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Thousands in Berlin attend 'naive' Ukraine peace rally

February 25, 2023

Organizers of the Rebellion for Peace protest have been criticized for playing into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands. Far-right groups told their supporters to show up, prompting a strong police presence.

Demonstrators in Berlin
The rally, which attracted thousands of participants, has drawn criticism from top government officialsImage: Monika Skolimowska/dpa/picture alliance

Police in Berlin said on Saturday afternoon that roughly 13,000 people had attended an event in central Berlin organized by a controversial socialist politician, Sahra Wagenknecht, and a prominent writer and feminist, Alice Schwarzer.

The Rebellion for Peace rally organizers have received fierce criticism from many politicians, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who say the demonstration could weaken public support for Ukraine's fight against Russia.

Organizers had reckoned with a likely turnout in the region of 10,000 but police estimates exceeded these figures despite freezing temperatures and sleet. 

Renegade Left Party politician Wagenknecht, who has faced criticism from party colleagues for her pro-Russian stances, and Schwarzer both hailed the large turnout and repeatedly spoke of a "citizens' movement" and a "peace movement."

Some of the demonstrators carried more innocuous banners or slogans like "make peace without weapons," but others were more contentious. One seemed to liken Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sending weapons to Ukraine's government now with past dictators like Adolf Hitler, Kaiser Wilhelm and Napoleon invading the territory in history. 

What is the Rebellion for Peace rally?

Saturday's rally follows a protest in solidarity with Ukraine, attended by some 10,000 people in Berlin on Friday night — the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion.

Police had earlier voiced concerns that the event, at the Brandenburg Gate, could be buttressed by far-right groups for their own ends.

Two weeks ago, Wagenknecht and Schwarzer published a "Manifesto for Peace," which has been backed by the signatures of more than 620,000 people, according to the change.org website.

Women's rights activist and publisher Alice Schwarzer speaks during a protest against the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and in support of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Berlin, Germany February 25, 2023.
Former socialist Left Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht (r) and publicist Alice Schwarzer (l) have been criticized for publishing their peace manifestoImage: Christian Mang/REUTERS

The pair say they want to see "negotiations and compromises" on both sides of the Ukraine conflict to prevent it from escalating into possible nuclear war.

Germany marks Ukraine anniversary with rallies and protests

What was said at the rally? 

The crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate on Saturday afternoon to hear from a series of podium speakers known for some highly unconventional views in recent years.

Wagenknecht told the crowd their manifesto had prompted a "genuine hysteria" in Germany refuting it. 

She often referred to "hysterical bellowing" in "parts of politics and the media" in Germany, saying "they're really afraid of us. They're afraid of a new peace movement."

"It's about ending the terrible suffering and the dying of Ukrainians. It's about making Russia an offer of negotiations, instead of an endless war of attrition being supplied with ever more weapons," Wagenknecht said.

Schwarzer singles out Baerbock

Schwarzer, meanwhile, said it was a "real shame" that there wasn't space near the stage for everybody who had attended.

"The word pacifist has been turned into an insult — and from the left, just imagine that," Schwarzer said.

She said it was "truly criminal to convince Ukraine it can defeat Russia," arguing that ultimately it could not.

Schwarzer also paused when a mention of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock prompted boos from the crowd, and said it seemed you could "bank" on dropping her name. 

"A foreign minister is a diplomat by profession, and indeed the first diplomat of the country. But what does this foreign minster do? She seemingly doesn't even hold talks with Russia in this extremely dangerous situation, although one can only hope she might be doing that in secret, behind closed doors — but it doesn't look that way," Schwarzer said.

She said talks with Russia would prove the only way to end the war, even if Baerbock disputed this, so "why not start the talks now?"

Former Bundeswehr officer and contentious economist 

The first speaker to take the podium, professor and economist in the US, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, joined via video link and spoke English.

In what he described as "the truth" about the war, Sachs said that the US had blocked peace talks early in the conflict, that the "overwhelming evidence" pointed to the US blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines, and that Russia had invaded Ukraine as a result of a lack of guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO.

At the end of his address, he said: "both sides need to back off."

Sachs has previously speculated that COVID might have come out of a US biotech lab. Such claims have been published in the past by Chinese state media.

And a former German military officer turned consultant, Erich Vad, picked up on criticism of the event as "naive," arguing that this better described NATO's posture. Like most speakers, he said the conflict had become "a war of attrition."

"What's clear is that for months we've been delivering weapons but that we can't think of very much else," Vad said. He said military aid needed to be tied to political targets and argued the latter were not easy to recognize in the current conflict. 

What's the reaction to the 'peace' movement?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told ZDF this week that he did not share the conviction in the peace manifesto.

"The Russian president currently accepts only one form of negotiation, namely unconditional surrender, allowing him to push through all of his goals," he said.

Deputy Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck insisted "everyone who is sane wants peace."

However, the Greens Party politician told ARD's Brennpunkt TV show that the rally organizers were trying to sell something as peace that an "imperialist dictator" was imposing on Europe, which would be an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade other countries.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the socialist Left Party have also refused to participate.

Russian writer Viktor Yerofeyev this week labeled the manifesto "not only naive but stupid."

"You have to understand something: The Putin regime is not far from Hitler's regime. And let's imagine that in the middle of the Second World War, someone had someone proposed peace with Hitler," he told Tagesspiegel newspaper.

mm, msh/rc (AFP, dpa, KNA)

Editor's note: Comments from Jeffrey Sachs in this article have been expanded upon to reflect him having urged "both sides" to back off during his speech.

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