Germans get rowdy to stop nuclear waste

DANNENBERG, Germany – Using ropes, some young people descended halfway from railroad bridges to force the train to stop. Others hastily grabbed stones out from under the tracks to make the tracks unusable. Far more, young and old from all over Germany, simply sat down on the tracks until police carried them away.

Banners and witty, sarcastic signs were everywhere, also the many-colored tents of those spending two, three or four days here in this cold, damp, flat stretch of North German landscape. The big yellow X standing here for “NO” was on thousands of caps and coats, it stood out in windows and, giant-size, on crossed poles and beams in surrounding fields.

The long railroad trip with 123 tons of radioactive uranium waste in 11 containers could not be stopped on its long journey from northern France, but committed crowds, in well-coordinated actions, forced route changes and 14 hours of delays in both countries. As the train slowly neared its destination, an estimated 50,000 protesters (only half that, police officials insisted) spread out around the rail line. At one point 2,000 sat down on 2 kilometers of tracks, while at least 16,000 unfortunate, mostly unhappy cops, also from all over the country, had to put in 12, 16 and 20 hour shifts, costing many million euros. Some tactics were legal, some were not, confrontations remained nonviolent for the most part, but one evening tempers ran high and horses, night sticks, water cannon and pepper spray were sent in. Hundreds were arrested.

All Germany watched in near disbelief as news reports overflowed on the latest actions in opposition to the “Castor transport,” as it was named. When the big tanks with their potentially fatal contents did at last reach the end of the rail line they had to be reloaded onto trucks for the last 20 kilometers to their final destination, a salt mine deep under the little town of Gorleben. Blocking the way, in addition to protesters sitting and lying on the road or dragging logs or whole trees across it were over 600 tractors of angry farmers – and even a big flock of goats. The shipment will certainly get to Gorleben, but the government will not soon forget and perhaps never repeat what occurred.

There have been protests here since 1995, sometimes more violent but never so huge. To begin with, the underground storage dump is not safe. It may be gradually heating up, and it is highly probable that contaminated wastewater is seeping out. It was chosen, many are convinced, because it was in a thinly populated, out-of-the-way area right across the Elbe from what was once East Germany; the river formed the boundary here. So why should good West German citizens complain? But they did, and they do! The mine was always declared to be a temporary solution, but more and more metal containers with uncertain durability are being piled up while the dangerous radioactivity of their contents will last thousands of years. Thus far, no other site has been proposed.

The reason popular outrage has been so very strong this year is that on October 28 Germany’s Angela Merkel government passed a law extending the lives of many nuclear power plants from an earlier government’s eight-year limit to a new wobbly limit of 14 years. This extension was so obviously based on a smiley handshake between Merkel and the country’s power utility giants that everyone could see how the two governing parties are endangering the whole country to satisfy the greed of four huge companies. It was simply too clear and too much.

The physical protests up north follow huge autumn demonstrations in Berlin and other cities, with over 100,000 people protesting the extension of nuclear production rights instead of investing more in alternate energy. They also follow giant, month-long protests in the usually peaceful, staid city of Stuttgart in the south against the demolition of a popular old central railroad station and a neighboring park with beautiful, ancient chestnut trees – in a dubious deal which would bring billions to favored investors. Somehow, a surprising number of people in Germany are leaving their sofas and demonstrating, angry at being ignored by ruling cliques. As a result, Merkel’s government would find it very difficult to remain in power if elections were held today rather than in 2013.

Of the three leading opposition parties the Social Democrats, though still diminished in poll figures, have gained self-confidence with the knowledge that a coalition with their likely partner, the Greens, could now get a majority. This is because of the swift, almost unprecedented growth of the Greens, who have been very active in both the dramatic Stuttgart events and the anti-nuclear movement. Their leaders have constantly been in the limelight. In fact, public television channels have been supporting them to an unusual extent, and the weekend bid by a prominent Greens leader, Renate Kuenast, to lead her party in next year’s Berlin elections, with hopes of overtaking the gay, once so popular Klaus Wowereit, mayor since 2001, was planned so cleverly and treated so favorably that it dominated Berlin’s local news coverage for weeks, until overtaken by the Gorleben events.

And the Left Party? It, too, has taken part in all the protests and demonstrations. Bundestag caucus leader Gregor Gysi himself drove one of the tractors for a while near Gorleben. But its numbers in the West German states were never too large, and more important, the media are united in downplaying it, except for an occasional obligatory sound bite. More importantly, the Left is still caught up in internal disagreement, which seems to have occupied the most attention among top leaders. A congress in Hanover on November 7 tried to patch up disputes and the 600 attending tried to demonstrate a policy of peacefully agreeing to disagree. The center of debate is the draft party program. It is far too militant for a group of leaders joined in a Forum of Democratic Socialism, and strong among party officials holding office in the Berlin coalition government and those hoping to win out in other East German states, join coalition governments there and possibly even join a coalition national government with Social Democrats and Greens after the 2013 elections. The militants insist that the party reject any and all military expeditions in future, even with the UN, they demand that the party refuse any further privatization of public utilities or housing, and they warn of basic compromises demanded by the Social Democrats and Greens. The party’s eventual goal must be to overcome rule by huge capitalist monopolies and banks and, eventually, to achieve socialism. They fear that watering down these principles would put the Left on the same downhill ramp which corrupted both the Social Democrats and the Greens, who despite their current militancy have largely become a party of well-off professionals, interested in the environment but far less in urgent social issues. The “reformer” group calls such demands unrealistic, utopian, and harmful to their attempts to gain positions of government power where they can ease the worst economic woes.

The party co-presidents, the popular, calm and collected East Berlin leader Gesine Loetsch and the West German metal union leader Klaus Ernst, said that healthy debate was a good thing and differences would certainly be resolved before the members vote on the new program next year. But regardless of rights or wrongs in the debate, the disagreements have undoubtedly restricted activities of the party in terms of the public, and this has shown up in diminished poll popularity. Many friends of the Left feel that if the party wants to maintain pressures which proved so significant in recent years it must move beyond internal debates or quarrels and get into action. An amazing sector of the German population now seems more inclined towards militant action than in many, many years.

Photo: Germans protesting the “Castor” nuclear waste transport demonstrate in Dannenberg, Nov. 6, below a puppet depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel sitting on a symbolic nuclear toilet. (AP/Jens Meyer)



Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.