Covid-19 protest camp grows ahead of banned Berlin march

March ban is a necessary public health move, says Berlin’s interior minister

Andre Morgenstern, a 39-year-old Berlin musician and protester against coronavirus restrictions. Photograph: Derek Scally

Andre Morgenstern, a 39-year-old Berlin musician and protester against coronavirus restrictions. Photograph: Derek Scally

 

The first drops of rain begin to fall just as Christopher Zintl fixes the last peg of his tiny one-man tent.

Not in a camping site but on a scrappy field opposite Berlin’s Reichstag building. To his left, inside the chancellery, Angela Merkel is holding a video conference with 16 state leaders over Germany’s coronavirus measures.

Zintl and the other tent occupants – numbering 20 and growing by the hour – are gathered to protest against Germany’s response to the pandemic. Some 9,285 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded in Germany so far but a banner hanging from a tree reads: “More people have been stultified by corona than killed.”

Nearby, a bearded man announces to a friend: “Everyone has the right to their own reality.”

Mr Zintl, a 29-year-old tax analyst from Nuremberg, has no doubts that Covid-19 is real. Since March he has had growing doubts that the lockdown measures were commensurate with the risk – and these have come at a cost. The doubts, and his refusal to wear a face mask, prompted a break-up with his girlfriend.

Now he challenges people who claim “the [lockdown] measures aren’t so bad”.

“When I point out that the measures are terrible for some – the less well-off, artists, business people – people then say, ‘Well, the measures are necessary,’ and the discussion’s over,” he said. “I have a problem with these rules, described as ‘proportionate’ and implemented on the basis of facts that are far from clear.”

Mr Zintl has come 400km north to Berlin for a second protest march on Saturday against Covid-19 restrictions, expected to draw large crowds from all over Europe.

But Berlin’s city state government has banned the demonstration. At the last such protest a month ago, many of the 20,000 marchers refused to wear masks or observe social distancing rules. Berlin’s interior minister, Andreas Geisel, said the marchers’ claim that restrictions were a disproportionate curtailment of their rights was based on a “flawed assessment of the actual health risks” arising from Covid-19.

“This is not a decision against the freedom of assembly, but a decision for infection protection measures,” said Mr Geisel.

His ban, which is being challenged in the courts, has divided opinion in Germany: some say it is a necessary public health move; others fear it plays into the oppression narrative of the protesters.

Michael Ballweg, founder of the Querdenken movement behind the march, said the Berlin ban “confirmed” his concerns that prompted him to set up the movement in April, that temporary Covid-19 measures would lead to wider, permanent erosion of basic rights.

Such bans are as rare in Germany as demonstrations are common, a legacy of two dictatorships in the last century, and their respective crackdowns on basic freedoms.

Marchers a month ago in Berlin ran the gamut from concerned business owners via far right and hard left extremists to aluminium hat aficionados. The improvised camp in Berlin has attracted a similar crowd, including many who see the pandemic – and the race for a vaccine – as driven by pharmaceutical companies.

‘Crackdown’ on culture

Andre Morgenstern, a 39-year-old Berlin musician waving a joint the size of a small sausage, says the ban on live performances is a worse crackdown on culture than anything imposed by Hitler or Stalin. “What didn’t work then with gas,” he said, “they’re trying now again, this time with fear.”

Amid the growing debate over which poses a greater risk – Covid-19 restrictions or their opponents – no one here seems to realise their tents are pitched on site of the former Kroll opera house. Demolished in 1951, it was requisitioned by the Nazis as their show parliament after the 1933 fire in the Reichstag opposite. This spot is where Germany’s first democracy was buried.

Inspecting his tent, Mr Zintl said he had a bad feeling he would be spending Saturday night in a police cell.

“Anxiety is spreading far faster than the virus, people are just afraid, yet not sure of what,” he said. “I’m trying to inform myself, the numbers don’t add up in my mind, and I resent all hectoring. I’d like to choose my own anxiety, not have one forced on me.”

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