Explained: What sparked the protest culture of modern Germany?

Though national stereotypes purport that Germans adore order and rules, Germany is not shy of protests and demonstrations. Here is a look at what sparked the protest culture of today.

Explained: What sparked the protest culture of modern Germany?
Protestors against rent increases in front of Hamburg town hall in May 2019. Photo: DPA.

Whilst Germany does not boast of a protest culture as strong and as long-standing as France’s, recent protest phenomena in Germany such as Fridays for Future or 'rent insanity' marches are evidence of the significant role of demonstrations for the Bundesrepublik.

We look at how Germany’s large-scale demonstrations have succeeded in achieving major social and environmental change – from the 1960s to today.

The student movement in the 1960s

Many consider the 1960s' student protests in West Germany to be a significant starting point for modern German protest culture. Against the backdrop of burgeoning student politicization throughout the western world, students in West Germany picked up their placards and mobilized in marches to express their outrage at the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the West German government.

Crucially, this protest movement saw the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) brought to the forefront of political life in Germany, alongside objections against issues such as curriculum reform, the Vietnam war and the influence of the right-wing press.

Students protest in Baden-Württemberg after the assassination attempt on revolutionary icon Rudi Dutscke of the student movement in 1968. Photo: DPA.

In autumn 1967, the vast majority of West German universities saw their students socially and politically mobilized. This marked a turning point for West Germany and forced the country to look more critically at its recent past as well as to deal with the guilt associated with it.

Whilst these protests were not wholly successful, this period saw a massive shift in the political consciousness of the West German youth and a move towards a more open discussion of National Socialism.

Montags Demonstrationen

Whilst the 1960s protests were specific to only West Germany and to the younger generation, the German Democratic Republic saw a larger and unprecedented social wave in 1989 when the Montags Demonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) started in Leipzig and spread throughout a number of East German cities.

These peaceful protests began under the auspices of Friedensgebet (prayers for peace) meetings at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, which eventually snowballed into widespread political dissent.

Leipzig's Nikolaikirche which became a prominent symbol of peaceful protest. Photo: DPA.

These meetings at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig had been occurring for around ten years by 1989 and a number of organizations such as Demokratie Jetzt (Democracy Now), Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening) and das Neue Fourm (New Forum) had sprung up to criticize the government and push for change.

The Beginning of the End

In autumn of 1989 East Germans were frustrated by and angry about the lack of freedom of movement and democracy in the GDR. The opening of Hungary’s borders in June 1989 saw a significant level of emigration out of the GDR in August of the same year and also planted the seeds of hope for a peaceful revolution in East Germany.

Monday evening demonstrations on the streets of East German cities took place over three months and gathered momentum rapidly; the relative lack of response from the authorities emboldened the population to fight harder for change.

Chanting the slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk,' (we are the people) 120,000 East Germans took to the streets on October 16th, 1989. By October 30th the numbers had reached 300,000.

Peace was a central tenet of these protests. It was by the suggestion of the pastor of Nikolaikirche that by carrying candles protestors could avoid violence as they would need both hands to hold the them.

Though many people think of discontent in Berlin and the immediate effect thereof when it comes to the fall of the Berlin wall in the autumn of 1989, the mounting pressure from cities such as Leipzig played a significant role in ending the GDR and opening of borders between East and West Germany.

Modern Monday demonstrations

An anti-Pegida demonstrator in Karlsruhe holds up a banner which harks back to the slogan of the 1989 East German peaceful protests. Photo: DPA.

Whilst Germans no longer need to protest for unity and democracy, the format of the Monday demonstrations and their spirit have remained a contributor to Germany’s protest culture today.

Demonstrators opposed to proposed Hartz IV reforms in 2004 arranged for their protests to fall on Mondays as democracy protests in East Germany had done before them.

These reforms pledged to cut back significantly on social welfare for the long-term unemployed. As East Germany faced, and continues to face, far higher rates of unemployment than West Germany, the majority of these new Monday demonstrations took place in East German cities.

The Monday evening demonstration format has also been appropriated and re-purposed by right-wing groups in Germany, such as PEGIDA. Many of these protests have also been taking place in East German cities where issues with unemployment have fuelled anti-immigrant stances.

Climate concerns

Just as East German protestors chose a specific day to voice their opinions, Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement has sparked a wave of change as monumental as those which began in the late 20th century in Germany. Similar to protests in the 1960s, this movement has mainly seen students in Germany, and other parts of Europe, as the main driving force demanding policy change.

Students in Hanover on July 5th partake in rallies as part of the Fridays for Future movement. Photo: DPA.

Germany has a long history of climate activism, often considered closely aligned with the concept of German angst.

Hambach forest near Cologne has been a centre of climate demonstrations as Germans have protested against the removal of the forest for the purpose of a coal mine. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Germans swarmed onto the streets to demonstrate against the use of nuclear energy, resulting in the phase out of atomic power in Germany.

Recently, Cologne became the first city with other one million inhabitants to declare a climate change emergency following the persistent activism of its residents within the Fridays for Future movement.

Rents and workers’ rights

Rising rent prices in Germany also cause a stir in Germany. Earlier this year there were a number of protests in response to the continual increase in rent prices in large German cities, notably Cologne, Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt.

Many protests regarding rent have focused in Berlin where rents have doubled over the past ten years and where the city’s left-wing tradition makes it hostile to the big businesses who are buying up land and hiking up prices in the nation’s capital.

This protest culture in Berlin reaches its peak every year on May Day trade unions and the Social Democrats organise rallies and protests which are paralleled by extensive demonstrations in Berlin.

Much of Berlin’s current revolutionary attitude and protest culture was cultivated by the events leading up to 1989 and the freedom in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.