Summer of My German Property Developer

I just paid €1 to subscribe to Der Spiegel for a month so I could read that Martin Doerry article about “right-wing conspiracy ideologists” luring “like-minded” Germans to Cape Breton, an island, as Doerry helpfully explains, connected to mainland Nova Scotia by “a dam with a swing bridge.”

(I used Google Translate to read the piece in English, so some of my quotes may be a bit wonky, but I double checked the “dam with a swing bridge” phrase in a more reputable German/English dictionary and it is, indeed, how Doerry describes the Canso Causeway.)

Canso Causeway

The dam with a swing bridge connecting Cape Breton Island to the mainland. (Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada / CC BY-SA)

Now I am going to try to write about the story — and the reaction to the story — as a way of figuring out what I think of it all. (I can’t wait to see what I conclude.)

The “right-wing conspiracy ideologists” in question are Andreas Popp, Eva Herman and Frank Eckhardt and Doerry does a pretty good job justifying the label for all three, beginning with Popp, who “founded the so-called Wissensmanufaktur [Knowledge Factory] about 15 years ago, an organization of right-wing academics that is officially based in Walsrode in Lower Saxony, but in fact missions from Cape Breton to German investors.”

In 2006, Popp published a book called The Matrix Syndrome, which Doerry describes as a “compendium of all those conspiracy theories that are common in the right-wing camp”:

The greenhouse effect is therefore no more than the moon landing; the contrails of the aircraft, so-called chemtrails, poison humanity; the Federal Republic is governed by a “party and judicial dictatorship”; an “ultra-small group of ‘rich leaders'” dominates the world.

Doerry characterizes Popp as a “doom prophet” who is convinced the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that Cape Breton is the only safe place to sit out the coming Apocalypse. To be fair, it’s not an uncommon view these days: I’ve had the feeling the world is going to hell in a hand basket myself and I’d be lying if I said it had never occurred to me that, on the whole, Cape Breton isn’t a bad place to be. But my existential fears are largely climate change, disease and nuclear weapons-related, Popp is worried about economic collapse and “interest bondage” (a term Doerry links, convincingly, to Nazi economist Gottfried Feder and “anti-Semetic agitation”).

Four times a year, Popp, through his Institute for Economic Research and Social Policy, hosts seminars in Cape Breton during which he shares these fears. Doerry’s contention is that he also, through a real estate company called Cape Breton Real Solutions, encourages attendees to buy Cape Breton land. A good chunk of the article is devoted to proving Popp’s connection to Cape Breton Real Solutions, which is run by another German, Jürgen Gindner. Popp insists he doesn’t personally sell land to attendees but that he “cooperates” with Gindner’s firm which, to my mind, means Doerry is correct. Gindner told the Cape Breton Post Doerry’s article was “disrespectful reporting” which, to my mind, means it was simply reporting.

Popp’s partner in doom, Eva Herman, was the host of a popular German TV news program called Tagesschau. a gig Doerry says she lost in 2007 due to her vocal admiration for “the National Socialist family policy.”

Herman has her own IMDb page, which describes her as an actress, writer, television host — and singer. Here she is in 2004 singing (?) “Cha Cha D’Amour” with Bettina Tietjen, her cohost on the Northern German Broadcast Corporation (NDR) talk show Herman and Tietjen:


IMDb says Herman was fired from that show, too, in 2007 after “stating during a press conference that the image of mothers under the Nazi regime was better than today.” Tiejen mounted a rousing defense telling Welt:

Eva is not a neo-Nazi. However, some of her comments are completely unacceptable, I have always told her that.

Herman now maintains her own website where she seems to focus her energies on bashing, in no particular order, feminists and immigrants (not all immigrants, of course, just those from Africa, the Middle East and Asia). You don’t have to browse the site long before coming across commentary like this:

We remember this connection from the saying of the fashion tsar Karl Lagerfeld, who said the striking sentence (about Merkel-Germany) in a French television program in November 2017: “Even if there are decades in between, you cannot kill millions of Jews and later millions fetch their worst enemies.”

Lagerfeld, who has since dropped dead, made the remarks in 2017 on the French television show “Salut les Terriens!” (Hello Earthlings!). Digging them up 2020 seems to me as unnecessary as digging up Lagerfeld himself, but Herman clearly thinks otherwise. (Do you get credit for acknowledging the reality of the Holocaust if you do so only to attack Muslim immigrants?)

It’s hard to get a bead on how much influence these two have. Doerry says Herman is very well known while Popp is “only prominent in his small community of conspiracy theorists.” Their Wissensmanufaktur YouTube channel has 199,000 subscribers, which is nothing to sneeze at, but Germany is a country of 68 million people — add in other German-speaking nations like Austria (9 million) and Switzerland (8.5 million) and they have a potential audience of 85.5 million. Doerry says Herman has 135,000 subscribers for her “Telegram” channel which, again, given a target audience of 85.5 million seems like slim pickings for a former high-profile newscaster. (On the other hand, I bet it’s better than Peter Mansbridge does with The Bridge podcast.)

When it comes to their seminars, though, they don’t seem concerned with casting a wide net — they seem to be appealing to a very select demographic: German speakers who are wealthy, right-wing, open to conspiracy theories but also incapable of using to look up the assessment values and sales histories of local properties. This is, perhaps, why Popp welcomes only 30 people per session — these are truly rare birds.


Documents, please

The Der Spiegel article was published on July 23, and since then, Doerry has spoken to both Joan Baxter of the Halifax Examiner, who brought the piece to the attention of Nova Scotians, and Nicole Sullivan of the Cape Breton Post, who presumably read Baxter’s article then contacted Doerry.

Doerry told Sullivan he’d spent two months researching the story, on the basis of a tip from a “German national who has been living in Cape Breton for 20 years.” He told Baxter he had “lots of documents, many more than we could present or write about, to prove our allegations.” He even listed some of those documents:

SPIEGEL has received court judgments, sales contracts, and land assessments, as well as emails from the Canadian police from Nova Scotia [that would be the Baddeck detachment of the RCMP].

And yet, the story includes precisely one document — a court order annulling one of Eckhardt’s property sales (I haven’t discussed Eckhardt yet, but I will, don’t worry). I get that Doerry faced space constraints in the print edition of Der Spiegel, but online? I know from experience you can share hella documents online. If the files are too big to post, just use Dropbox. There’s no need to scrimp on the source materials and I think Doerry’s article would have benefited from the addition of a few more.

As for sources of the human kind, Doerry told Sullivan he’d interviewed “almost 30 people” and elaborated, to Baxter, that these had included:

German emigrants and investors who bought property for financial security on Cape Breton, entrepreneurs and merchants, doctors, craftsmen and pensioners…

All of them, said Doerry, had “relevant experience” with Andreas Popp and Eva Herman but “‘nobody wants to be named in this story, the fear of revenge is too great.” Said one of these mystery immigrants: “That’s just the wild west here.”

So, someone — entrepreneur? merchant? doctor? craftsman? pensioner? — thinks Cape Breton is “the wild west.”

And “a German businessman who has been living in Nova Scotia for more than 20 years” (the same “German national” who tipped Doerry off, perhaps?) says Nova Scotia can be “damn cold” and that for some time (how long is not specified) “German citizens with brown ideas” have settled in Cape Breton “in considerable numbers.”

Finally, a “connoisseur of the island” says: “If three cars are waiting at a red light, then that’s a traffic jam.” (I mean, I’m not going to pretend we rival Manhattan at rush hour, but the “connoisseur” was clearly never in St. Peters on a busy summer Saturday waiting for the light to change on the swing bridge over the canal — or maybe they arrived after the bridge was widened to two lanes.)

And that’s it — no one is quoted by name and only two people (who could well be the same person) are quoted at all. Meanwhile, statements like this are allowed to stand as fact without any supporting evidence:

Hundreds of Germans have settled on Cape Breton.

“Hundreds” is rather vague — is it 200 or 1,500? I checked the 2016 Census for Cape Breton Island and found a more specific number — 315. The total for Nova Scotia is 2,600, meaning Cape Breton was the destination of choice for 12% of all the Germans who’ve immigrated to Nova Scotia. Austrian and Swiss immigrants are too few in number to rate a separate category, and are lumped under “Other places of birth in Europe” (total: 10). Under the “recent immigrants” to Cape Breton category (which I think covers the period 2011-2016), Germans total 45.

Many Canadians view the newcomers with some suspicion. Not only because the Germans are driving up land prices and thus property taxes with the purchase of land, but also because quite a few of the new neighbors have questionable political views.

I am perfectly willing to believe this (I have concerns about the inflated land prices myself) but I would like some evidence, and Doerry simply does not provide any. The article doesn’t feature a single interview with a “Canadian” expressing suspicions about the “newcomers,” some of whom have been here for 20 years.


“Oh, are you nice here”

We very often hear the words “oh, are you nice here and that the children can grow up like this, without WiFi, vaccinations, 5 G, free learning and without having to go to school, in the middle of nature, there is almost nowhere else”

That, apparently, is the kind of comment Frank Eckhardt, owner of FE Properties Ltd, hears frequently from visitors — “friends and customers alike” —  to his Grand River home, although it may have lost something in translation from the original German (it’s from the English version of the website for his planned “Eco Village” near St. Peters).

Doerry says Eckhardt and Popp are former partners turned rivals. In a July 25 statement refuting Doerry’s claims, Herman and Popp say Herman has never met Erkhardt and Popp last spoke with him 15 years ago and has no business or personal relations with him (although he doesn’t deny having once been his business partner).

I have seen Eckhardt’s signs and passed his St. Peters office (it’s next door to the credit union) frequently because I vacation on Route 4 and am often in St. Peters in summer. (While there I do not go to school or get vaccinated, it’s true, but it’s not for ideological reasons, it’s just that I’ve graduated and have all my shots.) And while I always worry about wealthy people buying up island property at inflated prices and putting land ownership out of reach for the less well-heeled, I didn’t leap to the conclusion that Eckhardt was a Nazi. I try not to leap to that conclusion about anyone, particularly Germans.

I tended to assume Eckhardt was part of the phenomenon of Germans buying land in Cape Breton that goes back to at least 1990, when Rolf Bouman — a German who specializes in selling Nova Scotian land to Germans and who is suspiciously absent from Doerry’s article (or is he?) — established Canadian Pioneer Estates Ltd, with an office right on the island’s doorstep, in Auld’s Cove.

Canadian Pioneer Estates

Canadian Pioneer Estates (Google Street View, September 2018)

Bouman, who has a second company, CANEC Land Developments Inc, incorporated in 2001, has acclimatized so well to Nova Scotia he’s mastered the local custom of using recently retired politicians to promote your business — according to a story originally reported by Chris Shannon in the Cape Breton Post, Bouman snagged former Premier Rodney MacDonald to speak to a delegation of German investors in 2010. That delegation, the Chronicle Herald is now reporting, was organized by Popp. Again, Bouman doesn’t figure in Doerry’s reporting, although if he tried to sell land to a delegation organized by Popp, he should probably also come in for scrutiny. Unless, of course, he’s the “German businessman” who Doerry says has lived here for “more than 20 years” and who greets the come-on used by Eckhardt — that Nova Scotia lies in the same latitude as southern France — with “a tired smile.”

Which brings us back to Eckhardt (who also claims Nova Scotia is an ideal place to grow kiwis and peanuts.)

He seems to see Cape Breton as an unpopulated wilderness ripe for the taking and as I write that I think, “Just like my ancestors did.”

It is patently hypocritical of me to be gobsmacked by Eckhardt’s obliviousness to native Cape Bretoners, but I am gobsmacked, nevertheless. Maybe I’ve just been believing our own PR — you rarely see mention of the island without some reference to its “friendly” people. And yet, Eckhardt doesn’t seem to have noticed us at all:

When I came to this beautiful island from Germany over 20 years ago, I was fascinated by both the wonderful landscape and the opportunities that would result if I settled here privately as well as commercially. I could, as it were, leave my previous life in the hamster wheel behind and tackle some ideas and visions that I had been thinking about for a long time, but which was difficult to achieve in my country of origin, Germany. 

Again, though, this isn’t unlike my own paternal ancestor’s arrival here: he came from Scotland where his chances of one day owning 250 acres of land were on a par with his chances of one day ascending to the Scottish throne. He may have worked in a 19th century Glasgow factory, a “hamster wheel” if ever there were one. As for “ideas and visions,” he must have had a few — you don’t board a wooden vessel for a three-week ocean voyage to a new country because you’ve read all the papers and you’re tired of playing charades. (My ideas of early 19th century entertainment are derived pretty much exclusively from Jane Austen novels.)

He also accepted, without question, that Britain’s victory over France in the Seven Years’ War gave it the right to divvy up Cape Breton Island any way it saw fit, without concern for the wishes of its native inhabitants.

What he didn’t do, however, was divide those 250 acres he’d been granted by the British into sub-lots and peddle them to other Scottish immigrants at grossly inflated prices.

I like that about my ancestor.


Meet the Fuggers

Doerry says that between 2012 and 2016, Eckhardt sent a German couple who were looking to buy land unsolicited emails filled with “right-wing extremist content.” Doerry doesn’t name the couple, but the CBC’s Tom Ayers spoke to Petra and Bernhard Krug, a German couple who were looking to buy land from Eckhardt and received unsolicited emails filled with right-wing extremist content. (A German couple, it should be noted, who were not too “terrified” to go on the record with the CBC.)

Ayers saw some of the emails which he said included:

…a quote from someone saying the Holocaust ‘is the biggest lie in history.’ Another email said Zyklon B gas, which was used to kill prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, was only ever used to clean clothes.

Eckhardt also sent them a hard drive of material they say they didn’t examine but turned over to the Baddeck RCMP on the advice of a German friend. The RCMP told Ayers that the material was “offensive” but “did not meet the threshold for a charge of public incitement of hatred.”

By that time, the Krugs’ deal with Eckhardt had gone south — they’d discovered he was charging them far more than the land was worth and, with the help of the same friend, managed to get their money back and buy property in Victoria County.

Cape Breton Eco Village

Cape Breton Eco Village

The story sheds an interesting light on an earlier Ayers’ story. Back in May 2019, he spoke with an Austrian family, the Fuggers, who were ordered out of Canada after buying Grand River property from Eckhardt in 2015. The story says that between the purchase price and improvements, the family had invested almost $500,000 and had no money left to hire an immigration lawyer. Eckhardt, they said, had “facilitated the purchase and promised easy immigration to Canada.”

The immigration assistance was not forthcoming and the family was ordered to leave the country or face deportation. At the time Ayers spoke to them, they were preparing to comply with the order.

In retrospect, it would be interesting to know what kind of communications they’d had with Eckhardt leading up to the purchase — did he send them emails with “extremist right-wing content?” And even if he didn’t, what brought them — or for that matter, the Krugs — to Eckhardt in the first place? Were they attracted by the welcome message on his website? It seems to give you a pretty good sense of his views:

Liberty and self-determination through own initiative – your land in Cape-Breton-Island

In Germany and The European Union, with increasingly authoritarian and runaway administrative machinery, the quality of life and realistic good perspectives for the future were palpably diminishing for us, the citizens.

Have I awoken your interest for our thoughts and ideas, or do you also have a gut-feeling that the world in which you live at the moment is no longer in order?

Whatever attracted them to Eckhardt, he apparently screwed them over, indicating he is more interested in making a buck than creating a colony of like-minded people, otherwise, why inflate the land prices or exaggerate the ease with which people can immigrate to Canada?

That very thought occurred to one German reader of the original Der Spiegel article, who posted the following comment (which I’ve translated with Google Translator):

Overall, it would have been nice – for a deeper understanding of the business model of country developers and the overall situation in eastern Canada – if Mr. Doerry had clearly worked out the economic framework conditions in New Scotland in his article: enormous population decline due to lack of economic prospects. Eastern Canada is considered the “poor house” of the country. Many Canadians move west to find work and bread. This poses enormous challenges for the eastern provinces on the Atlantic coast. The property market looks like this: there are a number of properties for sale and there is a classic buyer’s market, including Cape Breton. The German-speaking country developers are trying to sell their properties to German-speaking Europeans. The unsustainably high level of public debt in Europe and the euro crisis are referred to as sales arguments and promoted for a second mainstay in Canada or even for complete emigration. However, prospective buyers usually lack an overview of the local real estate markets and also do not have the time to get hold of them, so that they are easy victims to be exempted like the famous Christmas goose. This is essentially the business model of Popp / Herman, Frank Eckhardt, Rolf Bouman, the Solit Group, etc. All the chatter (German-speaking network, community of like-minded people, etc.) is only part of the marketing measures / the extremely professional sales strategy selling the land overpriced to the ignorant. This has nothing to do with the intended establishment of a radical right-wing colony. The world is much more profane here, as always it’s all about money. Kind of reassuring, isn’t it?


Canadian values

Doerry’s story has caused a kerfuffle, as you can imagine. The Examiner published a follow-up with quotes from Germans in Nova Scotia “devasted” by it and the Post ran an op-ed by Bob Martel, a retired palliative care doctor in Arichat and frequent Post contributor, under the headline:

“German immigrants I know are chasing Cape Breton dream, not some Nazi nightmare”

In it, he states:

We want people who choose our communities because of the values we hold dear and who desire to live in our communities as part of the social fabric. We desire them to share their customs and traditions with us so we can grow a healthy, diverse and vibrant community. We also desire that they appreciate our customs and traditions so they can better understand why we live the way we do.

This had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of Kelly Leitch’s unsuccessful 2017 bid for the Tory leadership and her plan to screen immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” The Globe and Mail wrote that:

Ms. Leitch was duly criticized, but she didn’t back down. “Screening potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values that include intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms is a policy proposal that I feel very strongly about,” she said Friday.

Leitch — who had been the face of Stephen Harper’s Barbaric Practices snitch line — was widely seen as dog-whistling anti-Muslim sentiment, but the argument she touched off, as to just what are Canadian values (she listed “hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance”) and whether we should be testing for them at the border, would surely flare up again if we began trying to screen for right-wing ideology.

And it’s not like we don’t tolerate people who want to live in their own enclaves — whether it’s Buddhists in Pleasant Bay or mining executives in a gated community in Coxheath. (And I could make a pretty good case that the values held by the union-busting, safety regulation-ignoring managers of a certain coal company were not Cape Breton values.)

So I would like to suggest that the best way to deal with right-wing ideologues is to double-down on all the things they dislike: elect more women, do more to combat climate change and above all, welcome more immigrants — especially those from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

All of these things would be good in and of themselves– we need more women in politics, we have to take climate change more seriously and as for the benefits of an influx of newcomers, they’ve been on display in the CBRM since the Indian students began arriving in such numbers at CBU.

Pissing off the Hermans of this world as well? That would be what I once heard a Cape Bretoner call “the icing on the gravy.”