The dilemma of democracy and civil resistance

Für das Seminar „Between a rock and a hard place – Geopolitics, Conflict & Communication“ von Ulrike Davis-Sulikowski im Wintersemester 2018/19 schrieb ich mit einer Kollegin eine gemeinsame Abschlußarbeit (auf Englisch). Hier meine Kapitel Introduction, Civil disobedience, Republik Freies Wendland und Factual contraints. Die Benotung ist sehr gut ausgefallen 🙂


1. Introduction

In autumn 2018 two major protests took place in Germany and France:

  • On 27th of October more than 5.000 anti-carbon activists blocked rails near the Hambacher Forst in order to stop transport of coal to the power plant.
  • On 17th of November about 300.000 protesters all over the country of France claimed their grievance about planned tax rise.

Taking these events as a starting point we got interested in forms of resistance and in the concept of civil disobedience.

Broadly speaking it is a method of political protest following moral beliefs. Therefore we could find numerous texts from philosophers and political scientists and fewer from anthropologists although there are undoubtedly sufficient social and cultural aspects in protests and their intended social change. Research on social movements for example is a popular anthropological issue.

Over the years anthropologist became involved in activism and actively taking part in acts of civil disobedience having impact on their scientific work. Marshall Sahlins came up with the concept of „teach-in“ in 1965 and protested against the War Tax in 1968, Nancy Scheper-Hughes occupied a park in 1969 and David Graeber was importantly involed in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.

In this essay we will have a closer look at democracy as concept and as framework of political actions and at protests as form for political and social change.
We will present definitions, explanations and functions of civil disobedience and describe the story of „Republik Freies Wendland“ as an German example of nonviolent protest in 1980.
Finally we will consider global transformations during the last thirty years and how they might effect the very current civil protests in France.

Keeping an eye on occuring dilemmas we assume to find them on an individual level when citizens have to decide whether to support protest or when police men fight nonviolent civilians. The democratic state‘s monopoly on the use of violence will always bring dilemma to the groups of citizens accepting the law and fighting against a law. Protesting groups have to choose between violent or nonviolent actions, between public attention and high ideals.

2. Democracy

3. Protest

4. Civil disobedience

Henry Thoreau did not revolt in the streets but just refused to pay his tax. It was an individual act and he did not want to change or create a law. After he had spent one night in prison he wrote his essay „Resistance on Civil Government“ which was renamed by his publisher to „Civil disobedience“ in 1866. Still, the philosophers statement against a government supporting slavery and conducting a war, is the starting point of the theoretical and scientific debate on civil disobedience. 150 years later this phenomena can be defined as a disruptive, public, nonviolent act of citizens justified by their conscientious and moral duty and aiming at the abolition of grievances or unjustice while accepting jurisdiction and punishment (Seklecki 2006).

It seems that all the comprehensive and multilevel laws and regulations of a modern democratic state may hide the fact that – like in every system – scrutiny has to happen outside. Not politicians, officials or lawyers but citizens are in duty of keeping democracy alive. Staying alive means adapting to inevitable change.

Actually the individual citizen is obliged to observe, assess and act. This entails practical and moral conflicts and dilemmas: there are social and economic obligations and constraints in everybody‘s life leaving few time for civil duties. Moral guidelines may not be vague but prioritising different demands can be very hard. Ethics transcends personal sensitivities, therefore the benchmark is not ‚How bad is life for me?‘ but ‚How bad is it for some of my fellow citizens?‘. It could consequently involve the decision to give up one‘s privileges in order to make other‘s life better.

Of course most of necessary legal adjustments will happen within the democratic system. Citizens take part in elections or sign petitions, applications, complaints and appeals. They make use of their right of assembly and of free speech. At some point they may detect the effective and annoying tactic of bureaucracy: delay. Howard Zinn arguments in favour of acts of civil disobedience against the US-war in Vietnam and points out that protest have been going on for six years without any success (Zinn online). What is the reasonable period for a change within the democratic institutions?

Fidelity to law in general while breaking law(s) in action appears to be the most contradictive trait of Civil Disobedience. Political protesters who accept arrest and punishment without resistence are convinced democrats, not anarchists or criminals. They reveal unfair laws, unlawful implementations, lack of regulations or simply idleness: these are not misdeeds of democracy or the state but of the ruling government. In this sense Civil Disobedience clearly offends individual people – who are in power.

Their dilemma on the other hand is to find a way between keeping their voters and implementing new laws, between allowing disruptive protest of some and using the state‘s monopoly of violence for the sake of the general public.

At this point we should include people of executive forces like police when considering an anthropological view on civil disobedience and all its involved groups. It is obviously a personal dilemma when they have to use force against someone they know. Civil disobedience however is founded on moral values and individual responsibility. This may impose a dilemma for people in uniform to either obey orders or to follow their conscience.

After the police operation „Hamburger Kessel“ in 1986 where hundreds of protesters were surrounded for several hours, some police officers announced publicly their disagreement and established the association of critical police men and women.

Moreover the immanent conflict of democracy to make decisions according to majorities and concurrently maintain the rights of minorities brings dilemmas to politicians in power.

Jürgen Habermas reminds that a modern democratic state expects its citizens to accept the legal system not out of fear of punishment but voluntarily because this system was set up in a democratic way founded on common ground of human rights (Habermas 2017: 217). Protesters for a rightous cause who use nonlegal actions in order to achieve a higher impact might be punished. Announced and authorized protests may be declared illegal on police arbitrarness. This situation can become a manifestation of the dilemma between safety and freedom.

Civil disobedience can be interpreted as disobedience of civilians and also in a civilised manner of non-violence. The condition of exclusively non-violent actions is debated. Naom Chomsky explains that protesters should think about tactics and refrain from violence because violence is a monopoly of the state and they can never win (Chomsky online).

The aim of civil disobedience is to get attention of their fellow citizens, media and politicians and subsequently have a discussion and a legal change. Its actions appeal to the ability to reason and sense of justice of the majority (Habermas 2017:213).

Although public protest is a definite political positioning, the personal reasons for it may be various. It occurs that people with different values stand side by side fighting for the same request which can be helpful and enjoyable. It can also become a dilemma when protesters are alienated or exploited.

5. Republik Freies Wendland

On 3rd of May 1980 the „Republic Free Wendland“ was proclaimed near Gorleben, Germany, by anti-nuclear protesters.

Previous events in Germany

In 1960 the ‚Atomgesetz – Gesetz über die friedliche Verwendung der Kernenergie und den Schutz gegen ihre Gefahren‘ was implemented, in 1962 the first German nuclear power plant (NPP) in Kahl was put into operation. After the ‚Ölpreiskrise‘ (crises of fossil energy rise) in 1973 the demand towards NPPs grew. All plans were pushed by the then chancellor Helmut Schmidt who was a proponent of nuclear power and supported by lobbying activities of the German Atomforum. It even set up pro-nuclear citizens‘ initiatives, a method which is called „Astroturfing“ and is a form of manipulating propaganda.
Although local politicians and unions often agreed with the building and operating of NPPs there was a growing resistance against them. The claims of the protesters included worries about the specific locations of NPPs, about safety of operating plants and deposits in general and discontent about missing information and transparency of political decisions.
In 1975 there was an occupation of the building site in Wyhl for several months which succeeded because the plant was never built.
But in 1977 the protests escalated: following the violence of security guards of the plant in Brokdorf against protesters it came to civil war-like confrontations with police at demonstrations and occupations (Glaser 2012: 10). The anti-nuclear movement accomplished a construction freeze in Brokdorf but had to act at a different location soon after: 15.000 people tried to stand their ground in Grohnde but were dispersed by brutal police force including police men on horses. In July Vital Michalon was killed by police as he was protesting against the fast-breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, France (EJA online). The German police presence at a protest of 40.000 people against the NPP in Kalkar was as high as never before. The disposition in Germany got worse due to the terroristic actions of the RAF in the so-called „German autumn“.
Except for some aggressive groups the resistance maintained non-violent actions in order to gain and possess the public opinion. There should be no resemblence to terroristic danger but obvious contrast to police violence.
The Three Mile Island accident of 1979, a partially meltdown of a NPP in Harrisburg, USA, produced huge protests of 70.000 nuclear opponents in Bonn and even 100.000 people at the „Gorleben-Treck“ of Hannover.
At this point the protest got more focused against the technology and industry of nuclear power quite generally (Glaser 2012: 10).

Situation in Wendland

The protest in Hannover was directed against the plans of a nuclear disposal center and a reprocessing plant in Gorleben. The choice for this location was made in 1977 and founded purely political because the sparsely populated Wendland near to the East Germany border promised little resistance. In addition the „Gorlebengelder“ of 200 million Euro subvention were paid to the communes in Wendland between 1979 und 1982.
Nevertheless protests and summer camps were held and an amount of 400.000 Euro was solidarily collected to fight off disposession. In 1979 the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Wiederaufarbeitung von Kernbrennstoffen owned the required land for test drills. The drilling site nr 1004 was an area of a former suspicious forest fire back in 1975 and got sprayed a huge amount of liquid manure by protesting farmers. Other forms of protest included an anti-atom theatre play and days of fasting. Women got engaged, organised an international meeting of 3.000 women and proclaimed a birth strike because „No future without children, no children without future“.
The plans for the reprocessing plant were dismissed after the Gorleben-Treck but in February 1980 after an official complaint the „peaceful use of atomic power“ was evaluated as constitutional conform by court.

The protest camp

About 5.000 activists met at the site 1004 and established the independent nation of Republik Freies Wendland on 3rd of May. They put up a boom gate for border control and issued a Wendland passport. On the 16 km² area more than 100 wooden huts and tipis were built for individual and community use among them a Friendship house for gatherings, a church and a meditation hut, a hospital, baths, sauna and a hairdressing salon.
Hundreds of people lived permanently there for the next 33 days. Food was brought by neighbours and farmers from nearby. Supporters and curious weekend tourists visited the Free Republic.
It had its own radio station, music concerts, puppet theatre, ponys ride area and a huge swing.

The activists were aware that all this will be short-lived and terminated by the state at any time. Nevertheless they invested in greenhouses, vegetable gardens and a dumpsite. The aim of this project was not only an occupation but a social experiment. The activists wanted to proof that a different way of living is possible. The Republik was an practical example of a sustainable life-style and a fair society. It had alternative energy from a windmill and a solar thermal water heater, its decisions were made accordingly to grassroot democracy (Deacademic online, NDR online, Wendland online).

Eviction and legacy

The clearance took place on 4th of June 1980 and involved 3.500 or even 7.000 officials of police and border control, several tanks and helicopters. This impressive power of the state encountered the unexceptional passive resistance of 2.500 protesters performing a sit-in. After nine hours of carrying them away one by one the police thanked the activists via the radio station.

Temporary underground storage facilities for nuclear waste were built in 1981 and store 113 containers which were brought by thirteen transports heavily protested against.

Somehow the Republik Freies Wendland still exists: there are leaflets, posters, official statements, anniversary activities. Its passport continues to be available, it was even offered to Edward Snowdon in 2015. In 2018 an archeological research project of the events in May 1980 was completed including excavations at the site 1004.

6. Factual contraints

In 1977 the scientific journalist Robert Jungk pointet out the impact of nuclear technology on society and politics in his publication „The Nuclear State“. It exposed the restrictions which are necessary in order to maintain safety when facing the danger of accidents or acts of terror or sabotage and their monstrous aftermath like surveillance and intransparency. Jungk called the nuclear technology a monster that cannot be tamed by a state and indicated factual constraint as menace to democracy.

Factual constraints restrict the scope of activities and in the long run even thougths. Public discourse about „good life“ becomes impossible and more and more utopian.
„There is no alternative“ became a notoriuos slogan of the British chancellor Margret Thatcher who was obligated to and promoting neoliberalism.

The technological monster of nuclear power was replaced by the economic and especially the financial monster of neoliberalism in 2008 when the bank crisis shocked western democracies.
The hegemonial influence of capitalism and its primacy of growth produced a decline in alternatives on a social, cultural and economic level.

Globalization in the sense of capitalism on a global scale brought up the debate of siting: the argument of lower production costs due to lower wages and fewer environmental restrictions in other countries – mostly of course countries in the global south – allow globally operating corporations to put pressure on states and governments. Profits are privatized, the responsibilities and costs of social problems and environmental damages are transmitted to governments and society. Transnational corporations are beyond the reach of single nations.

Social movements need a linking identity. In contrast to the working-class movement hundred years ago there is no clear identity of a working or middle class spanning all countries. The only existing global class is an elite one of shareholders.

These changes challenge political and social science to provide new theories and concepts for understanding current conflicts, relations, consequences and trends.
Colin Crouch introduced the term of post democracy in 2000. It describes a weak democracy dominated by an elite.

Citizens are well aware of the diminishing power of the democratic system and its institutions. It seems paradox when protesters are calling their governments to use more of their political power against economic pressure of corporations and are fought back by police force.

Civil society is needed for scrutiny and innovation of democracy and moreover for its legitimation.

7. Yellow Jackets

8. Epilog

9. Bibliography

Chomsky (2016): URL Tactics, Boycott, and Nonviolent Resistance @ 0:10 [31.03.2019]

Deacademic: URL: [31.03.2019]

Glaser, Alexander (2012): From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out. In: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.68(6): 10-21.

Habermas, Jürgen (2017/1983): Ziviler Ungehorsam – Testfall für den demokratischen Rechtsstaat. Wider den autoritären Legalismus in der Bundesrepublik. In: Braune, Andreas (Hg.) Ziviler Ungehorsam. Texte von Thoreau bis Occupy. Reclams, Stuttgart.

EJA: Creys-Malville, fast breeder reactor stopped, France, URL: [31.03.2019]

NDR: URL:,freierepublikwendland100.html [31.03.2019]

Seklecki, Richard M. (2006): Civil Disobedience. In: Birx, H.James (Hg.) Encyclopedia of Anthropology. SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Wendland: URL: [31.03.2019]

Zinn (1971): URL “The Advocates” @ 3:50 [31.03.2019]