With nearly 10,000 casualties and over one million refugees in the span of a week, the threat of nuclear disaster, and with Russian oligarchs fleeing to Seychelles and Yellowknife, the voice of the world has been decidedly united in its cry out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What the world is against is clear; but what the world is for, and how to stop this war, has been less clear.
Among all of this, a thorny, decades-old question – for the time being respectfully hidden in the emotional solidarity of (most) public demonstrations, but already flaring up in the quick-to-point-fingers discourses of the world’s politicians – has returned: how, then, are we to feel about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? Is NATO the cause of this crisis or its solution? Or both? Or neither?
In the city of Karlsruhe, Germany, a small and – by the organizers’ accounts – disastrous demonstration may have accidentally placed political conversations in the city ahead of the curb by hitting upon these issues. Sooner or later, anti-Russian aggression demonstrators elsewhere will have to grapple with them, too.
Trouble in Karlsruhe
Melbourne, Tel-Aviv, Austin, Berlin, Bangkok, even Moscow: all of these cities have seen significant demonstrations against the war in the past few days. The turnout for many of these protests was in the thousands, likely bringing overall global participation to well into the millions. While the vast majority of protests started and ended peacefully, the story was markedly different within Russia itself, where over 2,000 anti-war protesters were arrested in a single day: Sunday, February 27th.
On that same day, the German city of Karlsruhe was the scene of just such a demonstration. The sun was out, and 1,200 people took time out of their Sundays to attend. It was shaping up to be a fair success, a modest replica of the demonstrations rising in the capitals of the world; until the first speech was made, which sent Karlsruhe’s demonstration deviating considerably from the rest of the world’s script. The speech inspired up to a third of the attendees to promptly leave amongst anger and tears.
“The first person held a speech that was only directed towards NATO […] saying that NATO provoked Russia,” said Pawel Bechthold, 18, one of the organizers of the event.
“There were many Ukrainians there that live in Karlsruhe. And one old woman was standing in the front, and she was crying out loud and saying, ‘Kiev is burning, and this is what you’re talking about?’”
Bechthold, who expressed his disappointment with the event quite vocally on social media, is associated with the Fridays for Future (FFF) movement, founded by Greta Thunberg. However, the elderly man who gave the first speech is associated with the Union for Persecutees of the Nazi Regime and Federation of Antifascists (VVN-BdA).
The two groups have been, among others, part of a productive alliance of anti-war activist groups in Karlsruhe for several years. However, unsurprisingly, the two are host to very divergent age categories: FFF being youth-dominated, and the VVN-BdA being retiree-dominated.
The connection between age and resentment towards NATO is likely no coincidence. While many agreed that the VVN-BdAer’s denouncement was poorly timed and placed, the speech fit squarely within a rich history of anti-NATO activism in NATO and NATO-aligned countries, spanning from the alliance’s founding in 1949 up to the present decade. Veteran anti-war demonstrators are generally more inclined to remember this, as many of them either experienced this first-hand or helped make this history.
Anti-NATO: Past and Present
NATO is a military alliance consisting of the U.S., Canada, and 28 European nations. It was founded in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and its allies. Since its foundation, its membership has grown from 12 to 30 nations. Crucially, Article Five of the alliance’s treaty stipulates that an attack on any one member state would be treated as an attack on all member states.
Over the years, anti-NATO protests and demonstrations have followed two major strains of rhetoric: opposition to NATO’s aggression towards other military blocs of equal or similar strength, such as the Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact; or opposition to NATO’s exploitation of significantly weaker nations. Although many demonstrations have cited a mix of complaints, and although every individual attends for their own reasons, typically, within each wave of demonstrations one of these grievances can be distinctly heard louder than the other; and this has generally been indicative of the character of the times.
The first significant wave of anti-NATO protests was held in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1949, just as NATO was formed. The main objection of the protesters was the decision of the parliament to involve Iceland, through NATO membership, directly into the Cold War, thus heightening the risk of world war or nuclear war through militarization rather than reducing it through diplomacy.
This objection was consistently at the forefront of anti-NATO protests throughout much of the 20th century, culminating in the nuclear-paranoiac years of the 1980s. It was during this time that anti-NATO protests reached their peak in terms of turnout; with, for example, a turnout of 300,000 in Bonn in 1981, and a mind-boggling estimated 750,000 in Madrid in 1986.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, the protests changed in a number of ways: they decreased in size, they generally converged on the semi-annual NATO summits rather than on areas of military expansion, and they began to focus more on NATO’s treatment of much less powerful nations. They also became, in some cases, much more destructive.
In 2001, the mayor of Naples became so concerned with these destructive tendencies that he requested that the upcoming summit be relocated from his city. He was granted his wish, but not because of his request, as the 2002 summit was relocated to an air force base outside of Rome due to heightened security concerns after 9/11. However, destructive anti-neoliberalism and anti-Afghanistan involvement riots did take place during the 2009 summit in Strasbourg and the 2012 summit in Chicago.
In addition to the alliance’s direct involvement in troubled regions such as Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya, this wave of protests also took issue with how NATO’s brand of interference fit into the broader patterns of imperialism and neocolonialism of its constituent nations. France and the U.S., for instance, are two of the most imperialistic nations in modern history, with consistent track records of state sovereignty violations and economic coercion of other nations.
Incidentally, it is these issues, coupled with NATO’s rapid expansion into Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that have inspired critics to claim that NATO provoked Russia into the brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Also during this period, in 2006, there was a significant anti-NATO protest in Feodosia, Ukraine. Protesters there took issue with the U.S.-Ukraine war games, which they saw as an indicator of Ukraine becoming a U.S. puppet-state. The intensity of these protests ultimately led to the cancellation of the war games.
The 2016 Warsaw and 2021 Brussels summit protests can perhaps be described as part of the third wave of anti-NATO protests, where the focus again shifted back to NATO’s escalation of military tensions with powerful nations: this time, both Russia and China.
The next NATO summit will be held in Madrid, Spain, in June of this year.
Bridging Generations, Inviting Nations
Back in Karlsruhe, Bechthold acknowledges that the older activists have a better understanding of history, but suggests that they may be less adaptive to changing times. In Karlsruhe, those in support of the anti-NATO rhetoric have been overheard quoting Karl Liebknecht, the 19th-Century German communist who said that “when there is a war, the enemy for the people who want peace is their own country.”
However, Bechthold suggests that, in this context, the principle might not apply: “When you’re used to your country or your alliances doing the bad thing, then it’s difficult to find the rhetoric for when your country is not attacking […] I think some people were stuck in that old rhetoric.”
Finally, Bechthold also believes that part of the failures of this demonstration stemmed from the organizers failing to include anyone from the Ukrainian diaspora of Karlsruhe – which is sizable – in the planning of the event. However, he was happy to share that another demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine, organized by the mayor of Karlsruhe’s office, took care to provide them with a platform.
What Lies Ahead
Meanwhile, within Germany specifically, there are indications that Liebknecht’s words may soon become relevant once again (or become even more relevant, depending on how you wish to look at it). On the same day as the mass Russian arrests and the Karlsruhe demonstration, German chancellor Olaf Sholz announced his intention to dramatically increase the country’s military expenditure from 1.5% to 2% of the GDP. This would signify the largest proportional military budget for Germany since it gained full sovereignty and the right to engage in international military operations in 1990. It has been described by multiple publications as a “foreign policy U-turn”.
Nonetheless, if the rhetoric heard at the Ukrainian solidarity demonstrations is any indicator, then most NATO citizens seem to feel that now is not the time for demonstrating against the alliance’s militarism. However, considering the long and consistent history of such demonstrations, it is certainly not the last time that we will have seen them; the only questions are how soon, and what grievances exactly will they air.