From the air, it looked like another open-air World Cup fan-mile, or one of the dozens of demonstrations that bring inner-city Berlin to a standstill most weekends.
In 29-degree sunshine, throngs of young and old, sweaty singles and happy families marched and danced to reggae and hip-hop towards the Brandenburg Gate.
But this was no ordinary march: nearly 20,000 people had gathered to protest against what’s left of Germany’s Covid-19 restrictions.
Apart from masks in shops and on public transport, Germany’s lockdown is all but lifted. But these people are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Packed together for hours with no masks or social distancing, Saturday afternoon’s self-proclaimed “Freedom March” had the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We are the second wave,” proclaimed one sign in blue hand-painted letters, carried proudly by an older woman down the Torstrasse in eastern Berlin. Another read: “The corona measures are what will kill us.” A third, painted on a bedsheet, demanded “criminal proceedings against the gurus of the dangerous Corona’s Witnesses”.
“Corona doesn’t exist, as least not as it’s presented. A bad flu,” said Karoline, a 23-year-old marcher. “I’m demonstrating for our freedom.”
The march was organised by Querdenker (Lateral Thinkers), a loose network of people in about 100 branches nationwide who believe variously Covid-19 is an invention, being blown out of proportion by the media or a plague spread by Jewish groups and/or billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. One demonstrator carried a sign reading “Jesus Lives”.
Among the group’s estimated 100,000 supporters, and at the weekend march, are groups on the hunt for new members: far-left, neo-Nazi, anti-vaccine campaigners, people who deny Germany’s legal existence and everything in between.
On a trailer reading “Doctors against Obligatory Vaccinations”, a hip-hop singer urged the crowd not to give their children the as-yet-nonexistent vaccine: “Don’t give them the poison/Please don’t vaccinate them and play with their future.”
Counter-demonstrators lined the march route, accusing the marchers of being neo-Nazis and anti-Semites – or tolerating them in their midst, chanting: “You’re marching with fascists.”
“The people who claim to have nothing to do with Nazis shouldn’t be marching with them, should they?” said Doris Kluge (72), a member of the group Grannies Against the Far-Right.
Another counter-protester, Katja (41), said: “I find it extremely problematic that they are using their right to freedom of assembly to create a public health risk.”
That was the dilemma on Saturday. Ahead of time, Berlin city officials said they would not intervene to ban the march, conscious this would play into the marchers’ conspiracy theories.
Similarly, fearing a riot, police looked on for five hours before intervening to loud boos at 5pm to end the rally. Journalists covering the event were jostled and threatened. A television cameraman was spat on.
German politicians struggled to react to the gathering which, in numerical terms, was no larger than other weekend demonstrations. In terms of open aggression, however, they know it is political dynamite.
Berlin’s governing mayor Michael Müller claimed most of the marchers had travelled to the capital from Dresden or Stuttgart. “They simply ignore the facts and risk the health of others,” he said. “Frustrating is not a strong enough term.”
Federal health minister Jens Spahn said demonstrations could take place “but not like this”, insisting the pandemic would only be mastered with “sense, perseverance and team spirit”.
On Monday, as the first schoolchildren head back to their classrooms wearing masks, Germany appears to be following its European neighbours into a second virus wave.
The daily rate of new infections has more than tripled from 300 just three weeks ago to the wrong side of 1,000.