If you don't want to be a Nazi, put on a face mask

The extreme right - mostly - dominates demonstrations against the measures in Germany

Demonstration in Leipzig against the restrictions approved by the German government to fight covid-19 / OMER MESSINGER / EFE

Two weeks ago Leipzig made the headlines because 20,000 people filled the city centre without a face mask, and the demonstration ended in a riot. On Wednesday, in Berlin, a few thousand demonstrated against the law on infections, which legally shields anti-covid measures, and the police responded with water cannons. The common denominator between the two rallies was the rejection of the decisions of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, because, in the opinion of the demonstrators, they violate fundamental rights. However, both protests also had in common the fact that there were people close to the extreme right. The widespread discourse in German media is that those who demonstrate against anti-covid measures are from the far right. Nevertheless, on the streets, just as in schools or neighbourhood associations, people who criticise government decisions are more diverse.

Since until the end of November, and probably until shortly before Christmas, it is forbidden to stay in a hotel, I am going to Leipzig and staying with a friend of an acquaintance. "I went to the demonstration in Leipzig two weeks ago, and to the demonstration in Berlin on Wednesday. When I looked at the press afterwards I couldn't understand anything they were saying: we are not neo-Nazis!" says Sylvie Freund, disappointed. She is used to being reprimanded by the anti-fascists for accepting that a Nazi demonstrates on her side, which by their standards, would mean that she herself is a Nazi. Sylvie and the colleagues with whom she has been demonstrating for weeks are a mixture of vegans and vegetarians, pacifists, left-wingers and East Germans who in the autumn of 1989 took part in the Monday against-the-system demonstrations in Leipzig that were the origin of the citizens' movement that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yesterday they demonstrated again: this time with a chain of candles and singing peaceful songs. "Our freedom is being taken away, and the psychological and economic problems resulting from the measures to prevent infection are much more serious than the pandemic", she continues.

"Two weeks ago we reached a point where it was impossible for us to demonstrate at a safe distance because there were thousands of anti-fascists behind the police cordon, creating a buffer, and the police didn't force them to go further back. The result was that we were very close and they accused us of breaking the rules", says Steffen Queißner, who has always been a left-wing voter and who doesn't deny the existence of covid-19, but does criticise the fact that the measures are being applied in a generalised and standardised way. "They eliminate the critical sense and the capacity for individual decision", he denounces.

Three demonstrations

Unlike that day, yesterday's demonstrations in Leipzig were more dispersed and differentiated. The most massive was that of the anti-fascists, who filled the central square, which had been flooded on November 7, with thousands of people. All of them wore masks and were young - a part of the population that the media has criticized for allegedly not following the rules and celebrating uncontrolled parties. This time the police gradually extended the perimeter of the demonstration in order to ensure safety distances, and to prevent a repetition of the crowds and clashes.

"Put on your mask or you are a Nazi!", "You bring posters in the shape of hearts, but in this way you kill many people", shouted the anti-fascists when, at one point, they came across, first, with the peaceful anti-covid chain and, then, with another of yesterday's mass demonstrations: that of the neo-Nazis. This one is dominated by far-right winged costumes and flags from the time of the Kaiser, a symbol of the far-right. They demand freedom and accuse the government of dictatorship. Those who are already on file disappear at some point, discreetly escorted by the police. Saxony, the land where Leipzig is, is considered one of the bastions of the most radical extreme right.

Political disagreement

The tension in the streets is also felt at an institutional level: five hours of meetings between Merkel and the regional presidents this week ended without any agreement on the new anti-covid measures. The ultra Alternative for Germany party is currently trying to win the votes of those who are demonstrating against the restrictions. According to polls, more than 60% of Germans are satisfied with the chancellor's policy; a decrease from a few months ago. In less than a year's time there will be a parliamentary election: Merkel won't be running, and for now there is no clear favourite candidate.