The Dutch dance instructor gained global notoriety as an activist and conspiracy theorist during COVID-19
It was May 2020 when dance teacher Willem Engel delivered an apparently scientifically well-founded talk about the COVID-19 pandemic response in the Netherlands. The manifesto was posted on Dutch YouTube channel Café Weltschmerz. Within days, hundreds of thousands had viewed the video. Engel rapidly rose to prominence as the head of a group behind large, professionally organized demonstrations. In the months that followed, he would increasingly spread a range of conspiracy theories, pursue an anti-vaccination agenda and incite his supporters to harass public authorities.
Engel's group called Viruswaanzin ("Virus Madness") but soon renamed Viruswaarheid ("Virus Truth"), was initially backed by a number of wealthy pub tycoons, most of whom wanted to get rid of the 1.5m social distancing rules and other lockdown measures. Financial support also came in through donations, with more than 300,000 euros received in 2020 alone. Beyond leading physical protests, Viruswaarheid expanded its follower base through Zoom meetings where critics of government policy on pandemic response found each other.
Engel and his organisation launched several court cases against the Dutch government. The first aimed at getting the lockdown lifted and questioned the use of PCR tests. Individual scientists were also sued, including Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst (his and Engel's public feud was also played out on Twitter). Engel lodged a libel claim in a Belgian court against Van Ranst, but lost and was ordered to pay out 4,000 euros. Although that fine for "aggravated and reckless litigation" was waived on appeal.
By presenting himself as a former scientist with an expert understanding of aerosols, Engel managed to gain some credibility. Although he had a master's degree in bio-pharmaceutical sciences in his pocket, a subsequent PhD track failed. By his own account, just before submitting his thesis, he decided to follow his heart and start a career as a dance teacher. Several people have raised questions about the existence of this thesis that was supposedly almost finished.
Engel comes from a family with a long history of fighting legal battles with the government. His father Cees Engel, who died in 2022, was a notorious slum landlord in Rotterdam, who at one point was bought out by the city municipality. With that money, some 13 million euros, an older brother of Willem, Jan Engel, bought up a sizeable part of the red light district in Bremen, Germany. His business partner was Jeroen Pols, a former drug trafficker who completed a law degree during a three year prison sentence, and had been assisting the Engel family as legal advisor for years. He would also become the other main face of Viruswaarheid alongside Willem Engel.
The avalanche of more than 40 lawsuits launched by Viruswaarheid — a deliberate strategy of legal harassment — partially succeeded in their goal of frustrating the government. But the courts only occasionally agreed, notably in the fight against the introduction of curfews. However, it was to be a a Pyrrhic victory: on appeal, the government was vindicated a week following the decision.
Engel's objections to COVID-19 policies were not in line with scientific consensus and rooted in misconceptions and misinterpretations, though not entirely devoid of supporting arguments.
Among his assertions was the claim that the global pandemic had ended by May 2020, and that only 20 percent of the population could be potentially infected. According to him, any positive test results at that point were likely false positives. Of course this was soon shown to be an absurd position.
Among the speakers at the first big protest planned in The Hague in 2020 (which was officially banned) were several well-known anti-vaxxers and other quacks. When the next demonstration (a week later) was again prohibited, Engel was already speaking of a "dictatorship" and the end of the democratic rule of law. From then on, things went downhill fast. Viruswaarheid’s Twitter account increasingly spread globalist conspiracy theories about George Soros and the World Economic Forum, and even QAnon related material.
The introduction of a Coronavirus app, which was supposed to alert you if you had recently been in contact with someone who later turned out to be infected, was compared to having to wear the Yellow Star imposed on Jews under the Nazis. And about Justice Minister Grapperhaus he said: "Not only does he look like a Nazi, he acts like one."
Engel's perspective evolved into a theory asserting that the orchestrated handling of the COVID-19 crisis aimed not only at managing the pandemic but also at reshaping free Western societies into a control system reminiscent of the Chinese model.
In 2021 he honed in on vaccinations, spreading misinformation similar to leading pandemic anti-vaxxers in other countries. He faced significant public criticism over a a tweet linking the collapse on the field of Danish footballer Christian Eriksen during the European Championships in June 2021 to a COVID-19 vaccination. Twitter suspended his account until the tweet was deleted.
Engel also made an attempt to win a parliamentary seat through the March 2021 elections. However, his party failed to meet the electoral threshold and he only secured 2,869 votes. Not unexpectedly, he again started legal proceedings for alleged electoral fraud.
In November 2022, an alliance of several organisations, including Viruswaarheid, invited English conspiracy theorist David Icke to speak at a demonstration in Amsterdam. Because of his Holocaust denial, this caused outrage and eventually the Minister of Justice decided to make his presence impossible by barring him from entering the Netherlands (and consequently the entire Schengen area) for two years. Viruswaarheid sued over this decision, but again without success.
Another high-profile conspiracy theorist supporter of Engel's is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose organisation Children’s Health Defence took an active part in the demonstrations against the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Kennedy met Engel and Pols prior to a demonstration in Berlin in August 2020 and he interviewed Engel for his podcast in 2022. Kennedy is one of the "Disinformation Dozen", the 12 people in the world who are most responsible for spreading medical disinformation about vaccines, according to The Center for Countering Digital Hate.
As the pandemic subsided and protests dwindled, Engel turned his attention to other subjects, including Russia's war against Ukraine. He started a procedure against the Dutch state to prevent the shipment of military aid to Ukraine. He now claimed to be an expert in international politics, just like he had claimed to be an expert in virology just a few years before. He became closer to the Dutch politician Thierry Baudet and his extreme right wing party Forum voor Democratie, the only party in the Netherlands that openly supports Vladimir Putin’s war.
In November 2023 he was one of the speakers at a far right press conference in a room in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, along with Joachim Kuhs (Alternative für Deutschland), Marcel de Graaff (Forum voor democratie), and Vibeke Manniche (a Danish opponent of the measures against COVID-19). The alarmist message was that vaccines were not tested for an effect on transmission of the virus, were linked to excess mortality seen in several countries, and that the authorities had rigged the system of recording of vaccine side effects and thus deliberately endangered the safety of the population. The press conference demonstrated the strong connection between extreme right wing political parties, denial of scientific facts and embrace of pseudo-scientific theories.
Recently Engel has also emerged as a climate change denialist, alleging a conspiracy of globalists from the World Economic Forum to introduce a Chinese-style dictatorship, in which all private property is abolished. The topics change, but the pattern stays the same: an evil elite is trying to take over the world and people must organize and resist. It is a a way of thinking that is closely related to traditional antisemitism.
It comes therefore as no surprise that Engel engages with full-blown antisemites like the Canadian conspiracy theorist Chris Saccoccia, better known as Chris Sky. Engel conducted several interviews with Sky when he was visiting the Netherlands. Sky has pushed many antisemitic ideas, including the idea that "Zionists are responsible for child trafficking". He also approved a quote from Mein Kampf by responding:
In January 2022, the public prosecutor's office initiated an investigation into Engel, prompted by more 20,000 people collectively filing charges against him. A year later, Engel was convicted on one count of sedition for urging participation in the prohibited demonstration in The Hague in June 2020, resulting in a one-month suspended prison sentence. Both Engel and the prosecution lodged appeals, and the case is pending.
As a result of financial mismanagement, notably Engel's borrowing of 50,000 euros from Viruswaarheid's donation funds for personal use, ING bank suspended the foundation's account. Subsequently, the foundation faced challenges in opening a new bank account elsewhere. Following a court case loss over reinstating the account in November 2022, Engel and Pols opted to dissolve their organization, and carry on activities under the new name VoorWaarheid (For the Truth). What exactly happened to Viruswaarheid’s remaining assets remains unclear.
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