Constantin Eckner

Germany’s coronavirus protests are a big headache for Merkel

Germany's coronavirus protests are a big headache for Merkel
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Where Brits have voiced their opposition to the coronavirus lockdown, they've mostly done so from their own homes over the internet. But some Germans who are unhappy at the restrictions imposed to thwart the spread of the virus are adopting a more radical approach.

Demonstrators gathered in Munich, Stuttgart and other German cities last Saturday to protest coronavirus-related measures. Now these rallies look set to become just the beginning of a wave of protests demanding the lifting of coronavirus restrictions. 

It's true that other countries around the world look to Germany, which has done well in managing the current crisis, as a model of best practice. Yet plenty of people here are unhappy with the continuation of lockdown measures. The country’s state and local governments have started to ease these restrictions a few weeks ago and promised that even restaurants and public swimming pools, where researchers fear the virus could spread quite easily, will be allowed to re-open soon. But for the thousands of people who have already gathered in large rallies across the country these changes are not being enacted quickly enough. 

Over 3,000 people took to the streets in Munich at the weekend. Thousands more gathered in Stuttgart as well as smaller cities such as Gera in the state of Thuringia. It is expected that even more could show up this Saturday, as the organiser of the rally in Munich announced that 10,000 would come to protest against the government. The city is currently discussing whether it will allow the rally, fearing that these events could lead to a dreaded second wave of the pandemic in Germany.

While organisers of these events have repeatedly stated that they are simply unsatisfied with lockdown measures, arguing that these are in conflict with the constitution, the images from these events tell a different story. Almost no one is wearing face masks or obeying physical distancing rules; many protesters, it would seem, don't buy into warnings about just how severe this virus can be.

The protesters come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: a sense that the government's lockdown has gone too far. While Merkel's calmness has seen her widely praised abroad, some in Germany are not impressed by their chancellor. 

Two of the more high-profile figures at the forefront of the anti-lockdown bandwagon are Ken Jebsen, a former radio reporter for public broadcaster RBB, and Attila Hildmann, a cookbook author. Both have used the recent uproar against pandemic measures to enhance their public profiles. Jebsen has long been a star of what he calls the ‘counter public’, a diverse subculture of government critics and those who believe in conspiracies led by governments and intelligence services. Jebsen recently posted a video on his highly popular YouTube channel called ‘Gates hijacks Germany’, in which he linked Bill Gates to coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theories. When Jebsen spoke at the rally last weekend, he said the political system in Germany is a ‘democracy simulation’. He suggested coronavirus has been used to ‘make the state more powerful and its citizens powerless’. 

The latest rally in Stuttgart, where Jebsen spoke, was registered by an organisation called Widerstand2020 (Resistance2020). Some even make comparisons between this group and Pegida, the once-powerful association that held dozens of anti-migration, anti-Islam demonstrations in Dresden between 2014 and 2018.

Just like Pegida, Widerstand2020 has appeared to have come out of nowhere. Both were founded by people who were not in the spotlight before (in the case of Widerstand2020, a businessman, a lawyer and a doctor) but have quickly risen to fame. They have been able to attract a diverse group of protesters who don't pursue one specific goal but are united in their anti-establishment attitude. Widerstand2020 is loosely organised but aims at becoming an officially recognised party to run at upcoming elections. Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann made a similar attempt in 2016, when he set up a political party called the Liberal Direct Democratic People’s party.

Back then, federal and local politicians, as well as large parts of the media, struggled to approach Pegida appropriately. The same could happen again. While Berlin is concerned that mass gatherings accelerate a second wave of the pandemic, local politicians worry they will lose control of the situation in their cities if the rallies grow in size and intensity. They don’t know if they should dismiss thousands of protesters as idiots or take them seriously.

Besides being apparently incapable of responding to such protests effectively, Germany's leaders could soon provoke even more uproar. A new report by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal agency for disease control, indicates a steep rise in infection rates after the lockdown was eased, possibly prompting politicians to re-introduce a variety of restriction measures. The next couple of weeks could become quite heated in Germany.