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Police break up Berlin protests on tougher COVID rules

November 18, 2020

Large crowds protested in Berlin against the German government's push to enshrine coronavirus restrictions into an existing law. Police intervened as the crowds sought to approach the parliament.

 Demonstrators hold placards in front of police officers during a protest against the government's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, near the Reichstag
Image: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

Several thousand people gathered in central Berlin, banging pans and blowing whistles, to protest Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German government's push to better enforce coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday. 

Some 190 protesters were arrested and nine police officers were hurt in the clashes that ensued, Berlin police said.

"Police calling on demonstrators to leave. Lots of booing. Demonstrators want to access cordoned-off area around parliament where new additions to infection law are being debated [at the moment,]," DW's Nina Haase reported from the scene. 

A tense standoff ensued, as police tried to convince the crowd to disperse amid cries of "We are the people!" and as some protesters started singing the national anthem. 

Police officers in riot gear lined up to stop demonstrators from getting too close to the parliament building, seeking to avoid scenes from August when a similar protest reached the Reichstag parliament building. Back then, during a weekend demo, politicians were not in session. 

Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer defended the police action, saying that the top government bodies were able "to work without restrictions today."

"The democratic constitutional state is alive and the police are its protective shield," he added. The conservative politician thanked the emergency forces "for this very important service in our country."

Read more: Germany: Leipzig coronavirus protest triggers heated debate on policing

MPs harassed

Several lawmakers accused the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) of allowing some demonstrators to enter the parliament building.

One woman held a guest badge meaning that she had been invited in, allegedly by an AfD politician. A video shared on Twitter showed the woman filming and insulting Economy Minister Peter Altmaier.

The secretary-general of the center-left Social Democrats, Lars Klingbeil, called the behavior of the AfD "absolutely undemocratic," saying their aim was to "destabilize our democratic system."

The incident is being investigated by the parliamentary advisory committee.

What do the new rules entail?

Germany's lower and upper houses passed changes to Germany's existing infection protection law, catering more specifically to the coronavirus pandemic. The new measures will enable the government to impose restrictions on social contact, rules on mask-wearing, drinking alcohol in public, shutting shops and stopping sports events. 

Advocates say the bill provides a more solid legal basis for various anti-pandemic measures. It also covers rules on school and daycare closures, and restrictions on educational institutions.  

Dubbed the Infection Protection Act, the law passed in the German Bundestag with a 415 majority of lawmakers backing it, 236 voting against it and eight abstaining. It then went to the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, where it passed with a clear majority. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier then signed it into law.

Some 17,561 new coronavirus cases were reported in Germany on Wednesday, bringing its total number of infections to 833,307.  

The latest infection figures are a slight drop from the same day last week, when Germany reported 18,487 cases, and daily case numbers have plateaued somewhat in recent days. But infection levels are still far higher than the government deems acceptable in most of the country, and more than four times the government's own limit in Berlin itself. 

Read more: Does coronavirus mass testing make sense?

Hitler's enabling act invoked by skeptics

Demonstrators who took part in the Wednesday protests did not actively wear masks or socially distance. But one participant wore a face mask with the words "Merkel-Muzzle," while others held banners with slogans such as "For Enlightenment. Peace and Freedom." 

Critics say the coronavirus laws would give the government too much power and endanger citizens' civil rights.

The right-wing populist AfD has even gone as far comparing the proposed measures with the Enabling Act of 1933 that paved the way towards Adolf Hitler's dictatorship, particularly in its social media postings. A senior AfD member, Bernd Baumann, drew the same parallel in the Bundestag.

World War II: How Germany deals with its past

Social Democrat MP Helge Lindh told DW that the right to protest must be respected, but a comparison to the Nazi regime was too far.

"It must be possible to demonstrate and to criticize," Lindh told DW by telephone. "But tolerance can not go so far to accept that the infection protection law is being equated with the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship, with the Enabling Act of 1933."

"This is blindness towards the lessons of history," said Lindh. "And it is a complete trivialization of National Socialism."

Andreas Wirsching, director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, told DW the analogy was "complete nonsense."

Read more: Can Germany's infection protection law be compared to the Nazis' 'Enabling Act?' 

A bid by the AfD, Germany's largest opposition party in the current parliament, to interrupt proceedings in the Bundestag failed early Wednesday.

ab, jcg,aw/rs (dpa, AFP) 

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