Who are the people preparing for the worst? Far-right conspirationists? Crackpots? Or just pragmatic realists? Ben Knight investigates.
How did I end up here? you think to yourself, while staring into the night mistaking every sound for a wild boar. At some point you became aware of the deep well of self-doubt lurking in the centre of urban life. You were suddenly conscious of that nagging anxiety that all the stuff we have and the systems we rely on that we don’t even think about are built on sand. And even if you do think about them it’s only with contempt, they’re just another part of this sophisticated machine that delivers us chores to complete. We grind ourselves into it, to the point that we actually despise the infrastructure that keeps us safe and despise ourselves for relying on it. And then, freighted with self-loathing, you begin to wonder: wouldn’t it be better if we did lose it all? Wouldn’t it merely be justice if something – war, fascism, heat death, economic collapse, nuclear meltdown – did come along to burn it all away, because we don’t deserve any of it? Modern life has made us soft and weak. Who hasn’t yearned for the moral cleansing of pure survival? And anyway: how much do you really know about yourself until you’ve mixed your urine with that of the people around you in a big plastic bottle and distilled it for drinking water?
That’s how I got here, at the SurviCamp basic survival course in Strausberg, about 40 kilometres outside Berlin, having paid quite a lot of money to be deprived of food and shelter, forced into a crisis simulation. In this particular scenario, our 11-strong group had survived a plane crash in a wilderness peopled by ‘bandits’. We had to navigate ourselves around a ‘swamp’ to the nearest ‘settlement’, where we had to find batteries for a walkie-talkie we had salvaged from the plane-wreck. Having contacted our rescuers, we had 24 hours to survive. In those 24 hours we would swim a river, kill and eat grasshoppers, gut a trout for dinner, filter muddy river water, defecate in a hole, shoot arrows to earn food, light fires, set up a camp, take guard shifts overnight, try to bake bread on a stick, brush our teeth with a frayed twig and coal, clamber through a field with a bucket to scoop muddy, oily water from a ditch to filter through moss and sand, and finally attempt to distil urine, only for it to boil over and burst into the fire and send up a huge cloud of piss-steam. We were guided by three survival experts: gentle Thomas, earnest Felix, and their leader, muscled ex-Bundeswehr soldier Daniel, who made sarcastic remarks and derided male members of the group if the women completed tasks before them. But, fictional bandit threat notwithstanding, the main point is to experience hardship – an advance email warns you “that you may be robbing yourself of an interesting experience if you bring your own food.” What they mean by this turns out to be: you’ll get very hungry, because you won’t be fed until you’ve set up camp in the evening. It’s the ultimate decadence: paying to starve until you’ve reached the point that you don’t mind twisting the head off a live grasshopper (its entrails conveniently come out with the head), before roasting its maggot-like lower body on a twig.
Some people enjoy this kind of thing more than others. Some people also take it very seriously. There’s a subculture of people, called preppers, who train themselves and prepare for crisis situations – by which they mean everything from storms and road accidents to the collapse of society and government structures. It turned out there was one such person in Strausberg with us: Nick Alder. Nick had done survival courses all over the world (he was the best at archery) and had two weeks of supplies in his house at all times. “It’s important people learn this stuff,” he said, hacking his way through nettles, “because people are going to start killing each other when it all goes off.”
The tradition of prepping is American, but it has grafted naturally onto German culture, and now it’s flourishing in a hundred internet forums. But last year, the German government decided that preppers were getting dangerous. In September, during a raid on a suspected far-right terrorist group in Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania, police found a list of politicians and journalists the preppers were allegedly going to “liquidate” if the German state collapsed. German newspapers excitedly reported that the six men, who were policemen and military reservists, belonged to a network that exchanged messages in a prepper chat group about Bundeswehr troop movements and vaccine shortages. Whatever was really behind the reports – and no actual arrests were made – there was apparently enough evidence for Germany’s interior ministers to put preppers on their own list: the list of groups the Verfassungsschutz, the government agency that tracks extremists of all stripes, keeps an eye on. As a result, there was a brief squall of media stories about preppers, and any preppers who had any public profile distanced themselves from the far-right.
Bastian Blum in his home in Krefeld. Photo by Amit Edelman, from the upcoming movie We’re All Going To Die
One of these was Bastian Blum, head of the ‘Prepper Community of Germany’ a loose organization that exchanges startling tips online. Their forums include long threads about which chicken races produce the best egg-rate, what food you can grow indoors, which martial arts are best in what situations, and learning how to use shortwave radio. Blum, a former PR man, manages these debates from his flat in Krefeld, near the north-western German border (not far from Belgium’s notoriously fragile nuclear power stations, he says). His home, which he shares with his wife and young children, is not a survivalist fortress. The flat radiates sensible middle-classness – there’s neat furniture, a spotless kitchen, and framed photos of family holidays in the mock-brick hallway. But that’s just the top part of his home – down below, his unfeasibly organized, small but well-stocked cellar is filled with gas masks, water filters, candles, dried, tinned, and jarred food, an extended first aid kit, a sword (“just for show”), a hatchet, a collection of portable gas cookers with gas, plastic bags, cutlery, and containers of all sizes – enough resources, he says, to look after himself and his family for six weeks.
Like many, Blum became a prepper after the financial crisis in 2008. Watching the money system almost collapse was something that got him thinking – what if the governments aren’t really as in control as they make out? “I started to think about what else could happen. Power cuts, weather, hacker attacks,” he says, perched at his neat dining table. “If there was a nuclear accident, for example, the first thing I’d do is look at the weather forecast – if it’s not raining, you have extra time.” He began drawing up crisis plans – briefing his friends and neighbours so everyone knew their role in an emergency. Prepping is all about imagining consequences: “Where’s the first place you would go for food in a power cut? The supermarket, then maybe restaurants – but then it starts to get difficult.”
Blum speaks in an authoritative voice when discussing the psychology of disaster: the sense of community, he reckons, depends on how long the crisis will last: “If they know that things will normalize in two weeks, then people are ready to help, but if that horizon is not in sight, people aren’t prepared to help anymore.” This is what happens when you first meet preppers: they insist on the practical purpose and the realistic scenarios they’re preparing for. They point to the real crises happening around us all the time: heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, refugee movements. They point to the German government agency, the BBK (the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance), which runs regular crisis simulation exercises, and offers advice that no one but preppers pay attention to: about what to keep in your emergency rucksacks (“bug-out bags” in the prepper jargon) and how much bottled water and cereal you should have in your home at all times. They point to the government’s emergency information app, NINA, and the government’s 260-page study, published in 2011, which explores in detail the consequences of a long-term, country-wide power cut (it would be really bad). They point to the government’s stockpiles of emergency food and medicine, kept in secret locations, to be rationed out in case of disaster. In short, while one branch of the government is keeping an eye on preppers in case they turn into farright nut-jobs, another branch of the government is telling everyone to be a prepper. It’s a paradox the BBK is aware of. A spokeswoman offered a carefully-worded statement on the point: “Of course we welcome and support it when people prepare for emergencies, collect provisions, and prepare themselves for conceivable and realistic scenarios. But if, as part of this, a network operates partially with extremist ideology, in which potential radicalisation tendencies could be disseminated, or arms itself, the state must be alarmed, and counter this decisively.”
That’s the contradiction in the government’s position on disaster, but the preppers have their own: they follow the official government advice, but they don’t trust the government to keep order in a real disaster. Which is why, after an hour or so of practical talk with a prepper about, say, whether soluble chlorine tablets are better or worse than water-filter straws (they’re worse), you get down to the real problems that exercise preppers. As Stefan Müller, chairman of a non-profit called ‘Prepper e.V.’, said, “We do all have a feeling that things are going downhill, that things are getting risky out there.”
Once Blum gets going in his pristine beige kitchen, he starts to talk about society fracturing into subcultures. “Never has society in Germany been so unstable, so divided, so different as it is today,” says Blum. “The solidarity we had 30 years ago, the reflecting, the constant reflecting, on the cores, the needs – security, food, community, rebuilding – those aren’t there anymore.” What kept us together 30 years ago, Blum says, was the Cold War, which “demanded enormous solidarity.” Now there is no great enemy to fear, and – as an old prepper saying goes – when there are no more enemies, the enemy is everything: “There’s no common fear anymore, there’s only partial fear. If a situation happens when all the state structures, measures, laws, EU mechanisms, the UN fail, then society itself will completely collapse into various single parts, and they won’t get along, because they will all claim the right to be right.”
Like with Reichsbürger, the German conspiracy theorists who say that the Federal Republic of Germany is not a legitimate state, there’s no official organization – in a sense, preppers are just people who call themselves preppers: they don’t share an ideology. But extremists and preppers have one thing in common: a deep-seated pessimism. Several people I spoke to who had got into prepping got out again when they found out what other kinds of people are in the ‘scene’. “You find people with Scientology connections and ‘info warriors’ in the scene,” one of them, who wanted to stay anonymous, said, adding that some had stopped using the word ‘prepper’ because of its connotations. But still, the psychiatrist Borwin Bandelow, an authority on fear both collective and personal, says that there is an overlap. “Prepping is often combined with far-right or radical thinking because they also think that the world is getting worse and worse and that one day they’ll have to barricade themselves in,” he said. In other words, when society collapses and the food supply chains disappear, we will all become Reichsbürger – all claiming our own sovereignty and disregarding other people’s needs. This, Blum hardly needs to say it, is what is already happening – aren’t we all creating our own facts these days? “For example churches!” Blum is on a roll now, foamy flecks gathering in his mouth-corners. “Churches have a function for keeping communities together. Who did people confide in 20 or 30 years ago? The vicar! Now hardly anyone does that anymore.” Prepping, Blum thinks, is society’s automatic reaction to this loss of communal centres. “But it’s not enough.”
For the record, Bandelow the psychiatrist hasn’t noticed a rise in fear disorders coming into his clinic over the past 20 years. “Unemployment, terrorism, or Donald Trump – none of these are issues that make people go to a psychiatrist,” he says. “When the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001, not a single extra person came into the fear treatment clinic.” He does speculate that some preppers might suffer from a condition called ‘hoarding disorder’, which usually means you hoard objects you don’t need, such as empty yoghurt pots. But, he’s careful to emphasize, hoarding itself is not actually a disorder: guarding against the winter by collecting food is just a human thing. “Prepping is a kind of hobby, a kind of safety feeling, and these people are fighting this fear of being at the mercy of nature,” he says. “They’ve been brought up in a too-modern way, and they want to fight precisely these fears by working through these scenarios, to show they can survive – to show they don’t need electricity. I see it as a kind of extreme hobby.” And yet Bandelow doesn’t think prepping is completely healthy, either. “With preppers you get the impression that they want a catastrophe like that to happen, because it makes them feel like a kind of super-being. It’s a kind of vindication, almost like they’re convinced of it on a religious level.”
Which leads us to the word the preppers hate the most: apocalypse. It’s the word they avoid, because, well, who wants to be compared to cult members destroying themselves as they await eternal glory, when all they’re trying to do is sell practical advice? But obviously they know how powerful that word is, how much the apocalypse has saturated culture. Which might be why SurviCamp, which takes pride in its professionalism and attention to realism in its regular workshops, also offers a Zombie Apocalypse paintballing day.