BERLIN, Germany — Loudly chanting their opposition to face masks and vaccines, thousands of people gathered in Berlin on Saturday to protest against coronavirus restrictions before being dispersed by police.
Police put turnout at around 20,000 — well below the 500,000 organizers had announced as they urged a “day of freedom” from months of virus curbs. The rally, which was supported by neo-Nazi groups and other critics of Germany’s virus police, took its name from a 1935 documentary by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl on a party conference by Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party
Despite Germany’s comparatively low toll, authorities are concerned at a rise in infections over recent weeks and politicians took to social media to criticize the rally as irresponsible.
“We are the second wave,” shouted the crowd, a mixture of hard left and right and conspiracy theorists as they converged on the Brandenburg Gate, demanding “resistance” and dubbing the pandemic “the biggest conspiracy theory”.
Few protesters wore a mask or respected the 1.5-meter (five-foot) social distancing requirement, an AFP journalist reported, despite police repeatedly calling on them via megaphone to do so.
After several warnings, Berlin police ordered demonstrators to leave the area at the end of the afternoon.
Police tweeted they had launched legal proceedings against organizers for not respecting virus hygiene rules.
A handful of people held a counter demonstration. Dubbing themselves “grandmothers against the extreme right”, they hurled insults against “Nazi” protesters.
Several politicians condemned the demonstration as Germany seeks to minimize transmission of a virus which had claimed just over 9,000 deaths as of Saturday — a far lower toll than its neighbors.
Saskia Esken of the Social Democrats, a junior coalition partner in Angela Merkel’s government, blasted the demonstrators as “Covidiots”.
In a tweet Esken railed: “No distancing, no mask. They are not only putting at risk our health but also our success against the pandemic as well as economic recovery, education and society. Irresponsible!”
Health Minister Jens Spahn agreed: “Yes, demonstrations should also be possible in times of coronavirus, but not like this. Distance, hygiene rules and masks serve to protect us all, so we treat each other with respect.”
Jan Redmann, regional head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Brandenburg, also took aim at the marchers.
“A thousand new infections a day still and in Berlin there are protests against anti-virus measures? We can no longer allow ourselves these dangerous absurdities,” Redmann complained.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who hails from Merkel’s traditional right ally the Christian Social Union, showed a measure of understanding, however.
“Of course there are always different opinions regarding infringements of basic rights and restrictions of freedom — first, it’s normal and, in my view, it’s not the majority,” Seehofer told Bavarian daily Passauer Neue Presse.
Saturday saw 955 new infections — a level which the country had not seen since May 9, according to the Robert Koch health institute.
But marchers insist the risk of catching the virus is being much overblown.
“It’s pure scare tactics. I don’t see any danger with the virus,” one marcher, Iris Bitzenmeier, told AFP.
“I don’t know any other sick people. I knew many in March — skiers, holidaymakers. Something was really afoot in February — but now there are no longer any sick people,” she insisted.
Another demonstrator, Anna-Maria Wetzel, who had come to the capital after attending similar rallies in Baden-Wuerttemberg in the southwest, shared that view.
“People who don’t inform themselves — unlike ourselves — remain ignorant and believe what the government tells them. They get caught up in the fear the government puts in our heads — and that fear weakens the immune system,” she said.