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What Progressive Activists can Learn from Germany: Stuttgart 21


Amid the election year insanity with its endless rounds of rote indignation at each new reactionary comment from one of the members of the traveling clown car known as the GOP primary, it’s easy for progressives to lose focus on truly important issues. As Chris Hedges wrote in a recent piece in truthdig, “Turn off your televisions. Ignore the Newt-Mitt-Rick-Barack reality show. It is as relevant to your life as the gossip on ‘Jersey Shore.’” The debate that matters right now is the one raised by the Occupy movement about corporate malfeasance, ecological destruction, and an electoral system fundamentally undermined by corruption; it is a debate that risks becoming buried under a meaningless media barrage about the stacked election process. I live in Berlin, which places me at some distance from the election, so when I think about what I can contribute to progressive discussion, I think about what the progressives could learn from similar movements here in Germany.

There is a political fight going on today in Germany that involves each of the pressing issues mentioned by Hedges – and so far it seems like the forces of democracy and justice arrayed against the crony-capitalist state are winning. I’m referring to the battle over “Stuttgart 21” (S21), a proposed overhaul of the train system in and around Stuttgart, the capital of the wealthy southern state of Baden-Württemberg.

The project was first announced in 1994, with the aim of replacing the existing 16-track above-ground terminus station with an 8-track underground through station and a massive diversion of the main through-line through hills that surround the city. The idea was to free up prime development sites in the city. The project was riddled with controversy from the start – nearly 300 old trees in the city center would be felled for the benefit of the developers, geologists ruled a high risk of instability and ground water pollution due to the construction of the tunnel system, and over half of the cost of the 5.3 billion Euro project would be borne by city and state taxpayers. The primary beneficiary would be the privately owned German Rail company along with, of course, the land speculators who would snap up the liberated city property. In 1999 the project was put on hold until a new cost sharing proposal could be negotiated, and in 2007 the project was resurrected, leading to the first mass political resistance by the people of Stuttgart and Baden-Württemberg.

Now, a new foundation called the “Park Defenders,” with links to the green party and groups that share the concerns and organizing style of the Occupy movement, has over 30,000 committed activists linked through online forums. This extremely creative initiative has seemingly flummoxed the private interests behind the project and their cronies in the State and mainstream media. The forums on the website and other related websites can very quickly and effectively mobilize activists for a variety of direct actions. At every step, this organization has shown the ability to out-maneuver their competitors.

In a recent effort to whip up good will toward the massively unpopular project, its supporters sponsored a statewide propaganda campaign in which buses would pass through towns and neighborhoods handing out balloons, ice-cream, and literature displaying the “benefits” of the project to the people at large. The Park Defenders were able to mobilize activists at each of these stops before the buses arrived, who passed out their own literature; the buses were met with an unreceptive and even angry response.

Despite protests and legal actions taken against the project, construction began haltingly in February 2010. Confrontation escalated dramatically in September of 2010 when – in a type of action that should be recognizable to those of us familiar with the State’s response to the Occupy movement – police violently dispersed peaceful protesters with heavy use of water canons and pepper spray. Nine days later, a mass demonstration whose numbers police estimates put at 63,000 mobilized in opposition to the project and the authorities’ response to protest. Then, in March 2011, state elections were held in which the ruling centre-right Christian Conservative Union (CSU) was expelled from power for the first time in 58 years. The Green Party entered into a ruling coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), the first of its kind in German history.

Protestors against "Stuttgart 21" clash with Police. Scenes reminiscent of the harsh police crackdowns on OWS demonstrations took place frequently in Stutgart during the fight over the construction project.

I recently spoke with a U.N. official who grew up in Stuttgart about the project. No hardened radical himself, and even usually  conservative in his political outlook, he told me that the situation surrounding S21 has completely changed the political situation in Baden-Württemberg. In the face of a slightly less pliant government and continuous protests, construction has ground to a halt. Organized through the online forums, law students and under-employed lawyers in the state have mounted a series of frustrating legal challenges to dozens of aspects of the construction.

My friend from Stuttgart also told me that the protests are more than just gatherings of environmental radicals –visiting a demonstration, one was just as likely to see old and young, radicals and businessmen in suits who were in town for work. A wide variety of people realize the stakes: a democratic society vs. one in which state treasuries are robbed by private interests with the right connections.

A demonstrator protests against the "Stuttgart 21" construction project.

We have a lot to learn from developments taking place in Stuttgart. Though by no means to I refute the usefulness of elections tout court, I think it beneficial to be mindful of how we expend our energies, intellectual and otherwise. Indeed, in view of how the agitation surrounding Stuttgart 21 had real effects on the composition of the government, I’d say that elections have the potential to be hugely important. But potentiality is not operative in every election, and I’m not sure that it is in this one. Might progressive energy in the United States be better used by organizing around resistance to projects like Stuttgart 21, projects which are clearly geared to benefit the 1 percent but are billed as benefiting us all (and financed generously at the expense of the over-taxed productive classes whose benefits are also plundered in the name of austerity)?

I share the amazement of Germans here on the left over the way that Stuttgart 21 has revolutionized the political atmosphere in the traditionally conservative southern part of the country. I’m also confident that activists in the United States could find similar leverage-giving issues; issues and conflicts that would not just rehearse ideological divides, but actually charge and radicalize the political climate. So the next time you brilliant people find yourselves glued to the computer absorbing the ceaseless stream of election updates and titillating redundancies, I hope that you’ll remember Stuttgart 21 and consider how your energies might otherwise be directed toward concrete struggles with potential for change, for progress.

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About Jonathan Dentler

Jonathan Dentler currently lives in Berlin where he studies the history of German influence on American progressivism.