Explained: What sparked the protest culture of modern Germany?

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Ana Dilley - [email protected]
Explained: What sparked the protest culture of modern Germany?
Protestors against rent increases in front of Hamburg town hall in May 2019. Photo: DPA.

Though national stereotypes purport that Germans adore order and rules, Germany is not shy of protests and demonstrations. Here is a look at what sparked the protest culture of today.


Whilst Germany does not boast of a protest culture as strong and as long-standing as France’s, recent protest phenomena in Germany such as Fridays for Future or 'rent insanity' marches are evidence of the significant role of demonstrations for the Bundesrepublik.

We look at how Germany’s large-scale demonstrations have succeeded in achieving major social and environmental change - from the 1960s to today.

The student movement in the 1960s

Many consider the 1960s' student protests in West Germany to be a significant starting point for modern German protest culture. Against the backdrop of burgeoning student politicization throughout the western world, students in West Germany picked up their placards and mobilized in marches to express their outrage at the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the West German government.

Crucially, this protest movement saw the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) brought to the forefront of political life in Germany, alongside objections against issues such as curriculum reform, the Vietnam war and the influence of the right-wing press.

Students protest in Baden-Württemberg after the assassination attempt on revolutionary icon Rudi Dutscke of the student movement in 1968. Photo: DPA.

In autumn 1967, the vast majority of West German universities saw their students socially and politically mobilized. This marked a turning point for West Germany and forced the country to look more critically at its recent past as well as to deal with the guilt associated with it.

Whilst these protests were not wholly successful, this period saw a massive shift in the political consciousness of the West German youth and a move towards a more open discussion of National Socialism.

Montags Demonstrationen

Whilst the 1960s protests were specific to only West Germany and to the younger generation, the German Democratic Republic saw a larger and unprecedented social wave in 1989 when the Montags Demonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) started in Leipzig and spread throughout a number of East German cities.

These peaceful protests began under the auspices of Friedensgebet (prayers for peace) meetings at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, which eventually snowballed into widespread political dissent.

Leipzig's Nikolaikirche which became a prominent symbol of peaceful protest. Photo: DPA.

These meetings at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig had been occurring for around ten years by 1989 and a number of organizations such as Demokratie Jetzt (Democracy Now), Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening) and das Neue Fourm (New Forum) had sprung up to criticize the government and push for change.

The Beginning of the End

In autumn of 1989 East Germans were frustrated by and angry about the lack of freedom of movement and democracy in the GDR. The opening of Hungary’s borders in June 1989 saw a significant level of emigration out of the GDR in August of the same year and also planted the seeds of hope for a peaceful revolution in East Germany.

Monday evening demonstrations on the streets of East German cities took place over three months and gathered momentum rapidly; the relative lack of response from the authorities emboldened the population to fight harder for change.

Chanting the slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk,' (we are the people) 120,000 East Germans took to the streets on October 16th, 1989. By October 30th the numbers had reached 300,000.

Peace was a central tenet of these protests. It was by the suggestion of the pastor of Nikolaikirche that by carrying candles protestors could avoid violence as they would need both hands to hold the them.

Though many people think of discontent in Berlin and the immediate effect thereof when it comes to the fall of the Berlin wall in the autumn of 1989, the mounting pressure from cities such as Leipzig played a significant role in ending the GDR and opening of borders between East and West Germany.

Modern Monday demonstrations

An anti-Pegida demonstrator in Karlsruhe holds up a banner which harks back to the slogan of the 1989 East German peaceful protests. Photo: DPA.

Whilst Germans no longer need to protest for unity and democracy, the format of the Monday demonstrations and their spirit have remained a contributor to Germany’s protest culture today.

Demonstrators opposed to proposed Hartz IV reforms in 2004 arranged for their protests to fall on Mondays as democracy protests in East Germany had done before them.

These reforms pledged to cut back significantly on social welfare for the long-term unemployed. As East Germany faced, and continues to face, far higher rates of unemployment than West Germany, the majority of these new Monday demonstrations took place in East German cities.

The Monday evening demonstration format has also been appropriated and re-purposed by right-wing groups in Germany, such as PEGIDA. Many of these protests have also been taking place in East German cities where issues with unemployment have fuelled anti-immigrant stances.

Climate concerns

Just as East German protestors chose a specific day to voice their opinions, Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement has sparked a wave of change as monumental as those which began in the late 20th century in Germany. Similar to protests in the 1960s, this movement has mainly seen students in Germany, and other parts of Europe, as the main driving force demanding policy change.

Students in Hanover on July 5th partake in rallies as part of the Fridays for Future movement. Photo: DPA.

Germany has a long history of climate activism, often considered closely aligned with the concept of German angst.

Hambach forest near Cologne has been a centre of climate demonstrations as Germans have protested against the removal of the forest for the purpose of a coal mine. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Germans swarmed onto the streets to demonstrate against the use of nuclear energy, resulting in the phase out of atomic power in Germany.

Recently, Cologne became the first city with other one million inhabitants to declare a climate change emergency following the persistent activism of its residents within the Fridays for Future movement.

Rents and workers’ rights

Rising rent prices in Germany also cause a stir in Germany. Earlier this year there were a number of protests in response to the continual increase in rent prices in large German cities, notably Cologne, Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt.

Many protests regarding rent have focused in Berlin where rents have doubled over the past ten years and where the city’s left-wing tradition makes it hostile to the big businesses who are buying up land and hiking up prices in the nation’s capital.

This protest culture in Berlin reaches its peak every year on May Day trade unions and the Social Democrats organise rallies and protests which are paralleled by extensive demonstrations in Berlin.

Much of Berlin’s current revolutionary attitude and protest culture was cultivated by the events leading up to 1989 and the freedom in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


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