The generations of Germans aiming to protect peace | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.10.2018
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The generations of Germans aiming to protect peace

Many Germans are concerned by US President Trump's threat to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty. Germany's well-established peace movement dates back to the days of the German Empire.

The genesis of Germany's peace movement

The origins of Germany's peace movement date back all the way to the 19th century. In 1892, Bertha von Suttner was among those who founded the German Peace Society (DFG) umbrella organization to represent all pacifists in the German Empire at the time. Several decades later, it merged with groups representing conscientious objectors and renamed itself the German Peace Society - United War Resisters (DFG-VK). It remains one of the biggest organizations of its kind today.

Germany's peace movement, however, really began gathering momentum in the mid-20th century when fears World War III could break out were at their highest. Separated by the Iron Curtain, former West Germany and East Germany marked part of the dividing line between Western NATO states and the eastern Warsaw Pact alliance and would likely have been decimated had the Cold War turned hot.

Read more: Prepare for a 'new Cold War' without INF, Russia analyst says


Heinrich Böll at a protest in Bonn in 1968 (picture-alliance/dpa/UPI)

Tens of thousands took to Germany's streets to push for peace in the 1960s

Nuclear scientists speak out against German nuclear weapons

In 1955, exactly 10 years after the end of World War II, West Germany reestablished its armed forces, now called the Bundeswehr. Large parts of the country's population, however, objected to the remilitarization. Two years later, 18 highly esteemed nuclear scientists, among them Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg, published a manifesto criticizing West German government plans to acquire nuclear weapons. The protest letter helped catalyze the "Fight Nuclear Death" movement, which built on a broad alliance of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), unions, the Protestant church and others. By the late 1950s, as the SPD began shifting more towards the center of the political spectrum and away from calls to do away with capitalism, independent civil society actors began driving the anti-nuclear movement. In the early 1960s, annual Easter marches for peace began being held with protesters calling for an end to the Vietnam War and lambasting the German Emergency Acts, which granted West Germany's government far-reaching powers in times of crisis.

Read more: Donald Trump's INF exit: Masterminded by John Bolton, to Russia's benefit

A US Pershing II missile with a sign reading We gave peace a chance (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Melchert)

Many opposed stationing US nuclear weapons in Germany

Major rallies against nuclear arms race

By the 1980s, Germany's peace movement — now largely backed by the Greens, unions, parts of the SPD and various churches — became a vocal critic of the ongoing nuclear arms race between the United States and its Soviet counterpart. In 1980, the movement issued the so-called "Krefeld manifesto," which demanded the West German government rescind its permission for new US nuclear-armed cruise missiles and Pershing II weapons systems to be stationed on its territory. The protest movement ultimately grew into the biggest mass movement Germany had ever seen, in part because both West Germany and East Germany would have sustained extreme destruction in case of all-out nuclear war between both superpowers. When the West German parliament agreed to the deployment of the US nuclear weapons in 1983, mass protests ensued. More than 1 million people attended four simultaneous peace rallies across West Germany, demanding governments pursue arms control and disarmament schemes. In East Germany, a peace movement — independent of the one-party state — emerged as well.

Deutschland Köln Friedensmarsch von Muslimen gegen islamistischen Terror (Getty Images/S. Schuermann)

Germany's peace movement expanded in the late 1990s to fight racism and xenophobia

After German reunification

The widespread fear of nuclear annihilation faded with the end of the Cold War when Washington and Moscow signed various disarmament treaties. Germany's peace movement gradually shifted its attention to the fight against arms exports, then expanded to address the problem of racism, and began championing the right to asylum.

Read more: A sign of peace: The iconic anti-war symbol 60 years on ​​​

In the early 1990s and 2000s, several hundred thousand peace activists took to the streets of Germany to protest against the first and second Gulf War, respectively. The movement never, however, regained the kind of following it had during the 1980s. US President Donald Trump's threat to pull out of the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, meanwhile, could well change that.

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