With his shoulder-length greasy hair, agitated grey eyes and sudden movements, Gerhard has the look of a B-movie mad scientist.
He’s mad all right, but for another reason. He catches my eye late one Wednesday night in central Munich when he throws a takeaway coffee at a passing man who has just shouted “Peace!”
A man walking in the other direction responds with a smile, shouting “Freedom”.
As they walk away, one with creamy foam dripping from his coat, Gerhard is vibrating with anger. He was born “three years after the Nazi shite”, he says, and was part of the 1968 student revolt that opened up German society.
“Now these assholes, with their stupid smartphones and conspiracy theories, are taking our terms, ruining everything,” he said. “They cannot see their selfishness; instead they see themselves as victims.”
It’s a drizzly Wednesday evening in Munich and the Bavarian capital is heaving with “Querdenker” or “lateral thinkers”, a protest movement against Covid-19 vaccinations and pandemic restrictions.
As the Omicron wave reaches its peak, the Querdenker have organised online and come out in cities across Germany for a fresh wave of protest: Wednesday evening "walks".
On every corner, clusters of police in riot gear stand watching as passersby turn into protesters, yell a slogan or toot a whistle, and then melt into the crowd again.
Police speak to individuals but are powerless to intervene in the bigger game of cat and mouse that, on this evening, has attracted at least 2,000 people.
Right to demonstrate
Germany’s 20th-century history, in particular Nazi-era suppression of opposition protest, means that the right to demonstrate in public is writ large in the German statute books.
Querdenker groups in Munich were given a permit for a public open-air gathering of up to 5,000 people but rejected the permit over two conditions: a ban on a street procession and mandatory medical masks for all demonstrators.
This has been reframed in their online chat groups as a "protest ban", further proof of state repression. Hours earlier, Bavaria's interior minister, Joachim Hermann, told the state parliament the gatherings were attracting a relatively small number of known extremists, but that they were proving agile at ensuring ordinary, pandemic-weary neighbours and friends "carry their protest message into the heart of society".
Anja, an intensive-care nurse, says it's "shocking" that protesters think the risks of vaccination outweigh the cost of remaining unvaccinated
Around the corner from the “walkers”, streaming through Marienplatz, several hundred people are attending a registered counter-demonstration. Organisers have chosen to occupy Odeonsplatz, adjacent to the Feldherrnhalle, or Field Marshall’s Hall, where Hitler staged his failed putsch a century ago next year.
Anja, an intensive-care nurse, says it’s “shocking” that protesters think the risks of vaccination outweigh the cost of remaining unvaccinated.
“I see every day the damage, the cost, of not being vaccinated,” she says. “There are viruses that are just very contagious and have a real cost and these people will just have to get used to it.”
Two years into the pandemic, German president Frank Walter Steinmeier has sounded the alarm that "even the walk has lost its innocence".
The real danger now, he suggested in a recent speech, was if the silence of the majority – who quietly went along with vaccinations and restrictions – gave the loud minority a feeling of impunity to threaten police, journalists and even healthcare workers.
“The quiet middle, as it’s often called, has to become more visible, more self-confident and maybe a bit louder,” he said. “Because this is how we encourage and even protect people who are being attacked.”
With German infection rates at record levels, and a vaccine mandate now being debated in the Bundestag, it’s unlikely that Munich’s Wednesday night “walkers” will disappear any time soon.
When I ask which of their pandemic predictions from the past have come to pass, the four avert their gaze
Near the neo-baroque Stachus Rondell, I approach four people who are already planning to meet for next week's "walk". One is carrying a sign reading "blessed are the peacemakers", another insists that it's no longer Bill Gates who is using vaccines as cover to inject chips into us – but Tesla founder Elon Musk. The talk is of democracy undermined and camps for the unvaccinated.
When I ask which of their pandemic predictions from the past have come to pass, the four avert their gaze. If we met here again in a year’s time and their dire predictions have not happened, I ask if any would admit their fears were misplaced.
The leader of the group, a middle-aged woman wearing a red felt hat, answers: “Of course, I’m fallible, like anyone else, just not on this point.”