Author: Nina-Kathrin Wienkoop
In November 1983, the German Bundestag voted in support of the 1979 NATO double- track decision. It marked a significant shift in German security policies, after the Helmut Schmidt-led coalition government had already fallen apart a year earlier. Notably, it was also a crucial political opportunity to mobilise for peace.
Four decades later, in 2022, Germany saw what may have been the largest wave of peace protests since the demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. Within a few weeks, several hundred thousand people took to the streets to call for peace. In Berlin alone, more than 100,000 activists came together to rally for peace in Europe on 27 February.
The re-emergence of large-scale mobilisations for peace due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that people are willing to take collective action for the value of living in peace. In addition to the geographical proximity and the fact that we are politically involved, the consistent reporting by conventional media and the flood of self-recorded videos by those living in the war zones have contributed to this new wave of largescale peace protests.
What has changed?
Even if social media helped to boost the visibility of the war and the mobilisation against it, the fact that people are publicly committed to peace has been a continuous part of the protest history of Germany since World War I. The biggest mobilisations to date were the peace protests staged during what were called the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Under the motto “No to Nuclear Armament”, more than a million people gathered in 1983 all over West Germany to oppose the NATO double-track decision.
Along with enormous protest rallies on the streets, activists in decades past used a wide range of protest tactics, ranging from sit in blockades to event-based protest forms such as street theatre performances (Becker- Schaum et al. 2020). Contemporary movements, by contrast, tend to overrely on less disruptive protest tactics such as mass demonstrations. This is particularly true when activists are protesting not against their domestic, but against a foreign government. In Germany, this observation could be made during this year’s peace protests as well as during the peace protests against the Iraq war in 2003.
A similarity, however, could be seen in their broad alliances of diverse actors and linkages to energy politics and environmental concerns. Back in the 1980s, the groups that advocated for disarmament were almost congruent with those that opposed nuclear power. Because, after all, nuclear plants are needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. Today, we again see this linkage between war and energy supply policies, although the framing has not yet been dominant in activists’ claims.
But unlike the environmental movement, which gave rise to influential organisations such as Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) and Greenpeace, this institutionalisation has largely been absent in peace protests. Peace movements continue to lack a resource-rich, institutionalised foundation or central leading movement akin to the Fridays for Future environmental movement. Instead, broad alliances of trade unions, environmental groups, campaign networks, church organisations, social associations and, often, political parties come together on an ad hoc basis. As in the case of the mobilisation against the war in Ukraine, they are united by a kind of minimal consensus to be in favour of peace and against war.
What is new is that this minimal consensus no longer includes opposing rearmament. The peace movement was previously united on the need to “create peace without weapons” and opposed the government position. Some even opposed parliamentary democracy overall. Activist groups today are disunited over their stance towards the government’s policy to deliver arms to the Ukrainian military. It has already led to initial fragmentation and the exclusion in February 2022 of the Ukrainian diaspora organisation Vitsche from the speaker’s podium at their mass rally. The minimal consensus of the need to stop the war and mobilise assistance still covers up larger divisions within the Green Party in the German Bundestag and the civil society organisations close to them, but has already caused splits within the Left Party.
What will peace protests look like in the future?
But as 2022 unfolds, only a few large-scale protests remain, such as those in late September that have been called by Fridays for Future. So far, the intersecting crises we face have not translated into a new wave of mobilisation. But when it comes to the current challenges in terms of energy supplies and economic distress (resulting both from the pandemic and war) as well as the heating and water shortages in Europe, one plausible scenario in the months to come will be a remobilisation.
As people become more directly affected by socioeconomic and climate consequences due to rising gas and food prices, this will provide renewed political opportunity to mobilise for peace. However, this will only happen if activists are able to link these issues with values of democracy and peace. Within the pandemic, including in Germany, people have experienced how democratic liberties cannot be taken for granted. The same holds true for the invasion of Ukraine: people in Germany are beginning to realise that peace is always vulnerable and at risk.
If activists are able to find a common position on those interrelated questions, it opens up a window of opportunity to build an even broader alliance that is united on the need for collective action on civil liberties and economic justice and their connection to peace politics. As things stand, activists face the challenge of redefining their goals and setting a new long-term agenda for peace. For instance, is peace the absence of violence, or should our aim be to bring about “positive peace” that resembles the claims by youth-led environmental groups today (Bowman/Pickard 2021)? This kind of common ground would allow members of the Green and Left Party to reunite and overcome their fragmentation, given that inherent concerns for the Greens revolve around democracy and climate issues and that the Left Party is focused on socioeconomic justice.
The precondition for such an outcome is, however, that activists engage in consensus-building and exchange to develop their understanding of peace, democracy and economic justice. Social media and communication tools such as WhatsApp may help, following the example of Fridays for Future. What is needed to kick-off such a process, however, is a single organisation or group that takes the lead. So far, there are no signs of a new peace movement, but rather individual political campaigns and protests. This makes such a process less likely.
Another plausible scenario is that there will be further splits within the Left and Green parties that have failed to put this confrontation on their internal agenda. Evidence suggests that the more people here who are negatively affected by the consequences of the war, the fewer there will be who care about the situation elsewhere. If these two forces come together, they could bring about a demobilisation of large-scale protests for peace and feed into demands for different energy policies.
The exact pathway peace protests take will therefore be determined by the extent to which activist groups and political parties are able to overcome their fragmentation. For many social movements, the pandemic has been the time to focus back on relationship-building and their collective identity (Chenoweth 2020). For those activists who understand themselves as activists for peace, now should be the time to allow renewal.
New political opportunities are at hand, but only if bridging and bonding of diverse values by the groups convinces enough people to support their cause. The potential is huge, since questions of peace and war have – and will – always be inherently environmental, democratic and social questions.
Nina-Kathrin Wienkoop (@NWienkoop) is a member of the Institute for Protest and Movement Research and an associate at the German Center for Integration and Migration Research.
Becker-Schaum, C./Gassert, P./Klimke, M./Mausbach, W./Zepp, M. (2020): The nuclear crisis: the arms race, Cold War anxiety, and the German peace movement of the 1980s, New York: Berghahn Books.
Bowman, B./Pickard, S. (2021): Peace, protest and precarity: making conceptual sense of young people’s non‑violent dissent in a period of intersecting crises, Journal of Applied Youth Studies 4, 493–510.
Chenoweth, E. (2020): The future of non-violent resistance, Journal of Democracy 31 (3), 69-84.