Hundreds of far-right hooligans attacked police, counter demonstrators and journalists as an anti-lockdown protest in the German city of Leipzig descended into a riot Saturday, marking new levels of violence from the corona-skeptic movement.
More than 20,000 protesters – a motley lineup of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, “sovereign citizens” and far-right extremists – converged on the city in eastern Germany, for the latest in a series of protests against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The protest – organised by the Querdenken (Lateral Thinking) movement, a conspiracy-tinged group of coronavirus-deniers and skeptics – was initially permitted to go ahead, after a court rejected the city's bid to relocate the demonstration away from a central square.
But a couple of hours after it began, the city ordered the protest to be shut down due to non-compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing requirements, and violence erupted shortly after the gathering was deemed unlawful.
Police said there were numerous attacks on officers, while footage from the march showed protesters hurling fireworks, flares, bottles and other projectiles, and attacking journalists covering the event. The journalists' union, DJU, said there were at least 38 attacks on the media.
Grischa Stanjek, a board member at Germany’s Centre for Democratic Contradiction, a non-profit research centre, attended the protest to monitor events, as he has done at previous corona-skeptic rallies. He told VICE News the riotous scenes he witnessed represented a new level of organised violence from the movement.
“This time we saw way more organised violence,” he said. “There were hundreds of hooligans there, and the moment police called the demonstration illegal and said everyone should leave, they spread out, attacked counter-protesters and clashed with police.”
He said police appeared to be overwhelmed, putting up little resistance to the violence of the far-right protesters and doing little to protect their targets.
“I’m a bit speechless still – I don’t know how they let this happen,” he said. “The lack of response to the violence from police only seemed to encourage the organised hooligans. They could attack, retreat, organise, then attack over and over again.”
Germany’s right-wing extremist scene – a growing and increasingly violent threat to national security, according to the country’s domestic intelligence agency – has broadly embraced the corona-skeptic movement. According to experts, the anti-lockdown protests give the far-right, who have become major consumers of conspiracy theories about coronavirus, with a forum to rage against the political establishment, and forge new alliances with people from outside the stereotypical right-wing extremist scene.
“I think they see the potential there to build momentum for their movements and get more people on the street,” said Stanjek. He said every far-right political party in Germany, as well as major hooligan groups from across the country, had issued calls ahead of time for members to attend the Leipzig protest; high-ranking officials from the parties, as well as hundreds of hooligans, many of them dressed in far-right brands or the logos of their football clubs, were seen in attendance.
Previous Querdenken coronavirus rallies have descended into violence. At a protest in August, the protesters acted out a long-held fantasy of Germany’s far-right when a few hundred stormed the steps of the Reichstag, the parliament building that’s the symbolic heart of German democracy.
But Stanjek said the violent scenes from Leipzig may prove an even bigger morale-booster for right-wing extremists in the anti-lockdown movement, drawing in new violence-oriented individuals. In the aftermath of the protest, hooligan crews who had taken part in the protest posted pictures to an online forum for far-right hooligan groups, showing their members posing, masked, at the protest, and squaring off with police.
“It was a huge success for them, because they forced the police to withdraw. They got what they wanted and nobody stopped them,” he said. “It will definitely attract more people that are just interested in violence.”
He said the violence was especially concerning because the corona-skeptic, anti-lockdown movement was gaining momentum as the pandemic worsened in Germany. Last week, the government introduced new restrictions allowing only members of up to two households to meet, closing theatres and cinemas and banning indoor dining in bars, cafes and restaurants.
The Querdenken movement’s organisers have sought to paint themselves as representing mainstream German society, and to publicly disassociate themselves from the persistent far-right presence at their rallies; on Friday, founder Michael Ballweg told Germany’s dpa news agency that he wanted to distance his group from the far-right.
But Stanjek said while the movement’s supporters might buy that, the denials were no longer plausible.
“They’re tolerating it, and I would say they’re actually encouraging far-right protesters to participate,” he said.