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German Easter marches held in shadow of Ukraine war

April 16, 2022

Thousands rallied for peace in dozens of cities as part of a German Easter tradition that spans decades. Protesters urged Berlin to reverse plans to hike military spending after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Protesters in Hanover hold up banners calling for an end to the Ukraine war
The Easter peace marches in Germany date back to the 1960s and the war in Ukraine has reignited their popularityImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

Thousands of peace activists gathered in cities across Germany on Saturday for their traditional Easter marches, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine front and center.

Around 1,200 participants gathered in Berlin, according to police figures, while a similar number joined a march in the northwestern city of Bremen.

Hundreds of demonstrators also gathered in Hanover, Munich, Cologne, Leipzig, Stuttgart and Duisburg. Additionally, dozens of marches were held in smaller towns across the country.

A protester in Munich waves a banner with the Ukrainian flag and a white dove — a peace symbol
The war in Ukraine brought thousands onto the streets for the traditional Easter peace marches, including in Munich (pictured)Image: Angelika Warmuth/dpa/picture alliance

More than 70 events were held nationwide, with organizers boasting a higher turnout than in recent years.

What was the theme of the marches?

This year's marches were held under the motto "Lay down your arms! — Stop the war in Ukraine!" with many demonstrators carrying banners demanding an end to the conflict.

Protesters in the city of Jena held up a banner saying 'No to War'
Protesters in the city of Jena held up a banner saying 'No to War'Image: Bodo Schackow/dpa/picture alliance

"Our demands for peace and disarmament are more relevant than ever. especially in light of a possible nuclear escalation," said Kristian Golla of the Network of the German Peace Movement.

There was also strong opposition among protesters to plans by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to substantially boost military spending after years of cutbacks.

Shortly after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Scholz announced plans to boost defense spending by €100 billion ($113 billion).

Many protesters waved banners opposing such a move with slogans such as: "Those supplying arms will harvest war."

Easter peace march protesters in Berlin carry a huge banner through the city
The Easter peace march in Berlin attracted around 1,200 peopleImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

What are the German peace marches?

Germany's Easter marches began with a demonstration in Hamburg in 1960.

The demonstrations stem from protests against a nuclear weapons research facility in Britain in the mid-1950s.

The Easter marches reached their peak in support between 1968 and 1983.

Annual events throughout West Germany brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets to demonstrate against issues such as Washington's military involvement in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race.

In recent years, they have regained their momentum in advocating for peace and nuclear nonproliferation.

German cities have also staged several anti-war protests since the conflict began on February 24.

Protests court controversy

Several politicians questioned the messaging of the marches, including Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who said the protesters should realize that pacifism was “a distant dream” at the moment.

"There can and will only be peace if Russian President Vladimir Putin stops his war of aggression," he told reporters.

Former Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse also criticized the slogan "Make peace without weapons," telling public broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk that the message would be seen as arrogance by the people of Ukraine.

The neoliberal FDP's foreign policy expert Alexander Graf Lambsdorff went further, labeling the participants "Vladimir Putin's fifth column" — a reference to subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation's solidarity.

Ukraine's ambassador to Berlin Andriy Melnyk also hit out at the marches on Twitter, insisting they “have nothing to do with Easter or with peace.” He accused their supporters of living in a “parallel world.”

But Sevim Dagdelen, a politician of the Socialist Left Party, praised the protests as "an important signal for ending the war." She accused those who want to deliver more and more weapons to Ukraine of "betting on escalation and risk being involved in the war. This madness must be prevented."

mm/jcg (dpa, EPD, KNA)