Matthew Lyons
The ’Grassroots Network` in Germany 1972-1985 - I
Article published on 28 May 2018
zuletzt geändert am 26 September 2019
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" For us, nonviolent [civil disobedience] actions are more than support for publicity work. They are part of our attempt to organize power from below.... Of course, our actions always include the willingness to talk (especially with soldiers). Nonviolent actions always appeal to the understanding and conscience of the opponents, because we do not forget that they are human beings, whom we want to persuade and win over. But we also know... that we cannot depend only on the persuasiveness of our arguments, even when we have large numbers of them to present. We will only bring about change when we have developed sufficient power from below to lend emphasis to our words."

from the Declaration of the Federation of Nonviolent Action Groups on the Fall Actions in the Fulda Gap, 1984.


1. Introduction
2. Early Years
3. Ecology and the Anti-Nuclear Movement
4. Anti-Militarism and the Peace Movement
5. Conclusion
List of Interviews


The title of this book, "The Grassroots Network", requires a short explanation. In English as spoken in the US, grassroots (with a small "g") refers in a general way to decentralized political forms of "the common people," as opposed to institutionalized leadership. But the equivalent term in West German usage is Basis (the "base"). The term Graswurzel (literally ’grassroots’) has been borrowed from English by a specific political grouping, the Graswurzelbewegung (Grassroots movement, or network), which has strong anarchist leanings. I use a capital „G" to indicate that it is a specific grouping. The situation is further complicated, however, because the Grassroots network has never been clearly defined, and because Grassroots groups have often identified themselves as "nonviolent action groups", a term which has now become politically far less specific.

I lived in West Berlin from October 1983 to June 1984. I joined members of the Berlin Grassroots group during actions in November 1983 to protest the deployment of US cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany. That was my introduction to the Grassroots network. Since nonviolent activism was then at an all-time high in the Federal Republic, I mistakenly imagined the Grassroots network to be an extensive movement involving thousands of activists.

In the summer of 1985 I returned to West Berlin and the Federal Republic to do research for my senior thesis at Cornell University, which contributed the core of this book. I met with Grassroots activists in many parts of the country, and took part in an annual event with which the Grassroots network has been closely connected: the International Nonviolent March for Demilitarization, that year in Denmark and the northern FRG.

This second trip gave me a much clearer sense of the Grassroots network. Political activism on the Left had declined sharply since the Pershings’ arrival. It was disillusioning to see many more of the Grassroots network’s internal problems, contradictions, and weaknesses, and to discover that the network encompassed not thousands, but at the most a few hundred active participants. On the other hand, I also developed a clearer appreciation for the network’s uniqueness: I was very surprised to discover the number of projects, campaigns, and forms of action which Grassroots activists have initiated. It was a lesson in the limitations and possibilities facing a small political group.

This is not an exhaustive history or analysis of the Grassroots network. I have concentrated on the role that Grassroots groups have played in two of the FRG’s "new social movements": the ecology movement of the 1970s, and the peace movement of the 1980s. In the process, I have ommitted or touched only briefly on many aspects of the network’s development, composition, and work. I hope that this book will encourage others to examine these other areas.

Nor is this a book about theories of political nonviolence. The Grassroots network has always emphasized action before theory, and it would give a distorted picture to make theoretical questions the centerpiece of my study. As much as possible, 1 have discussed Grassroots theory within the historical narrative to show its relationship to activism and to political conflict.

Matthew Nemiroff Lyons
Ithaca, June 1988


In September 1972, a man from the West German city of Augsburg chains himself to a street sign in central Barcelona. He carries signs protesting the Spanish government’s persecution of conscientious objectors. His arrest and jailing for three months draws widespread attention to the international protest campaign. A few months later, the maximum penalty for conscientious objection in Spain is reduced from 18 years to 3-8 years.

In October and November 1983, tens of thousands of demonstrators across the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) blockade military bases and government facilities to protest plans to deploy US cruise and Pershing II missiles in West Germany. In Bremerhaven, 3,000 blockaders hold their ground against violent attacks by the police. In Bonn, 5,000 blockaders "besiege" the Bundestag (federal parliament) as it debates formal acceptance of the missiles. Despite massive protests, the Bundestag approves deployment, and the first Pershings arrive immediately.

Each of these actions was informed by a doctrine of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1972, the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience. was little known in the FRG. Twelve years later, it had become a central factor in West German politics, widely endorsed and used by the peace movement, the largest social movement in post war German history.

In this chapter I will examine the connecting thread between the actions in Barcelona and Bonn: a very small loose alliance of nonviolent action groups known as the "Grassroots" network. This network formed in the early 1970s around the newspaper Grassroots Revolution (Graswurzelrevolution), which advocated using nonviolent action to transform society along anarchist or libertarian-socialist lines. Grassroots groups formed in a number of cities, mostly among university students and other young intellectuals. In 1980 most of these groups formed the Federation of Nonviolent Action Groups (FÖGA), as a focus for the grassroots network.

For many years the Grassroots groups were the only organizations in the FRG that combined direct action with the philosophy of nonviolent revolution. Although the Grassroots network never encompassed more than a few thousand sympathizers, and a few hundred people at its activist "core," it played a key role in the ecology and peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

The importance of the Grassroots groups to these movements is little known - not only in the United States but in the FRG as well. Repeatedly Grassroots groups utilized innovative tactics and campaigns which have later been picked up by many others:

• They were the first leftist organizations in the Federal Repubhc to join the movement against nuclear power and to develop alliances with citizens’ initiative groups. (1)
• They were among the first groups for conscientious objectors to advocate "total" objection: the refusal of civilian alternative service. (2)
• They were the first organizations outside the Protestant church to cultivate ties with the independent peace groups in the GDR. (3)
• They were the first groups to combine theories of nonviolent "social defense" with direct action. (4)
• They introduced the principles of the affinity group and consensus process to the West German ecology and peace movements.
• They pioneered with a variety of political tactics, including boycotts and blockades, and played key roles in organizing major nonviolent actions such as those at Wyhl (1974), Gorleben (1980), Grossengstingen (1982), and the Fulda Gap (1984).

An Overview of Grassroots Philosophy

The Grassroots network is a part of the broad spectrum of political initiatives or "new social movements" which developed in the Federal Republic after the collapse of the student movement of the 1960s. "Undogmatic" leftists and Spontis (spontaneous leftists) continued the SDS (Socialist German Student League) tradition of loose organization and anarcho- Marxist theory. "Dogmatic" leftists formed sectarian Leninist groups, called "K Groups," and underground guerrilla organizations such as the Red Army Fraction (RAF). The feminist movement developed from a base among women who rejected the sexism within the student left. Other groups such as gay men, young people, and foreign workers from Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, organized against the oppression they faced. Farmers and people from the urban middle class organized citizen initiative groups against nuclear power and other ecological threats. The counter-culture "alternative" movement ranged from vegetarian food crops and self-managed business to spiritual groups such as the Anthroposophists and Rajnishis. A house squatters movement developed, which was strongly influenced by punk culture and by anarchist militants known as "autonomists" (Autonomen). (5)
The Grassroots network was formed by radical Christians and libertarian socialists orientated toward antimilitarist work and interested in nonviolent revolution. They drew ideas and examples from pacifists such as a Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer. With the growth of the ecology movement, Grassroots activists also turned their attention to radical critiques of industrial technology, such as those of Lewis Mumford and Ivan Illich.

There are important affinities between the principles of anarchism, nonviolence, and radical ecology, which were reflected in the Grassroots network. Like many other radical-pacifist organizations, Grassroots groups opposed not only direct, physical violence such as war but also "structural violence" in the form of social hierarchies, psychological oppression, and the subjugation of nature. Many Grassroots analyses treated capitalism and the state as the twin structures that unify and maintain structural violence throughout the society in the West. Grassroots activists also rejected the then-existing "socialist" models such as die USSR or China, arguing that these states perpetrated militarism, social hierarchy, and ecological destruction in more centralized forms.

Grassroots critiques of existing "socialism" went deeper than the specifics of Soviet or Maoist rule to challenge the principles of Marxism itself. In parallel ways, anarchism, radical ecology, and pacifism all break radically with the Marxist principle that freedom is "dialectically" rooted in its opposite. Radical pacifists reject the claim that armed struggle will lead to a society free of violence. Anarchists argue that the "transitional" workers’ state will perpetuate itself - not "wither away" into communism. Radical ecologists reject Marx’s belief that human emancipation can be built upon technological "mastery of nature." All three philosophies argue that freedom can only be created through a consistent, unified process. (6)

Anarchist and pacifist philosophies, in particular, converge in the argument that political means and ends are intrinsically linked. Forms of action and organization are not simply "tools" which can be used interchangeably for various ends, but a pathway which influences and shapes the political directions themselves. In order to work toward a "nonviolent, non-hierarchical society," which Grassroots Revolution stated as its goal, Grassroots groups have endeavored to develop nonviolent forms of action and non-hierarchical modes of organization.

Concepts of nonviolent action differed within the network, reflecting - in part - differences between the religious and anarchist traditions. Grassroots activists agreed that political action should avoid endangering other people physically, but most maintained that nonviolence involves more than simply the avoidance of violence. They endorsed forms of action both legal (such as demonstrations and boycotts) and illegal (civil disobedience actions such as blockades and occupations). Under certain circumstances most Grassroots activists also endorsed attacks on property (sometimes called "violence against things") if they did not endanger people directly or indirectly.

Grassroots nonviolent action, the network emphasized, as being participatory in the sense that people acted for themselves rather than delegating their political voices through elected "representatives." The network’s forms of organization were designed to ernphasize collective participation, local autonomy, and decentralization. Each group in the network made decisions for itself, and within each group decisions were reached by a consensus of all its participants. Political work generally was local and regional.

The Networks Social Base

While the network advocated "grassroots" politics rooted in the broad community participation, it remained sharply limited in size and social composition. Although the network was never clearly delineated, its approximate size remained relatively constant at a few hundred "core" activists and a few thousand sympathizers and supporters. Throughout the network’s history it predominantly attracted university students, along with some high-school students and other young intellectuals: in general, young Germans from educated middle-class backgrounds. Men outnumbered women by perhaps two to one. (7)

This narrow social base held certain advantages for the network. The flexibility of student life made it easier for many Grassroots activists to devote time and energy to political work. Similarity of background made it easier for group members to get to know one another and to become close friends more easily and quickly than might have occurred in a broader coalition. Integration of political work and personal support within the group was a widespread, implicit part of Grassroots philosophy, but it was inconsistently applied in practice. A strong focus on intellectual debate within many groups left little room to deal with personal feelings or experiences. This made it difficult for newcomers, particularly women. Both women and men commented that it took them several months in a Grassroots group before they were able to follow the discussions. (8)

The predominance of students has also made continuity difficult: students often disperse during university vacations, move frorn city to city relatively frequently, and most dropped out of the Grassroots network after completing their degrees, creating a higher turnover rate in the membership of many groups. This made it hard for Grassroots groups to develop longterm perspectives on their work.

In many other ways, the political style and focus of Grassroots groups both reflected and perpetuated the network’s social base. For example, many (if not most) men in the Grassroots network were conscientious objectors. The threat of conscription made militarism an immediate, personal concern for them. This accounted, in part, for the network’s emphasis on antimilitarist work and for the predominance of men in the network. Opposition to mi!itary (and civilian) compulsory service, a specific form of structural violence affecting men, was thus a key source of continuity in the Grassroots network.

However, the Grassroots network largely focused on the "universal" aspects of oppression: the structural violence that pervades society and affects all social groups (e.g. militarism). Ironical!y, this may have limited the network’s appeal. The network paid less attention to the forms of structural violence which target specific oppressed groups in society. Women in Grassroots groups sometimes pushed them successful!y to focus on sexism, as in a campaign initiated in the late 1970s against the extension of military conscription to women. But the network as a whole did not consistent!y oppose sexism either outside or inside the network. Other forms of oppression, such as racism, class oppression, heterosexism, and anti-Semitism, were acknowledged as problems in society, but were never a major focus of the network’s attention or energy.

The emphasis on opposing structural forms of violence in general, and militarism in particular, rather than the oppression of specific social groups, reflected the privileged position of the Grassroots activist majority: university educated, middle- class men. For these activists, other forms of oppression may have seemed less immediate, or even invisible. Treating structural violence as "universal" often reinforces this.

Grassroots activists’ "universa!lstic" approach to oppression was reflected in their own system of organization. The activists tended to assume, in practice, that hierarchy within a political group was mainly a matter of formal structures. The network’s "nonhierarchica!" forms of organization were designed to encourage equal participation. But unless combined with antihierarchical measures designed to counter specific oppressive dynamics, they tended to leave much of the informal power in the hands of middle-class student men. This made participation difficult for some groups, such as women, and helped to exclude others, such as working-c!ass people.

Nonviolent Action or Anarchist Theory?

These problems in the Grassroots network’s responses to social oppression pointed to hidden complexities underlying Grassroots philosophy. The re!ation between anarchism and nonviolence in Grassroots philosophy is also complicated for other reasons. Alhough both nonviolence and anarchism were important for the network, it would be an exaggeration to say that the network synthesized the two. The Grassroots network had no unified program or analysis, and Grassroots Revolution’s consistent!y anarchist orientation did not ful!y represent the network as a whole.

Some Grassroots activists rejected anarchism in favor of reforming the state apparatus. A larger number had no clear position on the subject.
Commitment to nonviolence, rather than to anarchist goals, was what held the network together, and action rather than theory was its focal point. Even among Grassroots activists who consider themselves nonviolent anarchists, most have become interested in anarchism through nonviolence, seldom in the reverse. Many Grassroots groups were known simply as "nonviolent action groups" and in working with other organizations they usually kept silent about revolution. Grassroots Revolution provided a forum for political discussion, including theoretical analysis, bot the majority of Grassroots groups devoted most of their efforts to relatively limited goals such as ending nuclear power er opposing military conscription. Many Grassroots activists, in fact, treated political theory with disinterest, skepticism, or even suspicion. (9)

This tension, too, reflected the social backgrounds of Grassroots network members, such as the large number of conscientious objectors. In the process of applying for state recognition as a conscientious objector, or in some cases refusing to apply for civilian alternative service, the conscientious objector must carefully examine his personal beliefs about violence. Thus nonviolence became a concern with personal immediacy in a way that an anarchist vision often does not.

The predominance of students within Grassroots groups affected their attitudes toward political theory and action in complex ways. On the one hand, the university trains students in many fields in feel comfortable using theory and to discuss society in abstract, analytic terms. This has been reflected in West German student politics since the SDS discussion groups of the early 1960s. But the university structures, and the atmosphere within large sections of the left, encouraged an approach to theory, which is sterile, "objective," and divorced from other spheres of life. This led some students to reject the theoretical analysis entirely as incompatible with concrete political action. This "actionism" was a recurrent problem within the Grassroots movement.

The priority that the Grassroots movement placed on nonviolent action before revolutionary goals influenced its relations with other organizations. lt facilitated contact and cooperation with citizen-initiated groups, which focused on specific reforms and often included many people suspicious of radicalism. However, it helped in isolate the Grassroots movement from other libertarian-socialist groups, many of whom dismissed nonviolent action as bourgeois-reformist.

Spearheading Nonviolent Action

The Grassroots network was able to play an important role in propagating nonviolent action because it stepped into a political vacuum. Although earlier movements, such as the student movement of the 1960s, had used nonviolent techniques, groups committed to nonviolent action were virtually unknown in the Federal Republic before the 1970s. A few other organizations, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and independent peace researchers such as Theodor Ebert, played important roles in spreading the ideas of nonviolence, but the Grassroots network turned these ideas into action earlier and more consistently than did other groups.

In the social movements of the 1970s, several factors made it difficult for the network to win broader support für nonviolent action. The major peace organizations, and other groups committed to centralized political organization and to seeking mass appeal, regarded the nonviolent action (especially civil disobedience) of small, autonomous groups with suspicion. Many people, especially other leftists, identified nonviolence with "passive resistance", and therefore considered it less effective than violence. Within the antinuclear movement during the mid-1970s, "militant" leftists systematically worked to escalate political demonstrations into physical combat with the police. Frequent actions by terrorist groups and wide-reaching police repression during this period also fostered a violent political atmosphere. Thus Grassroots antimilitarist work in the 1970s was largely isolated from the major peace organizations, while in the ecology movement, where Grassroots activists often worked as part of larger coalitions, they clashed repeatedly with the "militants" over principles of political work.

The collapse of several Leninist groups and urban guerrilla organizations in the late 1970s opened the door for greater discussion of nonviolent action. This shift was represented, and to some extent aided, by the emergence of the Green Party, which inscribed both nonviolence and "grassroots democracy" (Basisdemokratie) at the top of its program. In the early 1980s, and in the seventies, the Grassroots groups took the lead in developing nonviolent forms of action. (10)

During the peace movement of 1982-3, the "nonviolent action movement" briefly exploded far beyond previous dimensions. Thousands of nonviolent action groups and affinity groups formed across the Federal Republic, and tens of thousands of people took part in civil disobedience actions, mostly blockades. In part this growth in activity represented an important success for the Grassroots network. But as nonviolent action spread, much of its political content was lost or radically diluted. Most of the people who rushed to take part in civil disobeclience had little or no understanding of Grassroots philosophy: to them nonviolent action meant only a specific technique (the blockade) which could be applied mechanically. When the technique failed to stop the deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles in November, 1983, most of the new activists quickly became disillusioned and dropped out.

These events pointed to the basic questions of self-definition which Grassroots activists never fully resolved. Did the network encompass all who identified themselves as supporters of nonviolence, or only those committed to a radical vision of nonviolent revolution? Ironically, the term "Grassroots", implying a broad community-based movement, had come to be associated with a specific, if loosely defined, political perspective. "Nonviolent action group," meanwhile, became a Label used by many organizations outside the Grassroots movement.

Another central question was the network’s strategy for social change. In both ecology and peace movements, Grassroots groups tended to seek a mediator role between contingents seeking reform and those advocating revolution. In part, this allowed the network to hedge its own internal political differences over long-term goals. But to some extent, the rotl of mediator was also a conscious, active choice. Nonviolent civil disobedience, it was perhaps hoped, could serve as a bridge: at the least, it could provide a tactical compromise between approaches favored by other radicals and by reformists, thus enabling them to work together. Ideally, it would go further, and push both liberals and militant leftists to question their own political assumptions about means and ends.

"Creative tension" between the radical and liberal tendencies plays an important, positive rote in many social movements. Mediating between the two can thus be an effective approach to take, particularly for a small group with limited resources, such as the Grassroots network, and can be readily justified on both reformist and revolutionary grounds. We need to be careful, however, not to read too much into the Grassroots network’s actions. If the mediator "strategy" became important, lt was mainly an ad hoc strategy, guided by a mixture of external forces, unspoken preferences, and conscious analysis.

And as the events of 1982-3 in particular showed, the mediator approach was only successful in practice. During the "blockade boom" period, many Grassroots groups proved to be concerned to differentiate themselves more from militant leftists than from liberal reformers. While the pages of Grassroots Revolution maintained a revolutionary tone, Grassroots activists found that nonviolent action was easily watered down in a broader coalition. lt was often heavily susceptible to co-optation by established liberal organizations, and to some extent by the State itself. This alienated many leftist groups, and contributed to the defeat of the peace movement.

lt would be wrong to consider this process either inevitable or a result solely of mistakes made by the Grassroots network. With the "Fulda Gap" actions of 1984, Grassroots groups showed that it was still possible to use nonviolent action to push the movement in a more radical direction. But this limited success did not erase the major difficulties involved in developing a radical strategy of nonviolent action.

The Grassroots Network and West German Politics

A study of the Grassroots network also points to several broader issues that were central to the West German Left and to West German politics in general. 1 cannot address all of these issues in detail, but I will briefly outline some of the more salient ones, which include the following:
• Historical discontinuity on the left
• The legacy of Nazism and war
• The role of students and politics
• Political violence
• The new social movements
• The "change of values" (Inglehart’s thesis)
• The emergence of the Green Party

Nazism destroyed Germany’s radical movements of the early twentieth century creating a major historical break in leftist politics. Efforts to recreate a radical current in politics after the end of the Second World War were stifled for two decades by the occupying powers, by the authoritarian tendencies of the West German State, and by the climate of Cold War anti-Communism. This blight did not end until the growth of the student movement and the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO) in the mid- and late 1960s. (11) Like many other leftist groups in West Germany, the Grassroots network sought to define itself by looking outward to movements in other countries, and back-ward to political currents of the pre-Nazi era.

The legacy of Nazism and war has itself been a central reference point for many popular movements in the FRG. APO, in the 1960s, convinced itself as a belated anti-Fascist resistance to a state which had never been effectively de-Nazified and to a society in which the socioeconomic roots of Fascism persisted. In the early 1980s the "independent" wing of the peace movement (including Grassroots activists) used the slogan "from protest to resistance" as a rallying cry, implicitly laying claim to the anti-Fascist heritage.

The Grassroots network’s philosophy of nonviolence, its emphasis on anti-militarism, and its opposition to political hierarchy all reflected a reaction against the memory of Nazism. As members of the Göttingen Nonviolent Action group wrote in 1978, "The superiority of anarchism over other political theories is, for us, that there can be no anarchist concentration camps." (12)

Like APO, the Grassroots network predominantly included university students and other young intellectuals. Unlike APO, however, Grassroots groups did not .focus on their own youth as a point of political identity; their social critiques did not single out their parents’ generation. By the mid-1970s, people of many different ages were politically active in the new social movements - thus the young people in the Grassroots network found themselves less isolated than their activist counterparts years before.

The political use of violence became a critical issue for the West German left in the 1970s, with the continued rise in "street violence" in leftist confrontations with the police (e.g. antinuclear demonstrations, the squatters movement), and particularly with the emergence of terrorist groups which claimed to be revolutionary, such as the Red Arrny Faction (RAF). Some commentators (such as the former RAF member Horst Mahler) have suggested that the terrorist experience was closely tied to the unresolved Nazi legacy; both rooted in a "traurnatic, moralistic" reaction against it, and drawing on same of the political attitudes and traditions that it left behind. (13)

Obviously, Grassroots activists sharply distinguished themselves frorn users and supporters of political violence. In same cases rhey defined terrorists and themselves as "opposite poles" on the Left. The issue particularly influenced Grassroots work within the ecology movernent and contributed to the network’s isolation from other leftist organizations. At the same time, the network worked hard to offer an alternative to political violence, and in same cases was able to persuade other leftist groups tou take a nonviolent approach.

The emergence of ecology, women’s alternative, peace, and other movernents beginning in the early 1970s greatly expanded the sphere of political action in the Federal Republic. If the movements of the 1960s helped to break the dependence an traditional party politics, and pioneered new issues and forrns of the action, the new social movements that followed continued in the process. Feminists, for example, expanded the definitions of politics by addressing issues in women’s personal lives as rnatters of political power. Citizen initiatives brought a new kind of participatory politics to thousands of nonradical, middle-class people. (14)
Grassroots activists themselves pointed to this shift as an important new political opportunity.
Because the resistance has had to organize itself outside the political parties, it has developed a new quality. The Easter March of nuclear weapons opponents [in the early 1960s], the student movement, and the citizen initiatives are stages of a process of liberation from bureaucracy. . . New values such as autonomy, selfdetermination, seif responsibility are developing, while, they argued, basic structures of society are more and more called into question. (15)
Much of the Grassroots network’s efforts were an attempt to further this process.
The phrases in the Grassroots pamphlet quoted above about "new values" seem to echo the claims of socialist Ronald Inglehart, whose ideas won favor in explaining die FRG’s resurgent political activism. Inglehart argued that increasing satisfaction of material needs, plus rising levels of formal education, led to a shift from "materialist" to "post-materialist" values among young, rniddle-class adults in Western industrialized countries. Materialistic values mainly include economic security and physical protection. "Post-materialistic" values include: desires for comrnunity, self-esteam, a greater voice in decision-rnaking, and an aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction. (16)

Inglehart’s hypothesis accords with the new social movement’s focus on the "reproductive sphere" (as distinct from the productive sphere): energy, health, housing, education, etc. And it accords, more specifically, with the social composition of the Grassroots network.
Ehm Papadakis, however, challenged Inglehart’s distinction between material and postmaterial needs, and pointed out that "post-materialists may in fact be pursuing materialist goals in a different guise." The widespread participation of university students and graduates in die new social movements may, in fact, have reflected their fear of unemployment, due to shrinking job opportunities in the public service sector, as much as it did any "shift in values." (17)
In die 1980s much of the scholarship on the FRG’s new social movements focused on development of the Green Party, founded as a national Party in 1979-80. Several authors refer to a "Green movement" encompassing the wide range of groups from which die Greens have drawn much of their support. I question this usage, which implies a teleologicah relationship between a social movement base and the political Party that grew out of it. Grassroots activists, who frequently criticized the Green’s participation in parhiament as a retreat into traditional politics, would object to being labeled part of a "Green movement." But the Green Party has provided a new kind of political voice to members of the new social movements, and it has brought together a tough range of activists, issues, and organizations more successfully than anyone else. Beginning in October 1998, the Greens became part of the federal government’s ruling coalition, as junior partners in the Social Democrats.

lt is also true that the Grassroots network contributed in the development of the Green Party. In its promotion of nonviohent action, its commitment to participatory democracy, its radical approach to ecological issues, and its efforts to bridge divisions between citizen initiatives and die Left, the Grassroots network anticipated the Green Party by several years, and influenced it - directly or indirectly. The network functioned both as an external critic and as a political partner of the Greens: sometimes challenging the Greens’ political decisions, sometimes offering new ideas and forms of action (especially within the peace movement) which die Greens later came to support.


The Grassroots network became a small but influential segment, first of the ecology movement, then of the peace movement. Es contributions must be weighed in the context of the limitations it faced: a narrow social base, small size, limited resources, a high turnover rate, and the difficulty of coordinating local groups. And as a proponent of radical nonviolent action, the Grassroots network was practicalhy starting from scratch. There were few political examples or experienced activits close at hand. Thus, many of the forms of action and organization which the network introduced - such as nonviolence training, affinity groups, and the consensus process - were "imported" from other countries, particularly the United States. Thus, too, the network initially focused on the internal campaigns which had little direct connection to problems in the Federal Republic.

But when the Grassroots groups turned their attention closer to home - to the struggle against nuclear power - they were brought directly into coalitions with other groups. Here they began to have an important impact. In both the ecology and peace movements, Grassroots groups continuously sought to develop a wider base of understanding, support, and participation for nonviolent action. They defended nonviolence against sections to the Left which rejected its principtes and also against liberal and "traditional" groups which equated nonviolence with legality or the avoidance of conflict. At the same time, Grassroots activists sought to work together with both of these other political currents, sometimes moving closer to one, sometimes the other. Their "mediator" role was partially a political choice, partly a reflection of the network’s own internal tensions and lack of consensus on many political issues.

The Grassroots network always included some activists with an anarchist orientation, some with a radical Christian orientation, others with a mixture of both, and many with no clear position politically. And Grassroots activists struggled with their own differing conceptions of nonviolence and social change. They argued about voluntary suffering, about forms of political organization, about symbolism versus direct action, and about the relative weight of persuasion and pressure from below. Some attempted to make feminism a more central part of Grassroots politics but they found little support. Rarely were these conflicts "resolved"; they recurred as new situations arose, new members joined and older ones left the network, and new activities were initiated.

As Günter Saathoff noted in the conclusion of his 1980 dissertation on the Grassroots network, Grassroots groups’ influence in propagating nonviolent action must be viewed skeptically for two reasons. First, other factors influenced the ecology (and peace) movements to use nonviolent action. The military strength of the police and the failure of violent confrontation made some organizations (such as the Communist League, or KB) more amenable to nonviolence for purely tactical reasons. And other groups besides the Grassroots network - such as the citizen initiative federation (the BBU), and later the Greens - began to advocate nonviolence as weil. The BBU’s magazine in particular had for several years a close relationship to Grassroots perspectives. Its editors included Michael Schroeren and Manuel Walther, both nonviolent anarchists and former editors of Grassroots Revolution. (18)

But if external forces made tactical "nonviolence" attractive by default, and larger organizations endorsed the concept of nonviolent action, it was still the Grassroots groups who set the example, who gave the concept concrete form and vitality. In campaign after campaign, action after action, it was the Grassroots activists who provided the key ideas, who offered the training, or who did the initial organizing.

Saathoff’s second point was that the Grassroots influence in larger movements was "purchased at the cost of radicalism." (19) Grassroots groups propagated their nonviolent means, but seldom their nonhierarchical ends - despite their own claim that the means and ends were indissoluble. This dynamic persisted in the peace movement of the 1980s and contributed to the movement’s decline.

lt may be, however, that Grassroots activists had to choose between limited influence and no influence at all: if they had been more forceful about their radical goals, they might have simply lost the ear of citizens initiatives and local peace groups. And while the network did not often have a strong radical presence in public, it never completely abandoned its radical orientation. The Fulda Gap action showed that the Grassroots network would not simply be coopted but would try to learn from its mistakes and apply political pressure in different directions.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that nonviolent action often constituted a radicalizing step in itself. The blockade actions of 1982-3, for example, taught large numbers of people that they could choose to break the law for political reasons, something which none of them had ever done before. Civil disobedience was often framed as a way to symbolically "withdraw one’s loyalties from the state." These were not necessarily revolutionary steps but they served as powerful counterweights to the conscription and passivity which the government sought to impose on the population.

Recently someone asked me, "What is the most important thing we can learn from the Grassroots network?" I answered, "That a small group of people, with a clear perspective on what is possible, a commitment in what they consider important, and the patience to stick in the task, can accomplish a surprising amount. They can become a pivotal force."

The story of the Klatschmohn Group is perhaps the most vivid example. This West Berlin Grassroots group, which included about 12 members, formed to address the lack of direction that the ecology movement was experiencing in the late 1970s. They set themselves the task in develop a new concept of nonviolent political action for the movement, based on the example of the Seabrook, New Hampshire occupation of 1977. The group spent one year in preparatory werk: four months in the USA learning about nonviolent activism and then another year evaluating and applying what they had learned. The affinity group/speakers council model of organization which they brought back was first used at Grossengstingen in 1982, and in scores of other actions. Thus a concept of political organization used by tens of thousands of people can be traced to the work of this group of 12. (20)

We need not romanticize the Grassroots network in order to appreciate its strengths. Throughout the 13-year period considered in this study, Grassroots activists repeatedly brought new ideas and fresh energy to important political struggies. With their commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience, to radical ecology and antimilitarism, and to grassroots democracy, they expanded the sphere of political possibility in the Federal Republic of Germany.

1 Günther Saathoff, "Graswurzelrevolution’: Praxis, Theorie und Organisation des gewaltfreien Anarchismus in der Bundesrepublik 1972-1980." Thesis, University of Marburg, 1980, p. 40.
2 Saathoff, " Graswurzelrevolution," pp. 55-6.
3 Klaus Wolschner, "Wir sind nicht untereinander loyal": Die westliche Friedensbewegung und "Schwerter zu Pflugscharen," Kirche im Sozialismus, no. 5 (1982). See also the special issue of Grassroots Revolution on the Warsaw Pact (January /February, 1984).
4 See for example Grassroots Revolution, no. 56 (1982), a special issue on social defense (Soziale Verteidigung).
5 For a brief overview of these movements, see Joseph Huber, Wer soll das alles ändern (Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag, 1981). On the "alternative" movement, see Wolfgang Kraushaar, ed., Autonomie oder Getto? (Frankfurt-am-Main: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1978).
6 On the convergence of radical-ecologist and anarchist critiques of Marxism, see Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980).
7 Saathoff, "Graswurzelrevolution," p. 156, estimated a two-to-one male-female ratio in 1980.
8 Interviews with Dieter Kannenberg (Göttingen, July 15, 1985), and Cony Brinckmann (Göttingen, July 16, 1985)
9 On ambivalence within the Grassroots network towards radical theory, see Saathoff, "Graswurzelrevolution," pp. 157-60.
10 On the shift from the 1970s to 1980s, Ulrich Wohland’s comments have been particularly helpful to me. (Interview, Heidelberg, July 26, 1985.)
11 See William Graf, The German Left Since 1945 (New York: The Oleander Press, 1976).
12 Gewaltfreie Aktion Göttingen, "Feldzüge für ein sauberes Deutschland", (Göttingen, 1978), p. 13.
13 See Luciana Castellina, "Terrorism in West Germany": Interview with Horst Mahler, Socialist Review no. 39 (May-June 1978) pp. 118-23; and Albrecht Wellmer, "Terrorism and Social Criticism," Telos no. 48 (Summer 1981) pp. 65-78.
14 See Elim Papadakis, The Green Movement in West Germany (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) pp. 9-11.
15 "Feldzüge, für ein sauberes Deutschland." (Göttingen: Gewaltfreie Aktion Göttingen, 1977), 8. Note: All translations from German-language sources are mine unless otherwise indicated.
16 See Ronald Inglehart, "Value Priorities and Socio-Economic Change." In S. Barnes and M. Kaase et al., Political Action: Mass Participation in Five Western Democracies (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications 1979);
and Inglehart, The Silent Revolution (Princeton,: Princeton University Press 1977).
17 Papadakis, "The Green Alternative: Interpretations of Social Protest and Political Action in West Germany," Australian Journal of Politics and History, no. 323 (1986) esp. pp. 443-6; Ehm Papadakis, The Green Movement in West Germany, p. 155
18 Saathoff, "Graswurzelrevolution," pp. 272-3.
19 Ibid pp. 274-5.
20 Interviews with Dieter Rau (August 15, 1985), Benjamin Pütter (July 9, 1985)

Taken from
Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher
Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective
Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA , 1999

= Introduction to
Matthew Nemiroff Lyons: The "grassroots" network
Radical nonviolence in the Federal Republic of Germany 1972-1985

Ithaca 1988, 123 p.
(Cornell Studies in International Affairs)

Read also
The Grassroots Network in Germany, 1972-1985
Part II: The early years




IV: ANTI-MILITARISM AND THE PEACE MOVEMENT. Third part and final conclusion

For German reading people: read also following articles::

Was bedeutet „Graswurzelrevolution"?
In Nr. 1 / 1972 der Zeitschrift graswurzelrevolution

Was heisst graswurzelrevolution ?
Dokumentation des Selbstverständnis-Flugblatts vom Dezember 1973

Wolfgang Hertle
Graswurzelrevolution in der Bundesrepublik ?
Ansätze einer Bewegung für gewaltfreie Gesellschaftsveränderung durch Selbstorganisation und Macht von unten

Larzac, Wyhl, Brokdorf, Seabrook, Gorleben …
Grenzüberschreitende Lernprozesse Zivilen Ungehorsams

„Geschichte wird von den Siegern geschrieben" ...
Lasst uns selbst unsere Geschichte schreiben !

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