German protest culture ignites social change | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.10.2010
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German protest culture ignites social change

Germans may not be as quick to form a picket line as their French neighbors. But citizen protests are still an important, if unconventional, part of setting the nation's political agenda.

Demonstrators in Stuttgart

Thrifty citizens say the 'Stuttgart 21' project is too expensive

For weeks, massive protests against the planned redevelopment of the Stuttgart train station known as Stuttgart 21 have flooded the German media with images of angry demonstrators. While it's too early to say what effect, if any, the protests will have on the planned multi-billion euro railway project, the history of citizen protest in Germany shows that large-scale demonstrations often succeed in affecting social change.

The first important postwar citizen activism in West German began in the late 1960s. The student movement in the West criticized what many saw as the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the government, combined with the failure of their parents' generation to adequately deal with the country's Nazi past.

Those protests are the basis of German protest culture, said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in at the Free University in Berlin, who experienced the protests first hand.

Rudi Dutschke

Dutschke survived a shot to the head in 1968

"You have to remember that the first German trials against the guards at Auschwitz started in the 60s," he pointed out. "The protests dealt with the deficit of political and cultural heritage in postwar Germany."

The movement gained traction in 1967, when a student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed at a protest in West Berlin by an undercover officer. The next year, an attempt to assassinate popular student leader Rudi Dutschke pushed some in the student movement toward leftist violence, leading to the political terrorism perpetrated by the Red Army Faction in the 1970s and '80s.

Generation 1968

The student movement led to further social activism and changes in values, from the gay rights movement, to the sexual revolution and the founding of the Green Party.

It was the beginning of a new kind of democracy, says politician Knut Nevermann, who was a law student in West Berlin in the late 1960s.

"It was a change from a state concept of democracy to a social democratic concept," Nevermann said. "I believe that the principle of critical and democratic consciousness in Germany had its origin there ... It's a huge success."

Demonstrators clash with police at Wackersdorf

Police were criticized for their violent response at Wackersdorf

The "success" didn't end there.

Environmental issues became a rallying point for civil activists starting in the 1970s.

The biggest-ever environmental protest in West Germany took place in the early 1980s, when opponents to nuclear power staged massive demonstrations against a planned nuclear reprocessing plant in the Bavarian town of Wackersdorf. The 1986 nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl power plant in the Soviet Union further strengthened the anti-nuclear activists. It led students to join with local farmers and stage dramatic protests, which left several demonstrators and officials dead, hundreds injured and resulted in thousands of criminal cases.

Due to the civil action, the project was ultimately abandoned, and Wackersdorf became a symbol of citizens challenging the nuclear industry and winning.

"In the collective memory of the movement, Wackersdorf is a victory - a victory of the movement against the Bavarian government, the federal government and the nuclear industry," said Gero Neugebauer.

'Education for free'

Students at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt lay on the floor in protest

Tuition at most German universities costs about 500 euros ($688) per semester

Last year, German students took to the streets and occupied university lecture halls throughout the country demanding that recently introduced tuition fees be scrapped. They also protested against the introduction of Bachelor's degree programs, which they said forced them to rush their studies and required an unreasonable amount of work.

While not as widespread as the student protests of the 1960s, their cries for education reform did not fall on deaf ears. At some universities, such as in Bamberg, the tuition fees have been reduced.

Author: Sarah Harman / Arne Lichtenberg
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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