Updated: Mar 11, 2021
As a second wave of anti-lockdown protests swept across Germany this weekend, Aaron Werner investigated the reaction of the government, how the demonstrations have been reported in German media and delved deeper into who is protesting and why.
This weekend marks the second week of widespread anti-coronavirus-restrictions protests within Germany. Thousands of people have demonstrated in cities throughout the country, most notably Stuttgart, Berlin, and Munich.
An estimated 10,000 people have participated in the Protests in Stuttgart.
These protests were sparked by concerns of breaches of fundamental constitutional rights. Protesters point at the low number of deaths in Germany and argue that the restrictions are no longer justified.
Some German states have recently lifted restrictions on public life. Shops of all sizes were allowed to re-open on Friday and five states are beginning to re-open bars. Restrictions could be re-introduced if deemed necessary.
Over the past weeks, a movement against coronavirus restrictions has seen a significant rise in popularity and received particular attention in the media. The demonstrations see people from different political backgrounds come together, united by a clear message: the lockdown restrictions should end, and the government should be put under more scrutiny. Demonstrators have cited the German constitution to claim that the government is infringing on their rights, in particular the restrictions on personal contact with others.
State Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet expressed understanding with the protestors: “it is legitimate and expected that people are protesting. This concerns the most serious restrictions of fundamental rights since the beginning of the German Federal Republic.”
SPD Leader Norbert Walter-Borjans, however, described the protests as “unsettling”. He added: “The participants are opportunistic and sense the chance to weaken our democracy and destabilize our society.”
There has been widespread police action against the protests. In Berlin, over 1000 police officers were deployed against the protestors, and many arrests were made with people forcibly carried away.
Media portrayal and public opinion
The German media has been largely scathing of the protectors, often portraying activists as conspiracy theorists or extremists. Indeed, at rallies and gatherings, people holding anti-vaccination or anti 5G signs are clearly visible and photos of these signs have been used in articles about the protests. A Munich-based media publication tweeted an image of the protest with the caption: “Are there no legal regulations for quarantine measure protestors, cross-fronters, conspirators and other corona-weary people?”, and called upon the police to take action against the protestors. Welt.de editor Johaness Boie published an article making the case that conspiracy theorists are far from harmless, and that there is a worrying increase in the prevalence of such people.
The image of the protests has been further complicated by their popularity with far-right groups. CSU Leader Markus Söder urged citizens who take part in these protests to distance themselves from these extremist groups: “Of course, it is acceptable that there is critique, and the government should be held accountable for their restrictions and measures.” Söder did, however, stress that the “government must take a stance against conspiracy-theorists” and also drew comparisons with the Pegida rallies, which were prominent in 2015 and 2016, and that it was important to prevent such incidents from re-occurring.
The majority of Germans do not support the protestors, according to a survey published by Der Spiegel. However, the divide is evident in the comments sections of articles discussing the protests, with proponents of both sides engaging in heated arguments; one side believing they are fighting for important freedoms and the other side seeing the protestors as reckless and irresponsible.
Demographic of protesters
The demonstrations are made up of people from diverse backgrounds. LGBT+ pride flags were also seen waved in the protests, and many women and minority groups have seen strong representation in the protests, something that contradicts the narrative that they are exclusively far-right in nature.
A number of protest leaders have also made efforts to distance themselves from the conspiracy crowd and extremists, going as far as to make private membership groups screen members, ensuring the people attending rallies will be there to create a democratic debate about the government's measures, rather than to talk about unrelated conspiracies or political issues.
Reasons for the protests
Societal and economic impacts
Protestors have been quick to cite newly published statistics, which argue that the virus is a) much less deadly than previously thought and b) raise concerns about the long-term societal and economic impacts of the lockdown.
One study was recently published that has concluded that the risk of under 65 year-olds dying from coronavirus is approximate to the risk of dying in a car crash on a daily car ride to work. Another study, by BMJ, concluded that up to 80% of test-positive people remain symptom-free.
Concerns have also been raised about the societal impacts of the restrictions outweighing the losses caused by the virus. For instance, the economic impacts of many people losing their jobs, the potential for increased anxiety levels and a spike in domestic violence and depression. An extensive list of evidence-backed arguments that coronavirus may not be as severe as previously thought is available here.
Germany has fared favourably compared to other countries in dealing with the pandemic. According to official government released statistics, the weekly overall death rate is currently only slightly higher than in previous years. This fact plays a major factor in the pushback against quarantine measures and restrictions on daily life.
Whether we see a significant resurgence of infections after the lifting of restrictions remains to be seen, but Chancellor Merkel has stressed that restrictions and quarantines could be reinstated if deemed necessary on a case-by-case basis for each of Germany’s states.
Liberty and the 'Grundgesetz'
There are also concerns about the government’s transparency – that is, whether fundamental rights and liberties will be re-instated after the pandemic is over. At the demonstrations, protestors can primarily be heard chanting “Grundgesetz”, meaning “constitution”. In one incident, a woman appears to have been told to go home and threatened with arrest simply for holding a copy of the German constitution, as it was deemed by police to be a political statement. Such incidents fuel the growing concern about infringements of rights within the country.
The German Grundgesetz doesn’t explicitly state anything regarding lockdown. It does, however, mention that in times of crisis, states can impose restrictions that are deemed necessary including orders to stay at home, if all other options have been exhausted. The high death rate spike was used as a justification for many states to impose harsh lockdown restrictions.
One of the particular rights that is being suppressed by the lockdowns, and often cited by the protesters, is Artikel 8. This regards the “freedom to gather without requiring permission”. Protestors argue that the current restrictions are no longer justified as the coronavirus is seemingly under control.
Professor of Sociology at the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität in Munich, Stephan Lessenich, said in an interview:
“A tightly controlled police-enforced sphere cannot be tolerated in the long term. I think many people are starting to experience the negative sides of police controls for the first time… they are being told they can no longer do things which they themselves perceive as not being dangerous.”
Moreover, he mentioned the psychological impact of the current restrictions and how it leads to a feeling of distance and coldness within society, as people give each other wide berths on the street. He also brought up concerns that police controls may be “discriminatory”, only targeting certain individuals, such as targeting homeless people gathering together drinking on a park bench, rather than a sun-bathing couple. And, to a greater extent, the issue of different states having different restrictions creates the impression that these measures are of an arbitrary nature.
It appears that as long as restrictions on life are in place, the protests will continue to grow over time. And as the protests continue, so too will divisions across German society.