Were it not for the banners, it could have been a crowd gathering for an early opening of Leipzig’s Christmas market.
Then came the speeches.
“Please do not provoke the police and note that Russian flags or signs that show support for Russia’s armed forces are not welcome!” an organiser declared by loudspeaker at the event this month.
“Germany is serving as a puppet exclusively for American interests and those of Nato,” the first orator warned to the hundreds-strong crowd, a mix of students, families and pensioners. Some carried banners for the German left, some peace flags and some homemade signs drawing complex parallels between the nine-month war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic. As the anti-American rhetoric soared, the crowd applauded, jeered and whistled.
“The embargo policy against Russia has failed completely and is being directed catastrophically against ourselves,” the speaker continued, invoking the Holocaust and declaring the war in Ukraine a “paradise” for “warmongers, arms companies and profiteers”.
For several weeks every Monday evening — a nod to the regular protests in the 1980s against the Communist regime on that day in Leipzig — such rallies have taken place in dozens of towns and cities across eastern Germany.
Most are attended by a few hundred people, many by just dozens. But as with similar rallies elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, they point to a worrying trend for the region’s political mainstream.
In Germany, some protests have been organised by the radical left and some by the populist right, in a sign of how a deepening economic crisis, conflicted historical heritage and complex relationship with Russia are dissolving traditional political rivalries and fusing new movements opposed to the status quo.
In Leipzig, eastern Germany’s biggest city after Berlin, the hard left and hard right have often found themselves protesting together on Augustusplatz, separated only by a tramway.
“We want Nato warmongers to stop creating a conflict between Germany and Russia, between Ukraine and Russia,” said Sabine Kunze, a pensioner at the rally. She clutched a brown cardboard sign that read: “Peace with Russia.”
“We want normalised gas and electricity prices,” she added, rolling off a list of grievances, including that young children were being “set against” Russian children in kindergartens. “I don’t mind speaking to you because people need to understand we’re not Nazis,” she added. “We want peace.”
David, a 30-year-old unemployed man from Brandenburg, carried a cardboard picture of chancellor Olaf Scholz: “Jumping Jack,” it read, with “Biden’s War” printed on its reverse.
“Ordinary Germans are paying because America wants to interfere in Russia,” he said, adding that his bills were increasing and his chances of getting a job decreasing.
In rallies elsewhere in eastern Germany in the past two months, the messages have been strikingly similar, regardless of political hue.
“Energy security and protection from Inflation — our land first!” declared the banners at an October gathering in Berlin organised by Alternative für Deutschland, the established right-wing populist party. Some protesters waved Russian flags.
A recent parliamentary disclosure by German security services listed the campaign slogans at 23 rallies organised in September by the far-right Free Saxons. They included: “Nordstream 2, open it immediately!”; “Community not division!” and “Stop inflation, the war, and the corona madness!”.
“A lot of different grievances are becoming fused — very dangerously fused in democratic terms — in these protests, particularly in east Germany,” said Professor Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.
It was notable how anti-war sentiments were being channelled by populist movements that established themselves in opposition to restrictions imposed during the pandemic, he added.
However, he said, their spread was being slowed by the German federal government’s effective measures to help consumers and businesses cope with the impact of the war.
But the outlook, particularly with refugee numbers again growing sharply in Europe and cold weather setting in, is far from certain.
Even bigger anti-war protests have taken place in neighbouring Czech Republic, although pro-Russian sentiment there has often been refracted through local political issues.
In early September, 70,000 protesters gathered in Prague to oppose the government and Nato. Speakers at the demonstration were “pro-Kremlin, Eurosceptic” and sometimes connected with conspiracy websites, according to Petr Just, head of the political science department at Metropolitan University Prague. But, he said, their audience was “quite a diverse group and most of the people came to express their disappointment with the government’s handling of the current socio-economic crisis and energy crisis. Many of the people did not know they were being used by the pro-Kremlin groups.”
In Slovakia, polls have shown 19 per cent of the population preferring a Russian victory to a Ukrainian one, according to a survey published last month by the think-tank Globsec.
While public anti-war or pro-Russia street protests have been small, “this can change over the course of winter”, said Globsec policy director Dominika Hajdu. As in other countries, the Slovak protests “also unite different factions”, Hajdu added.
In fact, some analysts take heart from the fact that protests in places such as Prague have not got bigger since September, even as colder weather raises the impact of higher energy prices on households. This is likely to be seen as “disappointing for anybody in Moscow who wanted to see citizens disconnect from their governments”, said Milan Nič, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
But it is in Austria where anti-war messaging and pro-Russia sentiment appear to be enjoying the greatest currency.
Against the backdrop of an unpopular and divided central government dogged by corruption scandals, Austria’s populist Freedom party has clawed back voter support in recent surveys, having relentlessly blamed sanctions and hostility to Russia for the mounting economic hardship facing working-class Austrians.
“The entire issue landscape now speaks for the Freedom party,” said Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political commentator. “We’re not far from a situation where they could conceivably be first in the polls.”
In January’s regional elections in Lower Austria, many on the German radical right, which has built increasingly strong ties with its Austrian counterparts, will be watching closely.
“We have a clear message for the [government],” the organiser of the Leipzig protest shouted as the crowd began to move through the old city. “In Germany, insecurity and fear are rampant . . . Ukraine is being sacrificed on the altar of American interests . . . and we are standing up.”