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Germany

Easter Peace Marches Lose Some of Their Steam

Germany's traditional Easter peace marches, which kicked off on Friday, date back to 1960. But as times change, their popularity ebbs and flows.

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Peace activists traditionally take to the streets over Easter

Over the Easter holidays, many Germans take to the streets protesting for peace, brandishing signs with messages like "No to the War in Iraq!" or "We don't want Germany taking part in a War!"

While the tradition is more than three decades old, it reached its peaks in the second half of the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, when fears about a possible third world war brought people out en masse. In Bonn, the capital of West Germany, almost one million people demonstrated against nuclear arms on the grounds of the city's Hofgarten palace.

But today, drawing even half that number of people out on the streets of Bonn for the protests would be difficult, even though there is a war going on in Iraq and some reports say the US could be preparing for a bombing campaign in Iran.

"I don't like to take part in the marches, even though I think they are good things," said one person in Bonn's shopping district when asked about the upcoming demonstrations. "I think that marching just out of some tradition isn't that useful just because it's a tradition," said another. "Demonstrating doesn't really help that much," added a third.

Whether it is because of busy schedules or just a degree of apathy, the popularity of the Easter marches has fallen off.

A different era

But Manfred Stenner, head of the Bonn-based Peace Cooperative Network, remembers when times were different. Back in the 1980s, the Easter marches meant non-stop action, organizing information stands, moving sausage stands that blocked emergency exits, arranging for transportation costs for a choir that was coming from out of town, and much more.

Ostermarsch in Ruppiner Heide, Brandenburg, Demonstration gegen einen Bombenabwurfplatz der Bundeswehr

Protesting a bombing range in Brandenburg

"But at one point, the program got going and I was standing together with all these people, and I was happy," he said. "Man, the feeling that you had put this all together was simply great."

Stenner, 52, is unswerving in his support of peace and the traditional marches, even though he admits that fewer people take part in them today than did in their glory days. His organization provides information about Germany's many peace groups, collects data and acts as a contact source for those working or interested in the peace movement. The work is financed through donations and proceeds from a newspaper the group publishes. Stenner himself earns 800 euros ($969) per month.

Conflict not close enough

Many observers say they don't expect record numbers of people to demonstrate this year, even though the simmering nuclear conflict with Iran is the focus.

"That is not enough to bring people out," said Berlin social science professor Dieter Rucht, who added the popularity of the marches have always experienced peaks and valleys. "The topic is too far away and leaves most people rather cold."

In 2003, the US-led war in Iraq was enough to mobilize large numbers of people but since then, only the dedicated core of protestors have shown up with their banners. Rucht says a certain protest fatigue can be felt. And with the drop in participants, there is less media coverage and the political influence of the demonstrations tends to shrink.

Still, despite the current lull, Stenner said he is sure interest in the peace movement will be return at some point. Christoph Butterwegge, political scientist at the University of Cologne, agreed.

Ostermarsch Demonstration in 1982

In the early 80s, the peace marches experienced a new burst of popularity

"I think it's normal that these kinds of social movements that are deeply rooted in a society, move in waves and have their ups and downs," he said. "People have other things keeping them busy, like taking care of their families. They can't always devote themselves to peace work."

He said that at the beginning of the tradition, Christian and pacifist groups demonstrated against nuclear arms out of moral conviction. In the 1980s, fears about nuclear war brought hundreds of thousands out on the streets. Part of the reason was that the line between east and west ran through Germany and people felt a possible conflict flash point was there within their own country.

"This consciousness was more present than it is today, when the front line is not longer there," he said.

Don't write them off yet

Still, activists said rumors of the marches' demise are premature. More than 70 demonstrations are still planned for this weekend, more than anywhere else in Europe. Kristian Golla, also from the Peace Cooperative Network, is optimistic about the number of participants, saying he expects the same number this year as last year, around 30,000. But even if fewer come out, it's not the end of the world, he said.

"The numbers can depend on very trivial things, like the weather," he said.

The forecast for this weekend includes rain.

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