“Ein zweites Wyhl” or “Ein zweites Brokdorf”? Nonviolence and Violence in the Movement Against Nuclear Power, 1968-1981

Presented at the annual conference of the German Studies Association, Louisville, Kentucky, 23 September 2011.

Abstract: In the history of the West German opposition to nuclear power, the first mass demonstrations in Wyhl (1975) and Brokdorf (1976) would seem to stand at opposite ends of the spectrum: whereas the occupation of the nuclear power plant under construction in Wyhl was regarded as a triumph of nonviolence, Brokdorf was the scene of bloody clashes between police and protesters.  For antinuclear activists elsewhere, the choice between ‘Wyhl’ and ‘Brokdorf’ was an essential decision about both the form and content of their protest. 

Though this choice was painted in black-and-white terms, “violence” and “nonviolence” were often entangled.  This paper will examine how activists from other movements, such as nonviolent action groups and (post-) Maoist K-Gruppen, used one another as foils within the anti-nuclear movement, promoting contradictory strategies that (for a time at least) flourished in parallel.  In the communities where antinuclear protest was based, these groups vied with one another for the attention of “authentic” locals, who were often ambivalent or indifferent to the ideological feuds of outside agitators.  In the post-1968 period, discourses of civil disobedience and arguments for illegal struggle converged, making it possible for the nonviolent site occupation in Wyhl to directly inspire the violence that occurred in Brokdorf.