Roger Karapin


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

Cover Interview of July 15, 2009

A close-up

When a large, influential protest movement occurs, I have found that it is the result of a remarkable confluence of factors, including mutually reinforcing actions by different actors.

In the southwestern German forest near Wyhl, protesters nonviolently occupied the site of a proposed nuclear power plant for fourteen months beginning in 1975.  They held police at bay, built structures, improvised a community college on the site to educate sympathizers about ecology, and forced the conservative state government to halt construction and ultimately to abandon the plant.

How could the protesters accomplish this?  They benefited from unusually favorable interactions.  Their innovative and daring protests (e.g., tearing down the fence, occupying the site) were met at crucial times with authorities’ responses that were either seen as too harsh (e.g., police dragging protesters through puddles of freezing water, officials claiming that local, churchgoing protesters were actually outside extremists) or too passive (e.g., police fraternization, failure to evict).

Those mistakes by authorities opened up opportunities for the site occupation to continue and thus for protesters to win allies from the Social Democrats (the opposition party in the state parliament), and concessions from the state government, which encouraged further protests.  Protests grew in tandem with divisions among elites, in a mutually reinforcing process, until the authorities gave in.

To take an example on the right, skinheads and other right-wing youth rioted against foreign residents in the eastern German town of Hoyerswerda for a week in September 1991.  A hundred attackers, supported by up to five hundred spectators, attacked and besieged the foreigners’ apartment building until officials removed the foreigners from the town.  The influence of this widely televised riot went far beyond Hoyerswerda, as it touched off a wave of violence against foreigners across Germany and led to a major national debate on whether to limit the right to asylum.  A similar riot in Rostock the next year had very similar effects on anti-foreigner violence and led to a constitutional restriction on the asylum right.

Again, the key to the Hoyerswerda protesters’ success was a series of interactions that benefited them by ratcheting up the conflict and giving them freedom to act with impunity.  Hoyerswerda officials’ first mistake was to house foreigners in concentrated groups in a high-density neighborhood, which led to cultural frictions between them and the German residents.  When neo-Nazis and right-wing youth responded with vigilante activities and isolated attacks against foreigners, the police looked the other way, and when the police arrested Vietnamese traders, the skinheads responded by launching their attack on the foreigners’ housing.  This, in turn, was met by cheering support from adult neighbors and days of passivity and understaffing by police.  (The police were under the authority of a Christian-Democratic state interior minister; he served as an ally for the right-wing protesters, and later became a member of the far-right Republikaner party.)

As on the left, this large and influential protest on the right developed because the actions of protesters, their political allies, and authorities reinforced each other.  Hoyerswerda, by the way, had an unemployment rate that was below average for eastern Germany, a tiny and declining foreign population, and virtually no competition for jobs or housing between Germans and foreigners.  Thus the kinds of socioeconomic explanations usually advanced to explain right-wing protest do not apply.  The background conditions in Hoyerswerda were also very similar to those in another eastern town, Riesa, where a large skinhead group was repeatedly foiled in its efforts to mount significant protests against asylum seekers – because the political interactions in that case did not favor the growth of large protests.