The Approaching G-8 Summit Big Trouble in Little Heiligendamm
Heiligendamm is normally a sleepy seaside resort on the Baltic. But with the G-8 coming in June, the town has been transformed into a well-fortified stronghold. And the German authorities aren't the only ones who have been preparing for confrontation.
The coastal idyll on Germany's north shore this spring ends abruptly on country road number 12, right after the little village of Hinter Bollhagen. At the outskirts of town, just at the edge of the picturesque, stunningly yellow field of rapeseed is The Fence. Intimidating. Martial. And a bit surreal. That, at least, is how the locals and curious day trippers see it. Those responsible prefer to speak of a "technical barrier."
Since January, workers have been busy building an enormous enclosure around the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm -- and they are being very thorough. The fence that ploughs through the landscape for some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) is 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) tall, affixed at the base by 4,800 concrete slabs and crowned by four rows of barbed wire. Thick rolls of sharp razor-wire are wrapped around the barbed wire, gleaming silver in the spring sun.
The protective fence is the most visible part of a unique security strategy devised for the three-day G-8 summit -- bringing together the leaders of eight of the world's most important economies -- scheduled to be held in the luxurious resort in early June. In addition, the largest police operation in the history of the German Federal Republic will transform the fenced in enclosure around Heiligendamm into the equivalent of a maximum-security prison.
But this one is designed to keep people out. The authorities and protesters alike have been gearing up for the showdown for two years already. As many as 100,000 demonstrators will arrive from all over the world and take to the streets, protest organizers hope. Sixteen thousand policemen are preparing to defend the site of the summit.
The images that will go around the world during the summit -- of a new wall raised in Germany -- won't be pretty. But that's the price the host country believes it has to pay following the battle of Genoa in 2001, during which one demonstrator was killed by the police. Ever since then, this summit of world leaders, originally introduced as cozy, fireside chats, are being organized ever more elaborately and in ever more absurd locations -- in the mountains of Canada in 2002, for example, or in the backwoods of Scotland in 2005.
Heiligendamm, located in a sparsely populated area in the country's north, was chosen as the location for the summit in Germany. Nine navy vessels complete with mine detection systems will be patrolling the waters just off the coast to protect the village's Baltic Sea flank. Overall, 1,100 members of the German military will be deployed in the area, making the G-8 summit -- leaving aside natural disaster aid missions -- one of the largest ever domestic military deployments in post-war Germany.
But there are doubts as to whether building this protective fence in north-eastern Germany was really such a good idea. Indeed, it has already become a symbol before the summit has even gotten underway. For opponents of the G-8, who have long questioned the elitist group's democratic credentials, the fence is an open provocation -- and is seen by them as yet more proof of a divided world in which the rich and powerful separate themselves from the rest.
An open provocation
The fence also provides plenty of motivation. The summit isn't just this year's most important political appointment in Merkel's calendar, but also in those of left-wing parties and non-governmental organizations like Attac -- not to mention militant activists from Germany and abroad. Some 5,000 of the hard-core protesters are expected to be on hand in June.
The entire region around Heiligendamm will be blocked off.
Knut Abramowski has heard those words many times recently, especially since the total cost of the summit -- about 100 million ($136 million) -- was made public. Abramowski, head of the police's "Special Construction Organization" for the summit, says he can understand the sentiment, even if he has nothing to do with the financial side. "I just say what's needed," he says between drags on his cigarette as he stands near a horse-racing track just outside the village of Bad Doberan.
For Abramowski, who is also heads up the police presence for the G-8 conference, the list of needs is not short. Near the track stands one of two movable street barricades -- each of them sunk deep into the asphalt -- where those with badges will be allowed in. Residents and local business owners, in other words, have to prove they have "justified interest" in passing into the enclosure, and must have their picture taken for the little plastic ID. Inside the tents by the checkpoint -- which has already been dubbed "Checkpoint Charlie" by the locals -- the people are screened, just like at the airport.
Prior to his current appointment, Abramowski was in charge of the police directorate in Rostock and responsible for just 1,200 people. Now he is in charge of 16,000. And what is more, he bears the double burden of having to ensure both the safety of those within the enclosure and the right to demonstrate of those outside.
He talks about his task with Nordic sobriety, in clipped sentences. When it all begins, he'll be standing in his command center in Rostock, where 350 "planners and staff assistants" are already doing preliminary work for him. Then he'll have to rely on his men on the street. "They're all professionals," he says. His army of cops, recruited from several German regions, is mainly made up of officers with extensive experience at demonstrations.
It's only when he's asked about his responsibilities that the police director suddenly becomes very resolute. Take all those earlier speculations about US military vessels off the coast, for example. "We alone are responsible for the aerial and coastal security of the restricted area," he says, "and I have requested nothing of the kind."
But it's not just the police who are busy preparing for the G-8 in Heiligendamm. The advance guard of the summit's opponents has set up shop in a former school among the housing projects of Rostock. The city has provided the rooms.
"It's been weeks since we've been able to go anywhere unaccompanied," complains Monty Schädel, the regional coordinator of the protest alliance, which comprises about 30 groups -- from Attac and Greenpeace to Christians for Socialism. He doesn't know what's worse -- constantly being stopped and asked for identification by the police or surveillance by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The police have already begun removing people from around Heiligendamm, he says.
- Part 1: Big Trouble in Little Heiligendamm
- Part 2: The Search for Activists among the Locals