German intelligence plans closer scrutiny of Covid protesters

Security services fear extremists could hijack demonstrations and drive radicalisation

Protesters hold up placards depicting politicians and health experts as prisoners during a demonstration in Leipzig, Germany. AFP
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A German intelligence agency wants to increase its monitoring of anti-lockdown protesters who are regarded as potential drivers of radicalisation.

Security services in northern Germany say protests linked to Covid-19 are opening the door for extremists with much broader grievances than merely opposing public health measures.

The agency is the latest to voice concern over an eclectic protest movement which includes conspiracy theorists, far-right activists and members of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

While generally peaceful, the protests have attracted concern because of their links to extremists, cases of anti-Semitic messaging, and ill-judged comparisons between coronavirus policies and the actions of the Nazi regime.

“These demonstrations definitely offer points of contact and there’s always the danger of radicalisation leading all the way to militancy,” said Torsten Voss, head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the state of Hamburg.

Shedding more light on the extremist protest scene “will be an important focal point of our work”, he told German media as he made the case for closer scrutiny.

Police officers try to stop a demonstration march near the main railway station in Munich, Germany. AP

Politicians have raised concerns over anti-vaccine holdouts as the country races to protect more people against the fast-spreading Omicron variant — which prompted a new set of restrictions for New Year's celebrations.

During the last weekend before Christmas, about 11,000 people protested in Hamburg against a vaccine mandate favoured by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. There were similar demonstrations in other cities.

Despite the protests, Mr Scholz’s government celebrated a success on Sunday when it reached a target of 30 million vaccines administered in December, most of them booster shots.

“We have reached an important milestone,” said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach.

One survey suggested that about half of unvaccinated people voted for the AfD in September’s general election, after party leaders fostered doubts about the vaccines. The AfD regards domestic intelligence services as politically motivated.

Another group linked to the protests calls itself Citizens of the Reich, a term referring to pre-1945 Germany that implies rejection of the modern German state.

Authorities in Hamburg said this movement had about 250 members in the city, a sharp rise since before the pandemic.

In a Christmas message, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised a “silent majority” who obeyed restrictions but warned against divisions caused by the pandemic.

“In a democracy, we don’t all have to agree. But let us please remember that we are one country,” he said. “We must be able to look each other in the eye even after the pandemic. And we want to live together even after the pandemic.”

Updated: December 27, 2021, 4:51 PM