German far-right activists have vowed to defy a government ban on a huge protest against coronavirus restrictions, after officials moved to prevent the event becoming “a stage” for COVID-19 deniers and right-wing extremists.
About 20,000 people – a motley mix of coronavirus deniers, conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists – were expected to attend Saturday’s rally in the German capital, organised by a group called Querdenken (“lateral thinking”) 711.
But Berlin’s city government banned the protests Wednesday, citing the risk to public health, as protesters at a previous rally earlier this month had ignored rules requiring them to wear masks and observe social distancing.
Berlin’s Interior Minister, Andreas Geisel, said officials had weighed the right to freedom of assembly against the need to safeguard public health.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic, with rising infection figures,” he said, adding that officials were not prepared to let the city be used as “a stage for coronavirus deniers… and right-wing extremists”, and that the rally held "considerable potential for violence”.
The ban has drawn a furious reaction from the protest’s organisers and would-be attendees from the far-right. The organiser, Stuttgart-based businessman Michael Ballweg, said the ban had confirmed his movement’s fears that the pandemic would be used as a pretext to restrict basic rights. He said he was challenging the ban in court, and assumed the protest would go ahead as planned.
The right-wing populist AfD party also slammed the decision, with federal chairman Jörg Meuthen saying Thursday the ban was “an attack on the constitutional rights of the people to freedom of expression and assembly”. He also called for Geisel’s immediate resignation.
Meanwhile, in neo-Nazi channels on the Telegram messaging app, news of the ban provoked violent threats from some far-right supporters of the rally. “From now on, weapons for defence are also allowed,” wrote one, while another saying the people responsible for the ban must be executed in front of the Reichstag “in the name of the people”.
Miro Dittrich, a researcher at the far-right monitoring group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News that he expected violence from far-right extremists in Berlin on Saturday, whether or not the protest was officially permitted to go ahead.
Even before the ban, monitors had anticipated trouble from extremist elements among the protesters, given the open embrace of the movement from a wide swath of the German far-right. As well as the AfD – the anti-immigration populist movement, and Germany’s biggest opposition party – the protest movement has attracted support from members of a prominent Nazi rock band, Holocaust-denying YouTubers and fringe neo-Nazi parties the NPD and The Third Way.
“Since we’ve seen such radicalisation among the far-right over this, I expected the violence [will] happen Saturday,” said Dittrich. “A lot of far-right extremists were heading for the city; they’re talking about hunting antifa, beating people up.”
The ban has further fuelled would-be protesters’ sense of persecution, and inspired more radical rhetoric.
“We see a lot of violence being called for. People are saying, ‘We tried to do it peacefully, now we have to storm the Reichstag,’” said Dittrich “They see it as a last chance to save Germany – there will be a second lockdown and then Germany will be over.”
He said, while there is a strong chance the ban will be overturned by a court, as it had been with a previous anti-lockdown demo, the protest would likely take place whether it was banned or not.
“Everyone says, whether it’s allowed or not, we will come,” he said, adding that many people had booked travel and accommodation from around the country to attend. “If the demo is banned, I think we’ll have a lot of right-wing extremists rampaging through the city, looking for trouble. If it’s allowed, they’ll be in one place.”
Far-right monitors have been concerned by the rise of the anti-lockdown protest movement in Germany, which has involved an unusual coalition of hippies, conspiracy theorists, libertarians, anti-vaxxers and the far-right.
“The demonstrations could be a gateway for protesters to openly declare their allegiance with the German far-right, which in return could legitimise far-right ideology in anti-COVID-19 milieus even more than it already is,” Jan Rathje, a fellow researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News.
Dittrich said he had observed an alarming tolerance of the far-right among the protesters, in the name of preserving the unity of the movement. When he attended the previous Querdenken 711 rally in Berlin on the 1st of August to monitor events, he said his group had barely been there for ten minutes when they were threatened by two right-wing extremists wearing the T-shirts of a neo-Nazi band.
When he appealed to protesters nearby to denounce the extremists, he said they brushed off his concerns and said he wouldn’t divide the movement.
“They laughed and told me: ‘We can’t hear you through your masks,’” he said.