“Are you a citizen or just one of the masses?” asks a man with a loudhailer on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, as demonstrators gather to protest against the government’s coronavirus restrictions. A recorded police message requests those present to maintain 1.5m separation, to which one older man responds by shouting “Bullshit!” as officers look on. Meanwhile an elderly woman on a mobility scooter races through the crowds, shouting “Terroristin Merkel!” over and over. As passers-by and journalists try to make sense of things, protesters hand out copies of the German constitution, yogis sit on mats meditating and counter-demonstrators share leaflets in support of the coronavirus measures. Asked why he came, one man says “I’m just worried. They ask you to stay at home and what next? The social distancing rules, they’re ruining our economy. The consequences will be terrible for the small people like us.”
This protest in front of the Volksbühne theatre last weekend was one of several anti-lockdown demonstrations taking place across Berlin, with gatherings having spread to Alexanderplatz and the grounds of the Reichstag building. On Saturday a total of more than 1700 people gathered at various “hygiene demos”, leading to clashes with the police, who made 131 arrests throughout the day. Under the current coronavirus restrictions, it is illegal for more than 50 people to gather for a demonstration.
These assemblies have since swept the whole of Germany, with thousands attending demos in Munich, Stuttgart and Nuremberg. And as their size and prominence has grown, so has the diversity of the people attending. What started in March as a scattering of arty leftists on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz has developed into a wild assemblage that includes conspiracy theorists, ageing communists, esoterics and anti-vaxxers right through to AfD members and even politicians from the far-right NPD party.
Anselm Lenz and the Volksbühne leftists
If anyone is responsible for the growth of these demonstrations it is Anselm Lenz, a 40 year-old journalist and playwright who is the frontman of Corona scepticism. Lenz co-founded the “Haus Bartleby” grouping of left-wing Neukölln intellectuals in 2014 and has worked staging plays at the Schauspielhaus theatre in Hamburg and as a freelance writer for the taz newspaper. Now under his banner organisation Kommunikationsstelle demokratischer Widerstand (Communications Office for Democratic Resistance, or KDW), Lenz and his allies are using the Volksbühne as a backdrop for their campaign against the government, which they say is using Corona to establish an authoritarian state.
Every week the KDW publishes a “newspaper” – giving the Volksbühne as its editorial address – claiming that “a dystopic digital and pharmaceutical cartel is coming to power” and that Germany “has evaporated into a de facto dictatorial hygiene regime”, with the “the big media institutions being brought into line” to enforce the measures. To Lenz and his KDW allies, this encroachment puts the German constitution itself under threat – hence why the Volksbühne protesters come armed with the document.
Lenz and his Bartleby allies, Hendrik Sodenkamp and Batseba N’Diaye, have long moved in Volksbühne circles – it’s no accident their protests take place in its shadows. The trio were one of the groups involved in a 2017 campaign to get rid of the theatre’s then-director Chris Dercon, where several leftist collectives took part in an several-day occupation of the theatre building in protest against what they saw as a business-friendly outsider selling out a radical left-wing institution. The protesters’ aim was to get Frank Castorf, the director who Dercon took over from and part of the Volksbühne’s old guard, back at the helm. Castorf recently joined Lenz in criticising government efforts to control coronavirus, describing the measures as a “campaign” in an interview with Der Spiegel.
The current Volksbühne administration is vehemently opposed to the protests happening in its front yard. Current director Klaus Dörr referred to the sceptics as “veritable liars and provocateurs” in an interview with Radioeins and the theatre has covered up the lettering on the front of its building and has hung huge banners with the words “we are not your backdrop” in a show of opposition.
The coalition widens
A key figure who has joined Lenz and co on the hygiene demos is Ken Jebsen, who runs the website KenFM. Jebsen used to be a presenter on RBB’s youth radio station Fritz but was fired after a series of outbursts that included claims that the Holocaust was a public relations stunt conceived by the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Now he addresses his followers via his own outlet, alleging in a widely viewed YouTube video that Bill Gates is behind coronavirus and that the pandemic is being used to force vaccinations on the population. Jebsen shares much of Lenz’s scepticism, and the two spoke together in a KenFM video made near a recent hygiene demo.
As the weeks have gone on, Lenz’s calls to gather in front of the Volksbühne have attracted a growing number of figures from the far right. So-called “Volkslehrer” Nikolai Nerling, an anti-semitic blogger and former Berlin schoolteacher, attended one of the gatherings, where amongst the materials being handed out were copies of Compact magazine, a publication under official oberservation in Germany for its xenophobic and revisionist reporting. The far right parties are also represented, with Marzahn AfD representative Gunnar Lindemann and NPD politicians Udo Voigt and Andreas Käfer paying visits to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.
But why would Lenz, who considers himself part of the left-wing “critical intelligentsia”, share a stage with such figures? He argues that his fight against Corona “must not be left [to the AfD and NPD],” in comments quoted by RBB. In its pamphlet, his KDW claims that the “right-wing extremist troublemakers” are “unwanted” at the demonstrations. Yet many of the ideas to which Lenz and the KDW subscribe find equal favour on the right of the spectrum.
The common ground
What unites this ideological ragbag is a distrust of the government and press. Observers speak of a new Querfront, a historic term that refers to the uniting of the radical left and the far right which, in pre-war Germany, led to the downfall of the establishment Weimar government. Lenz references a “politically conformist media” – a repackaging of the “Lügenpresse” mantra long associated with far right groups like Pegida – while Ken Jebsen similarly calls on his followers to shun the mainstream news. On May 1 members of a ZDF camera crew were attacked with metal bars by a group of twenty-somethings in black hoodies only a short distance from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz protest, leaving crew members and security guards with injuries needing hospital treatment. While the motive for this attack remains unclear, a further assault last week on a group of ARD journalists at an anti-lockdown demonstration by the Reichstag building underlined the hostility that certain protesters feel towards the media.
For sceptics of all stripes, everything about the pandemic points to a deep-state plot: broad support for the government’s measures is a sign not of societal consensus, but of a population being ruled by an unchecked government and the media. Germany’s relatively low coronavirus death rate is not confirmation that the restrictions are working, but rather proof that they weren’t needed in the first place.
Lenz was arrested at his May 1 demonstration after throwing a pile of his pamphlets at police, and he has now been fired as a writer by taz. Undeterred, he continues to summon his Saturday demonstrations which can now be seen in cities and towns across the country. And with the rate of coronavirus transmission starting to rise once again, federal and state governments are on standby to tighten up measures again – something the sceptics will fight with renewed vigour.