presumption of innocence, of course, applies.
It is likewise fitting that a German is living not far from Aheloy who promotes life in Bulgaria on his emigration website by pointing to its tax advantages and claims: "You can easily own a stylish villa here, drive your Porsche and operate your small company." The former student of theology offers a consultancy package for 2,499 euros, complete with an "awesome” roadmap for professional success.
Excerpts from a Telegram group chat: "In times of war, people have always fled!"
Many corona truthers are rather starry-eyed and arrive in Bulgaria without sufficient financial safeguards, says Dirk Gelbrecht back at the Château. That makes them easy prey for promises of earning "passive income" without much effort. In expat chat groups, there are offers for things like a 3,000-euro, intensive training course in blockchain technology with a "no bullshit approach."
Two hours north of Château Aheloy, on the outskirts of the port city of Varna, a second bastion of German-speaking emigrants has come into existence. In front of the beachside complex "South Bay," a number of cars with German license plate numbers are parked. The complex has 16 entrances, each leading to 10 floors of apartments, all surrounding a giant swimming pool. Now, in the middle of winter, it is largely quiet.
It is only in the social networks where the newcomers are active that around-the-clock activity can be found. Leni, who says she is a Turkish-Bulgarian with several years of experience as an elementary school teacher in Potsdam, is at the center of the Varna-based community. All those seeking to gain a foothold in the foreign country come to her first.
The Search for "Real Christmas Trees"
Leni declines an in-person meeting, but responds to queries in writing. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with journalists, who she believes are "partly responsible" for deceiving millions of people like dumb sheep because they have "blind faith in the media" – victims of perfect brainwashing who "can no longer differentiate between their own thoughts and those of others." Leni’s tone is one of commiseration when she thinks of those Germans who have been vaccinated. "They don’t feel the barbed wire that runs through their heads as long as they are given one test injection after the other."
The woman from the South Bay complex teaches emigrant children on the beach, to the degree the weather allows for it: reading, writing and math with sticks on the sand. Later, the curriculum calls for crocheting and baking bread. Leni’s message to those back in Germany who haven’t yet made up their minds is simple: "How can you stand it there? And why?? In times of war, people have always fled. Bring the children to safety!" In Bulgaria, you can live "without being admonished by block wardens or meeting people proud of having been vaccinated."
Life on the Black Sea does, of course, come with some disadvantages. One resident misses "real Christmas trees in Varna," while another complains of having trouble finding the right ingredients for her Christmas sweets. And when Mario Baumgarten, who runs a restaurant above Varna, offers yet another menu of German specialties ("just like your mom used to make!") for guests who want to eat "with no controls, guaranteed!," he has to announce that it is a private event to get around Bulgarian coronavirus measures requiring the unvaccinated to eat at home.
The German speakers, though, help each other out. One provides recommendations for a doctor who is skeptical of vaccination. Another knows of a pizzeria where the waiters warn unvaccinated guests ahead of police raids. A third recommends "restaurants, bars, thermal spas and saunas" that remain open to everyone. Why? Because they "belong to various mafia structures or politicians who don’t want to see their businesses ruined."
"Broadly speaking, things here in Bulgaria are almost certainly more relaxed," and proof of vaccination is hardly ever asked for, admits Nedyalko Nedelchev, Germany’s honorary consul, at his office in Varna. "But this is the first time that I’m hearing that there are so many Germans who have fled here because of corona. They likely only come to me if something has happened."
So far, those who have emigrated to Bulgaria have remained largely under the radar. But if the newly sworn-in government in Sofia tightens measures in the fight against the coronavirus, the mood on the Black Sea coast could quickly shift. Statistics from 2020 tell the tale of numerous failed attempts to start life anew abroad. But the number of emigrants to Bulgaria was still around 50 percent higher than the number of remorseful returnees.