Germany fears energy bills will give anti-lockdown extremists new lease of life

Interior minister says rising prices could be exploited by enemies of democracy

Anti-lockdown protesters in Leipzig last year, waving placards depicting politicians and health experts as guilty criminals. AFP
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German officials are concerned that high fuel prices will lead to a revival of the lockdown-era protests that brought a mixture of extremists, conspiracy theorists and frustrated ordinary citizens on to the streets.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said extremists looking to win support could make runaway household bills their new cause after nearly all coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

“There is a danger that those who showed their contempt for democracy during the pandemic, and were often together with right-wing extremists, will try to exploit rising prices as a new means of mobilisation,” she told Handelsblatt newspaper.

Stephan Kramer, the head of the state of Thuringia's domestic intelligence service, told the same newspaper that the protests during lockdown might seem like a “child's birthday” compared to potential unrest this winter.

Their remarks angered some politicians who said Ms Faeser was trying to silence dissent and that unhappy citizens were being unfairly maligned.

“Criticising the government is a democratic right. Only in dictatorships is it worth nothing,” said Erika Steinbach, a former centre-right MP who is now a member of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Politicians around Europe are braced for possible protests this winter. French President Emmanuel Macron, the target of months-long “yellow vest” riots in 2018 and 2019 that began as a rally against fuel costs, is on guard for a repeat.

In Britain, motorists recently brought traffic to a standstill by driving at a snail's pace over a bridge between England and Wales, while other protesters marched through London.

Many European politicians blame the Russian invasion of Ukraine for causing havoc in global food and energy markets, although the world's shuddering post-Covid recovery has also been blamed for high prices.

Janine Wissler, the co-leader of Germany's far-left Linke party, last week said the movement was preparing for a “hot autumn of protests” against energy bills and social injustice.

The German anti-lockdown protests that began in 2020 were viewed with much suspicion because of what intelligence officials described as their tendency to involve conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and violence towards authorities.

Protesters caused dismay by making dubious comparisons to the Nazi period, touching a nerve in postwar Germany, and at one point came close to storming into parliament.

After a man was shot dead at a petrol station in a row over face masks, politicians directly pointed the finger at the AfD for playing with fire by using inflammatory language about restrictions.

The AfD, whose leaders addressed anti-lockdown rallies, said protesters were being wrongly criticised, and described intelligence officials — who in some cases have put the party under surveillance — as politically biased.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 1:57 PM