The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

While world leaders meet in Munich, antiwar demonstrators gather outside

People take part in a pro-Russian antiwar demonstration, during the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
4 min

MUNICH — Inside the meeting halls of the luxury Bayerische Hof hotel in Munich, world leaders on Saturday pledged to step up military support for Ukraine. But on the streets outside, thousands called for them to end it.

It was a reminder of the divisions that cleave Germany, where just over half of the population supports arming Ukraine. Around 10,000 demonstrators gathered at the southern German city’s majestic Königsplatz — one of more than a dozen demonstrations across the city — with the crowd including a mix of far right and far left, peaceniks and pro-Russian citizens.

A few carried Russian flags, but most prominent on signs was the anti-NATO and anti-American sentiment that has long bubbled on Germany’s fringes and has become more prominent over the course of the war, fueled by Russian propaganda.

The demonstrations draw a radicalized fringe, with the antiwar protests taken up by many of the same organizers as anti-lockdown demonstrations during the pandemic. But the decision to arm Ukraine still remains an uncomfortable one for many Germans.

In his speech to the security forum a day earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tried to assure Germans who might feel unease. “It is not our arms deliveries that are prolonging the war,” Scholz said. “The opposite is true.”

At Königsplatz, a stage had been erected in front of the neo-Classical columns of the city’s “Temple Gate,” modeled in part on the Acropolis in Athens.

“We ask ourselves whether NATO is really still good for Germany,” said Jürgen Todenhöfer, a former Christian Democrat parliamentarian known for his criticism of the United States. “We have to serve peace and not the Americans.”

Before his speech, the crowd had sung a refrain with the chorus “Ami Go Home!” a slogan against the American post-World War II presence in Germany that has seen a resurgence in demonstrations in recent months.

Women wrapped in peace flags danced along, as the lyrics urged the U.S. military to leave their air base in Ramstein, southern Germany and take with them “your Starbucks, your Amazon, your fracking gas.”

“There always unfortunately was — both on the political extreme right and the political extreme left — you always had some anti-American prejudice or sentiments,” said Michael Link, the federal coordinator for transatlantic relations at Germany’s foreign office. “It comes up sometimes more and sometimes less.”

The extreme left and right are trying to “capitalize” on that amid the debate over sending arms, he said. “The good thing is that you have a broad consensus between the democratic parties in Germany that we totally clearly stand together against this.”

Germans in general have also stayed steady in their support for the war in Ukraine, with expectations that the public might become more divided or fatigued over the course of the war not materializing, said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, senior adviser at the Bertelsmann Foundation, citing its polling.

Some 55 percent of the population support the government’s decision to give arms to Ukraine in December, it showed, only a 2 percent drop since March and recovering from a dip in the fall, when there had been fears that the war might cause energy shortages over the winter. That compares to a European Union average of 54 percent in support of arms deliveries, according to the poll.

“It’s still a stable majority,” she said. Groups that object to the war are minority movements that are too divided among themselves to have a real political impact, she said.

At a rally in the city held by the far-right Alternative for Germany party attended by a few hundred people in central Munich on Saturday morning, speakers called for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to be repaired. “Hopefully Putin will keep his nerves,” read one sign. Several demonstrators wrapped themselves in flags depicting the burning Stars and Stripes.

“The American government is forcing this war,” said Hans Strodl, 71, who had traveled to the demonstration with his 66-year-old wife Bettina. “They want us to send weapons and tanks, but they are far away, and we are near,” he said.

He blamed “NATO expansion” for the start of the war.

“We love America,” said Bettina. “But not the politics.”

Nearby, a group of masked protesters who described themselves as being from the far-left antifa held a counter-demonstration, calling the right-wingers fascists. They also held their own signs calling for an end to the war. “I know it’s confusing,” said one balaclava-clad demonstrator who declined to be named. “We are here to protest against them, but we also want the war to end.”

Afterward, the two groups scuffled.