Thousands of people have taken part in a demonstration in central Berlin to protest against giving more weapons to Ukraine, urging the German government to deescalate the crisis by paving the way for negotiations with Vladimir Putin instead.
Police estimated there were 13,000 people at the Uprising for Peace, at the Brandenburg Gate, organised by Sahra Wagenknecht, a renegade member of the Links party, and veteran feminist campaigner Alice Schwarzer.
The organisers claimed as many as 50,000 took part. Similar demonstrations took place in other German cities.
In a speech at the protest, Wagenknecht spoke of “the start of a citizens’ initiative” and a “starting signal for a new, strong peace movement in Germany”. She said the demonstrators had been united by the fact they did not feel represented by the government of Olaf Scholz and his foreign minister Annalena Baerbock over their decision to provide Ukraine with weapons.
Protesters carried banners reading: ‘Helmets today, tanks tomorrow, the day after tomorrow your sons,” in reference to the manner in which the coalition government has increased its military support for Kyiv, initially donating 5,000 helmets and more recently agreeing to send German-made Leopard II tanks.
Other banners read: “Diplomaten statt Grenaten (Diplomats instead of grenades)”, “Stop the Killing” and “Not My War, Not My Government”.
“We are like the slaves to war and the warmongers,” said Norbert, a former soldier, declining to give his surname, who held a banner reading “The real enemy sits in the City of London and New York,” a reference he said to the financial powers who he claimed were behind the war and had no interest in it ending. Germany, he said, had no right to participate in another war, after the second world war.
One man held a banner on which he said people had been numbed into accepting the war by the sedative effects of the coronavirus vaccine. Around the demonstration, loudspeakers blasted peace songs such as John Lennon’s Imagine and Nena’s 99 Red Balloons.
A woman called Edith, carrying a large portrait of the Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi, said: “We should follow his example of nonviolent resistance to bring an end to this madness.”
Elsewhere, other nearby demonstrations showed sympathy for Ukraine, with banners reading: “Stop Putin’s War” and “Help Ukraine Defend Itself”.
A poster held by a group of anti-fascist demonstrators pointed out how Wagenknecht had put warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine down to media propaganda, stating in a TV broadcast on 20 February, 2022: “We can be happy that Putin is not like he is presented as being, namely a crazy Russian nationalist who is intoxicated with the idea of shifting borders. If that was the case, then negotiations would probably be pointless.”
A group of Ukrainians wrapped in their country’s flag outside the nearby Russian embassy held up posters and slogans including, “Not delivering weapons to Ukraine is the equivalent to genocide support”.
Roman Overko, from the Ukrainian city of Lviv who now lives in Berlin, said: “The idea of negotiating is naive. How do you negotiate with such enemies of humanity? You can’t talk to them like normal people. Putin is a second Hitler.”
Yevhen Titarenko, a Ukrainian film director in Berlin to present his documentary Eastern Front, shot on the frontline with a volunteer medics battalion, said before the demonstration: “The demonstrators say they are pacifists. Well, I’m a pacifist too. But imagine someone’s trying to blow your doors down, if you don’t shoot back, they’ll just kill you, take all you have, rape your wife, kill your children. To make an agreement with a clinically mad old guy makes no sense.”
Baerbock was singled out at the demonstration as the government member with the most responsibility for drawing Germany deeper into the conflict. Participants angrily shouted “Baerbock raus” – or Baerbock out – during and at the end of Wagenknecht’s address. Scholz and the pro-business FDP’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the Bundestag defence committee, who has pressured the government to deliver more military support, were also criticised.
Wagenknecht said her main motivation was to bring to an end the “terrible suffering and dying in Ukraine”. But that meant offering Russia negotiations, she said, “instead of a never-ending war of attrition with ever newer weapons”. She said her childhood fears of a nuclear war in the 1980s had been revived by the current conflict. The risk of the expansion of the war across Europe and possibly the world was “very big”.
Two weeks ago Wagenknecht and Schwarzer had published a “Manifest for Peace” in which they urged Chancellor Scholz to “stop the escalation in weapons deliveries”. It has so far been signed by about 650,000 people, including prominent intellectuals and political figures.
They had been criticised in recent days after suggesting that “anyone whose heart beat for peace” would be welcome to the demonstration, after far-right groups expressed their desire to attend.
On Twitter, the far-right populist AfD party posted a picture of Jörg Urban, its chairman for Saxony, at the Brandenburg Gate, next to the symbol of a dove of peace, stating: “A year after the start of the war we finally need serious efforts towards peace negotiations instead of more escalation!” It added it was “alarming” that those who called for peace were being discredited as traitors.
Jürgen Elsässer, editor-in-chief of Compact, a magazine directly representing the AfD, was also present. Police intervened at the start of the demonstration to break up a scuffle as anti-fascist demonstrators tried to exclude him and his entourage.
The leadership of Wagenknecht’s own party, Die Linke, distanced themselves from the event.
The Social Democrats’ Katja Mast accused the organisers of “serving Russian propaganda”.
Christian Lindner, the finance minister, condemned the rally, saying: “Those who don’t stand at Ukraine’s side are standing on the false side of history”.