The Easter holiday in Germany lasts from Good Friday to Easter Monday, four days. It arrived very late this year, at the end of April, and amazing summer weather drew multitudes to lakes or the seaside. Some, it was hoped — if not exactly multitudes — would be drawn by their consciences to a rather more recent tradition, the Easter Peace Marches. Would all that sunshine favor only the first option?
The marches began in 1960 when two teachers, inspired by the “Aldermaston” anti-A-bomb marches in Britain, organized 1,000 people in four North German cities, largely in protest against a decision by top union leaders and the Social Democratic Party to approve atomic arms — and even West German atomic maneuvers in the risky shadow of the “Iron Curtain.” The party’s right wing, led by Willy Brandt, had hopes of becoming respectable enough to join a coalition government; since then its leaders have always opposed the Easter Marches.
And yet these actions sometimes rocked the country. 300,000 took part in 1968. In 1983, to protest the stationing of Pershing missiles in Germany, 700,000 joined in. Even that number, however, was not enough to achieve the goal of the protest, and it was never reached again.
But some people kept walking, year after year. The movement, carefully unaffiliated with any party, varied from one area to another, for the marches were always regional, not central, and kept local grassroots bases. In the country’s capital it only gradually became possible to win over some East Berlin participation after this became possible in 1990. The total numbers depended on whether you believed estimates by the police, who often seemed to employ long division, or the organizers’ announcements, which may have been a bit on the optimistic side. There was no denying that in some years those who took part, the truly faithful, could only be counted in hundreds. Last year there were about 1,500.
And this year? With all that tempting sunshine?
Those faithful marchers — actually walkers or strollers — had most frequently come from the left “infra” wing of the political rainbow. One often recognized their familiar, devoted faces. But this year the atomic catastrophe in Fukushima had alarmed Germans immensely, more than in almost any other country. Their alarm, plus the awkward flip-flops of the Angela Merkel government in confronting it, had resulted in mass reactions and steep electoral gains for the Green Party, most vocal in opposing the seventeen German reactors and unsafe storage sites for atomic waste. The entire media featured the subject almost daily. And this year, after often very delicate negotiations, an agreement had been reached: those of the faithful who had kept the marches alive over the toughest years and many people and groups activated by the huge opposition to dangerously misused atoms would combine and march together.
This was possible in most parts of the country, usually more, sometimes less, successfully. The march in Berlin on Saturday was an unquestionable success. More than three thousand took part, enough to stretch for blocks and blocks down the up-and-coming Friedrich Strasse shopping street, along Berlin’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard, past the embassy buildings of Britain, Russia, and the USA and along the big central park of Tiergarten to super-modern Potsdamer Platz. When the column passed the embassies, the headquarters of major weapons manufacturers or utility companies using atomic reactors, it stopped for a few short speeches from the loudspeaker trucks. The police had forbidden a meeting next to the US embassy, but two blocks further along Washington’s missiles, drones, and other bloody weapons were loudly denounced — with calls for Germany to get out and keep out of its wars!
The main impression was of countless signs with bright yellow smiling suns saying “Atomic power? No thanks!” as well as hundreds of banners, mostly handmade, opposing all atomic weapons, especially those still stationed in Germany, and against all NATO military actions, above all in Afghanistan and Libya. A few people bucked this current by attacking Gaddafi, but many, many more said bombs could not settle anything.
Some groups stressed other issues. About a dozen, including two families, carried their striking, zigzag red-and-white Bahrain flags. With them was one man with a Palestinian flag; a few Egyptian flags were also visible. A group of Kurds also took part. Others had very personal statements, like the elderly man with a poetic declaration that it is poverty which leads to war.
It had been planned to have separate blocs for the anti-war groups, those focusing on the reactor danger, and a mixed group stressing both. But any such divisions disappeared and everyone mingled, forming a lively, always friendly atmosphere, with lots of children, some in baby carriages, a few people in wheelchairs, and very many pushing bicycles. There was no bloc of the black-clad protesters, often including masked provocateurs, who break windows, light fires, throw bottles and firecrackers and provide the mass media with the desired headlines. Maybe they are preparing for the usual May Day melees. But this time everything stayed sunny, peaceful but determined — right up to the final meeting and music at the crowded destination square with its big-biz skyscrapers.
Although both the Greens and the Left party had supported the marches, recognizable leaders of the two could be counted on one hand. There were more banners of the Left party than ever before, though none, strangely, of the Greens. But such matters caused little if any concern. The big news was how different protest movements seemed, on this Easter weekend at least, to be moving closer together and, just possibly, growing in size.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).