Cover Story The Gulf War Generation

Most of those involved in the peace movement are young people. A genuine and simple faith in the good is taking the place of ideology.

An announcement on the public address system shortly after the start of school gained the German peace ‘army’ almost 500 volunteers. The principal of the Camille-Claudel High School in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin gave his approval for the students’ participation in the peace demonstration. The students could pick up cardboard and nails from the janitor and whatever else was needed for their expression of protest against the war. For two hours, says Anna, 13, “we made signs and then we took off.”

In other schools in the city, as in Prenzlauer Berg, there were debates and discussions about public gatherings, students disregarded rules banning demonstrations, or ignored the displeasure of their teachers. Last Thursday, seven hours after the start of war in Iraq, 50,000 demonstrators surged out of the U-Bahn [subway] tunnels at Alexanderplatz and the Friedrichstrasse train station. By the time the police, who were taken by surprise, managed to block access to all vehicular traffic, the young peace marchers had already arrived at the Brandenburg Gate.

The new activists in the streets also confounded the security forces in other respects. Up to the start of the war about a thousand peace demonstrations had been registered in Germany. Of these, fewer than 50 were said to have been organized by rightist groups, and 500 by leftist groups (from Attac to the SPD [German Social Democratic Party]). But another 500 were classified as “open” [non-partisan] — the revolt of the young center against the war was now apparently following the revolt of “decent people” against the right.

Actually, other than the basic idea, the new peace movement today has little in common with the activists who managed to get 200,000 demonstrators to assemble in the Bonn Hofgarten during the last Gulf War. Missing are the slogans thought up weeks before, the banners professionally designed for maximum effect. Ideology is replaced by spontaneously expressed feelings, sometimes also by a naïve belief in “good.” It’s got to be enough “if you volunteer your body,” says an office worker in an industrial firm, Sascha Goretzko, one of 70,000 Berliners who demonstrated against Bush that evening.

The effects of ideological disarmament on the new protest culture vary. Even though there were far more than a million demonstrators in the streets, security officials recorded only 108 Iraq-related criminal acts up to the middle of last week, “including several incidents where bags filled with paint were thrown,” as a surprised BKA [Federal Criminal Investigation Department] officer reported. The problems with the demonstrators are different. In Leipzig where 30,000 people are once again routinely coming to the Monday Demonstrations, Pastor Christian Führer had to explain to the newcomers that one does not make telephone calls or applaud in a House of God. And in Hamburg, demonstrators, their faces still covered with hand-painted peace symbols, went to a McDonald’s for a Big Mac amid laughter from the veteran protesters.

The ideology-free demonstrations have especially inspired young people to become more involved. There were “no small groups, no splinter parties talking you into doing things and trying to win you over,” high school student Tillmann, 18, discovered to his delight. It was his third demonstration — “and not the last for sure.”

Professional guidance and support is only requested from the organizers. Groups like Attac or the Humboldt University Anti-war Committee become a sort of service industry. The basic data can be accessed on their Internet Web pages — the rest is done through the demonstrators’ own means of communication. This new form of mass movement would be inconceivable without the Internet, cell phones, or SMS. And when like-minded people from Tokyo, Sydney, and Rome penetrate the Berlin youth scene via e-mail chain letters, you get the feeling they’re helping turn the political setscrews on an international level.

Though it may sound a bit pretentious, Tillman even thinks that in a way they “backed up Schröder so that he could appear in a better light against the Americans.” On the other hand, Anna, who has a Che Guevara flag draped around her hips, “because he fought for freedom,” doesn’t have any grand illusions about the effect her protest had on Bush. “But at least we didn’t just accept it.” Anna, 20, a history student who had already taken to the streets against the right, is fighting — with a bottle of Coca-Cola in her hand — "the kind of helplessness which you have to defend yourself against.”

Sven Giegold, economist and Attac coordinator, thinks it is “specific indignation” that drives people into the streets. “They’re not demonstrating because they reject war in general — they reject this war.” Julia, 19, a trainee at Daimler Chrysler says that at her workplace “all they talk about is the war. Even people who usually aren’t interested in politics are suddenly talking about politics. And all of them are against the war.” Experiences like this, says Giegold, are quite lasting. “Some of these young people will remain politicized.”

Will the Gulf Generation now be followed by the Gulf War Generation? That’s right, Tillmann says, “I’m becoming a demonstrator because of the war.”

High school student Christian, 18, unknowingly describes the kind of events that give rise to a protest impulse. After he found out that the war had started, he asked himself, “How do I feel” — and immediately thought of September 11th. His thoughts after the terrorist attacks were “of course different but just as intense” as his feelings are now. “And they won’t let go.”

He found September 11th “incomprehensible”; this time he was “simply completely sad.” Of course you had to count on war breaking out for quite a long time, “but you’re still horrified when it happens.” And because he now thinks of America “not with greater hostility, but more critically” he is demonstrating in front of the US Embassy.

The new peace marcher receives absolution from an experienced old activist. “I hope that anyone who dismisses this protest as corny mawkishness,” says the theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer who helped to bring about the Wende in East Germany by his participation in demonstrations, “I hope he gets shot in his behind.”


[translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo]

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