Breach of law out of protest Civil Disobedience in Germany

The Helgoland “invaders” of 1950
The Helgoland “invaders” of 1950 | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / dpa

Civil disobedience is part of the fundamental repertoire of protest in Germany. In 1950 there was already a spectacular action that gave the history of an island a new twist.

After the Second World War, the fate of Helgoland seemed sealed forever. Completely destroyed by bombing, the German deep-sea island was uninhabitable. The surviving residents were evacuated. The depopulated island served henceforth as a bombing practice range for the Royal Air Force. Over Christmas 1950, two students, Georg von Hatzfeld and René Leudesdorff, protested against this state of affairs with so-called “Helgoland trips”. Joined by a small group of companions, they “occupied” the island. On 3 January 1951, they were arrested and brought back to the mainland. But the spectacular action had sparked a debate among the British and German publics and in the parliaments of both countries, which ended in the restitution of Hegloland to Germany and its reconstruction.

Against nuclear power and for peace

In Germany, civil disobedience – a citizen's conscious breach of law out of protest – experienced a heyday beginning in the mid-1970’s. On 18 February 1975, hundreds of demonstrators occupied the construction site of the planned nuclear power plant in the Baden town of Wyhl am Kaiserstuhl. The grounds were temporarily cleared by the police using water canons, but the nuclear power opponents proved to be very stubborn. Over the years the citizens of the region continued to put up resistance against the construction of the power plant – in the end with success. Wyhl became a symbol and model for the anti-nuclear protests of the Federal Republic. Also for the resistance against the plans for a nuclear waste disposal site in Gorleben in Lower Saxony and the annual shipments of nuclear waste containers, the so-called “Castor casks”, to the already existing interim storage facility in Gorleben. Activists there regularly chain themselves to the railway tracks or undermine the tracks to block shipments.

There was also massive civil disobedience after the NATO double-track decision on nuclear missile upgrading in December 1979. Spring 1983 saw a series of blockade actions against military depots in Germany. The blockade of the American depot at Mutlangen in September 1983 attracted considerable international attention; many prominent scientists, artists and writers took part, including Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass.

Resistance to big construction projects

There is also a tradition of civil disobedience in Germany against big infrastructure projects, such as the Frankfurt “Runway West” in the 1980s, when demonstrators tried to prevent the planned expansion of the airport by building a village of huts. In recent times, most noteworthy has been the protest against the train station project “Stuttgart 21”, in the course of which demonstrator occupied the Stuttgart Schloßpark, which the police were able to clear only by the wholesale use of water canons. Similar protests were repeated several times.

Clearance of the Stuttgart Schlosspark on 30 September 2010; source: YouTube


The significant civil disobedience against “Stuttgart 21” did not in the end succeed in preventing the project, but it did ensure that the planning was disclosed in detail, discussed and in part altered in an arbitration process, and finally voted on in a referendum on the project’s continuance.

Anger and solidarity in the “crisis”

In reaction to the waves of the global financial crisis since 2008, a movement has formed in Germany, like almost everywhere else in the world and particularly in the states most affected by the euro crisis, directed against what so many people perceive to be the abolition of democracy by international finance capitalism. In the spring of 2012, activists set up a tent camp across from the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, which was cleared by the police on 16 May 2012.

Clearance oft the Occupy Camp in Frankfurt on 16 May 2012


At the end of May 2013 there were again protests in several German cities by the “Blockupy” group (occupy + block). They demanded more control of international finance and demonstratively expressed their solidarity with the people in countries such as Greece and Spain that were particularly hit by the finance and currency crisis and the austerity measures of the European Union.

In Berlin, campaigns of civil disobedience have for some time been especially directed against forced eviction from apartments. Unlike in Spain, where above all property owners who cannot service their loan rates have lost their homes to the lending banks while their debts remain unchanged, in Germany the crisis has chiefly affected tenants. In the course of the crisis, property prices in Germany have risen sharply, but are still very interesting objects in international comparison for yield-oriented investors. This is particularly true if the flats are extensively renovated and either can be rented at significantly more expensive rates or sold again at still better prices.

Disobedience as a civic duty

Civil disobedience is characterized by following the intention, in accordance with one’s conscience but contrary to law, of removing a perceived or actual injustice. Possible punishment is thereby deliberately accepted. The disobedient citizen thus does not intend to abolish the prevailing order, which he recognizes in principle and even wants to strengthen through the act of resistance; he therefore perceives his resistance as a civic duty.

But not only “citizens”, even “non-citizens”, that is, refugees seeking asylum in Germany, increasingly practice civil disobedience. By occupying embassies and setting up tent camps in city centres, they have been regularly protesting since early 2012 against their accommodation in collective housing and the prevailing asylum law, which restricts their freedom of movement during the duration of the asylum proceedings. In September 2012, demonstrators marched from the Bavarian city of Würzburg to the German capital of Berlin. In 2013, too, refugees pitched their tents in public places in many German cities so as to draw attention to their situation.