The wave of demonstrations against the Alternative für Deutschland is no surprise, given Germany’s postwar history.
The most recent protest wave in Germany has tempted international observers to ask whether the country has lost its course and is nudging away from its celebrated consensual political culture. Since the beginning of the year, it has seemed as if the entire country has been united in protest.
First doctors’ surgeries closed, then farmers blockaded roadways and government buildings, railrway workers have repeatedly gone on strike and this week airport and public-transport employees have been striking. At the same time, streets and squares are full of people demonstrating ‘for democracy’ and against a surging populist and extremist right. The pro-democracy protests involve many never seen at demonstrations before.
Yet the stereotype hitherto of a German who is a lacklustre protester is hardly deserved. The country has in fact a very colourful history of public protest.
True, Germany has not seen many general strikes, compared with Belgium, France or Italy—the last took place in 1948, still during the military occupation before the Bundesrepublik was founded the following year. Back then, millions took to the streets against currency reform: the introduction of the later much-celebrated Deutschmark caused stinging inflationary pressures, while wages were not keeping pace. A large-scale popular uprising in Communist East Germany in 1953 was also sparked by social issues. This and the peaceful revolution of 1989-90, which swept away the dictatorship, exhausts the list of society-wide protest mobilisations since 1945.
Nevertheless, Germany has a lively protest tradition. The German language is full of protest-related terms, such as Montagsdemos (Monday demos) and Wutbürger (irate citizens) and now even Klimakleber (literally ‘climate glue’, referring to a group of ecological activists who have been sticking themselves to roads).
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Tractors were already rolling loudly through the old federal republic during the 1960s and 70s. In 1987, 20,000 farmers demonstrated against Helmut Kohl’s government, as well as the agricultural policies of the then European Economic Community, under the graphic slogan ‘Farmers dead—people in need’. Lorry drivers have blockaded time and again, as for example in 1984 when they barricaded the Austro-German border near Kufstein, causing a monster traffic jam stretching all the way to Bolzano in Italy. And for 20 years the metal workers’ union (IG Metall) fought for the 35-hour week, with 70,000 strikers in 1984 alone—it reached its goal only during the early 1990s.
Protests ‘against the right’ and ‘for democracy’ are also firmly established. A wave of anti-Semitic smearing of swastikas on synagogues across the country led to robust civil-society reactions in 1959-60. From 1968, anti-fascist demonstrations regularly targeted events organised by the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, which at the time won just under 10 per cent of seats in several state parliaments. Many later protested against the electoral successes of the right-wing Die Republikaner around 1990.
Lethal racist violence, including against asylum hostels, was also a focus of protests—involving for the first time, visibly and self-confidently, individuals with a migration family history. The highlight in December 1992 was the Lichterketten (chains of light), which attracted 400,000 participants in Munich alone. And the ‘migration summer’ of 2015 generated not only the ethnic protests of Dresden’s far-right Pegida but also street actions against xenophobia.
Time and again, strands of protest overlapped. During the Kohl era, in 1983 massive protests against cuts in the welfare system came together with renewed strikes by shipyard and steel workers.
Yet the peace movement against the modernisation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s nuclear arsenal eclipsed everything that had gone before. It culminated on October 22nd, 1983: hundreds of thousands formed a human chain in southern Germany, stretching from Ulm to Stuttgart, while hundreds of thousands more protested in the then West German capital of Bonn and elsewhere. For years, the peace movement continued to protest against the stationing of nuclear missiles in the small Swabian village of Mutlangen, where a United States military depot was regularly blockaded until the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty led to the dismantling of all medium-range nuclear missiles—Soviet as well as US—in central Europe.
Under the ‘red-green’ government of Gerhard Schröder, as part of the global outcry, another peace movement formed against the US war of aggression in Iraq in 2003. At the same time, there was large-scale resistance to the ‘Hartz’ reforms (stemming from a commission led by Peter Hartz), which attempted an overhaul of the German welfare state. While these reforms were later credited with the economic upswing of the 2010s, ‘Hartz IV’ in particular hurt many unemployed and those dependent on welfare.
Trade unions organised days of action and the signature ‘Monday demonstrations’, which had brought down the East German regime in 1989, were revived. In the Rhenish industrial city of Leverkusen, a bus strike in 2004 lasted a record-breaking 305 days. Under Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, ‘Occupy’ and youth protests followed the global financial crisis and the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011. Trade-union mobilisations and hectic anti-globalisation activism came together.
Indicator of upheaval
Protest has always been an indicator of upheaval and crisis in society, as during the 1970s and 80s in West Germany or in the post-unification republic. In recent times, large-scale and interlocking transformations have provoked unrest in various countries, including the rise of a populist, even neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist, right. The ecological and digital modernisation of Germany, with its impact on the media and political communication, is augmenting perceptions of crisis. A federal government often haphazard in its communication strategies has not helped soothe such feelings.
Several of the recent protests have a basis in the economic difficulties Europe as a whole has been experiencing. Inflation—actually lower in Germany than in some other European countries—has been interpreted as a sign of the limits of a German business model that has not yet recovered from the economic fallout of the Russian attack on Ukraine. The recent strikes by train and bus drivers are only in part about wages: they often concern working conditions, too.
In Germany, the old fear of decline is rampant, as China, India and the US seem to be swooshing by. We have been here before, as during the 1980s when the Japanese car industry and Californian start-ups were reinventing industry for the information age. Back then, Germany was in grave fear of falling behind.
Street protest bundles social fears, hopes and expectations. One link in the current chain of protests in Germany is its broad ‘status quo’ orientation: most of those taking to the streets are not drawn from the excluded or disenfranchised minorities. Rather, this is the ‘social middle’ of those who have something to lose: farmers who fear cuts in their European Union and national subsidies and workers who feel the enormous pressure of a ‘flexible’ economy in which everything is supposed to be immediately available to everyone. Pressure on small and medium-sized enterprises is generated by well-intended regulation, necessary for climate and digital transformation. This however drives tradespeople, nursing staff and teachers crazy and keeps them from doing their ‘real work’.
The pro-democracy demonstrations, though, are defending a greater good—the established, democratic order against its enemies. For Germany, it is a good sign that a large majority of its population have taken to the streets to defend their democratic state.