Roger Karapin


On his book Protest Politics in Germany: Movements on the Left and Right since the 1960s

Cover Interview of July 14, 2009

In a nutshell

Protest Politics in Germany is about the interactions between protest groups, their allies, and their opponents.  The settings are conflicts that have dominated German politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century: conflicts over urban renewal, nuclear energy, and immigration by asylum seekers.  What I want to convey in the book is that politics matters, that interactions matter, that unpredictable and sometimes remarkable things happen in protest movements because of how actors respond to each other.

Whether and how a movement develops isn’t determined by the nature of the protest group, or the nature of the government, or by social and economic forces.  While protesters depend on a favorable political environment, they can sometimes make their own opportunities.  By undertaking bold actions and forming alliances with other protesters, they can win support from allies, trigger mistakes by their opponents, and in those ways create conditions that favor their own success.  Different actors sometimes get involved in mutually reinforcing interactions that lead to big things.

This book is unusual in some ways that I hope will make it more rewarding to readers.  I explain not only why protests become large, but also why they take different forms – routine and conventional, or nonviolently disruptive, or militant and violent.  I also try to give a full picture of German movements, for example by showing the relations between nonviolent and militantly violent groups on the left, and including nonviolent, moderate protesters on the right, not only the more familiar skinheads and neo-Nazis.

Protest Politics in Germany has a very broad empirical base, ranging over nine case studies in three policy areas over a twenty-five year period beginning in the late 1960s.

I have arranged the case studies in contrasting pairs, so that, for example, the large, unruly, and sometimes violent squatter movement in Berlin-Kreuzberg is compared with the mildly disruptive urban-renewal protests in Hanover-Linden.  I examine each of the cases not only in terms of the interactive processes, but also in terms of the main socioeconomic and political-institutional explanations that others have offered as explanations of protest movements.  It turns out that the socioeconomic and institutional approaches don’t help much to explain the size and type of protests in these cases.

Perhaps the book’s most unusual feature is that it compares Germany’s left- and right-wing movements, in terms of similarities as well as differences.  While the dynamics that generated left-wing (neighborhood-renewal or anti-nuclear-energy) and right-wing (anti-immigration) movements were broadly similar, the two kinds of movements were different in their protest methods.  Nonviolent disruption was much more common on the left, and violence more common on the right.  The reasons for this crucial difference lie largely in the strategic innovations made by committed activists, in the alliances between protesters and elites, and in how police responded to protests.