Germany: Mass protests against “Stuttgart 21”

While most of Germany is on summer holiday the southern city of Stuttgart has seen, every few days, thousands of people take to the streets in protest…

While most of Germany is on summer holiday the southern city of Stuttgart has seen, every few days, thousands of people take to the streets in protest. On Saturday 7 August, there was a demonstration of 16,000 people, the following Monday a rally of 10,000 and last Friday, 13 August, a human chain and demonstration involving more than 20,000 people.

The reason for these mass protests is a project named “Stuttgart 21”. Its aim is to replace the present main railway station with a new, underground, station. In addition, the plans are to construct a new high speed train station at the city’s airport and 30km of tunnels to connect these stations with the existing railway tracks (and with a planned high-speed track to Ulm). All these are linked to a speculative redevelopment of the city centre.

There are many reasons for the protests. One central reason is the cost – the project is widely seen as a “Milliardenloch” (“billion-euro hole”). Originally the cost was estimated to be €2.6 billion for “Stuttgart 21” and a further €2.1 billion for the high-speed track. Now, the official figures are €4.1 and €2.9 billion. Independent experts and critics estimate the costs at €8 billion and €6 billion. How much could be done with this money, if it were be invested in providing jobs and services, by improving schools, nurseries, hospitals, public transport etc., instead of destroying what is already one of the most efficient railway stations in Germany?

Another reason for the mass opposition is the destruction that will be caused by the project. A big part of the Schlossgarten (Castle Park) would be destroyed. Nearly 300 trees, many of them over 200 years old, which are of high ecological importance to the inner city of Stuttgart with its massive air pollution, are to be cut down. 17 monuments, which are under a preservation order, would be destroyed or damaged, including the railway station itself.

The construction would mean one or two decades of traffic chaos, noise, and air pollution by more than 2,000 trucks a day in the inner city of Stuttgart.

Stuttgart is the second biggest source of mineral water in Europe (surpassed only by Budapest), with several mineral baths and many mineral springs. They would be in danger too.

One important factor is that the project is seen as anti-democratic by ordinary people. Opinion polls show a big majority against it. In 2007, more than 67,000 signatures for a referendum were collected, over 10% of the city’s population of 600,000, but the referendum was declared illegal. An opinion poll by the local Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper showed nearly 65% would vote to stop the project if a referendum was held. But Wolfgang Schuster, the local Mayor, says stopping the project now is “unthinkable”.

Many people understand, that the driving force of the project are profit interests of construction companies, property developers, banks etc., who want to make money out of the inner city area currently occupied by the railway tracks.

Escalation of protests

Last November, there were protests of thousands against the decision to start the project. At that time some activists started weekly “Monday demonstrations”. At the first demonstration, there were 4 people, at the next a few dozen, then hundreds. For many months, there was a participation of 3,000 to 4,000 every week. There were big protest festivals in Castle Park on 24 April and 10 July.

A few days later, German Rail announced that the demolition of the northern wing of the current main railway station would start in August. Activists reacted by starting a permanent stall in front of the building. The next Monday demonstration (19 July) saw more than 5,000 participate. A week later, there was a similar turnout in spite of pouring rain. More than fifty activists occupied the building, including several SAV (Socialist Alternative – CWI in Germany) members. Many hundreds stayed in front of the building to support them, others came to the station after they were informed about the occupation. After more than four hours, the police went in to arrest the occupiers (who were released during the following hours). One SAV comrade reported later that a warden at the police station told him, that she would have been on the demonstration, too, if she would not have had to work that evening!

Protestors occupy station

In general, there was big sympathy for the occupation both among activists and the general population. The media propaganda; that this was ‘illegal’, impressed hardly anybody. The capitalist politicians and their media seem to live in a parallel universe. They do not understand how much sympathy people have for activists who fight seriously for a just cause.

One can say that this is an additional impetus for the protests. Many activists regard the fight against “Stuttgart 21” as a chance to inflict a defeat on those in power. An old trade union activist said at a meeting that the strike for the 35-hour week in 1984 was the last victory and afterwards there were only defeats – and now there is a possibility of victory again.

During the evening of Friday, 30 July, a fence around the northern wing of the central train station was erected, to prevent further occupations and to prepare for its demolition. In the course of a few hours, several thousand people gathered and started spontaneous demonstrations, blocked the streets etc. The following Saturday, there were two similar protests and on the Sunday another one. The next Monday saw the biggest Monday rally so far, with more than 6,000 people, followed by a spontaneous demonstration of around 1,000.

During the following days, the rage cooled down a bit, since there were no visible measures being taken to destroy the building. Instead, the fence was transformed into a means of spreading information, with placards, posters etc. giving information, announcing protests, denouncing and ridiculing the project and so on.

The following days saw some of the biggest protests so far. On Saturday, 7 August, around 16,000 people demonstrated; at the next Monday demonstration there were around 10,000 people, and last Friday, there was the biggest protest so far: a “human chain” and a demonstration with more than 20,000 participants. However, the leadership of the movement attempted to channel it back into legal channels and tried to prevent spontaneous demonstrations and blockades. As a new layer has became active during the last days which has, so far, limited experience of activity and has illusions in the official leadership of the movement (Green party, some environmental groups), this attempt has had some effect for the time being. The leaders launched an appeal for reconciliation, which proposed a moratorium on building work and a city referendum to settle the question. Of course, ordinary people would prefer this easy way to the alternative of mass protests, street blockades, occupations, strikes that we say is necessary. But the problem with the leaders’ approach is that the supporters of “Stuttgart 21” oppose any compromise. And they have no choice. Their main “argument” is that the project has already started and cannot be stopped any more. If they would concede a moratorium or a referendum, this would smash this “argument” and boost protests enormously.

During the last months thousands of people became active, started to wear their badges against Stuttgart 21 proudly, to talk to their neighbours, to others, in the underground, on the bus etc. On the demonstration last Friday, a man told me that he used to be conservative, but now is revolutionary! I was not able to ask him what he meant by “revolutionary”; maybe he simply meant being prepared to take leaflets from a Socialist organisation. But the point is that thousands of people have changed their attitude during the last months and weeks, and are now prepared to do things which would have been unthinkable to them before. And they are conscious of this. Other people will be radicalised in the next weeks and months. Other people who have been active in the earlier decades are becoming active again.

Socialist Alternative

Members of Socialist Alternative (CWI in Germany) became active against “Stuttgart 21” in the middle of the 1990s. Since then, there have been periods without any mass activity against “Stuttgart 21”, when there were only technical debates among experts. But since 2007, mass protests started to resurge and we participated. We took up the issue inside “Die Linke” (the Left party) and demanded that the party participates in the protests. However, unfortunately, up to now its local leadership still does not understand the importance of the issue. This allows the pro-capitalist Green party to play the leading role without being challenged. But some months ago the Cannstatt local branch of “Die Linke”, with its active SAV members, co-organised a meeting on “Stuttgart 21”. More than 150 people participated in this meeting and a local initiative for this district of Stuttgart was launched. This initiative is quite active and the SAV calls for similar initiatives to be set up in other districts of Stuttgart, and also in the towns and cities around Stuttgart.

Already last spring, the local youth organisation of “Die Linke” started an organisation “Jugendoffensive gegen Stuttgart 21” (“Youth offensive against Stuttgart 21”). The first months were a bit difficult because not so many young people participated in the protests and the predominant forms of protests were not so attractive for young people. However, since the protests became more radical, this has changed. Now the “Youth offensive” is quite well known among activists – on Facebook, more than 1,100 people expressed their sympathy with it. It has a core of dedicated activists now. During the spontaneous demonstrations and street blockades, “Youth offensive” played an important role.

We have produced several leaflets, to spread our ideas and proposals for the movement, which were very well received, and our newspaper is being sold very well.

At the same time we used the high interest in our material to make known the CWI and the work of other sections. In one leaflet, we carried a box on the campaign against high speed trains in Val di Susa, Italy, and the work of ControCorrente and Joe Higgins, CWI member of the European Parliament, on this issue. In another leaflet, we told the “park protectors” in Stuttgart about the struggle of the “forest protectors” in the Khimkinskii forest outside Moscow and the vicious attack against our Russian comrades.

The SAV is now proposing a school student strike against “Stuttgart 21” after the summer holidays to increase the participation of young people in the protests and to put pressure onto the trade unions to organise strike action against “Stuttgart 21” as well. We argue that strikes would be the most effective means to stop “Stuttgart 21”, because they would allow more people to participate in the protests and they would hit the bosses, who are the driving force behind “Stuttgart 21”, where it hurts them most: their profits.

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August 2010