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Antinuclear protesters debate the limits of nonviolent 'resistance'

In Britain in recent weeks, the Greenham Common women have twice taken wire cutters to the air base fence. In West Germany, Otto Schily, a gifted lawyer and Green party member of Parliament, is challenging in the courts the constitutionality of new missile stationing.

In the Netherlands, activists have begun to camp outside the designated cruise base at Woensdrecht.

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Apathy and violence, it seems, are not the only alternatives to political action for the European peace movements. And however great the temptation to protest-ers - now that the political process has failed to prevent deployment of the new NATO missiles - to retreat to resignation or angry attacks on ''the system,'' anti-nuclear leaders reject such abdication.

The leaders are willing at this point to move to more militant, essentially unpolitical acts like civil disobedience, ''direct action'' (in the British phrase), or ''imaginative'' forms of ''resistance'' (in the German allusion to citizens' passivity during the rise of Adolf Hitler). But they are not willing to give up. And they have no intention of turning terrorist.

Andreas Zumach of the Lutheran organization Action Reconciliation contends that the peace movement is necessarily peaceful in means as well as ends. He finds it natural that the Oct. 22 demonstrations by a record 1 million West Germans passed without incident - after extensive training in nonviolence by both protesters and police. And he says that even the fringe groups that sometimes attach themselves to peace demonstrations to battle the police have decided such violence is counterproductive, turning public opinion against the protesters.

Mary Kaldor, editor of the European nuclear disarmament magazine End, seconds this view for Britain, and the Interchurch Peace Council's secretary-general, Mient Jan Faber, seconds it for the Netherlands. ''We just haven't had anything like the German or Italian violent left-wing groups,'' Kaldor points out. She suggests this may be attributable to the ''much less repressive'' way Britain treats demonstrators.

Faber adds, ''Of course, there is some concern (about a resort to violence). But on the other hand I think it depends very much on our own attitude toward specific actions, for instance blockades. If we are able to organize in the future particular blockades for a couple of days with well-known people sitting on the street . . . and try to invite MPs to come over and discuss on the spot what is going on, then I think there is not such an enormous risk of violent action from fringe groups.''

Certainly the animated debate within the peace movements following the initial missile deployments - especially in West Germany - focuses on where to draw the line between acceptable nonviolent ''resistance'' and unacceptable violence.

The kind of resistance novelist Gunter Grass called for the week before Christmas is clearly nonviolent, consisting primarily of conscientious objection to military service. Communist as well as Christian groups active in the peace movement are reject any form of force.

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But many Greens are more ambiguous in arguing that the moral injunction to fight the evil of nuclear weapons overrides any requirement to obey mere ''traffic regulations'' or laws of public order. They endorse raids on military bases to damage missiles if possible.

And Green ''fundamentalists'' - who regard the party's emergence out of pure protest into parliamentarism as a betrayal - tend to be quite tolerant of force.

The few clashes this month between police and some of the would-be blockaders of military sites in West Germany by no means presage a new pattern of violence here. But they do suggest that nonviolent leaders may not always be able to maintain the discipline of Oct. 22 in a peace movement that is far more diffuse here than in either Britain or the Netherlands. (Some peace movement spokesmen would argue the police do not always maintain discipline among their plain-clothes spies in the peace movement.)

In any case, quite a few peace movement leaders in West Germany in particular believe the antinuclear movement should rethink and shift its methods and tactical goals. The 1981-83 period of mass demonstrations they deem highly successful, as West German Citizens' Initiatives chairman Jo Leinen puts it, in ''removing the taboo'' from public debate about nuclear defense and ''building up from zero a mass movement that sits deep in the population.''

They consider the tactics of this period successful, too, in pressing the West German Social Democrats to oppose the new NATO missiles.

But the peace movement leaders see that in the end, the mass rallies did not move politics to block the missiles as they had hoped. Thus they are turning to actions outside the normal political channels. These actions have no chance of altering immediate government policies - but could so polarize society as to shatter the old silent consensus that NATO possession of nuclear weapons is a necessary evil.

Next year's methods will continue to include numerous local, especially church-sponsored, discussions about nuclear dangers along with more efforts to get communities to declare themselves nuclear-free zones.

They may include an informal referendum on Euromissiles during next summer's elections to the European Parliament, with-holding of tax payments proportional to military spending, or a concerted withdrawal of money from banks.

In an escalation of ''resistance'' the West German activists will also continue their low-level blockades of the Mut-langen Pershing base and of factories presumed to be making missile components. They might emulate the British movement in setting up a telephone alert to mobilize protesters to sit in front of trucks whenever American servicemen conduct off-base exercises with their mobile missiles. They might - again on the British model - choose by the hundreds to go to jail rather than pay fines for such infractions of ''traffic regulations.''

Various peace movement leaders would also like to expand their criticism of government policy to include such issues as the US Army's air-land battle doctrine and West German arms sales abroad (Andreas Zumach), unemployment, ''alternative defense,'' and NATO's strategy of flexible response, or even to advocate West German withdrawal from NATO (the Greens).

''Resistance'' and any appeal to leftist causes beyond popular opposition to new missiles and to Reagan administration zeal for nuclear war fighting scenarios is apt to alienate the public from the peace movement, government officials and diplomats say. They point to the traditional conservatism of Germans and Britons as well as to opinion polls showing consistent 70 percent-plus support for NATO.

Such warnings fall on deaf ears in the antinuclear movement in the Netherlands and Britain as well as in West Germany.

Dutch activists say dramatic blockades at this stage can only enhance their still basically political bid to prevent cruise deployments in the Netherlands. British activists still hope to keep the mobile cruise missiles immobilized in Green-ham Common.

And for the West Germans, Jo Leinen says, ''We still have a chance. That is, the timetable for deployment is three to five years.''

In sum, the peace movements don't see a turn now to extrapolitical methods of ''direct action'' and ''resistance'' - despite the public's downgrading of nuclear dangers in the West German and British elections - as unpolitical or as likely to produce a popular backlash. They argue instead that ''unpolitical'' mass protests of the past two years had a strong influence on public thinking, even on the established institutions in the Netherlands.

They hope more provocative actions next year outside normal political channels will make it impossible for the government ever to restore the old security consensus.

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