Angry Germans: Big Projects Face Growing Resistance

By Sven Böll, Horand Knaup and Paul Middelhoff

Photo Gallery: Protesters' War on Big Projects Photos
Peter Schinzler/ DER SPIEGEL

In recent years, a new protest culture has made it more difficult for to complete big infrastructure projects in Germany. Now leaders are growing increasingly frustrated with protesters' unwillingness to compromise, and worry they're endangering the country's future.

Back when 75-year-old Hartmut Binner worked as a policeman in Bavaria, he saw himself as a guardian of the peace. In the 1970s, he was deployed during protests against the building of Munich's new airport. But now, as the leader of AufgeMUCkt, an association of over 80 public protest groups, he's spent the last few years campaigning against the third runway at the airport.

"I'll be a policeman until the day I die, but I lost my faith in politicians and the rule of law a long time ago," he says in his garden in the district of Friesing, gesturing to a plane roaring overhead. For his last birthday, he asked for a noise meter.

Binner's entire life revolves around the campaign. He monitors the routes of departing and landing planes. He plays his self-designed noise simulator on market squares. He kicks off his court appearances by singing the Bavarian national anthem. "If you want to be heard as a member of the public, you need to push the envelope," he shrugs.

Binner has a number of arguments up his sleeve -- from the airport's dwindling traffic to its increasingly badly paid jobs - and he's not interested in compromise. Binner's form of protest has a radical undercurrent: Well-informed, confrontational and devoid of respect for authority, he is typical of the new grassroots activism spreading across Germany. Wherever ambitious construction ventures loom on the horizon in Germany -- from the cities to the countryside, from the coastlines in the north to the Black Forest in the south -- opponents are taking to the streets.

More often than not, the demonstrators are protesting against projects that stand for change: extensions to airports, railways, new wind farms or power lines. Not even new subways or sports stadiums are exempt.

"Infrastructure developments have always been society's flagship projects, a symbol of progress," says Torsten Albig, governor of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. But as the public's enthusiasm for constant innovation has lessened, so has the appeal of these sorts of projects, and, as a result, they now inevitably come accompanied by picketers.

Germany's graying society, it seems, is so cozy and settled that it resists anything threatening to upset the status quo. In the process, it has lost sight of the bigger picture. All that matters to these "Nimbies" -- as opponents of new developments have been dubbed (an acronym for the phrase "Not in My Back Yard") -- are their own interests, seemingly oblivious to the fact that German industry relies on intact infrastructure, new roads and train tracks, apartments and power plants, supply lines and shipping routes in order to function.

New Resistance for Politicians

The most spectacular of these kinds of disputes was over Stuttgart's main railway station -- a bitterly fought battle against a venture few actually wanted. The Stuttgart 21 project aimed to replace the city's current 17-track station with a below-ground facility, as well as build new above-ground and underground lines, but it prompted thousands to take to the streets in protests over the project's cost and effect on public spaces, only to be met by water cannons and police batons.

The Stuttgart 21 conflict illustrates just how much has changed in the relationship between governments and constituents. Today, local politicians are faced with fundamental skepticism about their competence and vision when it comes to everyday matters. These disputes over infrastructure projects aren't so much about the bricks and mortar as they are about whether representative democracy still works.

Political and bureaucratic bodies are partly to blame for their own diminished authority. Every major venture seems to entail spiraling costs. Berlin's new airport was supposed to cost €1.7 billion, a price tag that has shot up to well over €5 billion. Meanwhile, the €187 million earmarked for the Elbphilharmonie concert hall under construction in Hamburg is expected to exceed €865 million by the time the project is completed. Albig is well aware how bad this looks. "People see us as financially incompetent," he says.

For the time being, he and other politicians have no ready solution to all this public resentment. Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the Christian Democrats and Germany's transportation minister, is looking to institutionalize grassroots activism with a four-phase plan but it remains to be seen if the strategy will take off given how helpless and insecure it leaves most politicians. Some of them remain impervious in the face of opposition, while others attempt to be conciliatory -- reducing, for example, the number of turbines in a new wind park, investing in noise barriers or relocating a planned power mast. But the public has increasingly managed to preempt them with referendums and petitions, often torpedoing their jobs in the process.

In Berlin for example, a recent vote on the future of the former Tempelhof airfield proved disastrous for the local government, putting a stop to its plans to build on the perimeter of the park. The public similarly quashed Munich's bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics last year. In early 2013, plans for a light-rail system in Aachen were derailed and residents of Bielefeld vetoed a new subway system. Nothing seems to pass muster these days.

Battle Over a Runway

"In my opinion the third runway at Munich airport is the last runway that will get built in Germany," says Michael Kerkloh, the CEO of Munich Airport and sworn enemy of Hartmut Binner. The venture has become an acid test of whether it remains possible "to get anything at all done in this country," he says. He doesn't bother making excuses for the noise pollution that Binner is so enraged about. "Of course a new runway is unpopular with residents but should the world's fourth largest economy give up on international air traffic?" he asks.

As usual, it's a question of priorities and of what is more important -- the interests of a few hundred or thousand residents, or the greater good of the nation. "The protesters don't think about how the country might benefit, they just think about themselves," complains Kerkloh.

He has his own explanation for the growing resistance movements. Many of the protestors are pensioners with no vested interest in Germany's future. "It's striking that the leader of the protests against the Munich runway is a 75-year-old and not someone in the middle of his working life," he points out.

The term "Wutbürger" ("enraged citizen") was coined during the Stuttgart 21 fiasco to describe people like Hartmut Binner, and much has been written about them since. They often aren't the "common man." According to the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Studies, they tend to be highly educated people with steady incomes and white collar jobs. And while protests movements of the past were often steered by sociologists, today their leaders are more likely to stem from the technical professions, the researchers found.

They're a familiar breed not only to Kerkloh and his kind but also to politicians. As North Rhine-Westphalia's Transport Minister Michael Groschek says, "Germany is increasingly dominated by a pre-retirement mentality... the people who are most vocal in their protests are ones who just want to be left in peace for the last 10 to 20 years of their lives."

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5 total posts
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1. Question of power
quark@mailinator.com 07/13/2014
I'm very much for real democracy ... but not if that means that everybody has only his own interest in mind and not the future of the country. Obviously part of the problem is that now the accumulated property of the citicens in several trillion Euros while the state only has a debt of similiar proportions. In such a situation it's clear who wins in a struggle - the party with more money to invest. So my personal bottom-line is: People who suffer by construction neccessary for the country should be compensated - compensated well and fair. But they should not be able to block things. I see with disgust how so called "Third World" or "Developing" countries build beautiful cities and infrastructure while in Germany the ugly post-war constructions barely sustain the needs. The kind of thinking ... about nature, about personal consequences, about all kinds of risk seems weak and shortsighted to me. We are becomming a country of teachers and bureaucrats ... people who want to build something run into walls all the time and nobody is prepared to take any risk anymore ... not to mention that education also goes down and with it the view for the bigger picture. Serious changes are sorely needed.
2. Transition
John_Banister 07/14/2014
Sounds like a transition from a more representational to a more direct form of democracy. Those who don't trust representatives will probably like it a little better.
3. Angry Germans
I.M. Forman 07/14/2014
No doubt a functioning democracy like Germany's needs dissent but informed dissent, not just "not in my backyard dissent." An airplane landing path with have a flyover somewhere. It will not go away itself.
4. Question of power
quark@mailinator.com 07/14/2014
I'm very much for real democracy ... but not if that means that everybody has only his own interest in mind and not the future of the country. Obviously part of the problem is that now the accumulated property of the citicens in several trillion Euros while the state only has a debt of similiar proportions. In such a situation it's clear who wins in a struggle - the party with more money to invest. So my personal bottom-line is: People who suffer by construction neccessary for the country should be compensated - compensated well and fair. But they should not be able to block things. I see with disgust how so called "Third World" or "Developing" countries build beautiful cities and infrastructure while in Germany the ugly post-war constructions barely sustain the needs. The kind of thinking ... about nature, about personal consequences, about all kinds of risk seems weak and shortsighted to me. We are becomming a country of teachers and bureaucrats ... people who want to build something run into walls all the time and nobody is prepared to take any risk anymore ... not to mention that education also goes down and with it the view for the bigger picture. Serious changes are sorely needed.
5. envirofascism
cslagenhop 07/17/2014
Envirofascists are anti-development. Their primary theory is that humanity is a blight upon mother earth. They will do nothing to stop until we are all dead or living in the stone age. Humanity should reject this form of religious extremism.
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