A handful of environmental activists set out on Oct. 13, 1980 to prevent the Kronos Titan freighter from dumping poisonous acid into the Baltic Sea. Their protest was both successful and the start of German Greenpeace.
Attention-getting protests are still part of Greenpeace's repertoire
One group of activists tied their two life rafts in front of the Kronos Titan freighter, preventing it from motoring out to sea, and blocked the loading dock for the dilute acid the ship was meant to dump in the North Sea. Other activists deposited piles of sick and mutated fish in front of both the Bayer plant, which had disposed of its waste in the sea, and the Hamburg Hydrographic Institute, which had approved the disposal method.
Thus, a new branch of Greenpeace, in its ninth year internationally, was founded in Germany. The group didn't attract much attention here until, a year later, two of the environmental activists scaled and occupied a smokestack at the Boehringer chemical plant in Hamburg.
"We climbed the smokestack in protest and attached a banner to it that said, 'Only when the last tree is cleared, the last river is polluted, the last fish is caught, you will realize that one can't eat money,' because it contaminated the whole area with highly poisonous chemicals," explained Gerhard Wallmeyer, one of Greenpeace Germany's founders.
Greenpeace protesters tried to stop nuclear waste from being dumped in the Gorleben facility in Nov. 2004
The activists made headlines and, in subsequent years, the citizens' initiative became one of the most influential German environmental organizations. Nowadays, Greenpeace Germany says it has 180 employees and almost 2,700 volunteers, a large number of whom are children and teenagers.
Influential in larger scheme
In 2004, the group had around 41.5 million euros ($49.6 million) to spend on their spectacular protests. Over half a million donors have made Greenpeace Germany the richest Greenpeace branch in the world as well as one of most influential financial backers of the international head office in Amsterdam.
There Greenpeace makes all policy decisions, decides when and where to deploy its ships and coordinates international public relations. The Greenpeace head office devises campaigns focused on particular themes, such as nuclear energy, genetically modified food or the protection of endangered species, and the branches pursue the campaigns in their own countries.
Demonstrating at the EU Council building
In the 1990s, Greenpeace made large strides in its development into a strictly hierarchical, internationally active environmental organization. But the process didn't go smoothly. Critics complained that Greenpeace turned voluntary activists into servants with no influence and that the group gave people who backed them absolution from their bad consciences, a modern form of selling indulgences.
But Greenpeace countered that its vast number of supporters was proof that the new organizational structure had been accepted and that a clear chain of command was a practical way to ensure efficient decision making and successful action.
From activists to lobbyists
The group is now less visible on smokestacks and life rafts, although it does still launch attention-getting campaigns.
It was Germany's Thilo Bode, who headed the national branch in the early 1990s -- and the international organization from 1995 to 2000 -- who is credited with having pushed Greenpeace in a new direction -- namely, to take on the world. The group started lobbying international bodies, such as the UN General Assembly and global conferences.
Greenpeace protested against WMDs in March 2004 at the US Embassy in Berlin
Under Bode's command, Greenpeace Germany also took a new approach by developing technologies to cut emissions. In 1991, the group developed a method to bleach paper without employing environmentally harmful chlorine, which has since become standard in every printers shop. A year later, the German branch presented the world's first refrigerator that did not emit gases damaging to the environment -- which has also become a standard.
Developing the refrigerator was also a form of protest, and a very effective one, according to Wallmeyer. "Either you change or we will market (our development), become your competitor and show that one can make a more modern, more environmentally friendly technology," he said. "If someone doesn't behave in an acceptable fashion -- environmentally or socially -- he should feel it in his profits and we want to ensure that that's the case."