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Germany braces for anti-lockdown protests

November 6, 2020

The eastern city of Leipzig is preparing for a major demonstration against the new government measures to combat COVID-19. Police face the challenge of maintaining order while respecting the right to protest.

Protesters at a gathering of conspiracy theorists in Germany
Image: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Germany's demonstrations against anti-coronavirus public health measures have now become part of the country's political furniture, but when they started in June, many were shocked to see tens of thousands of people regularly gathering around the country as a movement known as "Querdenker" ("lateral thinkers") built momentum.

The movement, which now has branches in more than 50 towns across the country, claims on its homepage that its main aim is to support the fundamental rights enshrined in the German Basic Law — Germany's Constitution —  particularly the freedoms of opinion, expression, and assembly.

But it has also become more aggressive. "We're seeing an ever more heated atmosphere at the corona protests," Martin Pallgen, spokesman for Berlin's Interior Ministry told DPA news agency. "There is especially a stronger, more verbally aggressive attitude among corona-deniers towards police officers, counter-demonstrators, and representatives of the media."

Read more: One-third of people in Germany believe in conspiracy theories

On the streets, the Querdenker movement (and associated demos by smaller groups) has been marked by an unlikely alliance of far-right and far-left fringes, as well as a handful of conspiracy theorists. Often many of the protesters appeared wildly misinformed about the virus and mistrustful of government measures being implemented.

The movement's commitment to Germany's democratic order was also questioned in late August when a few demonstrators at one of the biggest Querdenker demos in Berlin — attended by an estimated 38,000 people — rushed the steps of Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag. 

Despite some brief media hysteria following that incident, the movement has since devolved into regular smaller-scale demonstrations around the country — sometimes organized by allied groups, rather than the Querdenker themselves.

Another difference, of course, is that Germany is now just a few days into a new partial lockdown, with the closure of restaurants and hotels and much stricter rules on gatherings of people.

Read more: Coronavirus skeptics and tactics from the Middle Ages

Opposition to such measures has become more widespread in the population since Germany's first lockdown in March and April: Among many people, the initial fear of being infected with COVID-19 has given way to concerns about the economic consequences of an extended lockdown.

Protecting freedoms, pandemic or no

These new circumstances are likely to encourage the Querdenker movement, whose next major demo will come on Saturday, in the eastern city of Leipzig, where police expect 20,000 people to rally in more than a dozen demonstrations and counter-demonstrations around the city. 

"We're preparing for a very challenging weekend," a Leipzig police spokesman told DW, before adding that reinforcements have already been called in from neighboring states and the federal police.

The new regulations allow demonstrations, but only under certain circumstances: All participants must wear masks, and the gatherings must stay in the same place — marches are banned. 

Understanding conspiracy theories

The Leipzig police, meanwhile, have been careful to underline that freedom of assembly remains an important constitutional right, and they will only intervene as a last resort — in other words when public safety is threatened. 

"A complete limitation of the freedom of assembly is a very sensitive issue in Germany, just based on history," a police spokesman told DW, referring to the authoritarianism that took hold of the country under Nazi rule in the 1930s and in East Germany after the war.

"The decision to break up a demo is always taken by the municipal public order office, not the police," he added. "It makes the decisions, and it assesses the concrete conditions on the ground. If all the conditions for breaking up a protest are met, then they can make that decision, and then the police have to act."

So far, the police said, there have been no indications that violence could break out in Leipzig, though they are aware that some radical groups intend to show up.

Read more: Berlin coronavirus denier protests trigger debate on basic rights 

A complex problem

Even in the face of a global pandemic and public health concerns, it is very difficult for the authorities to ban protests outright. In the past few months, some attempts to do so in Berlin have been thwarted by the courts, who have a duty to guard against constitutional violations. German courts often tend to side with people's rights in such cases.

Paulina Starski, a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, said there is certainly a danger that authorities could use coronavirus prevention measures to curtail constitutional freedoms.

Read more: Can German courts overturn all lockdown measures?

"The new rules during the hard lockdown led to a situation where the freedom of assembly was to a large extent de facto suspended," she told DW in an interview in August. But subsequent court decisions allowing demonstrations have redressed that balance since then.

"It's a basic 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 population," Starski added. "Now we're in a kind of review phase — are any constitutional guidelines being violated? Because from a constitutional point of view, the tendency is always towards protecting freedom."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight