German police used water cannon to disperse thousands of anti-lockdown protesters who had gathered in central Berlin on Wednesday to vent their fury against a new coronavirus law they say violates their civil rights.
Police stopped the protest after marchers failed to observe social distancing rules or wear masks, although a large number refused to leave. Nearly 200 people were arrested after police were pelted with bottles, stones and firecrackers. Nine officers were injured.
Demonstrators whistled, banged pots and pans and waved rainbow banners, and chanted “Peace! Freedom! No dictatorship!” and “We are the People!” As in previous protests, the march was a mix of anti-vaxxers, Trump supporters, mystics and libertarians united only by their fierce opposition to the coronavirus shutdown.
Their anger was directed at a reform of Germany’s “law on the protection from infection” which seeks to put lockdowns on a more secure legal footing. It also sets out in detail which protective measures the government can impose during a pandemic, including banning sports events and religious services, closing restaurants, prohibiting the sale of alcohol and obliging people to wear masks.
Up until now, such measures have been imposed by government decree which were in some instances vulnerable to legal challenge because they were never enshrined in law. Under the previous version of the infection law, the authorities could adopt “necessary protective measures”, but these were not spelt out. On Wednesday, 415 MPs voted in support of the reform of the law and 236 against.
Protesters claim the law infringes their civil rights. One held a sign saying; “Stop the putsch against our constitution!” Another placard said: “Better to die standing than to live on our knees”.
The rightwing populist party, Alternative for Germany, has compared the law to Adolf Hitler’s Enabling Act, the 1933 law that allowed the Nazis to impose their dictatorship on Germany. Carsten Schneider, the Social Democrat whip, said that by making the comparison, the AfD was “not only discrediting our democracy but also disparaging it”.
AfD MPs interrupted the Bundestag session by displaying posters showing the constitution decorated with funerary black ribbons.
The protest on Wednesday is the latest in a series of noisy demonstrations across Germany against the government’s anti-coronavirus policies, many of which have been marred by violence and violations of social distancing rules.
Concerns have been growing that the anti-lockdown movement has been infiltrated by the far-right, a development that was highlighted in August when hundreds of extremists waving nationalist flags broke through police cordons to storm the Reichstag building, the home of the German parliament.
This time protesters were barred from approaching the Reichstag and gathered instead close to the nearby Brandenburg Gate and on the Marschallbrücke, a bridge across the River Spree that overlooks the Bundestag.
A heavy police barrier prevented them reaching parliament and the Berlin headquarters of ARD and ZDF, the German public broadcasters, which have long been accused by coronavirus-deniers of spreading lies about the pandemic. One protester held a sign saying: “the media are the virus”.