Far-Right violence has made the headlines but many of the now weekly demonstrations are peaceful‘It’s time to start living with the virus’: Germans from across divide march against Covid restrictions
It was just possible to make them out in the darkness, hundreds of people moving quietly through the night to gather in an unlit car park in the German city of Potsdam, just outside Berlin.
Watched over by mounted police, they had braved drizzle and temperatures a few degrees above freezing to march against coronavirus rules.
They were among thousands who take part in similar demonstrations in cities across Germany every Monday night.
The protestors call their marches Spaziergänge, or evening strolls, in reference to an old tactic protestors in communist East Germany used to get around a ban on demonstrations: they claimed to be out for an evening walk and to have met by chance.
But the term has mixed connotations: it was also used by the Pegida anti-immigrant movement in 2015.
According to the German government, these are dangerous protests that have been infiltrated by violent far-Right groups.
But on the ground at a recent rally in Potsdam, at least, the atmosphere was more hippy festival than extremist rally.
The clandestine atmosphere quickly evaporated as the protestors produced lights. Some held candles. Others had draped themselves in Christmas fairy lights.
One held a handwritten banner that read: “My body. My choice.” Another had an umbrella adorned with the slogans “Tolerance” and “Solidarity”. Some had even brought along small children in buggies.
“Look around: do you see the far-Right? Any skinheads? These are ordinary people,” one woman said angrily.
To their detractors, the protestors are a mix of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers — and there were plenty of both on the Potsdam march.
But what is clear on the ground in Potsdam is that the marches are also bringing together an eclectic range of people.
Some said they had come out because they were tired of Germany’s pandemic regulations.
While other countries like Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are relaxing restrictions now it is clear the omicron variant causes milder illness and fewer hospitalisations, Germany is sticking to a tough course.
“It’s always like this in Germany. We are stuck with the rules long after everyone else,” said Philipp, a young professional on the Potsdam march. “We have a vaccine that works. It’s time to start living with the virus.”
Another issue that has brought out a lot of people who would not otherwise be on the marches is compulsory vaccination.
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, came out in support of making the jab mandatory last year and has pledged a free vote in parliament.
According to opinion polls 62 per cent of Germans are in favour. But support is falling and the issue is deeply divisive.
Many of the protestors say it is an unacceptable infringement of individual liberty.
A law is yet to be introduced in parliament. Mr Scholz wants a cross-party initiative by backbenchers. His opponents say he won’t put forward government legislation because he fears it could tear his coalition apart.
German pandemic rules already make life distinctly difficult for those who reject the jab.
A requirement to show proof of vaccination to enter pubs, restaurants, gyms and non-essential shops means the unvaccinated are under effective lockdown. There are even lower limits on the number of people they can meet.
The Potsdam march remained peaceful, but that has not always been the case at Covid-related demonstrations elsewhere in Germany.
Other cities have seen police officers kicked and punched, and protestors hurling glass bottles.
Petra Köpping, the regional health minister of Saxony, has needed police help after protestors massed outside her home twice in the last months. On one occasion they were carrying flaming torches.
Locals have reported sudden influxes of far-Right supporters from out of town ahead of the protests, and in some cities there are reports people with immigrant backgrounds have been afraid to go out.
“The far-Right are increasingly abusing the corona demos for their ideology against the state,” Nancy Faeser, the German interior minister, tweeted recently..
“You have to think: do I really want to be on the streets with Nazis? Do I want to demonstrate with Nazis?” said Alexander Ahrens, the mayor of Bautzen in Saxony.
At other times, it is the police who have been accused of being over-zealous. When a woman tried to break police lines with her four-year-old child in the Bavarian town of Schweinfurt, police pepper-sprayed her and the child.
And when medical students massed to defend a hospital from any attempt by protestors to get inside, the police arrested them.
In Potsdam, almost all the protesters followed local rules and wore facemasks.
Yet in a sign of how fraught the debate has become in Germany, many did not want to give their full names when speaking to journalists.
Philipp, the young professional on the Potsdam march, said he feared it could cause trouble with his employer.
“I’m not anti-vaccine,” he said. “I’ve had both corona jabs and the booster. What I’m against is compulsory vaccination. I’m here to march for the principle of freedom of choice.”