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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Ecoterrorism (2/3): German Politicians Compare Climate Activists to Terrorists

Read the first article in the ecoterrorism series here.


Recently, the climate activist movement Letzte Generation ("last generation") has gained much attention from German media and politicians. Accused of endangering human lives and trying to blackmail the German government into complying with their demands, the non-violent activists have been described as or likened to terrorists by politicians and the media. Meanwhile, in Bavaria, a number of activists have been detained for a month in preventive custody signalling not only a preventive turn within policing and the justice system but also increased repression against climate activists. This article is the second in a series of three articles on the depoliticization and criminalization of climate activists through comparisons with terrorism.


An activist glues himself to the entrance of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection in Berlin during a week-long Extinction Rebellion protest in October 2019. Photo by Merle Emrich.


Over the past year, the protest movement Letzte Generation ("last generation") has gained increasing media attention through frequent street blockades during which activists glue themselves to the road. With their glue-ons the activists call out to the government to take more decisive climate action. More concretely, they demand a speed limit of 100 km/h on the autobahn and the continuation of the 9-euro-ticket, tested during the summer, which allows people to use regional trains, buses, tramways, and metros for nine euros per month.

The movement has been accused of endangering people’s lives by hindering ambulances from reaching accident sites in time by politicians and in the media. Letzte Generation activists stated in response to the criticism that they always leave a rescue lane during their protests and that they purposefully only glue one hand to the ground to be able to make space for rescue forces. They explained that they also notify police prior to every action so that the authorities are aware of the potential traffic disturbance. Carla Rockel, one of the movement’s spokespersons, told Süddeutsche Zeitung that she was "stunned by how this accident [involving a cyclist] has been instrumentalized."

The question of whether it is really the activists’ fault when ambulances are slowed down, or the responsibility of drivers who fail to form a rescue lane appears to be irrelevant in public and political debate. Instead, it is quickly decided that these climate activists are to blame and several journalists, politicians, and other public figures have compared Letzte Generation activists to terrorists, or have indicated that they regard the movement as being in the process of turning into a terror organization.


Media Representation of Letzte Generation as Ecoterrorists

In several articles of the Bild Zeitung, a German tabloid paper, activists of Letzte Generation but also of other movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Ende Gelände, have been described as "extremists" who "storm" airports, or as "Klima-Chaoten". The German word Chaot describes a person who is chaotic and/or who creates chaos and disorder. It can also be used in reference to a radical violent person.

One of these articles warns of Letzte Generation’s terrorist potential citing an apparent ‘terrorism expert’. This ‘expert’ is the journalist Bettina Röhl. Having an academic background in History and German studies, her expertise regarding terrorism is her being the daughter of RAF-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.

The exaggerated rhetoric used by the Bild Zeitung does not come as a surprise as it is frequently criticized for its highly populistic reporting. It is nonetheless noteworthy due to its influence on public opinion as the most read daily newspaper in Germany. And it is not only Bild Zeitung that likens climate activists to terrorists and extremists, but also other media such as Die Welt and Tagesschau (ARD).


Politicians Speak of a "Green RAF"

Since the beginning of wide-spread climate protests such as Fridays for Future, a general response by at least some politicians has been to advise activists to leave climate action to "professionals", that is politicians. Disregarding the extent to which the right to assembly and protest applies, protesters who go beyond political participation in the form of voting, joining a political party and relatively undisturbing conventional protests, have been decried as undemocratic.

More recently, politicians have portrayed climate activists, especially those participating in Letzte Generation actions, as criminals calling for harsher punishments. In Bild am Sonntag, Alexander Dobrindt of the conservative party CSU warned of a "climate-RAF". The RAFRote Armee Fraktion ("red army faction") – was a left-wing terror organization which was active from 1970 to 1998.

Both Friedrich Merz (CDU) and Richard Progl (Bayernpartei) denounced the activists as "criminals". Merz further stated in reference to Dobrindt’s RAF-comparison that "[v]iolence against people has always started with violence against objects. That has been the origin of terrorism in Germany" and demanded the movement to be banned. His colleagues Hans Theiss (CSU) and Matthias Hauer (CDU), too, spoke of "ecoterrorism" and a "green RAF" respectively. Markus Söder (CSU) and Volker Wissing (FDP) accused Letzte Generation of harming their fellow human beings and democratic social consensus, while Bavaria’s Minister of the Interior, Joachim Hermann (CSU), demanded sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment for activists who block airports.


Ecoterrorism: An Imagined Threat

Against the backdrop of the recent arrest of several Reichsbürger who had been planning a fascist coup d’état, left-wing politician Janine Wissler (Die Linke) denounced the comparison of climate activists to terrorists: "This Wednesday, there were razzias in eleven federal states due to right-wing terror. This shows, again, how absurd it is to speak of Letzte Generation as a climate-RAF and about terror. These are people who sit down on a road, that is not an act of terrorism." Researchers, too, emphasize that Letzte Generation, and the climate movement in general, is far from being a terror organization.

Robin Celikates, professor of social philosophy at the Free University of Berlin describes the current strategies deployed by climate activists as "relatively moderate" in international and historical comparison. He explains the impression of a radicalization with the use of disturbing and provoking protest actions that create more widespread attention, as well as with the negative reaction by politicians and media. Political scientist Sebastian Haunns (University of Bremen) confirms that currently there is no observable radicalization within the climate movement which relies on non-violent means which largely limit infractions to the law to pursue their legitimate demands.

While ecoterrorism and the existence of a "green RAF" are to date mere fearful imaginaries which serve to discredit and criminalize legitimate - if not always entirely legal - protests, Celikates warns that the responsibility to avoid radicalization lies with the government. Climate change is a threat that increases as time goes by and decisive and effective actions remain absent. Thus, the longer the government fails to respond adequately to climate change, the greater the potential for radicalization becomes.


The Preventive Turn

So far, it is not the climate movement that is becoming more extreme but the responses to it. On November 3, 2022, some Letzte Generation activists glued themselves to a road in Munich. They were removed by the police and returned the same evening. After police removed them for a second time, a judge asked them if they would stop blocking the road. The activists answered, they would not. In the end, they did not return to block the street a third time, as they were held in preventive custody (1).

In Bavaria, police can take a person into preventive custody for up to thirty days if they believe there is the risk of them breaking the law. If a judge agrees, the custody can be extended to sixty days. In the rest of Germany, preventive custody is limited to a far shorter time, usually fourteen days. The custody of up to two months in Bavaria is based on the Gesetz zur effektiven Überwachung gefährlicher Personen ("law for the effective surveillance of dangerous persons") created in 2017 in response to the threat of Islamist terrorism. Initially, it was intended to make an unlimited extension of preventive custody possible but was limited to thirty days with one possible extension after massive protests. By now, the law is increasingly used to prevent protest actions in cases in which there is no legal foundation for the sentencing of activists in court (2). The use of preventive custody against activists, which, as Süddeutsche Zeitung columnist Heribert Prantl remarks, suspiciously resembles political imprisonment, is not a response to an actual infraction or offence, but to some future event imagined by police and politicians.

It is in this context that some judges have declared that, in their point of view, civil disobedience protests including glue-ons are generally legal as they take place in response to the threat of climate change which is a scientific fact. This viewpoint is further supported by a statement by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2021 stating that the German government’s climate policy constitutes not only a breach of the Paris Agreement but also of the German constitution. Their course of action – or rather inaction – constitutes, according to the Federal Constitutional Court, a danger to democracy. On the contrary, in 1985, the same court deemed protests – including protests that disturb and provoke – "primordially untamed immediate democracy."


Read part 3 of the ecoterrorism series here.


Written by Merle Emrich.


References

(1) Steinke, Ronen (2022) 'Haft ohne Ende', Süddeutsche Zeitung, 10 November 2022.

(2) Steinke, Ronen (2022) 'Kleben und kleben lassen', Süddeutsche Zeitung, 9 Nov 2022.






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