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RDT info logoMagazine on European Research N° 51 - December 2006
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Title   On the trail of the sixties

From the peace movements of the 1950s to the present-day non-governmental organisations, by way of political ecology and the events of May '68 in France, community division and rejection have taken different forms. It is with a view to approaching this inescapable aspect of democratic life, on an international and multidisciplinary basis, that the thematic network European Protest Movements since the Cold War has been launched.

European protest Movement
European protest Movement

Breaking with the political and trade union opposition methods that have been in operation since the 19th century, new forms of opposition have been established since the time of the Vietnam War. Showing mass disapproval of a conflict in which their troops were caught up, killed and where terrible acts of violence were committed, the Americans showed their disgust more and more visibly. Pacifist demonstrations were also organised in many European cities, the culmination of which would bring together in May ’71, a great mix of 500,000 people, including hippies and veterans, at a gigantic “sit-in” in Washington. Meanwhile, the events of May ‘68 in France, just preceded by the Prague Spring, started to make their mark on North America, Europe and Japan. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Are all these emerging protest movements comparable, from one continent to another, one country to another? How did they evolve? What real changes have they made at a political, social and cultural level? These topics have been tackled by researchers from the IFK Protest (1) network since 2004, and are nowadays the subject of a Marie Curie action (cf. panel). Launched by the historian Martin Klimke, a researcher at the HCA (Heidelberg Center for American Studies) at Heidelberg University (DE), Joachim Scharloth, a linguist at Zurich University (CH) and Kathrin Fahlenbrach, who is carrying out research in the field of media at Halle University (DE), the network has some forty or so researchers in Europe and the United States. They aim to broaden the field of analysis and research which has taken place with regards to protest movements that were started in the period since the Second World War. As a general rule, all work on this phenomenon has been carried out in the interests of history. For IFK researchers, disciplines such as political science, sociology, literature or linguistics can shed new light on this inescapable culture of protest and the forms it takes nowadays.

National terrain, international anchorage
This kind of focus appears to be all the more necessary, as counterculture movements evolve in a complex terrain. “One of the phenomena we are studying is the way in which methods of protest – for example, civil disobedience, as manifested in the United States for racial matters and which were inherited mainly from major pacifist figures, such as the Indian Gandhi or the American Henry-David Thoreau – have developed in different parts of Europe. Indeed, there is a crucial difference between the manifestation of this rejection in Northern Ireland, in the former East Germany, or nowadays in the Ukraine,” Martin Klimke explains. “In Spain and Greece, for example, which had dictatorships in the ‘70s, protests against the authorities could not follow the same path as those undertaken in democracies. Similarly, reactions were not the same in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, especially with regards to the United States. In Western Europe, a section of the youth (and of the population as a whole) fiercely denounced American imperialism, whereas at the same time dissidents in the former Communist countries used the culture from the other side of the Atlantic (its jeans, its soft drinks, its music) to visibly affirm their rejection.”

And yet, all these protest movements from the ‘60s and ‘70s are linked and have common features. “One of their characteristics stems from the fact that they were both national and international. International matters were used to combat national politics. International protest codes (for example, the hippie look) were used to show rejection of the cultural codes of the establishment in their own country, especially values held by the previous generation.”(2)

Audio-visual aids and the Internet
Moreover, these years are marked by another form of internationalisation: the rise in power of audio-visual aids. Television company bosses quickly realised the media effect of these movements, and it was not long before the protesters seized on the impact of their presence in the mass media and used it to affirm their position on the international stage. It is, therefore, the people who “make” news programmes and the subjects covered by them. They have contributed to reinforcing the vision of a global movement, spread across numerous countries and continents. From the '80s, certain movements (such as Greenpeace or Attac) would become masters in the art of emphasising the spectacular, telegenic aspect of their actions.

Another step would be taken with the Internet. The net allows people to inform, assemble, organise and mobilise. Large protest rallies are impressive. “Previously, protesters from all corners of Europe were brought together by solidarity. They visited one another, enjoyed personal exchanges, exchanged literature and newspapers… Nowadays, the main essence of their communication travels via the web and reaches the most remote corners of the earth. Protests deployed during the G8 summits or WTO meetings testify to the effectiveness of this global strategy.”

From protests to lobbying
What is the point of this planet-wide enthusiasm for protest movements, in all of their forms – for example, non-governmental organisations, which are ever increasing and more and more internationalised? Globalisation, in fact, affects all means of control and leads to a loss of national sovereignty. This is transferred to supranational bodies – such as the European Union or, more universally, the WTO. Democratic control has, at State level, been eroded. Paradoxically, it is often the action of international protest movements that serves as a catalyst for increasing awareness of opinions regarding major topics affecting the planet (poverty, climate change, etc.) and contributes to reconsideration of the democratic debate at international level. “Faced with these systems, which are too vast, and in which the population feels frustrated regarding any participation on their part, citizens stake their claims in the form of transnational protests. That is why protest movements have currently reached a pivotal point. Such mobilisation, on a global scale, had never been possible before.” Being of an indisputable representative nature, certain organisations become spokespersons acknowledged by spheres of government. Major non-governmental organisations therefore need to change their structure and organisation, or, to put it another way, become institutionalised. Will they simply become lobbies? What effect will this downturn have on protest movements? The fact is that forty or so years after May ’68, the social, political and economic context has changed considerably.

For Martin Klimke, the protest movements of the sixties, “not only played a significant role in outlining the path for substantial changes at social and cultural level, but formed the basis necessary for the creation of a transnational public sphere.” Non-governmental organisations dealing with human rights, the environment, peace, etc. are developments that are just as important as the large-scale protests that preceded them.

The frontier of violence
And as for violence, particularly with regards to different forms of terrorism, what part does it play in this discussion? “Protest movements include violence, but what interests us is the media’s handling of such violence and the perception the public has of it; by analysing reactions and interactions regarding this phenomenon. We want to look at both sides of this aspect, from the point of view of the authorities and society, and, on the other hand, that of the protest movements. In certain cases, when State forces are mobilised against its citizens, violence appears to be the only way of controlling these excesses."

Moreover, the use of violence appears to be disputed in activist groups, and is often strongly contested. “The acceptance of violence, or its non-acceptance, actually marks a border between protest movements, especially at the present time. Numerous activists respect total nonviolence, others accept limited violence, and the main split occurs with regards to other movements, such as terrorism.”

(1) IFK: Interdisziplinäres Forschungskolloquium Protestbewegungen – Interdisciplinary Research Forum on Protest Movements, Activism and Social Dissent.

(2) All quotations are by Martin Klimke.

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  Marie Curie ventures off the beaten track

Bringing together researchers who are interested in the same subject, opening multidiscipline debates, thinking up new projects and new methods – these are the main objectives of the thematic network ‘European Protest Movements since the Cold War’, supported by the EU within the framework of Marie Curie actions...

  Marie Curie ventures off the beaten track Bringing together researchers who are interested in the same subject, opening multidiscipline debates, thinking up new projects and new methods – these are the main objectives of the thematic network ‘European Protest Movements since the Cold War’, supported by the EU within the framework of Marie Curie actions. More precisely, it is a matter of analysing the European role in the transformation of public spaces and the emergence of a transnational civil society, which has been broadened to a worldwide scale for some years now. Discussion forums, organised within the framework of the network, bring together young researchers and experts from different disciplines. Their work extends beyond the simple historical context in order to study the social and cultural aspects of these movements. Following an initial seminar, which analysed the media-related aspects of the protest movements in particular, the next meeting (March 2007) is entitled “Designing a New Life: Aesthetics and Lifestyles of Political and Social Protest”. Furthermore, the partners are launching a series of publications, the first work being entitled Protest, Culture and Society in the 20th Century ( Berghahn Books, Oxford/New York – )