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.
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.
"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.
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."
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'
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.