But he also became more aggressive. “We are seeing an increasingly warm atmosphere during the protests against the crown,” Martin Pallgen, spokesman for the Berlin Interior Ministry, told the DPA news agency. “Above all, there is a stronger and more verbally aggressive attitude among crown deniers towards police, counter-protesters and media representatives. ”
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On the streets, the Querdenker movement (and the associated demonstrations of small groups) was marked by an unlikely alliance of far-right and far-left fringes, as well as a handful of conspiracy theorists. Often, many protesters seemed extremely uninformed about the virus and suspicious of the government measures being implemented.
The movement’s commitment to German democratic order was also called into question in late August when a few protesters at one of Querdenker’s biggest protests in Berlin – attended by around 38,000 people – rushed to the steps of the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Despite a brief media hysteria following the incident, the movement has since evolved into regular, smaller-scale protests across the country – sometimes organized by allied groups rather than the Querdenkers themselves.
Another difference, of course, is that Germany is now days away from a new partial lockdown, with restaurants and hotels closed and much stricter rules on gatherings of people.
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Opposition to such measures has become more prevalent among the population since Germany’s first lockdown in March and April: In many people, the initial fear of being infected with COVID-19 has given way to concerns regarding the economic consequences of a prolonged foreclosure.
Protect freedoms, pandemic or not
These new circumstances are likely to spur the Querdenker movement, whose next big demonstration will be on Saturday, in the eastern city of Leipzig, where police expect 20,000 people to gather in more than a dozen demonstrations and counter-demonstrations around the city.
“We are preparing for a very difficult weekend,” a Leipzig police spokesperson told DW, before adding that reinforcements have already been called in from neighboring states and federal police.
The new regulations allow demonstrations, but only under certain circumstances: all participants must wear masks and gatherings must remain in one place – marches are prohibited.
The Leipzig police, meanwhile, have been careful to stress that freedom of assembly remains an important constitutional right and will only intervene as a last resort – in other words when public safety is threatened.
“A complete limitation on freedom of assembly is a very sensitive issue in Germany, just based on history,” a police spokesperson told DW, referring to the authoritarianism that has gripped the country under Nazi rule in the 1930s and in post-war East Germany.
“The decision to stop a demonstration is always taken by the municipal public order office, not by the police,” he added. “He makes the decisions and he assesses the concrete conditions on the ground. If all the conditions to break up a demonstration are there, then they can make that decision, and the police must then act ”.
So far, according to police, there is no indication that violence could erupt in Leipzig, although they are aware that some radical groups intend to come forward.
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A complex problem
Even in the face of a global pandemic and public health concerns, it is very difficult for authorities to outright ban protests. In recent months, some such attempts in Berlin have been thwarted by the courts, which have a duty to guard against constitutional violations. German courts often tend to side with the rights of individuals in such cases.
Paulina Starski, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, said there is certainly a danger that authorities will use coronavirus prevention measures to restrict constitutional freedoms.
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“The new ruDuring the hard lockdown, freedom of assembly was to a large extent de facto suspended, ”she told DW in an interview in August.
“This is a fundamental problem of the coronavirus situation that many constitutional lawyers are discussing because there was a massive political need to act to protect the health of the people,” Starski added. “We are now in a sort of revision phase – are there any violations of constitutional guidelines? Because from a constitutional point of view, the tendency is always to protect freedom. “