Loudly chanting their opposition to masks and vaccines, thousands of people on Saturday gathered in Berlin to protest against COVID-19 restrictions before being dispersed by police.
Police put turnout at about 20,000 — well below the 500,000 organizers had announced as they urged a “day of freedom” from months of virus curbs.
Despite Germany’s comparatively low toll, authorities are concerned at a rise in infections over the past few weeks and politicians took to social media to criticize the rally as irresponsible.
“We are the second wave,” shouted the crowd, a mixture of hard left and right and conspiracy theorists, as they converged on the Brandenburg Gate, demanding “resistance” and dubbing the pandemic “the biggest conspiracy theory.”
Few protesters wore a mask or respected the 1.5m social distancing requirement, an Agence France-Presse journalist reported, despite police repeatedly calling on them via megaphone to do so.
After several warnings, Berlin police ordered demonstrators to leave the area at the end of the afternoon.
Police tweeted they had launched legal proceedings against organizers for not respecting virus hygiene rules.
A handful of people held a counterdemonstration.
Dubbing themselves “grandmothers against the extreme right,” they hurled insults against “Nazi” protesters.
The protest’s “Day of Freedom” slogan echoes the title of a 1935 documentary by Nazi-era film-maker Leni Riefenstahl on a party conference by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
Several politicians condemned the demonstration as Germany seeks to minimize transmission of a virus that had claimed just more than 9,000 lives as of Saturday — a far lower toll than its neighbors.
Saskia Esken of the Social Democrats, a junior coalition partner in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, blasted the demonstrators as “Covidiots.”
“No distancing, no mask. They are not only putting at risk our health but also our success against the pandemic as well as economic recovery, education and society. Irresponsible!” Esken wrote in a tweet.
German Minister of Health Jens Spahn agreed: “Yes, demonstrations should also be possible in times of coronavirus, but not like this. Distance, hygiene rules and masks serve to protect us all, so we treat each other with respect.”
Jan Redmann, regional head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Brandenburg, also took aim at the marchers.
“A thousand new infections a day still and in Berlin there are protests against anti-virus measures? We can no longer allow ourselves these dangerous absurdities,” Redmann said.
Saturday saw 955 new infections — a level which the country had not seen since May 9, according to the Robert Koch health institute.
However, marchers said the risk of catching the virus was being overblown.
“It’s pure scare tactics. I don’t see any danger with the virus,” one marcher, Iris Bitzenmeier, told reporters.
“I don’t know any other sick people. I knew many in March — skiers, holidaymakers. Something was really afoot in February — but now there are no longer any sick people,” she said.
Another demonstrator, Anna-Maria Wetzel, shared that view.
“People who don’t inform themselves — unlike ourselves — remain ignorant and believe what the government tells them. They get caught up in the fear the government puts in our heads — and that fear weakens the immune system,” she said.
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