Thousands of people marched through the German capital to protest against measures imposed to stem the coronavirus pandemic, claiming the restrictions violate people’s rights and freedoms.
Crowds gather in central Berlin on Saturday included a range of groups including vaccine opponents and conspiracy theorists, among others. There was also a small far-right presence with marchers carrying the black, white and red imperial flag of Germany.
Organizers initially hoped that half a million demonstrators would join the protest, but police estimated around 17,000 people had gathered. A handful of counter-demonstrators also gathered, many under the banner “Grannies against the Right”, and shouted “the Nazis” at the participants.
Police ended the main protest after determining that organizers were unable to ensure compliance with health and safety rules. They also said they had launched legal action against the organizers for “non-compliance with hygiene rules”.
The protest came as German officials fear a second wave of the pandemic, which has so far killed 9,154 people in the country amid 210,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
The relatively low death rate – nearly a quarter of the UK, which has a smaller population – was seen as the result of Germany’s early imposition of strict measures.
But protesters said on Saturday the restrictions violated their rights. They hissed and called out ‘freedom’ and ‘resistance’, with some shouting ‘the biggest conspiracy theory is the coronavirus pandemic’.
Others chanted “we are the second wave”.
Few of the protesters wore masks or met the five-foot (1.5-meter) physical distance requirement, according to media reports, although police called them by megaphone to do so.
The protest follows a rallying call from Michael Ballweg, an entrepreneur and political foreigner who has organized similar rallies in Stuttgart and is running for mayor of that city.
Fear of the second wave
In a report from Berlin, Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane said the protests were felt most in “ministerial circles,” with federal and state officials fearing the rally could catalyze an increase in new infections that has already started, with the number of new daily cases being the highest since May. .
“When they see so many people, so many foreigners, gathering in central Berlin and breaking the rules, they are very worried that there is a second wave,” he said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn on Saturday criticized rally attendees on Twitter: “Yes, protests should be allowed even amid the pandemic. But not like this. ”
Physical distancing, health and safety rules and protective wearing face masks serve to protect everyone, Spahn said, adding that only “Sense, perseverance and team spirit” will help overcome the pandemic.
Some politicians have taken a less measured approach, with the Social Democrats’ Saskia Esken, a junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, calling the protesters “Covidiots.”
“No distancing, no mask. They not only endanger our health but also our success against the pandemic as well as economic recovery, education and society. Irresponsible! She wrote on Twitter.
Jan Redmann, regional leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in eastern Brandenburg state, was also targeting the protesters.
“A thousand new infections a day still and in Berlin there are protests against anti-virus measures? We can no longer afford this dangerous nonsense, ”said Redmann.
The German government, meanwhile, has been easing lockdown measures since the end of April, with physical distancing rules remaining in place, as will the requirement to wear masks on public transport and in shops.
“The very rules these protesters are protesting against are much less strict than they were at the height of the pandemic,” Al Jazeera’s Kane said. “This is why many Germans are wondering what exactly these protesters are protesting against when the rules have been relaxed for so long. “