Police said 15,000 protestors marched to the headquarters of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD) in central Berlin in a noisy but peaceful protest against the biggest overhaul of Germany's generous welfare system in decades. In demonstrations in several eastern cities, organizers said 15,000 people marched in Magdeburg and another 25,000 in Leipzig, while in Halle, 5,000 took to the streets.
The Monday demonstrations have a tradition in the former communist East. Leipzig’s Nikolai church was in 1989, as it is now, the starting point and symbol for a series of demonstrations that eventually led to the downfall of Erich Honeckers communist regime.
Such was the outrage against Schröder’s planned reforms that the Social Democrat leader ordered ministers back from vacation for an emergency cabinet session to water down the law, dubbed "Hartz IV" after Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz, who headed a special commission to revamp the jobs market.
"We are the people"
On Monday the demonstrators were back on the street, supported by anti-globalization protesters in more than 90 cities. Protesters waved banners which read: "We are the people -- not slaves to Hartz IV."
By giving in to protests early the government might be blamed for fuelling more widespread demonstrations against the bill, which slashes payments for the long-term unemployed and introduces means testing for the first time in Germany.
"The protests will continue ... we want to get rid of Hartz IV," Andreas Erholdt, organizer of the first demonstrations in the eastern German city of Magdeburg, told DW-RADIO.
"We don’t want to get rid of any politicians or political parties but we’ve got no alternative. We say Hartz IV can come, but only if that means more work for us."
Economics and Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement, a staunch supporter of reform, has strongly criticized the demonstrations and insisted they would not influence the government. The comparison to the Leipzig Monday demonstrations in 1989, he said, was an insult to those who demonstrated against the injustices of the former German Democratic Republic.
Little action in the West
Meanwhile in the West they are singing to a different tune. In contrast to the former communist East only a few hundred demonstrators joined the marches in western Germany.
But with unemployment running at more than 18 percent in some cities in the Ruhr Valley, the West's former industrial heartland, in cities like Gelsenkirchen, Duisburg and Dortmund, the people there are experiencing the same kind of hardship as those in the East. The only difference is that the demonstrations in the West are being organized by anti-globalization activists, the successor party to the East German communists, the PDS, and not by those directly affected by the welfare cuts -- the unemployed.