Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

It was an image that shocked a nation and reverberated across the world. On August 29th at 7:30pm right-wing extremists stormed the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin, waving the Reichsflagge, the flag of the German Empire, championed today by neo-Nazis (the Swastika is banned in Germany). Two police officers were all that stood between them and the German parliament itself. The President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it “despicable.” A spokesperson for the Angela Merkel spoke of “shameful images.”

The storming of the Reichstag by right-wing extremists was a side-show to a larger protest in Berlin that day. The organisation “Querdenken 711” (‘lateral thinking 711’) held a demonstration against the federal government’s coronavirus prevention policy – objecting to mandatory masks and social distancing and calling the measures “unconstitutional”. This event drew an estimated 38,000 people.

Most of those people went out of genuine concern for their country – and alarm at the policies of the incumbent government. One protester was quoted by the Süddeutsche Zeitung as saying “For people who think like me, it is almost impossible to express oneself anywhere but the internet and these demonstrations.”

This is what protests are for. When people feel unable to express their concerns about public policy, they take to the streets. It is an important part of a healthy democracy. Right now, people are celebrating protests against police violence and racism in the United States. Much of the world stands with demonstrators in Belarus calling on their authoritarian leader to step down. But in Germany, the protests were met with alarm.

Largely, this is because the protesters were flouting coronavirus measures such as physical distancing and the wearing of masks. This should come as no great surprise – after all those are what they are protesting against. But there is an underlying clash of two fundamental rights here: the right to assembly and the right to bodily integrity. Which trumps which?

For the German government, the answer is clear. The protests in early August were allowed as long as protesters stuck to guidelines. They did not. Based on that precedent, the protest on August 29th was banned. That ban was swiftly challenged and overturned in court. For some, the actions of the German government and in particular Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s Innensenator (state minister for the interior) were concerning, mirroring similar bans on the grounds of health concerns floated by dictators.

On the day itself, things were ugly. Along with the libertarians, anti-vaccineadvocates and concerned citizens, the demonstration on August 29th attracted far-right activists, Reichsbürger (a right-wing movement, literally ‘Reich Citizens’) and neo-Nazis. It was a group of these that broke through the barriers and ran up the steps of the Reichstag.

Many protesters seemed to have no problem allowing themselves to be associated with right-wing extremists (some claimed they did not know they were there). That is dangerous. It is also bad for their already negative public image. That image was torn to shreds by the Reichstag storming.

Demonstrations during a pandemic are difficult. A balance must be struck between sticking to health guidelines and respecting the right of assembly. The subject of these protests made them particularly controversial. The original ban was considered to be setting a dangerous precedent, but was later vindicated for many by subsequent events.

The sight of right-wing extremists waving fascist insignia on the steps of the Reichstag was something Germany did not want to witness. The protesters who were associated with them may plead innocence, but gave them a platform for expression – and were soon upstaged.