“Fairly Old Hat” – An Interview with Wolfgang Kraushaar on a New Culture of Protest

Wolfgang-Kraushaar; © HISWolfgang Kraushaar; © HISPolitical lethargy would seem to be a thing of the past. Some 30 years after the last large-scale demonstrations against the “Establishment”, imperialism, nuclear power and the arms race, people are taking to the streets again to express their disapproval – and not only in Germany. In our interview, protest researcher Wolfgang Kraushaar talks about what appears to be a new lust for revolt.

Dr. Kraushaar, are the arguments and wrangling over the “Stuttgart 21” railway station project – in such an economically and socially robust region as Baden-Württemberg, of all places – genuine indications of a new political culture of protest? What is really new about this “civil protest”?

Not all that much. There are a few aspects which appear new to me. On the whole, however, the protest is dominated by the sort of phenomena with which we have been familiar for many years; these are now cited in connection with “Stuttgart 21” as being a supposedly novel form of “civil protest”. It is not without good reason that the late sixties and early seventies in Germany saw so many civil initiatives become established that people began to talk of a proper “civil initiative movement”. These, incidentally, never disappeared and have continued to exist right up to the present day. The “civil protest”, in other words, is fairly old hat.

The most surprising aspect of “Stuttgart 21” is probably the fact that the capital city of Baden-Württemberg, long labelled by many as a “boring, bourgeois metropolis”, has suddenly turned out to be a protest trailblazer. How has this been possible? I am still unable to provide any compelling and genuinely convincing answer to this question. A city like Stuttgart, so peaceful in economic and social terms, is actually a highly unlikely location for the sort of events which have been taking place for the past year in the vicinity of the main railway station, and particularly in Schlossgarten park.

One really new aspect of this movement would appear to me to be something that has more to do with the precise opposite, that is to say with something “old”. Unlike many other protest movements which tended to feature young, dynamic actors, in Stuttgart it is the older generation that predominates. Several studies have independently concluded that the 40 to 60 age group accounts for two thirds of the movement’s members. One study even claims that these are “old acquaintances” to the extent that most of them had already taken part in earlier protests against nuclear power stations, NATO’s double-track decision and other issues.

Referenda do not resolve any structural problems

© Colourbox.comWhat is your opinion of current buzzwords in Germany like “Wutbürger” (i.e. angry citizen) or “Mutbürger” (i.e. brave citizen) and of the chances of pacification by implementing reforms for greater rights of direct democratic codetermination?

Since one cannot have much of an opinion of buzzwords in general, there is no reason to make an exception in these two cases. The label “Wutbürger” created by the news magazine “Spiegel” appears particularly problematic to me given that it stigmatizes the Stuttgart demonstrators as being endowed with little reason, aggressive and instinct-driven. The fact that one of the magazine’s editors was allowed shortly afterwards to counter the “Wutbürger” with a character dubbed the “Mutbürger” was unable to redress the situation. The German Language Society (GfdS) chose “Wutbürger” as Germany’s “Word of the Year 2010”, allowing it to become a synonym for the opponents of “Stuttgart 21”.

Incidentally, it is not my view that the most serious problems facing contemporary society can be better dealt with by extending parliamentary democracy with referenda and other plebiscitary forms. Introducing nationwide referenda will not, for example, bring about more effective control of banks and financial capital, a trend reversal in the area of climate protection, fairer taxation and a cheaper healthcare system. I think it is a great illusion to believe that referenda can suddenly resolve the sort of structural problems which have previously defeated governments and political parties. This will not even be possible in a comparatively straightforward project like “Stuttgart 21”.

Virtually impossible to compare protest movements on an international level

© Colourbox.comPassions are running high not only in Germany just at the moment – from Greece to Spain, mass demonstrations have become an everyday occurrence all over Europe whenever people feel the need to express their displeasure with government policy and social conditions. Is it possible to talk already of an international trend?

So far I can only see evidence of such a trend in the Mediterranean countries where the social problems – as can be seen in particular from the exorbitantly high rate of youth unemployment – have assumed a quite different quality and can hardly be compared to the problems we face in Germany.

Perhaps the “Arab Spring” which we are observing in parts of North Africa and in the Near and Middle East could be seen as an expression of this supposed new culture of protest, just as was the case in former times with the "Prague Spring”, which was as it were the Eastern Bloc’s version of the 1968 revolt?

The rebellions taking place in the Arab states are indeed some of the most impressive phenomena of the present day. They illustrate the power protest movements are capable of exerting once they have largely penetrated a part of society – that part made up of young adults who are well-qualified but generally lack any future prospects. This culture of protest, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with the “Stuttgart 21” protest, as its roots and protagonists are entirely different.

Wolfgang Kraushaar, born in 1948, read political science, philosophy and German studies at the University of Frankfurt am Main. After completing his PhD under Iring Fetscher in 1982, he embarked on an academic career. Since 1987, he has worked at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), where he has devoted himself particularly to studying political protest movements in the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR. He is the author of numerous books on the subject.

Roland Detsch
conducted the interview; he works as a freelance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2011

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