Thousands of people are expected to gather in cities across Germany at the weekend to demonstrate against the government’s coronavirus policies.
Germany’s foreign minister has warned people to distance themselves from the growing movement, which includes radical extremists, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and antisemites, after domestic intelligence agents warned that extremist groups were exploiting fears around the virus in order to gain support.
“If radical extremists and antisemites use demonstrations in order to stoke hatred and to divide, then everyone should keep a lot more than just a 1.5-metre distance from them,” Heiko Maas said in an interview on Thursday.
“Those who spread conspiracy theories throughout the world, without a mask, without keeping the minimum distance, without any concern for others, are confusing courage with blind anger, and freedom with pure egotism,” he added.
Among the protesters are those who accuse the government of inventing the virus in order to impose dictatorship-like conditions. Their anger is focused on everyone from the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her health minister, Jens Spahn, to the virologists and epidemiologists who are advising them. The US billionaire Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft who has committed to a fund to solve the crisis, is often depicted at the demonstrations as a satanic figure, accused of engineering the health emergency in order to achieve world dominance.
A celebrity vegan cook, a prominent R&B singer, and a former broadcast journalist turned YouTuber are among the movement’s figureheads. Some align themselves with an initiative called “Querdenken” or lateral thinking, whose symbol is a pendant fashioned out of a tinfoil ball. Another movement, called “Widerstand 2020” or resistance 2020, headed by a lawyer, a psychologist and an ear, nose and throat specialist, is also gaining support.
“Why should I be locked up in my own house when only 8,000 people have died of this virus?” Artur Schwarz, a participant at a recent Stuttgart rally said. “Meanwhile, the economy is dying, and my neighbour hasn’t been able to visit his wife in a care home for eight weeks. It’s criminal.”
Some demonstrators have taken to wearing a yellow Star of David, similar to the cloth badges Jewish people were forced to wear during the Nazi era, to highlight what they see as the stigmatisation they face for refusing to receive a vaccination against the virus, should one become available.
The stars carry slogans such as “forced” or “unvaccinated”. One theory repeatedly voiced at the demonstrations is that a vaccination programme will be used as an opportunity to plant computer chips into the population, which will be used to control them.
Physical distancing rules have also been referred to as “social Holocaust”, affecting elderly members of society the most.
Observers of the movement, which has been gathering momentum over the past month, have said it has in part sprung out of Germany’s relative success in tackling the virus so far, a so-called “prevention paradox”, with a low death rate despite a high infection rate, compared to other countries.
Last weekend several thousand people gathered at demonstrations in Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne, Frankfurt and other towns and cities, and some have pledged to do so again his weekend.
On Thursday Stuttgart authorities cited “protection against infection” as the legal grounds on which it was banning a demonstration called by the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland party due to take place at the weekend at which the party’s co-leader Alice Weidel was expected to speak. The AfD has said it will seek to overturn the ban.
Police, wearing protective masks, have sometimes struggled to keep the demonstrators under control, or to ensure participants adhere to the 1.5 metre physical distancing rule.