As Germans marked the new year last night, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s message was somewhat muted: 'It’s clear to all of us: the pandemic is not over', Scholz said in a televised address: 'I appeal to all of you: let yourself be vaccinated.' His message was aimed at the large number of Germans who are yet to be jabbed. Only 71.2 per cent of Germans are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in western Europe.
As well as encouraging his countrymen to get vaccinated, Scholz and Germany's other leaders face another problem: how to deal with protests following the introduction of new restrictions. Social gatherings across Germany have been limited to ten people since 28 December and there was no exception for New Year's Eve. The usual crowds of people who gather at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate were nowhere to be seen. Nightclubs remain closed and entry to non-essential shops, restaurants and bars is restricted to fully vaccinated people
Perhaps understandably, many Germans are unhappy about the imposition of such measures: throughout December, Germany has seen a steep rise in gatherings which are banned under Covid legislation. Eighteen months into the pandemic, authorities are being outwitted by those determined to meet in German cities and towns.
One of the ways in which protesters have attempted to avoid having their events shut down by the police is to pretend that their marches are nothing more than casual ‘walks’ they take together. Parents have also brought young children along to prevent the police from using excessive force. But in many cases, things escalate anyway: this week in the Bavarian city of Schweinfurt, a four-year-old boy was pepper sprayed in his pushchair after he was taken to an anti-lockdown protest. Earlier this month, at a gathering in the Saxonian village of Pausa, one protester tried to pull a policewoman’s gun away from her.
The protests show no sign of quietening down as Germany braces itself for an Omicron wave. On Wednesday in Munich, 5,000 people marched through the streets. The organisers tried to mask the gatherings as shopping trips; one of those co-ordinating the event wrote in a Telegram chat: ‘You have something to do in Munich today? Then pay attention to other shoppers.’ Protesters were advised to carry shopping receipts to show suspicious police officers. Authorities in Munich had enforced tight Corona-related restrictions beforehand, making it impossible for protesters to form a large rally. ‘These regulations serve the purpose of preventing an uncontrolled growth of unreasonable demonstrations with partly violent participants and where distancing and the wearing of face masks is ignored,’ the city stated. Participants could be punished with fines of up to £2,500. But this did little to deter protesters from gathering in huge numbers.
While the majority of Germans remains in favour of tight restrictions and a considerable portion even favours mandatory vaccines, a counter movement is growing. Right-wing groups such as the Third Path have attempted to infiltrate or exploit the protests by co-ordinating events. Given that many of those attending protests are already anti-government and often oppose mainstream politics altogether, such groups see their chance to jump on the bandwagon. ‘Don’t get exploited by right-wing extremists, Reich Citizens or anti-Semites,’ the police administration in Lower Franconia, a region in Bavaria, stated in a recent press release. But the message fell on deaf ears among those who gathered in fury at what they see as unnecessary and draconian measures.
As politicians in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere are thinking about ways to keep businesses alive while enforcing new rules and regulations, they are faced with an anti-lockdown movement that appears to be growing in number. Protests and even violent encounters between demonstrators and police forces will inevitably continue in the coming weeks. It's far from a happy new year for many Germans.