Germany’s Easter March peace demos: A relic of bygone times

Germany’s old-fashioned peace movement actually always been about anti-Americanism and not about peace. As the study shows, still not enough lessons learned from the war in Ukraine.

The 2023 Easter marches take place this year in the context of the war in Ukraine. However, only a few appeals for the withdrawal of Russian troops. The result of the analysis made by Dr. Thorsten Gromes shows a disturbing picture of naivety, ignorance, and belief in Russia in German society. 

Some people in Germany use a term called “Putinversteher”. The term combines the name of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin with the German noun “Versteher,” which means “understander. The German word used to describe Putin sympathizers now has its own English Wikipedia page. Today, a term for people who see the West as an enemy and see Putin as the savior.

Dr. Thorsten Gromes is a Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt(PRIF)  in the Research Department “Intrastate Conflicts.” His research focuses on post-civil war societies and so-called humanitarian military interventions. 

A year ago, Vice-Chancellor, Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck stressed over Eastern peace movement in Germany and urged organizers to move away from the pacifist agenda and oppose Putin’s war in Ukraine. “Peace can and will only come about when Putin stops his aggressive war,” the politician said back in 2022. 

Easter marches reflect decades of history. At their peak, they could bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Which topics and appeals were at the center of this depended on what was happening in the conflict in Europe and around the World. This year, the calls are focused on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. While many of them criticize arms supply to Ukraine, only a small minority calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops. 

The Peace Cooperative Network sees itself as a “service and information office for the peace movement” and collects calls for this year’s Easter marches. This article evaluates the 48 calls for 2023 Easter marches in Germany that were documented on the network’s website as of April 1.

“We condemn the Russian war of aggression, but…”

Many calls oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a significant portion relativize Russia’s responsibility. The Heidelberg appeal reads: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a clear breach of international law (…). At the same time, it must be viewed against the background of the increasingly sharp confrontational policy of the USA and NATO against Russia.” In the calls for Münster and Nuremberg, the relativization comes in the same sentence. The latter writes: “We condemn the invasion of Ukraine, which is contrary to international law, without forgetting the history of this war, such as the eastward expansion of NATO.”  The Augsburg appeal connects downplaying with whataboutism by pointing out that the German government, CDU/CSU, and a significant part of the media are also neglecting the history of wars such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, which happened even before the Russian invasion. The same can be said for the war’s prelude since 2014. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not the only recent violation of international law, but the difference: It is a war of aggression in which the aggressor threatens to use nuclear weapons. The appeal doesn’t say what makes this case different from other international law violations. 

It is worth to take a look at how some views interpret the history of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Hamburg appeal claims: “Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 was preceded by a civil war inside Ukraine, in the Donbas, since 2014.” The call for Hamm exploits the same line: “The war that started in Ukraine in 2014 and has escalated since February 2022 due to Russia’s intervention.” Both calls portray Russia as an intervened, not as an initiator of war, and follow Putin’s arguments on this point.

“Only negotiations can end the war”

Numerous calls have called for peace negotiations, for example, those for Lübeck and Eichsfeld. Furthermore, the appeals of Berlin and Kiel state that the talks should take place without preconditions. Many appeals mean that “only negotiations” could end the war like those for Frankfurt am Main, Kassel, or Wedel. Many others make similar statements. 

What these calls miss: The war would end if Russia completely withdrew from Ukraine. But a corresponding demand is missing in the vast majority of appeals, although on earlier Easter marches “Ami, go home” or “USA out of…” was often demanded. Just 8 of the 48 evaluated appeals call for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, namely those for Altenburg, Jena, Landshut, Limburg, Mainz, Potsdam, Strausberg and Wolfsburg.

If negotiations are to achieve a peaceful settlement rather than simply outlining the terms of surrender for one side, compromises will be necessary. The calls for Braunschweig, Göttingen and Kaiserslautern, among others, expressly advocate a compromise peace. It should be mentioned that the appeals cannot present comprehensive peace proposals. Nevertheless, the question arises as to what, in their view, Ukraine should give in and Russia should get on. Does this take into account that acknowledging of territorial conquests would be tantamount to incentivizing the aggressor? That could encourage Russia elsewhere, but also other states, to want to move borders by force. 

Many peaceful appeals suggest that the heightened provision of Western aid to Ukraine significantly elevates the risk of a nuclear war. On the other hand, they do not discuss whether a Russian success in Ukraine would make a nuclear escalation more likely, for example, if Russia thought it could move on to the Baltic States after Ukraine.

“No arms deliveries to Ukraine”

Peace negotiations do not take place independently of the military situation. The results of successful peace talks usually largely reflect the military balance of power between the warring parties. With Russia currently occupying a significant part of Ukraine, including other areas Ukraine couldn’t control, it is unlikely to negotiate for a full withdrawal unless Ukraine becomes its puppet state. Calls for a compromise peace should take this into account, not to mention that Russia remains reluctant to engage in serious peace negotiations. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said there were “no other ways” forward for Russia aside from continuing its offensive in Ukraine, signaling that Moscow has no interest in negotiations in the foreseeable future.

The arms deliveries to Ukraine are intended to increase its defense capabilities, elevating the expense of an offensive on Russia’s side, and diminishing the probability of triumph of Russian troops. Numerous appeals for the Easter March have different opinions. “We say no to the supply of tanks and other heavy weapons that will further escalate and prolong the war,” writes the Rhine-Ruhr appeal. “We don’t want any further escalation due to constantly expanding arms deliveries to Ukraine,” said Bremerhaven. The calls for Mainz and Potsdam, which demand the withdrawal of Russian troops, are also directed against arms deliveries to Ukraine. 

The appeal by the Hanau peace platform is expressed most clearly: “Without the intervention of the West, the war would probably have ended a long time ago and tens of thousands of people would still be alive.” After such a statement, the responsible group should not be surprised at the accusation that they are demanding Ukraine surrender negotiations. Such calls hold the defending side and their supporters primarily responsible for the continuation of the war, less of aggressors. Stopping the defense will end the fighting, but will not guarantee an end to the violence. After the crimes against civilians in Bucha, and among other places, that should be crystal clear.

The appeals complain about the fear that the war will be “inflamed”, “escalated” or “prolonged”, and one-sidedly address the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine. “I have not read in any appeal that Russia has escalated the conflict by partially mobilizing and annexing the Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhia. Nor is there a demand that the Iranian government should not supply drones and other weapons to Russia.” — said Dr. Thorsten Gromes

“End sanctions against Russia”

The objective behind the imposition of sanctions on Russia is to increase the price of the attack and reduce the ability for sustained aggression. In the past, peace movement organizations also relied on sanctions, especially as an alternative to military intervention in conflicts. But some appeals for the Easter March 2023 calls for an end to sanctions against Russia. “End warmongering and sanctions!” writes the Berlin appeal. “End the senseless sanctions against Russia!” It says from Hamm, and the Osnabrück appeal says, “Sanctions and arms deliveries do not end a war.”

Both the arms supply to Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia strengthen the negotiating position of the attacked side in the case of peace talks. Ceasing both actions would tilt the balance in favor of the aggressor and promote an inequitable and unsteady peace. In addition, a peace victory in the interests of the attacker would be more likely. It can therefore be seen as a contradiction in terms when calls for peace talks are made while rejecting arms sales to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

Some appeals also Depict negotiations in a suspicious light from other viewpoints. From Kassel it says: “In March 2022 there were negotiations in Istanbul to resolve the conflict. The progress and positive results achieved were rejected on April 9 after the intervention of the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (sic!).” The call for the Easter March in Bruchköbel near Hanau writes something similar. Such theses can be countered with the argument that the negotiations came to nothing because Ukraine was able to hold its own militarily much better than previously widely assumed, and therefore did not want to accept the maximal Russian demands. In addition, the news of the murder of Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories led to a new assessment of the situation. The following is also problematic with the two calls mentioned: The Ukrainian government is presented here as a largely powerless and willless actor, she does not appear as an independently acting subject.

“No place for the nationalist and anti-democratic spectrum”

Criticizing arms deliveries to Ukraine and rejecting sanctions against Russia, while at the same time relativizing the responsibility of the Russian side for the bloodshed, makes such actions interesting for people from right-wing circles as well. There is sympathy for Putin’s style of rule and the fight against pluralism and diversity. At least some organizations care about who gathers under the flags’ of peace dove. “There is no room at our event for people and groups from the nationalist and anti-democratic spectrum,” emphasizes the appeal for Jena. The calls for Kaiserslautern, Landshut, Münster, Rhein-Ruhr, Strausberg and Traunstein are similar and also fit with the self-image of the Peace Cooperative Network. Anyway. Still, peace groups should discuss why such distancing has become necessary. It would be too easy to dismiss this as saying that one is never safe from applause from the wrong side.

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