Billed as a “Freedom Day,” the protest drew around 15,000 people, according to police figures cited by German media. The demonstration was organized by Querdenken 771, a group based in the western city of Stuttgart that emerged from weekly anti-lockdown demonstrations earlier in the pandemic. Members sometimes wear tinfoil hats or necklaces in what they say is a dig at being written off as conspiracy theorists.
Those present on Saturday included a hodgepodge of science skeptics, libertarians, Germany’s far-right and constitutional loyalists, Reuters reported.
Demonstrations against coronavirus measures have taken place from London to Michigan, but the gathering in Berlin was one of the largest yet. Police used loudspeakers to urge the largely mask-less crowd to observe social distancing rules.
Querdenken 771 demonstrators in the past have railed over conspiracies of forced vaccinations, microchipping and other false claims around covid-19 that involve Bill Gates and pharmaceutical companies.
The slogans on display Saturday spanned a range of grievances and allegations.
“Do think! Don’t wear a mask!” some chanted alongside placards reading “Corona, false alarm” and “we are being forced to wear a muzzle,” local media reported. Others shouted, “We’re here and we’re loud, because we are being robbed of our freedom,” or held up signs saying, “natural defense instead of vaccination.”
Journalists wearing masks were confronted with chants of “masks away!” by the crowd, according to Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Health-care experts say face mask wearing and social distancing is crucial to curb the spread of the virus causing covid-19. They argue the temporary restriction on daily life is justified because of the gravity of the public health crisis. In Germany, people must wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets.
Germany had one of the most active protest movements against coronavirus measures in the early day’s of the pandemic, despite having comparatively less restrictions than many other countries in Europe. Protests drew an eclectic mix of conspiracy theorists, the far-right, the far-left and others who said they were concerned about the impact on the economy or curbs on their fundamental rights.
In recent months, however, the numbers at weekly demonstrations have waned.
Andreas Geisel, the Berlin state interior minister, told RBB Radio on Friday that neo-Nazi organizations had called on their members to join the protests. He said it was not an “act of freedom” to endanger one’s own health and that of others in the midst of a pandemic.
“We can no longer afford this dangerous nonsense,” tweeted Jan Redmann a parliamentarian with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats party.
Germany reported another 870 positive coronavirus cases on Friday. The number of new infections remains far below hotspots like the United States, as well as the more than 6,000 a day Germany saw earlier in the pandemic. The country went into lockdown in March and began to gradually lift measures by region in late May.
But German health officials have said that the “diffuse” nature of the current rise in numbers is concerning.
Since the country began reopening, previous spikes in infections were largely confined to clusters at locations like slaughterhouses and nursing homes, which authorities could work quickly to contain. However, citizens are now being infected at a wide range of events across the country.
“The latest developments of covid-19 cases are a source of great concern,” Lothar Wieler, the president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for Health Surveillance, said earlier this week, Euronews reported.