Berlin police ordered a protest by people opposed to Germany’s pandemic restrictions to disband Saturday after participants refused to observe social distancing rules.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered at the German capital’s iconic Brandenburg Gate in the morning before streaming down the Unter den Linden boulevard in a show of defiance against Germany’s coronavirus prevention measures.
Protesters with a wide range of grievances carried banners proclaiming their opposition to vaccinations, face masks and the German government in general. Some waved American, Russian or German Reich flags, while others had T-shirts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. Several wore clothing with white nationalist slogans and neo-Nazi insignia, but most participants interviewed denied having far-right views.
Uwe Bachmann, 57, said he had come from southwestern Germany to protest for free speech and his right not to wear a mask.
“I respect those who are afraid of the virus,” said Bachmann, who was wearing a costume and a wig that tried to evoke stereotypical Native American attire. He suggested, without elaborating, that “something else” was behind the pandemic.
Another protester said he wanted Germany’s current political system abolished and a return to the constitution of 1871 on the grounds that the country’s postwar political system was illegal. Providing only his first name, Karl-Heinz, he had traveled with his sister from their home near the Dutch border to attend the protest and believed that the coronavirus cases being reported in Germany now were “false positives.”
Germany has seen an upswing in new cases in recent weeks. The country’s disease control agency on Saturday reported almost 1,500 new infections in the past day. Germany has been praised for the way it has handled the pandemic, and the country’s death toll of some 9,300 is less than one-fourth the number who have died of COVID-19 in Britain, whose population is three-quarters the size of Germany’s.
Berlin’s regional government had sought to ban the protest, citing anti-mask rallies earlier this month where rules intended to stop the virus’ spread weren’t observed. Protest organizers successfully appealed the decision Friday, though a court ordered them to ensure social distancing. But when no enforcement materialized, Berlin police to dissolve the march.
Along the route were several smaller counterprotests where participants shouted slogans against the far-right’s presence at the anti-mask rally.
“I think there’s a line and if someone takes to the streets with neo-Nazis then they’ve crossed that line,” said Verena, a counterprotester from Berlin who declined to give her full last name.
In Germany, masks have to be worn on public transport, stores and some public buildings such as libraries and schools.
Meanwhile, a few hundred people rallied Saturday in eastern Paris to protest new mask rules and other restrictions prompted by rising virus infections around France. Police watched closely but did not intervene.
The protesters had no central organizer but included people in yellow vests who formerly protested economic injustice, others promoting conspiracy theories and those who call themselves “Anti-Masks.”
France has not seen an anti-mask movement like some other countries. Masks are now required everywhere in public in Paris as authorities warn that infections are growing exponentially just as schools are set to resume classes.
France registered more than 7,000 new virus infections in a single day Friday, up from several hundred a day in May and June, in part thanks to ramped-up testing. It has the third-highest coronavirus death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy, with over 30,600 dead.