Years after the Cold War ended, activists keep marching at Easter | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.04.2011
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Years after the Cold War ended, activists keep marching at Easter

German peace activists have been holding marches every Easter since the early 1960s. Although their numbers have waned in recent years, they remain committed to the cause and they can claim some success.

Peace demonstrators holding up placards in Berlin

Demonstrators will be back on the streets this Easter

The idea of holding a march for peace and against the use of nuclear weapons originated in Britain. There, the first Easter marches were held in the 1950s.

When the first chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, declared that nuclear weapons were nothing more than a "further development of artillery," German pacifists decided that it was time to take action. They took their cue from their British counterparts and started their own march - from Hamburg to Bergen-Hohne in the northern state of Lower Saxony, where US soldiers were then based. There, the demonstrators, dressed in suits and ties, were greeted with booing.

Former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer

Former Chancellor Adenauer inadvertently helped spark the marches

Andreas Buro, now 83, was one of the organizers of that first German Easter march. He remembers how a group of just 20 people braved the snow and rain to take to the streets on that chilly day.

"It was a case of constantly running the gauntlet," he said.

Taking part in an Easter march took a lot of courage in the early 1960s. Many people simply didn't dare express their political opinions in public. Andreas Buro quickly became accustomed to hearing things like: "I will take part in the march, but I'll join up with it after it has passed through my village."

Easter marchers in the minority

Many West Germans had their reasons for being reluctant to join the demonstrations: For the majority of West Germans at the time, the thought of protesting against the authorities didn't fit into their understanding of the world.

Andreas Buro still gets goose bumps when he thinks back to incidents when demonstrators found themselves surrounded by a throng of people who hurled verbal abuse at them.

"Sometimes I had no idea how to calm down the situation," he said. The argument was always the same: "If you don't like it, then leave, go over there."

Everyone knew what was meant by "over there" - it was communist East Germany, which, from a West German point of view, was an outpost of the Soviet Union, which represented all that was evil. The argument that quickly followed was that the Russians could invade West Germany at any moment, and then the country would have to defend itself.

A Russian Totchka missile

Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the fear of a nuclear war was ever-present

High profile supporters take marches to new level

Gradually, more and more high-profile West German groups began taking part in the Easter marches. Opposition groups that weren't represented in the West German parliament began taking part; left-wing, alternative and ecological activists and parties got involved. The more such groups joined the marches, the more other people were encouraged to do so as well, and gradually, public sentiment began to change.

The Easter marches began to attract more attention, and even those not involved began to sense that the demonstrators really believed they could make a difference with their actions. The marches became something of an escape valve for society. Even the well-known author Erich Kästner took part and declared that the protests were free of any political ideology. This was an important signal at a time when the Cold War was raging between the two superpowers, the United States and Russia.

A poem from that time went like this:

Are we marching against the East? No!
Are we marching against the West? No!
We're marching for one world,
Which has no time for weapons
Because that's the best thing for the world.

The 1980s saw the Easter marches reach something of a climax. At a time when there were plans to deploy intermediate range missiles on West German soil, hundreds of thousands of people took part in marches across the country to drive home one central demand: disarmament.

SPD politician Erhard Eppler delivers a speech in 1981

SPD politician Erhard Eppler criticized the government over its security policy

By then the marches had become major events, with city squares and rural fields transformed into seas of placards, carried by both young and old. Politicians began turning out to deliver speeches. One of them was Erhard Eppler of the center-left Social Democrats, who criticized the West German government's security policy.

"Military action involving nuclear weapons amounts to an offer to commit suicide," he said.

The Easter marches in West Germany, with as many as a million people taking part, helped the peace movement to grow internationally as well.

Easter marches do make an impact

By the start of the 1990s, the Easter marches were in decline. Different issues dominated the political agenda. Following the reunification of Germany, relations between the United States and a new, more open Russia had changed, and created a new world order. The number of people taking part in the Easter marches in Germany dropped significantly, as new issues took precedence, like demands that German soldiers be pulled out of Afghanistan.

But Willi van Ooyen, the current organizer of the Easter marches, believes the peace movement has not lost its relevance.

"One thing that we have achieved, is that each year, around 50 percent of those drafted into the military opt out as conscientious objectors," he said.

Winfried Nachtwei

For Winfired Nachtwei, the job isn't quite done

Winfried Nachtwei, the long-time spokesman for the Greens in the German parliament's subcommittee on disarmament, says there is a very concrete reason for peace activists to take to the streets again this Easter.

"The government still hasn't responded to our demand that the last remaining nuclear weapons be removed from Rhineland-Palatinate," he said. "So public pressure is still needed."

There is at least one indication that the long tradition of Easter marches has made an impact. Shortly after taking office in 2009, US President Barack Obama expressed his intention to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. That pleases people like Andreas Buro, and it's something he never could never have imagined possible during his first Easter march in 1960.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / pfd
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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