Germany: Thousands of students protest to defend education

70,000 university students took to the streets in Frankfurt, Berlin and Leipzig on Saturday, 13 December, defending the right to decent education.

As we have reported earlier on the CWI site, Germany has seen massive protests and strikes by working class people against the neo-liberal government’s policy (‘Agenda 2010’) as well as in defence of the right to free national wage bargaining.

These actions coincided with a broad student movement which has erupted in 8 of the 16 regional states. They were partly inspired by the 100,000-strong demonstration that took place in Berlin on 1 November.

Students are out to protest against cuts in university funding and against the threat to increase or introduce tuition fees. At the moment, the university legislation does not allow tuition fees to be introduced for students doing their first degree and who complete it within a certain period of time. Six regional states, led by Christian Democratic administrations, are trying to bring about changes to this policy through the courts.

University funding is also under threat. In Berlin alone, the so called red-red coalition (made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Party for Democratic Socialism- former GDR government party), wants to cut university funding by 75 million euro.

Germany has seen three major student movements in the course of the past ten years.

The latest one, however, seems to have a broader outlook and does not only relate to specific student issues.

This is reflected in the overwhelming support SAV (CWI Germany) members got when they put forward motions at general student assemblies, calling for joint actions with workers taking action.

As a result, the student demo in Berlin on 13 December was not only called by student organisations and student representatives but was also supported by the local DGB (Trade union federation). Even though the local DGB did not sufficiently mobilise for the demonstration, the students received wide sympathy for their struggle from the local population. An opinion poll indicated that 83% of the Berlin population is sympathetic to the students.

There is a general understanding that the national and local governments are ready to attack all major gains and concessions the working class and the youth have won in struggle over the past decades. This includes attacks on unemployment benefit, the health service, the right of free national wage bargaining and also the right to free education.

Junge Welt, a left wing daily newspaper, commented (12 December): "From the very beginning, the ongoing strike of students in Berlin and students in another eight regional states, has not been a strike of tomorrow’s elite. No leaflet, no discussion, no demonstration or protest action forgot to make a link between the situation students are facing and the policy of social onslaught that affects millions of people at the present time."

Again, in Berlin, shop stewards and trade unionists were invited to speak at student meetings to explain how the cuts in the Berlin budget, as well as Agenda 2010, affects them. A shop steward from the Berlin public transport company reported at a student meeting that their workforce had already been cut down from 28,000 to 12,500 over the previous years. On top of that, the regional Berlin government now intends to cut their wages by 30%.

Similar shocking reports were given by shop stewards from other workplaces. The shop stewards also thanked the students for their solidarity.

Many students had also made visits to trade unionists protesting in front of the SPD headquarters against the attacks on free national wage bargaining.


Given the specific political situation, consciousness is probably most advanced in Berlin.

Berlin is faced with a huge austerity and cuts package. Many social institutions, such as Kindergartens and crèches, face closure. The public sector faces lay-offs and cuts in wages. Cultural projects are threatened with being shut down. This anti-social policy is conducted by the ‘red-red coalition’ city administration. This coalition involves the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism), which was seen as the most left wing party in German politics. People hoped the PDS would not attack the living standards of working class people but to make the rich pay. The opposite turns out to be case. To some extent, the PDS has put forward the sharpest attacks to ‘prove’ their reliability for the Establishment.

This has led to huge anger and disappointment, and demonstrators commented that the city government’s policies were not red but black (the colour of the right wing Christian Democratic Party).

One student representative said that even though the regional party congress of the PDS declared their solidarity with the students, they have not taken back the planned introduction of tuition fees; and that is why students mistrust the PDS as much as they mistrust the SPD, the representative said.

A University professor when addressing a student demonstration concluded that "no party" is backing the protesters. That is why students have to organise resistance from below, and have to force the ruling elites to retreat.

There obviously is great scepticism towards any political party but there is definitely an openness to discuss ideas and to discuss how society could be run differently.

This is reflected in the fact that SAV members in Berlin sold all their papers at the student demo in Berlin and raised 200 euros in donations for the demand of  a 24-hour general strike that would involve workers and students in the whole city and would take place on a working day.

In the case of Berlin, it seems probable that the protests will go on after the Christmas break. Another demonstration is called for 20 January, the day that the budget is meant to be passed by the regional Berlin government.

Next steps

To what extent the student movement can be revived on a national scale after the Christmas break is uncertain, as students sit exams in January and February.

Students in Bavaria have already won a partial victory. The CSU (Christian Socialist Union- CDU equivalent in Bavaria) has backed down on their initial plans to introduce a 5 % cut in University funding. The government, however, only postponed its plans and is planning to take the money instead from environmental projects, which also needs to be opposed.

The fact that some universities, especially in East Germany, have only just joined the struggle or agreed to go on strike from 1 January onwards, is an indication that the movement might not simply collapse in the New Year. This is also underlined by the national federation of students who have called for a national meeting in early January to discuss further protest actions.

SAV members have been in the leadership of the student protests in Hamburg, Bremen, Kassel, Frankfurt and at Humboldt University in Berlin.

SAV members have strongly argued for the need to link the struggles of students with the struggles of workers, and explained that a one day general strike on a working day has the potential to send shock waves through the government and the bosses. A general strike would show workers and young people their own strength and would pose the question, who runs society? This, in turn, would be an opportunity to build a strong movement that could stop the government plans.

In order to revive the student movement after Christmas SAV members argue for a national demonstration in early January. The students should approach the trade unions and explain the need for this demonstration to be organised on a working day. SAV members will raise this idea at the ‘Future Conference’ of activists, which takes place on 17 and 18 January. This event will involve the trade union left, attac (the anti-globalisation network), unemployed organisations and socialist organisations.

From the point of view of seeing the necessity to fight for an alternative to capitalism, the student movement in Germany today is still much weaker than the student movement in 1968. But there definitely is an understanding that workers and students need to stick together to fight the government’s attacks; it is a common struggle to defend common interests. Given the disgust with all the major parties, there is also now the opportunity to very skillfully put forward the idea of a new, fighting, and socialist party. This new party could serve workers and young people as an instrument to strengthen their struggle. Such a party would need to have a programme that breaks with the logic of capitalism and gives space for democratic discussions to take place about how to take the movement forward.


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December 2003