Postcard from Berlin

31 August 2020  /  Updated 31 January 2021

This weekend I went to Berlin to attend a protest entitled “Berlin invites Europe – Festival for freedom and peace” organised by Querdenken, an organisation based in Stuttgart, who organised several protests with the aim of “reinstating fundamental rights and repealing the COVID-19 restrictions”.

Before attending the protest, I visited the Berlin Story Museum to see an exhibition called “How could it happen?” about Hitler’s rise to power, and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We were instructed to wear masks at the entrance – and we meekly complied. However, the bunker was very hot and I found it difficult to breathe, so while no one was watching and no other tourists were nearby, I let the mask slip under my nose.

About three minutes later, an enormous, grey-haired security guard charged into the room, put himself between me and the information I was reading (much closer than 1.5 metres), and glared down at me. He informed me that he had seen that my mask was not covering my nose through the security cameras he had been monitoring, and that this was against the museum’s policy. I was so intimidated by this giant masked man appearing three inches from my face, that I was left speechless, took a few steps back, apologised and obeyed. That all this happened in a museum condemning the tyrannical Nazi dictatorship struck me as ironic.

We went to the protest at about 12.30pm, an hour and a half after it had begun. There were thousands of peaceful protesters around the Brandenburg gate and all along the Straße des 17. Juni and Unter den Linden. People were holding signs comparing the 8,000 German COVID-19 deaths to the 25,000 flu deaths in 2017–18 and questioning the measures enforcing masks and social distancing.

Many people carried signs with “peace” and “love” written in German and English, and a few protesters were handing out flowers and putting them on police cars. The protesters have been derided by the media as right-wing extremist, conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis, and several people held signs which read: “Sorry I’m not a Nazi” or “Where are all the extremists?”

At 3.30pm the speeches started. By this point thousands of people were filling the entire length of the Straße des 17. Juni between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate (2km), as well as Der Große Stern, the giant central square in the Tiergarten where the stage was set up. There were also huge numbers of protesters behind the Victory column on the Straße des 17. Juni heading west away from the Victory Column. Protesters spilled into the Tiergarten at the request of the organisers who announced several times that we needed to spread out into the garden or police would shut down the protest. Aerial footage shows the overwhelming crowds, but even this cannot show how many people were in the Tiergarten under the trees and in side streets. It took us over 25 minutes to walk from the Victory Column to the Brandenburg gate, and the whole street was full of protesters.

Several reports said that the protest was broken up by police on the day. However, that’s untrue and it would have been impossible for the police to enforce the break-up of such a large crowd. Authorities in Berlin had previously banned the protest, but this was overturned by a court the day before. Police on Unter den Linden did announce to crowds that the protest was cancelled at about 1.30pm, to which a few protesters chanted schließt euch an (join us) and Wir bleiben hier (we’re staying here). However, the protest continued, and there were further police announcements from the main stage 2.5km away that the protest could continue as long as everyone remained 1.5 metres from each other. The speeches began at 3.30pm and were allowed to continue with many thousands of onlookers until after sunset.

The first speeches emphasised that this was a peaceful demonstration that did not support right-wing extremism or violence. The crowd cheered this announcement. It also cheered the police to thank them for allowing the protest to take place. The organisers then read out some of Germany’s fundamental rights, which they said were being denied by the emergency response to the pandemic. The organisers were keen to promote their message of peace, love and freedom, and they cooperated with the police by asking people to maintain their distance.

The media reports of the event focussed on right-wing extremism, conspiracy theorists and a couple of hundred people who, according to the press, tried to storm the Reichstag. This is not what I saw. I saw only one 5G sign, and one or two flags of the old German empire in a sea of thousands and thousands of normal people and their families holding signs about peace and freedom and questioning the reaction to the virus. The media reports of this event in both Germany and the UK has been entirely dishonest. An honest reporter would have documented the many speakers and their key messages. They would have shown the friends and families sitting, socially distanced, in the centre of Berlin cheering for peace, love, freedom and democracy. This was not reported, and I find myself wondering why.