Matthew N. Lyons
The Grassroots Network in Germany, 1972-1985 - IV: ANTI-MILITARISM AND THE PEACE MOVEMENT. First part
Article published on 24 July 2018
zuletzt geändert am 17 August 2019
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The Grassroots network’s involvement in anti-militarist work has highlighted—even more sharply than its ecological efforts both the strengths and also the limitations of its approach to nonviolent action. Saathoff commented in 1980 that the Grassroots network had succeeded in spreading the idea and the practice of nonviolence to other groups but that this success had been purchased at the expense of radical content and goals. The events of the following three years bore out this comment in even starker terms.

Grassroots activists took a leading role in the growth of a new peace movement, particularly during the ’boom" period of nonviolent blockades (1982-83). Tens of thousands of people took up the cause of nonviolent action in a frantic effort to block the arrival of new US medium-range Pershing II missiles. But to many new practitioners "nonviolence" took on a narrow, highly ritualized meaning, and relatively few looked beyond the Pershings to a broader conception of anti-militarism, let alone to a nonviolent society. When the peace movement failed to stop the new missiles, and the first ones began arriving in November 1983, the movement quickly declined in numbers and energy. In the aftermath of this defeat, Grassroots groups sought to develop other issues and forms of resistance and to reassess their own internal situation.

In the first sections of this chapter, I will discuss the role of antimilitarism in Grassroots political philosophy and the development of some important Grassroots anti-militarist campaigns before 1981. The remainder of the chapter will address the Grassroots network’s role in the peace movement of the 1980’s, the contradictions and conflicts in the movement’s use of nonviolent action, and their effects on Grassroots groups themselves.


From the beginning, anti-militarism has been a central reference point for Grassroots political analysis. The newspaper Grassroots Revolution was originaily founded largely in response to the conservatism of traditional peace organizations, and support for conscientious objectors (both in the FRG and abroad) provided an important rallying point around which the early network coalesced. Opposition to war and the military is the point where the network’s pacifism and its opposition to the State and to institutional hierarchy came together most concretely. (1)

Many members of the Grassroots network, like other leftist groups, have pointed to militarism’s close connection with the capitalist system in western countries. In such countries, they argued, warfare and the threat of warfare has played a key role in the drive to seize and control markets and resources. Weapons production, meanwhile, has been one of the key ways in which capitalism has diverted resources and labor away from serving human needs. Unlike many Marxist groups, however, Grassroots activists have also been sharply critical of military policies in state-socialist countries (or state-capitalist, as some Grassroots activists consider them) such as the USSR and China. These countries, they pointed out, have also used war and military coercion to exert control over other nations, and such actions cannot be justified in the name of socialist internationalism.

In particular, Grassroots groups have condemned the military bloc system, which emerged in Europe with the Cold War, and the system of nuclear deterrence between the US and the USSR, which is closely tied to lt. As Günter Saathoff wrote, „No one in the Grassroots network believes that the deterrance potential helps to prevent war" (Saathoff 207). With other peace activists, members of the Grassroots network have often focused on the threat of nuclear war as the most extreme and destructive form of warfare, but they also emphasized that the nuclear threat cannot be addressed in isolation: only a comprehensive anti-militarism could lead to peace.

Grassroots groups’ positions on the military bloc system and on militarism in Eastern Europe put them at odds with many "traditional" peace groups, which focused their criticisms on Western military policy and usually declined to criticize the Warsaw Pact.
This became a significant point of debate within the peace movement of the 1980s.
While condemning warfare in the international sphere, Grassroots groups have also opposed militarism’s role within society. To most Grassroots activists, militarism was much more than the simple advocacy of war; it was a broad network of social and psychological structures which maintained warfare, hierarchy, and many other types of violence. The militarization of West German society took a variety of institutional and ideological forms:

• military conscription and compulsory alternative service for conscientious objectors;
• militarization of the police and other internal security forces with weapons and tactics drawn from warfare;
• characterization of internal protest as a "security risk to the State;
• increased repression and legal restrictions an the citizenry with expansion of police powers to exercise control;
• "civil defense" plans and orientation of civilian professions (e.g., nurses and doctors) toward war and the military;
• teaching people to accept war and violence through schools, the media, etc.;
• applying military models of discipline to other sectors;
• encouragement of enemy stereotypes and hatred and fear of other countries.

Although they were concerned with a variety of oppressions, Grassroots activists often treated militarism as a central factor in ways that they did not treat other forms of structural violence. Two members of GA Göttingen wrote, for example, that

" the army’s "education" of society strengthens the domination of humans over each other and of men over women, ruthless behavior according to the principle that "might makes right," divisive competitiveness, and racist tendencies" (Bremen, 6 Mai....“ .24f).

The authors do not portray militarism as the cause of competition, racism, sexism, etc. But they do assign its priority. Rarely, by contrast, would an article in ’Grassroots Revolution’ cite ways in which racism or sexism strengthened other forms of violence.

The above positions prevailed in the Grassroots network, which tended toward an anarchist orientation on issues of militarism. But not all Grassroots activists held this view. Some were loser to the non-anarchist position of peace researchers such as Theodor Ebert and Wolfgang Sternstein, who opposed many specific aspects of militarism while fundamentally supporting the current socio-political system.

But Grassroots groups have strongly endorsed Ebert’s theory of "civilian resistance," or "social defense," as an alternative to military force. Social defense means mass nonviolent action used to resist an occupying army. The concept of social defense was originated by the Norwegian peace researcher, Johann Galtung; Ebert is its most prominent German proponent. „Territorial defense" , wrote Galtung, focused on defending strategic pieces of land, whereas "social defense" meant defending human communities through nonviolent means. The objective was not physically to drive out the occupiers but rather through coordinated noncooperation, obstruction, and sabotage to make the costs of occupation too high for the invaders. Such a strategy would depend on the active participation of the majority of the population. As historical precedents for social defense Grassroots groups have cited the defeat of the 1920 Kapp Putsch through a general strike, the 1923 nonviolent resistance campaign to French/Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and Czechoslovakian nonviolent resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968* (2)
( * In the US, "social defense" is usually referred to as "civilian-based defense". Since the emphasis of this phrase is very different, I have translated the German phrase "Soziale Verteidigung" more literally.)

In Ebert’s view, social defense could be developed under the existing social and political order and could be institutionalized through a "Federal Agency for Civilian Resistance." Many Grassroots activists have sharply disagreed with him on this point, arguing that active community-based nonviolence could not be institutionalized under a hierarchical State, in a hierarchical economy and society. Both cultural attitudes and social structures would have to undergo radical transformation for social defense to be organizationally possible and for enough people to believe that society was worth defending in this way. (3)


As we have seen, support for conscientious objectors and opposition to nuclear weapons testing were among the network’s first public campaigns in the early 1970s. Throughout the period 1974-80, when many Grassroots groups concentrated their main energies in the ecology movement, anti-militarist work continued as an important (if less prominent) area of focus. In 1973-75, Grassroots activists took part in an international "British Army out of Northern Ireland" campaign with leafletting actions at British bases in the FRG urging soldiers to desert. In 1978, Grassroots groups organized a public draft card burning, in which 150 young men participated, to protest governmental restrictions on conscientious objection. From 1976 on, Grassroots activists helped to organize the annual! "International Nonviolent March for Demilitarization".

The International March drew together radical pacifists from several western European countries for about two weeks during the summer. Each year a different route was selected for the March, and participation ranged from about one hundred to one thousand people. The March publicized demands such as unilateral disarmament, dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, recognition of all conscientious objectors, and an end to the international arms trade. In the FRG, Grassroots groups were the main organizatational force, although with time substantial numbers of people from the DFG-VK participated as well. The March sometimes suffered from serious organizational problems but over the years was able to conduct demonstrations and civil disobedience actions in several western European countries (as well as in Poland and Rumania). lt also provided a forum for activists from different countries to get to know one another and strengthen their lines of international communication.

Alongside the International March, the Grassroots network’s most important anti-milltarist efforts before 1981 were its support for total objection (Totalverweigerung) to military and civilian compulsory service and its campaign on "Women and the Military".


Under FRG law since 1955, all young men are subject to military conscription for fifteen months when they reach eighteen years of age. Until recently, those who petitioned for and received official conscientious objector ("CO") status were required to perform sixteen months of civilian alternative service in a hospital, nursing home, or public or community agency of some kind. (The term of civilian service was lengthened to twenty months in the mid-1980s.) Those who refused civilian alternative service or who were denied CO status were liable to imprisonment or forced induction into the army. For many years this punishment applied primarily to religious objectors, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religious beliefs forbade compliance with any form of state-mandated service. But in the 1960s and 70s, a growing number of men resisted compulsory civilian service on political grounds.

Traditional conscientious objector organizations, such as the DFG-VK, opposed "total objection", as it came to be called, seeing it as a threat to legal conscientious objection. Grassroots activists took the lead in supporting total objectors. Some Grassroots activists, for example, took part in the International Collective Resistance Campaign (ICR), initiated in October 1974, which drew together people who opposed both military and civilian compulsory service from several western European countries. The political usefulness of such a campaign was disputed within the Grassroots network however, and the network as a whole declined to endorse it.

In March 1976, a "Group of Compulsory Service Opponents" (GZG) was founded. It later changed its name to Collective Nonviolent Resistance (KGW) to Military and Alternative Service, and then to the KGW against Militarism. The KGW, although a distinct organization with its own structure and newsletter, identified itself with Grassroots principles. When FÖGA was founded in 1980, the KGW joined as an affiliate organization.
Together with many other Grassroots groups, KGW argued that:

Alternative service, like military service, is state-mandated compulsory service and will therefore never conflict with military service. Through the changes of modern weapons technology, those performing alternative service have been brought into strategic planning, and have thus become more necessary. The army needs fewer and fewer soldiers, because complex instruments of mass destruction require only a few specialists.

What the army did require, however, was a strong civilian support structure ready for warfare, in which State-controlled alternative service had a special role. "The introduction of those performing alternative service into the civilian sphere frees up forces for military service." (4)

The KGW defined itself as a group of "radical anti-militarists," who opposed the existence of all armies, both voluntary and involuntary, and supported a conversion to social defense as a long term goal.
The KGW has always been a small organization, with only a few dozen members. lt work has primarily involved publicity about individual total objectors, assistance to them in trials and during imprisonment, and public demonstrations in their support. The KGW did not represent all total objectors (not all of whom are committed to nonviolence) but it functioned as a "crystallization point" and helped to dramatize the issues of conscientious objection and civilian complicity in military planning. In part thanks to their work, the number of total objectors rose from nine in 1977 to 45 in 1980. (5)

Through the mid and late 1970s, much Grassroots anti-militarist work focused on support for the KGW and total objectors. Many Grassroots activists had faced similar issues in their own lives: often first grappling with questions about militarism and nonviolence when applying for CO status or when a friend or brother did so. Thus they could readily identify with the total objector’s motivations even if they did not themselves act in the same way.

There was disagreement within the Grassroots network, however, about the role of total objection in a broader antimilitarist strategy. Although the KGW hoped to link total objection with other forms of resistance to militarism, it had difficulty putting this into practice (in part, no doubt, because of its small size). One discussion group within FÖGA commented in 1982:

Total objection has become a favorite form of action without much political discussion. This is the KGW’s problem: should they/do they want to do support work as a kind of union for total objectors, or do they want to take the offensive with anti-militarist work politically geared to the broader society? (6)

The issue was not whether total objection was a good idea, but whether it was wise to treat it as the foundation for anti-militarist work. Some claimed, for example, that every man in the Grassroots network should be a total objector. To some extent, this arguments indicated a tendency to measure political actions purely in terms of ethical consistency, rather than political practicality or strategic effectiveness. And as feminists within the Grassroots increasingly pointed out, it also reflected a narrowly male orientation, a mistaken treatment of anti-militarist work as a "men’s issue."


Although feminists had long participated in the Grassroots network as individuals, most of the 1970s saw little organized contact between the network and the women’s movement. Feminist groups generally treated nonviolence with disdain: equating it with passivity and traditional women’s roles. Grassroots groups often acknowledged sexism to be a major problem in society, but in practice they tended to relegate feminist concerns to a secondary status. Many women in the Grassroots network themselves hesitated to take a feminist stance; they disagreed with the women’s movement’s emphasis on separatism and considered it "discriminatory". (7)

An important first step toward formation of a feminist-pacifist position in the FRG came with the 1976 International Women’s Gathering in France (initiated by WRI and IFOR) in which a number of West German women, including members of the Grassroots network, took part. This gathering addressed issues of sexism and militarism, feminism and nonviolence, but did not develop any concrete plans for political work. (8)

In 1978, a leading West German feminist magazine, Emma, published an article by Alice Schwarzer advocating the induction of women into the military as soldiers. Schwarzer argued that women’s emancipation required opening all spheres, including the military, to women and men equally. Also during 1978, FRG officials were publicly discussing plans for an obligatory "community service" for women, which could include noncombatant military service.

These events prompted women at the Grassroots network 1978 Christmas gathering to initiate a project on "Militarization of Women". The project developed into a network of local groups in several cities, including Grassroots activists, women from feminist organizations, and members of a women’s group within the KGW. The project sponsored a newsletter, Women Against Military Service, and public educational work on the militarization of women in the FRG. The project remained small, bot it raised several important issues for the Grassroots network and for the peace movement. (9)

Like the KGW, the "Women and the Military" project asserted that war preparations extended far beyond the conscription of soldiers. „Civil defense" plans placed many civilians under potential military supervision. Nurses, for example, were expected to sign a statement offering their services to the military in times of war. And whether or not a new compulsory service for women became law, members of the project pointed out, the Emergency Laws of 1968 already provided for conscription of women to noncombatant service in wartime. (10)

Organizers of the project also worked theoretically to integrate feminism and anti-militarism. Bernadette Ridard, an editor of Grassroots Revolution, challenged Alice Schwarzer’s pro-military interpretation of feminism and argued that women’s emancipation
required a rejection of the military and militarist ideology. (11) She also raised issues which had been lacking from Grassroots discussions of the army, about the ways in which sexism reinforced militarist ideology. Women’s traditional roles as wives, girlfriends, and prostitutes, for example, provided crucial "psychological stabilization" for soldiers. Men’s roles, too, pushed them to go along with the military system:

Why are conscientious objectors regarded as "softies?’ What do "female influence," and "identification with the mother or grandmother" mean in discussions of conscientious objectors? ... According to the dominant idealogy, they mean that conscientious objectors are not real men. (12)

The CO’s civilian alternative service, she continued, usually consisted of "feminine work," such as nursing or food service, "which for men can have a emancipatory character, if they are aware that they are thus breaking with traditional masculinity." For women, such work only reinforced traditional roles. (13)
The "Women and the Military" project also provided a forum for women to talk about sexism within the Grassroots network. Ulrike Adolph, the only female member of the GA Tübingen’s work group on anti-militarism, wrote that the group’s heavy focus on conscientious objection issues tended to exclude women. In this framework, she commented, it was more difficult for women than men to declare their rejection of militarism publiciy. They could not become conscientious objectors or burn their draft cards. Thus women’s anti-militarist work often took on a "helping" function relative to men.

This, in turn, reinforced the attitude that women were less important than men. Adolph described this in a "personal impression" about the Tübingen group:

„ When I criticize a man’s attitude as unconsistent, I feel that I am not taken seriously, something like this: "It’s easy for her to talk, because she never has to put it into practice. But in the end, I as a man have to take the consequences." (14)

However, such challenges to Grassroots theory and practice found little resonance in the rest of the network. Many activists agreed that the focus on conscientious objection was too narrow and tended to limit the participation of women (and of others, such as older people): Wolfgang Weber-Zucht (co-coordinator of the Grassroots Work Center in Kassel) had made this point in 1975. (15) But beyond that there was little response. Male conscientious objectors in the network seldom, if ever, addressed the issues Ridard had raised about masculinity and militarism. Dieter Schöffmann’s 1982 "Retrospective" on ten years of Grassroots antimilitarist work devoted only nine lines to the "Women and the Military" campaign. (In contrast, he devoted 47 lines to the International Nonviolent March, and 83 lines to total objection issues.) (16) Günter Saathoff, in his dissertation on the Grassroots network, wrote that Ridard and other Grassroots Revolution editors had used their position to "force" a discussion of the "Women and the Military" project within the network implying that the issues they raised were an unwanted intrusion. (17)

Nevertheless, the ’Women and the Military" project laid some groundwork for later efforts by women to raise feminist concerns within the Grassroots network. In 1981, feminist members of FÖGA succeeded in having an all-women Coordinating Committee elected for one year, in an effort to counteract male dominance of FÖGA at the national level. This effort did not change things substantially in the long run, however. (18) In 1984-85 small groups of women from Grassroots groups began meeting to renew themes from the "Women and the Military project" and to develop a clearer synthesis of feminism and nonviolence. (19)

In the peace movement, the „Women and the Military" project set a precedent for the broader-based ’“Women’s Initiative for Peace," formed in 1980, which was one of the first West German groups to respond energetically to the planned deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles. (20)
(I do not know whether or not there were any organizational or personal links between the "Women and the Military" project and the "Women’s Initiative for Peace".)
Some of the project’s themes were also revived in the 1984 "Refusal Campaign" which urged civilians to withold their support from the military apparatus in a broad range of areas. (See below.)

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