On Monday evening on the dot of 7pm people emerged from dimly lit side streets and gathered on the Oberkirchplatz square in Cottbus for what has become a weekly ritual in towns and cities across Germany: a protest against coronavirus protection measures.
The demonstrations have grown in strength as cases of the Omicron variant have surged, and in recent weeks a looming decision on bringing in a vaccine mandate has become the focus of protesters’ ire. More than 2,000 rallies were held nationwide on Monday, drawing tens of thousands of participants.
In Cottbus, a university city south-east of Berlin, a familiar pattern played out. Moments after the protest started, police declared over megaphone that it was illegal – the participants did not wear masks or physically distance from each other. Groups then broke away and began the Spaziergänge, walks that snake in a variety of directions and are designed to overwhelm any police response.
Dressed in padded coats and woolly hats, the protesters were an inconspicuous crowd. “We are just having an evening stroll,” one woman smirked amiably from under a red woollen beret. “Exercising our right to stretch our legs.”
The gentle click of heels and umbrella studs on wet cobbled stones was quickly drowned out, however, by a man who bellowed “Frieden, Freiheit, keine Diktatur!” (Peace, freedom, no dictatorship) then “Widerstand!” (Resistance).
A woman nearby took up the cry with “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people) – the chant that echoed around cities across communist east Germany in 1989 before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Those willing to talk mostly said they wanted to show local and national politicians they had had enough of restrictions. Several said they were not vaccinated; some refused to say. Hardly any were willing to reveal their names.
“I just want my freedom back,” said one elderly woman. Another younger woman said she was trying to stop the government from forcibly vaccinating her nine-year-old, though there is currently no plan to oblige parents to have children vaccinated. A physiotherapist, one of the few protesters who was wearing a mask, said she was fearful of losing her job if she refuses to get vaccinated under plans for a mandate for medical staff, due to be introduced next month.
Asked why there was need for resistance, Maik, a landscape gardener who refused to wear a mask – calling them “chin nappies” – said: “When injustice becomes law, resistance is our duty.”
There is growing evidence that the protests are being manipulated behind the scenes by rightwing populists and far-right groups, who see issues such as restrictions on gatherings, insistence on the wearing of medical masks as well as a possible vaccine mandate for adults as topics ripe for political exploitation.
Zukunft Heimat (Future Homeland), a far-right group founded in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis that spreads a nationalist, anti-refugee message, coordinates much of the activity around demonstrations in the state of Brandenburg, including Cottbus.
Ahead of Monday’s rallies, it posted a message from one of its co-founders, Christoph Berndt, a dentist who is also the parliamentary leader of the far-right populist AfD in Brandenburg and has been a speaker at anti-refugee Pegida rallies. He called on people to “defend our freedom and our democracy …” against a government which is “treating its citizens with disdain”.
Berndt has previously questioned whether anyone has died of Covid, said he does not believe the virus exists, and refused to wear a mask because it is a “symbol of suppression”.
On chat rooms and in conversations on messaging apps about the rallies, people talk about wanting to topple the government, comparing the administration to a dictatorship. Those who once rallied against the former chancellor, Angela Merkel, over her refugee policy now rail against her successor, Olaf Scholz, and his health minister, Karl Lauterbach.
Some refer, online and in person – with what generally appears as glee – to a conspiracy theory called Tag X (Day X) that predicts Germany’s “entire system” will collapse due to critical infrastructure being disabled by quarantine measures.
Rally participants are encouraged to “put sand into the cogs of a system” already perceived to be on its last legs, and lighthearted references are made to a “civil war mood”.
At the time of the refugee crisis, rightwing extremists linked to the far-right Identitarian movement, the rightwing-focused advertising agency One Per Cent and the thinktank Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS) built a digital map, showing the location of anti-Islam protests across Germany. People could put in their postcode and find their nearest rally.
A similar map has been produced for the coronavirus “Spaziergang” movement, created by the far-right association Filmkunstkollektiv, whose members and supporters include Identitarians, members of the IfS, and One Per Cent.
Filmkunstkollektiv is also known to have produced film material for the AfD, recently accompanying its youth wing on a “vaccine strike” in Berlin. It also has an association with the far-right Compact magazine, whose latest cover depicts a young man with needles and syringes embedded in his body, under the title “Vaccine dictatorship – being boosted to death”.
Much of the wind for the protests has come from neighbouring Austria, where plans for a vaccine mandate and the fightback against it are more inflamed. There, the founder of the Identitarian movement, Martin Sellner, has referred to vaccine passports and fines as “totalitarian instruments”.
This mindset was reflected in some of the protesters on Monday night, even those who declared themselves “apolitical”.
In a chat group on an instant messaging service that provides a running commentary of the Monday protests, an unvaccinated woman wrote that since she has had to to abide by rules that ban those not vaccinated or recovered from many non-essential activities, “it is possible to put oneself in the shoes of Jews who suddenly had their basic rights removed from them during the Third Reich”.
Such remarks have been widely condemned. Experts on Germany’s constitution have warned that the victimhood narrative expressed by many of the protesters is in danger of being exploited by extremist elements. They cite the murder last September of a petrol pump attendant shot by a man after he refused to serve him for not wearing a mask as proof that they are not exaggerating.
Less than an hour into the rally in Cottbus on Monday night, the several hundred peaceful protesters were playing a game of cat and mouse with the police, who managed to kettle in one group next to a Glühwein kiosk.
There were some wild theories doing the rounds. A primary school teacher called Brigitte, walking with a group of friends towards the old market square, said she gave credence to a theory that the vaccine campaign is “an attempt to thin out the world’s population”. The 73% of Germans who are vaccinated are supposed to die, she said. “If this is the case, then I am one of the 26% who will live to make this nation great again.” Asked what the source for the theory was, she replied she “read it on one of my newsfeeds”.