Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has described the coronavirus pandemic as a “challenge to democracy”, with thousands of demonstrators opposed to the restrictions expected to march through Berlin on Saturday morning.
On Friday a Berlin court overturned the city state government’s ban on the gathering, dubbed the “Festival of Peace and Freedom”, saying it could go ahead with additional rules.
The demonstration – a march through the city and a rally at the Brandenburg Gate – is expected to attract more than 20,000 people from across Germany and Europe. A special guest will be Robert Kennedy jnr, son of the assassinated US politician and an anti-vaccine activist.
The Querdenken 711 group, organiser of the march, welcomed the overturning of the ban as a “complete success for us”.
“This is a success for the basic rights that we have and for which we don’t need authorisation,” said the group’s founder, Michael Ballweg.
Berlin’s justice minister, Andreas Geisel, issued the ban after a previous gathering on August 1st saw many demonstrators gather without masks in a city centre park. Mr Geisel argued that the marchers’ opposition to Covid-19 measures created a public health risk, while the likely attendance of extremist groups posed a risk to police.
‘Threat of violence’
“There is a considerable threat of violence, that worries us seriously,” he said.
Berlin’s administrative court dismissed the ban on Friday morning, saying it was “not clear” that the marchers would flout social distancing rules or attack police.
Organisers had presented city authorities with a so-called “hygiene concept”, the court noted, and would deploy 900 orderlies and a 100-strong de-escalation team.
The court ordered additional measures to prevent clusters of people gathering before the event stage, on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate, and told the city it was free to impose additional restrictions.
Germany’s two 20th century dictatorships, and the memory of drastic curtailment of political opponents and public gathering, means the post-war constitution sets the bar high for any attempts to curtail the right of assembly.
The Berlin court said a “simple suspicion” that the marchers would not wear masks was not good enough to justify a ban. “Otherwise an expression of protest in the form of a demonstration against the Covid-19 measures would not be possible,” it added.
Berlin’s city government appealed the ruling immediately to the state’s upper administrative court; a final appeal is possible to the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe.
Some 3,000 police have been assigned to oversee Saturday’s march. On Friday Berlin’s police chief Barbara Slowik warned her officers faced a twin threat: hooligans from extremist groups and marchers at the event from other European countries.
“People are coming from risk areas who we can assume, as opponents of corona measures, will have taken absolutely no precautions in the last months,” she said.
Stephan Katte, the officer in charge of policing the demonstration, said he would intervene quickly if – as on August 1st – demonstrators refused to wear masks or socially distance. He admitted the task posed a “considerable challenge”.
By Friday midday, Berlin police had received more than 5,000 applications for demonstrations on Saturday in central Berlin, stoking fears that the march could descend into chaos – or violence.
At her summer press conference, Dr Merkel insisted all of her government’s Covid-19 restrictions were based on the “best of one’s knowledge and belief” and that the situation in Germany – nearly 9,300 deaths and almost 1,600 new cases on Friday – “is and remains serious”.
Asked what she missed most in this pandemic era, she said: “Spontaneous meetings. Always having to ask yourself, ‘is this allowed?’”