The gathering, estimated by police at 17,000, included libertarians, constitutional loyalists and anti-vaccination activists. There was also a small far-right presence with some marchers carrying Germany’s black, white and red imperial flag.
Protesters danced and sang ‘We are free people!’ to the tune of rock band Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’. Others marched with placards saying ‘We are making a noise because you are stealing our freedom!’ and ‘Do think! Don’t wear a mask!’.
“Our demand is to return to democracy,” said one protester who declined to give his name. “The mask that enslaves us must go.”
The protests followed a rallying call from Michael Ballweg, an entrepreneur and political outsider who has organised similar rallies in Stuttgart and is running to become mayor of the southwestern city.
Police filed a complaint against the organiser for failing to ensure marchers wore masks and kept their distance. Mainstream politicians criticised the protesters, with Social Democrat co-leader Saskia Esken calling them “covidiots”.
“They not only endanger our health, they endanger our successes against the pandemic,” tweeted Esken, whose party is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner.
After Germany’s initial success in curbing the pandemic, infections are rising again. More than 200,000 people have caught COVID-19 and nearly 1,000 have died from it.
Most people in Germany have respected measures that include wearing face masks in shops, while the government has just imposed mandatory tests for holidaymakers returning from high-risk areas.
But a vocal minority is chafing against the restrictions.
“Only a few scientists around the world who follow the government’s lead are heard,” said protester Peter Konz. Those who hold different views “are silenced, censored or discredited as defenders of conspiracy theories”.