A peace protest in Munich on February 18: "We keep escalating – where will it end?"

A peace protest in Munich on February 18: "We keep escalating – where will it end?"

Foto: ddp

Dubious Alliances Germany’s New Peace Movement Has Some Explaining to Do

Putin’s war in Ukraine is unsettling many in Germany. A new peace movement is forming in the country, but it is stirring up the ghosts of German history – and has an open flank to the extreme right.

No, she says, she’s not a "Putin sympathizer." And she has nothing at all to do with right-wing agitators. Antje Döhner-Unverricht sees herself as one of many in Germany who long for an end to the war in Ukraine, a segment of the German population that feels politicians are doing too little to make that happen.

So, the 52-year-old from Dresden took action: She signed the "Manifesto for Peace" organized by German author and feminist leader Alice Schwarzer and the far-left Left Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht. The "manifesto" calls on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to support negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. "A compromise with Putin is by no means the capitulation of democracy," says Döhner-Unverricht. She speaks calmly and reflectively.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2023 (February 25th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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As a psychologist, some of those to whom she provides care are traumatized patients who "are very worried about the current state of war and are having a hard time dealing with it."

"My daily work is about ensuring that we maintain dialog with one another," says Döhner-Unverricht. "That dialog is currently missing from the political landscape."

The Dresden psychologist opposes arms deliveries to Ukraine. "Russia wants to win the war by any means necessary," she says. "We keep escalating it, where will it end?"

Almost every second person in Germany shares Döhner-Unverricht’s view. German society has been divided ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine a year ago. Some are in favor of supplying weapons to Ukraine. Others are opposed – sometimes more and sometimes less strongly – because they fear it could escalate the war and make it go on forever.

Open letters have been published for and against Germany's role in the war, with prominent supporters for each argument. But the "manifesto" brings a new dimension to the debate.

What is happening now, namely the attempt to establish a new peace movement, hasn't been seen in Germany in years. More than a half-million people have signed Schwarzer’s and Wagenknecht’s "Manifesto for Peace," while over the weekend, major protests were held across Germany in support of the manifesto, with at least 13,000 taking to the streets in Berlin alone.

Right-wing extremists mobilized diligently in recent days to hijack the marches. People like Antje Döhner-Unverricht, who distance themselves from Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and from Putin's propaganda on the petition platform and in comments to DER SPIEGEL, want nothing to do with them. They say they are uncomfortable with the idea that right-wing extremists share their position.

But the issue is too important to them to shun involvement just because of the interference from the right wing. With the result that it’s hard to tell who comprises the bulk of the manifesto’s signatories: moderates or radicals.

In the manifesto, Wagenknecht and Schwarzer warn of a "world war" and "nuclear war" and call on the chancellor to "stop the escalation of arms deliveries" and to work for "peace negotiations" between Ukraine and Russia.

What's lacking in the petition, though, is a coherent explanation of how negotiations might look with someone like Russia's president, who clearly isn’t interested in negotiations.

Wagenknecht and Schwarzer have been criticized for their initiative because it lacks clear language distancing itself from the right. Some of that criticism comes from Wagenknecht's own Left Party, but a number of the initial signatories to the manifesto have begun backing away from it.

Theologist Margot Kässmann, the former head of the Protestant Church in Germany, continues to support the "manifesto," but said last week she would not attend demonstrations in support of the movement in Berlin. "There are attempts by the right-wing fringe to hijack criticism of arms deliveries," Kässmann says, lamentingly. "I care about who I am associated with." The AfD, for example, whose chair Tino Chrupalla recently shared Wagenknecht’s and Schwarzer’s petition on Twitter, represents "inhuman views," says Kässmann. "I don’t want to be associated with them," Kässmann says. "Let them hold their own demonstration."

Meanwhile, Roderich Kiesewetter, a politician with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has launched his own counter-initiative as an alternative to that of Schwarzer and Wagenknecht. In it, he and other signatories write: "Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children in this country, whose husbands, brothers and fathers are fighting on the battlefield right now, are shocked at these ideologues who insist on 'peace' by manifesto, whatever the cost might be."

A protest against weapons deliveries on the periphery of the Munich Security Conference in February

A protest against weapons deliveries on the periphery of the Munich Security Conference in February

Foto: aal.photo / IMAGO

The debate shows that more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans still don't know who they want to be. The thoroughly militarized East Germany was supposedly committed to world peace. And West Germany had a strong peace movement that emerged as a response to the NATO and Warsaw Pact arms race.

Then the war in Kosovo in the 1990s, which saw Germany's Green Party vote in favor of the German military's first intervention since World War II, shook pacifist certainties in both the east and west of the country. On February 24, 2022, though, it because glaringly obvious that the country had never really addressed a number of central issues – the country's defensive capabilities, for example, or the, question of how to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia.

The Chancellor’s Balancing Act

Berlin can no longer stand on the sidelines, there is simply too much pressure on Germany as one of Europe's leading powers. And then there is the guilt for the immense suffering that Nazi Germany brought on Eastern Europe during World War II.

What, then, should be done? Since the beginning of the war, Chancellor Scholz has been attempting to walk the line between support and hesitancy, full speed ahead and standing on the brakes. As if he wanted to serve both camps. He may even have been somewhat successful in doing so. Yet the strategy also runs the risk of disappointing everybody.

A recent survey conducted by the online polling institute Civey on behalf of DER SPIEGEL demonstrates just how divided Germans are.

  • As many as 63 percent of those surveyed believe that the German government should do more than it has to promote peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

  • The Germans, though, are not in favor of peace at any price. Some 42 percent of respondents say that the goal of negotiations should be the restoration of Ukraine's borders before the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

  • Thirty-three percent say Ukraine should demand the restoration of its national borders as they were prior to the Russian attack in 2022.

  • Only 17 percent are in favor of the Ukrainians ceding any additional territory.

When a number of German politicians, supported by a significant share of the German public, began demanding in January that Scholz deliver battle tanks to Ukraine, Schwarzer sent an email to Wagenknecht suggesting that they start a joint petition and organize a demonstration to take place at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. They initially attracted 69 signatories, including some prominent German public figures like Kässmann, Peter Gauweiler, a prominent former politician with the center-right Christian Social Union party, former European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen, the German actress Katharina Thalbach and musician Reinhard Mey.

Did Schwarzer and the others know exactly who they were getting involved with when they engaged with Wagenknecht? For years, Wagenknecht has been criticized for her alleged willingness to accept support from right-wing extremists and that she deliberately appeals to this clientele. She is considered to be a luminary in the "Querfront," a loose-knit alliance between left-wing and right-wing extremists.

No "Ideology Test"

Shortly after the launch of the initiative, Wagenknecht’s husband Oskar Lafontaine, a former political star in Germany, was one of those who fed such suspicions. He gave an interview to Milena Preradovic, a former presenter with the mainstream television network RTL who now has a YouTube channel that is extremely popular with conspiracy theorists and the extreme right. She asked Lafontaine if it was possible that AfD politicians and right-wing voters might also attend the demonstration. He stressed that there is no "ideology test" for those wanting to come out.

Wagenknecht has long had links to the "Querdenker," a protest movement that was adamantly opposed to measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak and also doesn't shy away from conspiracy theories or the right-wing fringe.

During the Ukraine crisis in 2014, she signed an appeal of what was called the "Peace Winter" initiative. Among those who attended the demonstrations back then were the German conspiracy theorist Ken Jebsen and well-known neo-Nazis. Wagenknecht was still the national leader of the Left Party at the time. After massive protests within her own party, Wagenknecht canceled her participation in one of the demonstrations.

"Manifesto" initiators Sahra Wagenknecht and feminist leader Alice Schwarzer

"Manifesto" initiators Sahra Wagenknecht and feminist leader Alice Schwarzer

Foto: Bettina Flitner / laif

Now, the question of Wagenknecht’s dubious alliances is once again front and center. Indeed, the same actors who emerged during the 2014 Peace Winter are now resurfacing behind Wagenknecht. They include Jürgen Elsässer, the editor in chief of the far-right magazine Compact, which promoted participation in Wagenknecht's demonstration. Wagenknecht and Elsässer have known each other for years. In 1996, when Elsässer was still part of the left-wing spectrum, the two co-authored a book together.

Last week, when Elsässer appeared at a political comedy event for the annual carnival festival season in a town in the eastern state of Thuringia, some of the attendees had Reich flags – which has been co-opted by the far right – painted on their cheeks. Elsässer shouted to the crowd that a new Querdenker front had emerged, one that drew everyone from Björn Höcke, a right-wing extremist  in the AfD movement, to far-left figurehead Wagenknecht. "These forces must come together so that a resistance can be created," Elsässer roared. "A united people can never be defeated." He called on all to join the demos over the weekend in Berlin, saying friendship with Russia is possible. "We are people who understand Putin," Elsässer shouted, prompting the hall to respond with chants of "druzhba," Russian for "friendship."

Wagenknecht’s close supporters include Diether Dehm, a music producer and former member of parliament with the Left Party who describes himself as a "conspiracy theorist." Andrej Hunko, a member of parliament loyal to Wagenknecht, joined a protest in the streets with AfD politicians in the western city of Aachen a few weeks ago.

Wagenknecht Fans in the AfD

The national leadership of the AfD is particularly pleased with Wagenknecht's involvement. The internal assessment by members of the extreme right is that the demonstration initiated by Wagenknecht and Schwarzer would be of enormous help to the AfD because the left has repeatedly distanced itself from Wagenknecht, and anyone still sharing her positions would have little choice but to vote for the AfD. Moreover, the AfD has long considered itself to be the most credible party when it comes to street protests. The AfD has nothing against joining forces with the far left on a number of issues. On the contrary, its members welcome anything that makes them stronger.

Wagenknecht has indeed always had a lot of fans within the AfD's eastern chapters. A district association in the state of Saxony-Anhalt even used her likeness on a poster in 2021, an incident that prompted Wagenknecht to take legal action. Some AfD officials have begun realizing the dangers of associating too closely with Wagenknecht. People like Sahra Wagenknecht are "competitors of the AfD," the head of the state party chapter in Saxony-Anhalt recently wrote to members in an email.

Even if her statements "seem worthy of approval or even sound as if they come from the AfD," he wrote, one should not comment on or share any comments about them without reflection. Or it should at least be pointed out "that the statements are contrary to the program of the respective party," and that anyone who "wants these policies has no choice but to vote for the AfD."

Meanwhile, a fierce dispute is raging over the "manifesto" in the Left Party – still Wagenknecht's political home for the time being. The party’s executive board recently asked to speak with her. But Wagenknecht left open the question of whether or not she wanted AfD representatives at Saturday's demonstration. They were told only that she would not send them away.

For many on the left, distancing themselves from the right is a part of their identity. The state chapters in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, in particular, fear that a softening of the firewall to the AfD would only hurt them. How, after all, are they supposed to criticize the center-right CDU for voting on issues together with AfD members in the state parliament if their own members are joining the far-right at public demonstrations?

In the end, the Left Party’s national committee made the decision not to back Wagenknecht's demonstration. "Such a rejection of the hundreds of thousands who have already singed the Manifesto for Peace is downright self-destructive," criticized Sevim Dağdelen, a Left Party member of parliament who is loyal to Wagenknecht. "A sect leader may act in such a manner," he said, "but not a responsible left-wing party." Klaus Ernst and Alexander Ulrich, members of parliament with the Left Party, said the board had "embarrassed itself in the worst possible way."

Such statements are closely monitored within the party. The fact that Wagenknecht’s camp has long been considering the creation of a new party only intensifies such discussions.

Wagenknecht has been dodging questions for months about speculation that she is planning to splinter off from the Left Party. In the background, though, considerations have long been underway regarding how a new party could get off the ground before the 2024 European elections. The biggest problem is organizational ability: An earlier movement organized by Wagenknecht, "Stand Up," ended in chaos.

But the "Manifesto" is no longer just an issue for the right-wing or left-wing fringes. Beyond the extremists, conspiracy theorists and Wagenknecht fans, there are countless people who share the desire for a rapid peace through negotiations.

"I signed because I want to show that I don't agree with the politicians," says the German novelist Sonja Ruf. "If one boy attacks another in the schoolyard, I would never put a gun in the second boy's hand. After all, there's only one schoolyard for everyone. There is a need for other solutions." Ruf, a 55-year-old from the western city of Saarbrücken, is a self-described pacifist. She says she welcomes "anyone who is committed to the cause of peace."

Ali Demirhan also wants to work for peace. Demirhan is the deputy chairman of the works council at the Hamburger Sparkasse bank and the chair of the Green Party's parliamentary group in the city council of Geesthacht in the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein. "Alice Schwarzer and Sahra Wagenknecht are no role models for me," the 57-year-old says. "I didn’t sign because of the two of them. But I believe in its message from the bottom of my heart." Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying more and more weapons, Demirhan says, and more and more people are getting killed. "But there can be no end without negotiations." That, of course, doesn't mean that Ukraine must capitulate or accept Russian occupation of territories, he says. "But we also need to differentiate and determine why Russia feels so threatened by NATO."

He says he would like to see members of the German government like Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Scholz reach out to countries like China, India, Brazil and Turkey. "We need major players who have access to both sides and can mediate," he says. Unlike his party colleague Baerbock, Demirhan does not believe Ukraine will win. "You can’t win against a nuclear power."

Green Party politician Jamila Schäder: "I can fully understand the emotional response."

Green Party politician Jamila Schäder: "I can fully understand the emotional response."

Foto: Kay Nietfeld / picture alliance / dpa

Demirhan is a strong adherent to the traditional peace movement in Berlin, which was particularly strong in Germany due to the horrors perpetrated by the Germans in World War II. Indeed, the roots of the Green Party lie in that movement. But today, the leadership of the Green Party has moved miles away from the attitudes of that time.

To understand that development, you have to go back to the 1990s. The war in Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda triggered an international debate about the extent to which the international community has an obligation to prevent wars of extermination.

In 1999, Germany’s new government at the time – the first to feature the Green Party, the junior partner in a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats – had only been in office for a few months when it had to take a stand on the war in Kosovo. At a special party conference, the Greens wanted to clarify whether they would agree to the participation of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in an ongoing NATO mission. "I believe in two principles," Joschka Fischer, the Green Party Foreign Minister, told the conference. "Never again war, never again Auschwitz. Never again genocide and never again fascism." Shortly before, Fischer had been struck in the face with a paintball for his support of NATO action. In the end, the Greens agreed to the Bundeswehr deployment.

Fischer justified his policy with lessons from German history. The goal, he said, cannot be peace at any price. If genocides are to be prevented, he said, you have to be prepared to use the military.

Green Party politician Winfried Nachtwei also voted for Fischer’s course at the time, even though he has always viewed himself as a peace politician. But the scrutiny of German atrocities on the territory of the former Soviet Union and a trip with a delegation to Sarajevo in 1996 changed him. "That’s when the realization became inescapable that armed force may be necessary and legitimate to protect populations," he says.

Nachtwei, 76, who recently finished writing an article about German atrocities in Ukraine starting in 1941, says: "There is also a desire to never be defenseless again. This is also a lesson from the German extermination mania and World War II. This is ignored by many who profess to be pacifists."

Yes, he says he shares the wish for the killing to stop. But then he follows up with his list of criticisms: Disregarding history, a lack of empathy, a trivialization of the attack and a distortion of the facts. He accuses supporters of Schwarzer and Wagenknecht of "appeasement in the middle of a war of aggression."

"Not Falling into a State of Helplessness"

Young members of the Green Party hold largely similar views of the situation. "I can fully understand the emotional response. Everyone wants peace," says Jamila Schäfer, a 29-year-old member of parliament. "But some people confuse the pacifist objective with the pacifist method." Schäfer also considers herself to be a pacifist. "But I am not going to resign myself to falling into a state of desperate helplessness as soon as an aggressor starts a war."

Another pillar of the old peace movement in West Germany, the Protestant Church, on the other hand, has remained largely faithful to its old reflexes. Theologian Kässmann reports that she is currently experiencing a "great, deep fear of war" within the congregations. "Many can’t sleep." The theologian criticizes the fact that, for many, the debate is mainly about weapons. "The only thing that matters for me is: How do we get to a ceasefire as quickly as possible? And is reaching that goal only possible through more violence?"

Together with the German Peace Society - United War Resisters (DFG-VK) and more than 15 other peace groups, Kässmann called for demonstrations in more than 20 cities over the weekend. The gatherings under the banner of "Stop the Killing in Ukraine – In Support of a Cease-Fire and Negotiations" read like a "Who’s Who" of the peace movement. But it is questionable whether the peace veterans will be able to build on old successes.

"What I am really committed to is doing the right thing at this time."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

Those protests were directed at the planned stationing of American medium-range missiles in Europe. Critics feared such missiles would make a nuclear war in Europe more likely. A 300,000-participant demonstration in Bonn, West Germany, in October 1981 turned into a major social event, with international celebrity Harry Belafonte attending as well as Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Others present included politicians with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) like Erhard Eppler and Oskar Lafontaine, who opposed then-Chancellor Helmut Schimidt, also of the SPD, who supported the stationing of missiles in Europe.

The current chancellor is less suitable as an opponent and bogeyman of the movement. In contrast to his role model Helmut Schmidt, he is more indifferent. But neither is Scholz a beacon of hope for the peace movement. Gradually, his government opened up to the delivery of increasingly heavy equipment. Helmets were followed by rocket-propelled grenades, then howitzers, the Gepard anti-aircraft vehicle, rocket launchers and, finally, the promise of infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks .

Scholz also has a clear message for the drafters of the "Manifesto." "I don't share the convictions of this appeal," the chancellor told the German political talk show host Maybrit Illner on Thursday. But he also promised the Germans: "What I am really committed to is doing the right thing at this time. I am committed to not being rushed, to avoiding misguide, hasty decisions, to refraining from things that everyone regrets afterwards. Rather, I am committed to making sure our country gets through this difficult time."

Scholz likes to say that there’s no script for this war. One can only hope that the chancellor doesn’t lose his direction in the heated atmosphere between all the petitions and demonstrations.

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