10 days of controversial climate crisis protests in Berlin

From Wednesday, April 19th till Friday, April 28th, hundreds of activists from German campaign group Letzte Generation (Last Generation) blocked key roads by glueing themselves to the asphalt in the German capital, bringing rush hour traffic to a standstill in central parts of the city. ‘Some 33 points’ were blocked – a spokeswoman for the Berlin police told Agency France Presse (AFP) – including the busy A100 motorway, which elicited around 500 police officers to be deployed across Berlin to deal with the protesters.  

These efforts by Letzte Generation, who have been active for over a year, represent their most intense effort yet, continuing their primary tactic of street sit-ins, glueing their hands to the road’s surface to block cars, which has earned them the nickname Klimakleber or “climate stickers”. Other protests have included throwing mashed potato at art in galleries, throwing fake oil at the German constitution and spray-painting political party headquarters. 

The group wants to push the government to do more to curb climate change, as activist Raphael Thelen stated ‘We’re bringing the city to a standstill so the government moves.’ And indeed, they are not alone in that desire, with recent surveys indicating that four-fifths of Germans stated they want the government to take more and swifter action on the climate emergency. 

The main action that the Letzte Generation would like to see is the creation of a ‘climate social council.’ This institution would bring 150 Germans theoretically representing every level of society together to work out realistic ideas as to how Germany can end the use of fossil fuels in a ‘socially just’ manner by 2030, The council would then submit these solutions to the German parliament. Letzte Generation spokesperson Aimée van Baalen justifies this demand as ‘Citizens’ councils are already provided for in the coalition agreement,’ so that they simply want the government ‘to make one of the councils currently in the planning stage the social council on climate that we are calling for.’ 

The groups’ tactics are controversial, however. Members of the German government have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of the group’s actions, with spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann telling reporters: “We just think the path taken by the climate movement, or some of these activists, is the wrong path for drawing attention to this.’ Some more extreme members of government have compared the group to the Taliban, the Nazis and the RAF, a twentieth-century German terrorist group. 

The Greens, part of Scholz’ ruling coalition, are particularly notable critics. The party’s leader in parliament, Britta Hasselman, said on broadcaster ARD the blockages were ‘not productive,’ as the party was doing ‘what it can do’ within the coalition, while the Green economy minister, Robert Habeck, told NTV that ‘This protest doesn’t win a majority for climate protection; instead it irritates people, divides society, and in that sense it’s not a helpful contribution to climate protection.’ 

This protest doesn’t win a majority for climate protection; instead it irritates people, divides society, and in that sense it’s not a helpful contribution to climate protection.

Even within the wider population, Letzte Generation is not well-received. As reported by AP News, on Friday 28th April, at a blockade in the north of Berlin, though many drivers simply waited patiently for police to clear the road, some hurled abuse at the activists, calling them “terrorists” and “scum.” One motorist who was interviewed, Frank Silzle, said that while he agreed with the group’s aims, he thought its tactics to be ‘counterproductive,’ explaining ‘I understand their cause completely, but the way they’re going about it is sadly causing a counter reaction within the population that is very, very harmful to the cause.’ He is not alone in this sentiment, a recent survey showing 86% of participants are against Letzte Generation’s protest methods.  

Letzte Generation claims membership and general support for the group has only increased the longer it has been protesting. ‘Sure, there are those who insult or criticize us’ activist Theodor Schnarr said, ‘but I’ve got the feeling that more and more people are coming to us on the streets and saying they think this is a good thing.’ There also seems to be the prevailing sense within the organisation that, because of the gravity and urgency of the climate emergency, their disruption is justified. Carla Hindrichs, a spokesperson for the group, said: “I don’t want to stick myself to roads. I’m not doing it for fun but because we can see from examples in history that disruptive, nonviolent action can be the most effective type of action. We are like a fire alarm, which is annoying but necessary.” And, as Schnarr points out, ‘We have all the solutions; the German government just needs to implement them.’ 

This is insufficient justification, however, for those in authority. Politicians and police alike have called for harsher punishments for the protesters. Rainer Wendt, the head of Deutsche Polizeigewerkschaft. a police trade union, called for the ‘Bavarian model’ to be rolled out across the country, referring to the southern state’s law that allows for preventive detention of activists for up to 30 days in anticipation of protests. Berlin, in contrast, only allows for up to two days of preventive detention. ‘It is no accident,’ Werner told RND news network, ‘that activists have chosen to centre their protests on Berlin and not on Munich,’ which is the capital of Bavaria, adding ‘We will only get this situation under control if the punishments are harsher.” 

 The failure of this system is even acknowledged by Letzte Generation, as activist Raphael Thelen described ‘The strategy of locking us away in detention cells has obviously failed. Today I’m sitting on the street again, blocking traffic.’ By the end of the ten days, the group reported that the police ‘gave up their strategy’ of ‘arresting as many protesters as there were detention cells and processing capacities.’  

However, Berlin is not keen to embrace the Bavarian model. Benjamin Jendro, spokesperson for the Berlin police, has dismissed Wendt’s demands, but has said that, as protests increase in number, they are in need of alternative means to control them. ‘We don’t want Bavarian-type rules,’ he told Welt TV, ‘but we would like to have more ability to get to grips with the protests.’ 

These discussions have elicited mixed responses from government. Nancy Faeser of the Social Democrats, the Minister for the Interior, has called for Germany’s sixteen states to collaborate on a unified stance on preventive detention, but the Head of Berlin’s Greens, Bettina Jarasch, who just lost her place in government, has noted that preventive detention is ‘very questionable and must be strictly controlled’ as it ‘means putting people in prison for crimes they have not yet committed.’ 

Letzte Generation plans to meet with Germany’s transportation minister this week to discuss its demands. They include the introduction of a universal speed limit on German highways, a move that experts say would be a quick and cheap measure to cut emissions. The protests came at an awkward time for the government, which is hosting an international climate meeting in the capital this week where it will push for other countries to do more to curb planet-warming emissions even as it faces criticism at home for failing to do enough. Letzte Generation have declared moreover that ‘If politicians still do not do what is clearly necessary, we will return and rebel again on May 12.’ 

Photo credit: Mika Baumeister via Unsplash