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Torchlit rally against COVID measures prompts outcry

December 6, 2021

Lawmakers have condemned torch-bearing protesters who gathered outside the home of Saxony's health minister. A far-right group protesting the latest COVID-19 measures has claimed responsibility for the rally.

Grimma market square
The picturesque city center of Grimma became the scene of a torchlit anti-COVID protestImage: picture-alliance/DUMONT Bildarchiv

It was already dark when around 30 people gathered in front of the private home of Petra Köpping, health minister of the German state of Saxony, in the small town of Grimma on Friday evening. Some carried flaming torches in their hands, others large placards.

The Free Saxons, classified as a right-wing extremist group in Germany, has taken credit for the action on Twitter. Shouting loudly and blowing whistles, they staged a protest against Germany's measures to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and against compulsory vaccination, which the country may introduce in the year to come.

Police said an investigation is underway to determine whether the spectacle violated regulations regarding assembly during the pandemic's fourth wave, or other laws.

"When our officers arrived, people sought to leave," the Saxony police said later that night. "Fifteen vehicles were identified, the identities of 25 people were established, and misdemeanor charges were filed."

The public prosecutor's office and state security are also investigating.

Petra Köpping sits in front of a camera at a press conference
Saxony Health Minister Petra Köpping called attention to the abuse others have suffered for supporting vaccinesImage: Matthias Rietschel/dpa/picture alliance

Organized intimidation attempts

The demonstrators organized the protest on the messenger service Telegram, and were quick to play down the act of intimidation as a "citizens' visit" and a "stroll." But the Saxon state government labeled it "trespassing with the aim of intimidating responsible people."

Petra Köpping — who is a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the party that will likely head Germany's new coalition government — stated that factual criticism of coronavirus restrictions is completely legitimate. 

"I am always ready to talk. But torch-lit protests in front of my house are disgusting and indecent," she said.

The incident is not an isolated case, Köpping added. She described a trend of "organized intimidation attempts by right-wing extremists and conspiracy believers" as seen outside doctors' offices, vaccination centers and hospitals

Threats are also being made against mayors and others involved in legislation around the coronavirus pandemic, she clarified.

Nighttime anti-COVID-19 protest
Protests against COVID-19 measures like this one in Saxony-Anhalt's Halberstadt have become a common occurrence in eastern German townsImage: Matthias Bein/dpa/picture alliance

Going too far

Nationwide, the torch-lit protest has been met with outrage.

"These are methods invented by the SA," said the state of Baden-Württemberg's Green Premier Winfried Kretschmann, referring to the Nazi party's paramilitary branch, also known as the Brownshirts.

SPD co-leader Norbert Walter-Borjans also called what happened in front of Köpping's house "fascist-esque." He said it had nothing to do with "concern and desire for freedom."

And SPD Secretary-General Lars Klingbeil called for consequences. Politicians should not be threatened, he said, and "right-wing conspirators and swindlers" should not gather with torches in front of a minister's house. This crosses the line of freedom of expression.

"This needs a response with the full force of the rule of law," he said. "And it calls for a response from all that is decent in this country."

Clear radicalization

This is also the view of Saxony's deputy premier Wolfram Günther of the Green Party, who spoke of a further breach of taboos.

"They were encouraged by the fact that COVID-19 deniers can all too often move unhindered through Saxony's cities," he said. "COVID-19 deniers and the right-wing extremists are becoming more brazen and radicalized," Günther added. He expects dealing with this issue to become a clear priority for the Interior Ministry.

People who are against vaccination, COVID-19 deniers, conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists have become increasingly radicalized in Germany.

In certain Telegram group chats, people are mobilizing ever more aggressively in calling for protest actions.

Telegram – the alternative to WhatsApp

Are 'strolls' protests?

Saxony, which lies in former East Germany near the borders of Poland and the Czech Republic, has among the highest infection rates — and lowest vaccination rates — in Germany. Public rallies are limited by law to a maximum of 10 people.

But for weeks now, groups of people have been marching through Saxon cities on what they describe as "strolls." So far, the police have only rarely intervened. In the city of Chemnitz, police confirmed that strolls — if the minimum social distance is observed — do not count as demonstrations.

Free Saxons was founded as a party in February 2021 to "give an organizational structure to a wide variety of pro-freedom and patriotic initiatives," according to its website.

The group is officially classified as far-right, and some of its founders have been active in the far-right scene for some time.

COVID cases reach record highs in Saxony

Calls for revolution

More than 91,000 users are currently registered on the Telegram channel "Free Saxons" (the population in the state is around 4 million). In this group, the rising infection numbers and the resulting tightening of measures to fight the pandemic are hot topics.

There is discussion of revolution. Police and military are called upon to join the COVID-19 protests. Police officers who enforce the restrictions are referred to in the group as "CoStaPo," short for "Corona State Police," a play on "Gestapo," the term for the Nazi Secret State Police.

For some time, the Free Saxons have been campaigning against Saxony's Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer of center-right Christian Democrats, who is referred to in the Telegram channel as a despot or dictator.

Under a post accusing him of preparing to announce a tough lockdown, several users made death threats.

"Arrest Kretschmer immediately! Reinstate the death penalty in Germany!" one writes, while another comment contains only the word "gallows."

Neo-Nazi demonstration in Chemnitz in August 2018
Saxony is a hotbed of far-right activity in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

Regulation of messenger services

In a recent TV talk show, Michael Kretschmer spoke of malicious propaganda, hatred and incitement — and called on Marco Buschmann, the likely future federal justice minister of the neoliberal Free Democrats, to take legal action against it.

"We have to do something about it, such things may not come to pass," he said.

But Buschmann rebuffed the call, saying there were more urgent things to do at present, most importantly further implementation of Germany's vaccination campaign.

But other politicians are also calling for regulation. From February 2022, social network providers will have to report illegal content to the German Federal Criminal Police Office — but messenger services are exempt.

This is a loophole that may not remain in place, interior ministers of the federal and state governments demanded last week. 

This story was originally written in German and is an expansion of an article that was first published December 4.

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