German president Frank Walter Steinmeier has condemned as an “attack on our democracy” an attempt by a far-right mob to rush Berlin’s Reichstag after a weekend demonstration against coronavirus restrictions.
At about 8pm on Saturday a group of protesters, including many neo-Nazis, broke through protective barriers and raced up the building steps. Police in riot gear pushed them back using pepper spray.
It was a dramatic end to a demonstration that attracted up to 50,000 people to Berlin from around the country. Police said about 300 people were arrested in scuffles on the sidelines of the main event. Images of the standoff in front of the Reichstag, home to the Bundestag parliament, caused outrage on Sunday across the political spectrum.
Many demonstrators waved the historic black-white-red “Reichsflag”, others displayed extremist symbols or wore clothing favoured by neo-Nazis.
“Reichsflags and a right-wing extremist mob in front of the German Bundestag are an unbearable attack on our democracy. We will never accept it,” said Mr Steinmeier.
On Saturday afternoon, in scenes rarely seen other than during major soccer tournaments, a 2km stretch from the Brandenburg Gate to the Siegessäule (Victory Column) was filled with demonstrators.
Robert F Kennedy, a vaccination sceptic and son of the assassinated US politician, attacked political leaders for, he claimed, using the pandemic to spread fear and impose a new surveillance state.
Half a century ago after John F Kennedy visited Berlin, then a cold war frontier against totalitarianism, Mr Kennedy delighted the crowd by repeating his uncle’s most famous slogan, but in a very different context. “Today Berlin is once again a front against totalitarianism,” he said to huge cheers. “And that is why I’m proud to say, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.”
The march was organised by the Querdenken (Lateral Thinking) group. Its founder Michael Ballweg, a Stuttgart business man, urged the crowd – some clustered together tightly, others spaced out in the park and none wearing masks – not to tolerate violence in their midst.
“We demand the lifting of all restrictive measures introduced and the resignation of the entire federal government,” he said, prompting a 40-second surge of applause from the crowd. “We are democrats. Right- and left-wing wing extremism and fascist thought have no place in this movement. We ignore all attempts to pigeon-hole us as left or right.”
After the Reichstag scenes, Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble said on Sunday that the right of assembly did not absolve people of “responsibility not to be instrumentalised by extremists”.
Many participants expressed concerns about their civil liberties and the proportionality of pandemic measures
Prior to the main gathering, police broke up a march through the city centre at lunchtime on Saturday because marchers refused to wear masks or observe social distancing.
The main protest attracted demonstrators of all ages, from Munich pensioners to Frankfurt engineers. Among the rainbow peace flags and Israel flags were hundreds of home-made banners with messages ranging from “Health not Pharma Profit” and “Corona is a Declaration of War by the Elite against the Majority”.
A few signs were visible linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory; others carried anti-mask signs and protested the rise of “health fascism”.
Many participants expressed concerns about their civil liberties and the proportionality of pandemic measures. “We’re really worried that people are allowing themselves to be scared and manipulated, and our basic rights eroded,” said Svenja, a 22-year-old student from Nuremberg.
A police spokesman said 3,000 officers oversaw the Saturday events, which were largely peaceful apart from the Reichstag standoff and a scuffle outside the Russian embassy, where about 200 people were arrested. A counter demonstration attracted a few hundred participants.