Inside Story

Tipping points

Germany’s anti-lockdown protests aren’t only about the coronavirus

Klaus Neumann 12 May 2020 2278 words

Saturday’s demonstration against coronavirus restrictions at the Cannstatter Wasen festival site in Stuttgart on Saturday. Markus Riedle/AFP via Getty Images

In absolute case numbers, Germany has been among the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 virus, with more than 170,000 people infected thus far. But it has weathered the pandemic relatively well, with a death rate below 100 per million inhabitants. Only three of its neighbours — Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria — have better figures. Denmark’s are about the same, and those of Germany’s other neighbours are worse: Luxembourg and Switzerland have had around twice as many deaths per million, the Netherlands more than three times, France more than four times and Belgium more than eight. Fewer than one in twenty German residents who have tested positive for the virus have died, while in neighbouring France, for example, the figure is about one in seven.

A superior public health infrastructure with a large number of intensive care beds helps explain Germany’s comparatively low mortality rate. At no stage have hospitals been overwhelmed by patients requiring ventilators; in fact, German hospitals have been able to treat patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands. Crucial in keeping the number of infections manageable has been a nationwide lockdown and social distancing rules that have been observed by most people.

Over the past couple of weeks, Germany’s state governments have loosened restrictions. Most shops are back in business, many students have been able to return to school, and museums and art galleries have reopened. In one state, even restaurants are operating, albeit only for local residents.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the sixteen state premiers met by video last Wednesday to discuss a further easing of the restrictions. Many of the premiers have been pushing for a speedy relaxation of the rules, and Merkel, the ever-cautious trained natural scientist, could do little but acquiesce. The only concession she secured was a commitment to reimpose restrictions locally if the number of new infections topped fifty per 100,000 inhabitants in a particular district. Since Wednesday, this Obergrenze, or upper limit, has been breached in five districts, but the local authorities’ response has been far less consistent than had presumably been envisaged by Merkel and the virologists advising her.

Many commentators have suggested that the rationale for easing restrictions quickly has been the realisation that Germany is reaching a tipping point. Germans overwhelmingly welcomed the lockdown when it was introduced in March, but now many of them are sick and tired of it and demanding a return to life as usual. A sizeable minority want to work, shop and go on holidays exactly as they used to. They are also no longer in favour of wearing the mandatory face masks on public transport and in shops, or of obeying social distancing rules.

The last time an Obergrenze became politically contentious was in late 2015 when the then premier of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, demanded that Germany impose an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers admitted in a given year. This declaration embroiled Seehofer and Merkel in a bitter conflict lasting more than two years, which he eventually won. Now it is Merkel who insists on an upper limit, and again it is doubtful she will prevail.

Talk of an Obergrenze isn’t the only reminder of the so-called refugee crisis. Then, too, many politicians and journalists warned that “die Stimmung kippt” — that Germany was reaching, or had already reached, a tipping point, after which a majority of Germans would reject the refugee policies of the Merkel government. Then and now, those predicting a soon-to-be-reached tipping point could point to opinion polls. In September 2015, a clear majority supported the Merkel government’s decision to admit asylum seekers whose claims should have been processed in Greece or Hungary. Six months later, that was no longer the case. Now, polls suggest that support for the restrictions imposed by federal, state and local governments is declining fast.

Public protests are the most visible evidence of a change of public mood. Since the beginning of the lockdown, local governments have prohibited large public gatherings. But in a country in which rallies have long been an important means of protest, it has proven difficult for the authorities to ban demonstrations altogether.

Take 1 May, a day that’s more than any other associated with noisy rallies. This year the trade unions cancelled their traditional Labour Day marches, but that didn’t stop others. In Hamburg, for example, the authorities issued permits for forty-three public protests, always with the proviso that organisers agreed to an Obergrenze (usually twenty-five demonstrators), a stationary format, everybody wearing masks and a 1.5 metre gap between demonstrators. In almost all cases, protesters obeyed these rules.

Elsewhere, wild protests have taken place without the prior approval of local authorities, along with rallies whose participants haven’t adhered to stipulated conditions. Nearly all of these protests were directed at the lockdown. They have continued even after many of the restrictions were removed.

The first of these protests was in Berlin on 28 March. Protesters gathered on Rosa Luxemburg Square and one of the organisers, the writer Anselm Lenz, handed out copies of the Grundgesetz, Germany’s constitution. In an interview he said that the state had formed an alliance with the pharmaceutical industry and digital technology companies to abolish democracy. Only forty people attended what was later dubbed the first Hygiene-Demo, but the crowds were larger at subsequent rallies. Last Saturday, the police tried to restrict access to the square to ensure that the permitted number of demonstrators — a mere fifty — would not be exceeded, whereupon more than a thousand demonstrators gathered at nearby Alexanderplatz.

The largest demonstrations have been held in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg, in the affluent southwest of the country. There, the first rally took place on 18 April — but only after Germany’s high court had ruled that a ban imposed by the local authorities had to be rescinded. Last Saturday, about 5000 demonstrators gathered at Stuttgart’s Cannstatter Wasen, a large open space that is often used for festivals. Following the court ruling, the Baden-Württemberg authorities have been less restrictive and had granted a permit for a 10,000-strong demonstration.

Some of these demonstrations have been marred by violence. On two occasions, journalists were attacked. On others, there were squabbles between demonstrators and police who tried to enforce the stipulated Obergrenze and social distancing rules.

Similar demonstrations have been held elsewhere: from San Francisco to Melbourne, and from London to Naples. In all these cases, they have attracted a motley bunch of protesters, including, among others, conspiracy theorists, people belonging to far-right fringe groups, anti-vaxxers and civil rights activists. In some instances, populist leaders — most notably Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro — have given them their blessing.

What’s specific to Germany isn’t the much-reported gatherings in Berlin and Stuttgart but the numerous protests in small towns in East Germany. I believe these are the manifestations of the discontent that has made politicians nervous and eager to end the restrictions sooner rather than later.

In Zittau, a town of about 30,000 in the southeast of Saxony, close to the borders with the Czech Republic and Poland, a Facebook group of people critical of the lockdown formed about six weeks ago. On 6 April, the group sent an open letter to the local media. Its twenty-four signatories bemoaned “massive and disproportionate human rights violations.” They claimed that the restrictions represented the kind of totalitarianism that had last been seen thirty years ago. During the weekly rallies in Zittau, demonstrators have shouted, “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people), the catchcry of the civil rights activists who took to the streets during the dying weeks of the German Democratic Republic in 1989.

Pirna is another medium-sized town in the southeast of Saxony. Like Zittau, Pirna is in an electorate where the candidate for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, came first in the 2017 federal elections. There, the first wild protest was organised on 22 April by a police officer who represents the AfD in the local shire parliament.

Last Wednesday, about 250 people turned up for the latest demonstration opposite the town hall. Two days later, Pirna’s mayor, Klaus-Peter Hanke, invited three of the protesters and Saxony’s minister for social cohesion, the Social Democrat Petra Köpping, to join him in a panel discussion live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube.

Köpping did most of the talking, trying to explain the rationale behind her government’s response to the pandemic. At the conclusion of the event, one of the protesters said he much appreciated the fact that the minister had provided a lot of information. Earlier he had complained that the information supplied by the government was contradictory and sometimes incorrect, but also somewhat proudly admitted that for the past few weeks he had stopped paying attention to news related to the pandemic.

Outside of Saxony, Köpping is known as the author of the 2018 book Integriert doch erst mal uns! (You ought to integrate us first!), which argues that many East Germans had been the victims of German reunification, and that their experience, including their humiliation at the hands of West Germans, had never been properly acknowledged. During the panel discussion, she followed the script recommended in her book: she took the protesters’ concerns seriously and implied that they were legitimate, spoke patiently and conveyed empathy.

Only once did Köpping lose her calm. When one of the panellists complained that the police response to the demonstrations in Pirna had been heavy-handed, she said that it had to be seen in the context of a general deterioration of political culture. She talked about the personal abuse directed at her, and then made a reference to the protests against refugees in 2015, suggesting that they and the more recent protests against the lockdown were comparable.

There are indeed parallels between the opposition to government policy in 2015 and the opposition to government policy now. In both cases, the protests were sometimes initiated and at other times instrumentalised by the far right. As happened in 2015, protesters have objected to not being consulted and to being disadvantaged by government policies. Misinformation campaigns, some of them led by Russian state-owned media, fuelled some of the protests in 2015. In 2020, stories that the pandemic is less harmful than the common flu or is a ploy by Bill Gates can be traced back to Russian sources.

In 2015, those opposed to the government’s refugee policy saw themselves (rather than forcibly displaced non-Germans) as victims. In 2020, too, protesters perceive government policy as a means to harm them rather than protect others. (Of course, if the rate of infections were to increase substantially, everybody, and not just people in aged care facilities, would be at great risk of falling victim to the virus.)

Recent polls suggest that the Christian Democrats have benefited from the current crisis. With its support dropping below 10 per cent, the AfD’s efforts to capitalise on any disquiet about the government’s measures have failed. By and large, so have other attempts to connect an anti-migrant message to the concerns about the recent restrictions.

The government’s response to refugees in August and September 2015 is now widely seen as a mistake, and this assessment informs government policy in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic today. About a week ago, Matthias Iken, deputy editor-in-chief of the conservative Hamburger Abendblatt, wrote that the federal government was at risk of repeating its errors from 2015, namely failing to abandon a policy “that was initially called for but which could not be sustained. In the same way in which a country can’t accommodate close to a million refugees within a few months, it can’t be put on ice for weeks.” Favourable approval ratings, a sympathetic media and admiration from Germany’s neighbours would once again turn out to be but a “fleeting blessing.”

This historical analogy implies that Merkel’s policy in 2015 was politically suicidal rather than logistically impossible. After all, eventually Germany met the challenge of accommodating the refugees successfully. The analogy also neglects the fact that the narrative about the refugee policy’s political impossibility may be true for some parts of the country, including the southeast of Saxony (where vehement opposition to that policy began well before Merkel’s approval ratings nose-dived), but incorrect for others. The idea that Germany reached, and then went beyond, a tipping point in late 2015 has been shaped by a focus on what happened in places such as Pirna that were not representative then and are not representative now.

It would be a mistake to assume that local unrest in Pirna and Zittau will be replicated in the rest of the country. Hamburg may be just as unrepresentative as Pirna, but it’s worth noting that of the forty-three protests held in that city on 1 May not one was about the lockdown. While it’s reasonable to weigh up the costs and benefits of measures designed to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, it would make little sense to let government policy be informed by a misplaced fear of popular discontent.

This is not to downplay the significance of the current demonstrations. The protesters may well radicalise, as happened during 2014’s anti-immigration Pegida marches in Dresden and 2015’s anti-refugee protests. But the anger that drives the protests now, particularly in the east of the country, needs to be understood as more than simply a response to the lockdown, in the same way that the anti-immigration protests have never just been about migrants. For that reason alone, it would be wrong to make extensive concessions to the protesters — and in the process perhaps risk Germany’s exposure to the virus increasing exponentially — in the hope of ending the discontent. •