From anger over lockdown measures to a purported vaccine plan by Bill Gates, the growing wave of demonstrations in Germany by conspiracy theorists, extremists and anti-vaxxers against coronavirus measures has alarmed even Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Initially starting as a handful of protesters decrying tough restrictions on public life to halt transmission of the coronavirus, the protests have grown in recent weeks to gatherings of thousands in major German cities.
Meanwhile, German police said on Saturday that they have launched an investigation after a tombstone was placed in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electoral offices as part of the protests.
Red roses and candles were placed around the mock tombstone, which bore the inscription: ‘Freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, movement and assemblies – Democracy 1990-2020’, according to the police.
Saturday marks the restart of Germany’s premier football league – the Bundesliga – becoming the first top-flight league in Europe to restart since the coronavirus put a halt to most professional sports on the continent. Germany’s second football division will also restart.
All games will be played behind closed doors, and teams have been instructed to follow strict measures to ensure the safety of players and team staff, or risk the season being suspended again.
Right-wing protesters gather at Brandenburg Gate on Saturday. A demonstrator holds up holds a copy of Germany’s Basic Law, its constitution
Police in Alexanderplatz set up barriers in anticipation of protesters on Saturday who are expected to gather and demonstrate against Germany’s coronavirus lockdown measures
The growing wave of demonstrations in Germany by conspiracy theorists has alarmed even Chancellor Angela Merkel, pictured on Thursday to cast a vote in a special voting session
Thousands of protesters are set to mass again in Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin on Saturday, with police out in force after some protests turned violent.
The growing demonstrations have sparked comparison to the anti-Muslim Pegida marches at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015, raising questions over whether the strong support that Merkel is currently enjoying due to her handling of the virus crisis could evaporate.
Just like it won popularity by fanning anti-migrant sentiment five years back, the far-right AfD party is now openly encouraging protesters and re-positioning itself as an anti-lockdown party.
A recent poll commissioned by the Spiegel news magazine found that almost one in four Germans surveyed voiced ‘understanding’ for the demonstrations.
The development has shocked the political establishment, with Merkel reportedly telling top brass of her centre-right CDU party of the ‘worrying’ trend that may bear some hallmarks of Russia’s disinformation campaigns.
After initiating a national lock down on March 22, Germany was able to begin lifting measures a little over a month later, although some measures remain in place, such as the wearing of face masks and limits on how many people can gather.
Since some measures were relaxed on May 6, a spike in cases in Germany has been recorded, with the country’s R number – the rate at which the virus spreads from each person – increasing to 1.1 earlier in the week.
Germany has now seen 173,772 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and a relatively low 7,881 deaths compared to other countries in Europe.
After seeing a record low number of new reported cases on Monday, seeing just 357, cases have spiked
German police said Saturday they have launched an investigation after a mock tombstone was found in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electoral offices, apparently to decry measures aimed at halting transmission of the coronavirus.
The protest action came as thousands of demonstrators prepared to gather in major German cities including Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin against the stay-at-home measures.
Red roses and candles were placed around the mock tombstone, which bore the inscription: ‘Freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, movement and assemblies – Democracy 1990-2020’, police said in a statement.
A face mask was also tied to the stone placed at Merkel party’s CDU office in her electoral district of Stralsund, by the Baltic coast, according to police.
General secretary of Merkel’s CDU party, Paul Ziemiak, called it ‘an action of poor taste’.
Germany’s Bundesliga restarts on Saturday, but its famous atmosphere, owing to lively crowds, will be missing as all games are set to be played behind closed doors
Meanwhile, Saturday marks the restart of the Bundesliga, Germany’s top-flight football league, becoming Europe’s first major top-flight league to restart after the coronavirus put a halt the the majority of professional sports.
However, it will not be the same as before the crisis, with the matches being played in-front of empty stands.
One Germany politician has warned that if clubs fail to adhere to safety protocols, the season could once again be suspended.
Speaking to Germany newspaper Bild, Bavaria state premier Markus Soder said: ‘If health experts have made those suggestions, if the league with great expense and smart ideas has worked on concepts, you have to stick to those rules.
‘And if you do not stick to those rules, you might get the red card. It’s like that in football as well as in real life.’
The Bundesliga has been permitted to restart by federal and state government after drawing up comprehensive measures to prevent players and club staff spreading the virus.
All remaining fixtures this season will be played behind closed doors, with the usual formalities of pre-match handshakes, mascots and team photographs banned.
Players will not be allowed to celebrate together as a team after scoring and those on the substitutes’ bench must either wear masks or observe social distancing.
The teams will enter and exit the stadiums at different times and will travel and from matches in a convoy of coaches. A thorough testing regime to detect Covid-19 symptoms has also been put in place to minimise risk.
Germany has seen a spike in new cases of the coroanvirus after lockdown measures were lifted
In March, Germany took unprecedented measures to shut down public life.
While a huge majority of Germans backed the action, giving Merkel’s government a big boost in approval ratings, dissent has been fomenting, particularly online where YouTube videos championing conspiracy theories or quack medical advice are attracting tens of thousands of views.
Seeking to counter absurd claims, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that although he wasn’t a medical practitioner, he could safely suggest that the ‘uncomfortable and cumbersome face mask is more to be recommended than a tin-foil hat.’
After a public outcry over unruly protests last weekend, the AfD placed itself squarely on the side of the demonstrators.
Party co-chief Alexander Gauland said it was ‘completely correct that people are exercising their fundamental rights and demonstrating against corona measures.’
Any resulting split in society over the demonstrations should not be blamed on the protesters, but on ‘the sweeping vilification of participants as right-wing extremists, nutcases or conspiracy theorists,’ he charged.
Sometimes violent in nature, the demonstrations have also been increasingly tinged by anti-Semitism, as participants hold aloft slogans portraying figures like George Soros as the bogeyman in the virus crisis.
‘I consider this type of protest to be extremely dangerous,’ Felix Klein, the government’s pointman on tackling anti-Semitism, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
‘It undermines confidence in our democratic state and forms a reservoir in which conspiratorial anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers can be found alongside others with sometimes very obscure attitudes,’ he added.
Last weekend, protests in Berlin turned violent as police clashed with demonstrators in Alexanderplatz. Pictured: Police officers use pepper spray on demonstrators on May 9
A demonstrator wearing a mask and a T-shirt with inscriptions reading ‘The mask has no healthy use’ sits amid a demonstration against coronavirus restrictions in Berlin
Miro Dittrich, an expert at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said conspiracy theories could be appealing to people who find it hard to grasp the concept of the virus, and who personally know of no one who has been affected.
‘In addition, people are currently isolated from their social environment in a crisis situation and spend an extremely large amount of time online, all factors that promote the belief in conspiracy stories,’ Dittrich said.
Klein warned that ‘we must take the emergence of these movements very seriously and cannot hope that with the end of the corona crisis these forces will disappear again.’
Spiegel also cited the urgent need for Merkel to get a grip on the situation.
‘If she doesn’t take counter action now, a second populist wave of anger could break over Germany,’ it warned.
Time could be pressing.
Hermann Binkert, who heads the polling institute INSA, said the strong support for Merkel’s government could quickly melt away when the health imperative recedes.
‘When the unifying theme of health fades and the debate focuses on solving the labour market, economic and financial crisis, the consensus ends,’ he warned.