The Iraq war and the reawakening of the German peace movement

Throughout the world, protests against the Iraq war continue unabated. In Germany, too, a movement has arisen against a new armed conflict in the Persian Gulf: “No War!” is the credo that now unites pacifists of all colours. The peace movement is resurrected; but what political goals does it now stand for? And above all: what is its attitude to the regime in Baghdad? An analysis by Heinz Dylong, Deutsche Welle.
Foto: AP
Greenpeace protest in Berlin

​​In the course of its various activities, the German peace movement seems almost predestined to face the same old clichés and accusations. "Naiveté" and "anti-Americanism" are among the classics in the repertoire of its critics and opponents, and it isn’t terribly hard for them to get away with it; for the German peace movement has neither an address nor a phone number, and none of its supporters carry membership cards. Instead, it’s a heterogeneous collection of sometimes-permanent peace groups, various organisations from the left and alternative spectrum, and many, many individuals who choose to get involved in one cause or another.

There can be no doubt that their ranks include some who have a shallowly anti-American mindset or who hold other highly questionable positions. Even so, it’s nonsense to stick an "anti-American" label on the German peace movement per se; and the only people entitled to speak of naiveté are those who can demonstrate that thinking in military terms is necessarily logical or always rational.

First of all, it’s a fact that the German peace movement vehemently opposes any war in Iraq – and has so far done so by purely peaceful means. It’s equally clear that criticism of the US government is presumably at least permissible. Moreover, it should be recognized that the large majority of those involved in the peace movement most certainly do have the intellectual capacity to make distinctions: to discriminate between the current policy of the US government (on the one hand), and American society as a whole (which inevitably has its good and bad sides). For it’s possible to acknowledge that the American nation has many great qualities while also feeling that its policies are brazenly wrong.

Furthermore, hardly any of the so-called "peace activists" see themselves as defenders of Saddam Hussein. To most peace protesters, Iraq today is no more of a model than was the Soviet Union twenty years ago – at the height of the protests against the upgrading of American medium-range missiles in the old Bundesrepublik. And just as opposition to the death sentence does not entail acquitting murderers, opposition to war in Iraq by no means implies the wish to see Saddam’s regime survive.

Whether in its German, European, or (far from negligible) American manifestations, the peace movement will always find itself performing this kind of balancing act. Curiously enough, peace activists are repeatedly expected to justify their opposition to war – while also being required to declare that this doesn’t mean they support "the other side". This situation has little to do with honest intellectual debate, and a great deal to do with political cant. (…)

At the "Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung" ("Social Science Research Centre Berlin"), Dieter Rucht pursues research into political protest. As he sees it, the rejection of war is what unifies the peace movement. "Were one to ask more specifically about which actual measures should be taken, were one to go in search of differentiations – then this spectrum would fall apart", says Rucht. As a consequence, it’s impossible to reduce the peace movement to any simple common denominator. Its ranks include some people who go beyond "normal" demonstrating, for example by taking part in sit-down protests. And the oft-repeated accusations of anti-Americanism can at best be brought against a minority of peace activists. "Anti-Americanism", however, has to be distinguished from a rejection of the US government’s policies; and as we face the threat of war in Iraq, this is practically a sine qua non. At present, the German Federal government is making things considerably easier for the peace movement. "In a broad sense", says Professor Rucht, "the peace movement supports the direction the government is taking." Yet there’s certainly also scepticism around, as well as criticism of the policies of the Chancellor and the government. Manfred Stenner works for the "Netzwerk Friedenskooperative" ("Cooperative Network for Peace"), one of the organisations permanently involved in the peace movement – and he certainly has his criticisms of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. As Stenner sees it, with the recent EU declaration no longer ruling out force as a final means, and with the Chancellor agreeing to NATO’s plans for Turkey, Schröder has shifted somewhat from his formerly categorical "No". Stenner continues: "We’ve long been critical of Chancellor Schröder for not following up on his rhetorical "No" with any really concrete actions." Nevertheless, at the demonstrations in Berlin in mid-February, one thing was clear: large sections of the peace movement are pleased with the fact that, on the Iraq issue, the Federal Government of Germany has at least not led the country into the same camp as George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Heinz Dylong, © 2003 Deutsche Welle

Translation: Patrick Lanagan

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