Merkel, Muslims and immigration: right and left square off on the streets of Berlin in rival protests
The AfD march marks the first public show of strength by the nationalist outfit since it became the largest opposition party
Thousands of demonstrators for and against the far-right faced off in mass rival rallies in Berlin on Sunday, where calls of “We are the people” were met with chants of “Go away, Nazis” and techno music.
Police officers were deployed to keep groups apart and prevent clashes, as far-left militants vowed to “sabotage” the march by the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
On Twitter, Berlin police said they had to use pepper spray to stop “demonstrators from trying to break down barriers” separating the rallies at Berlin’s Leipziger square. They also announced bridge closures to avoid AfD demonstrators running into opponents.
The counter-demos, organised under the banner “Stop the hatred, Stop the AfD”, were triggered by a call from the far-right party for its supporters to march in the capital “for the future of Germany”.
According to police, “several thousand” AfD supporters answered the call, assembling at Berlin’s main train station shortly after midday before making their way to the iconic Brandenburg Gate.
Many of them were waving Germany’s black, red and gold flag and carrying blue balloons, the colour of the AfD.
Their chants of “Merkel must go” and “We are the people” were occasionally drowned out by whistles, jeers and outstretched middle fingers from counter-demonstrators in side streets cordoned off by rows of police.
The AfD march marks the first public show of strength by the nationalist outfit since it became the largest opposition party.
Scheduled to address the crowd are top AfD figures Joerg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland, who regularly rail against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow in large numbers of mainly Muslim refugees at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.
“Merkel caused such chaos,” 41-year-old AfD member and teacher Christine Moessl said. “Now we know that many Islamists were among the refugees and they have no respect for women. We need to be safe.”
After initially predicting 10,000 AfD supporters would show up, organisers later said they would be happy with a turnout of 5,000.
Berlin AfD chief Georg Pazderski said ahead of the march that many still feared being “stigmatised” for showing their AfD colours, even after the party took nearly 13 per cent of the vote and won its first seats in the national parliament in last year’s elections.
Thousands joined the main counter-demo, staged by an alliance of political parties, unions, student bodies, migrant advocates and civil society organisations.
Walking under a hot Berlin sun, supporters waved rainbow flags and carried banners with messages like “No to racism” and “Go away, Nazis”, while chanting “the whole of Berlin is against the AfD”.
One of the loudest counter-demos was organised by some 100 clubs from Berlin’s legendary techno scene, who were using boats and floats on the river Spree and a convoy of DJ-carrying trucks to “bass
away” the AfD.
“The Berlin club culture is everything that Nazis are not,” they said in a statement. “We are
progressive, queer, feminist, anti-racist, inclusive, colourful and we have unicorns.”
Although the vast majority of counter-demonstrators are expected to be peaceful, members of the far-left extremist Antifa movement have on their website called for “chaos”, urging sympathisers “to sabotage the AfD rally using all necessary means”.
Berlin police have deployed 2,000 officers, drafted in from across Germany, to keep the peace.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, the AfD rose to prominence by capitalising on widespread anger over the arrival of over a million asylum seekers in Germany since 2015.
It now holds more than 90 seats in the Bundestag where its presence has changed the tone of debate.
Just this month, AfD co-leader Alice Weidel earned herself a formal rebuke from the parliamentary speaker for describing immigrants as “headscarf girls, welfare-claiming, knife-wielding men and other good-for-nothings”.
Merkel’s left-right coalition government has responded to the AfD’s rise by tightening asylum policies, but the party continues to climb in opinion polls.