The burning issues at the Easter marches across Europe this year are countless, running the gamut from the war in Iraq to the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Germans circle for peace
Back in the early 1980s, the annual Easter marches were among the most important meeting places for people who identified with the German peace movement. They protested vociferously against the nuclear weapons race and warned of nuclear catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators would gather at the events. But in recent years, the demonstrations have suffered from waning popularity.
The last time a major Easter march took place was in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. A few years on, the events had declined again, drawing just a few thousand demonstrators. But last year, with the threat of the war in Iraq, the peace movement began drawing huge numbers to its events. Last February, several million people around the world protested against a military attack against Iraq. When it came time for the Easter marches, however, the U.S. had already declared that the official war in Iraq had already ended.
Nevertheless, the Iraq war played a major role in the Easter marches, and it is again this year.
"The war created a situation where more hatred against the West has emerged in the Arab World, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Manfred Stenner, head of the Network of the German Peace Movement. In his opinion, that has done more to promote terrorism than to minimize it. Nor do military solutions provide the answers. This year, the group is taking to the streets to encourage the world's governments to use civilian as a means of solving the world's crises and conflicts. Stenner said his group would criticize the German government for the size of its defense budget. "There's hardly anything left for civilian means in (German) foreign policy," he said, adding that he would like to see a chunk of the €24 billion defense budget rerouted into more peaceful methods.
Calling for a politics of peace
At the same time, Stenner also conceded that the peace movement doesn't currently have any panacea solution to stem the escalating violence in Iraq. Nevertheless, this year's Easter demos are intended to send out the message that many people demand that their politicians adopt peaceful policies and reject war as an acceptable means of crisis solution.
Britain spawns a movement
In that sense, the thinking behind the marches still remains true to its origins. The first traditional European Easter peace march was held in 1958 in Britain under the direction of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. The demonstrators marched 80 kilometers from London to a nuclear research center to protest against nuclear proliferation. Other countries followed with similar marches, including Germany, which started its Easter march tradition in 1960, where a majority of the peace movement followers believed in both an ethical and religious form of pacifism.
By the end of the 1960s, the number of participants in the annual event in Germany had swelled to about 150,000 people, most of whom had been motivated by the Vietnam War. Over the years, the Easter marches became a catch-all for a number of different political directions -- some less appreciated than others. They included the German Communist Party, a West German party sponsored by East Germany, whose participation quickly drew fire. The criticism, especially after the violent repression of the "Prague Spring" movement in Czechoslovakia through Warsaw Pact troops led to a temporary suspending of the Easter marches in West Germany.
A nuclear nightmare
A 1982 Easter demonstration in Germany protesting the stationing of U.S. nuclear warheads in West Germany.
The marches laid dormant for more than 10 years, first reemerging in 1979 following the decision by NATO to station mid-range American nuclear missiles in West Germany. The move was meant to counter the Russians' decision to point Soviet SS-20 missiles towards Western Europe. Fear was the order of the day.
"There was the threat of nuclear holocaust," recalled Stenner. "Because with the nuclear missiles, in the midst of the most nervous times of the Cold War, nuclear war really was a prospect at our doorstep. We were all feared for our own lives and the survival of humanity." But today is a different story, he said, now the peace movement wants to become a partner in policymaking and not leave the most important questions up to parties and politicians.
Despite the newfound impetus, Easter marches have steadily been declining in numbers since the early 1990s. During the first Gulf War of 1991, close to 100,000 participated, but afterwards the number of participants sank to about 10,000 each year -- a decline organizers attributed to a fundamentally changing political situation and diminishing fears of the nuclear threat.
But peace movement leaders are holding out hopes that the numbers will rise this year. In recent weeks, more and more Germans have united in anger over the Iraq war and economic reforms that have led to major cuts to the country's social system. "It's been a real marathon of demonstrations," said Stenner. On the other hand, he conceded, there comes a point where people just get tired.