Lignite mining, express highways, gravel mining, parking decks, lime pits, and candy factories all have something in common that might not be obvious at first glance. Capitalists need to cut down forests to make way for them. But all around Germany, people are mobilizing to stop them. Over the past decade, forest occupations and forest defense actions have proliferated to such a point that we can now reflect on the movement as a whole.
The red text in this report is adapted from the book Klimakämpfe—Wir sind die fucking Zukunft.
All Around Germany
Since February 26, 2021, people have been occupying a forest near Ravensburg called Altdorfer Wald. A gravel pit is threatening the forest’s existence and some activists who had earlier built climate camps and tree houses in the inner city of Ravensburg decided to live in the forest to protect it. At the moment this occupation is not facing eviction.
On the day of the occupation near Ravensburg, all the way at the other end of Germany, police began the eviction of an occupied inner-city forest. In Flensburg, in October 2020, people had begun building tree houses and platforms to save the trees, which were slated to be cut down to make way for a hotel and parking deck. A matter of days before the end of the legal cutting season, the investors sent cold-blooded mercenaries with chainsaws to attack the trees despite the risk to activists. The city politics rewarded the investors’ misdeeds by ordering more police to attack and evict the occupation at the very moment that Flensburg was one of the COVID-19 mutation hotspots in Germany.
Speaking of the pandemic, the Green Party in Hessen has lost support even among middle-class people, as they not only argued for the new express highway A-49 and as a result for large cuttings in Dannenröder Forest, Herrenwald, and Maulbacher Wald, but additionally initiated an eviction that lasted weeks in November 2020 even though the region was a COVID-19 hotspot, as well. The occupations in these forests had started in 2019; some protesters still remain nearby, as the highway is not yet constructed even though the trees on the future trail have been hacked down. On of the most spectacular actions involved a 300-meter-long traverse of rope connecting Danni and Herri.
Likely to the surprise of many of those involved, another occupation has been successful: On February 21, near Halle (Westfalen), demonstrators occupied the Steinhausener Forest where the candy factory Storck intended to expand. Less than a week later, while the occupiers were awaiting eviction, the company decided to change plans. At least for the present, the forest is safe.
In Wuppertal, at Osterholz, five hectares of forest are endangered because of a lime pit. The Kalkwerke Oetelshofen aims to store the earth that they excavate where there are trees. People have been occupying the area since August 2019. Just as occurs everywhere else, the capitalists who are profiting from destroyed forests seek to frame their propaganda as “objective discussion,” they complain about alleged “defamation” and emphasize that their business is of systemic importance. Indeed, any capitalist business is of systemic importance—but as the system itself is the root of the problem, this argument is not convincing for those who want to change the system. In any case, at the moment, they are not being permitted to cut down the forest.
In Wilhelmsburg, in Hamburg, in a forest called WiWa (Wilder Wald, wild forest), people constructed tree houses because the city declared the area a potential development area. The activists in the forest developed platforms in the trees—but this is probably not the kind of development politicians appreciate.
Furthermore, people are maintaining forest occupations in two villages in Rhineland that are threatened by lignite mining. The occupation in Keyenberg dates to September 2020, while the one in Lützerath just began on January 16, 2021. The resistance there is closely connected to those people who are trying to save the villages by occupying houses that the coal company RWE wants to destroy or by squatting construction equipment.
Finally, the most famous forest defense occupation of all, in the Hambach Forest, is still occupied. First squatted in 2012, it has been evicted and reoccupied several times. In January 2020, politicians decided that Hambi should not be completely destroyed—after most of it already had been—but the occupation still remains. Recently, some people from Hambi published issue number 5 of the bilingual zine Shitbarricade.
And for those who like to travel internationally, there are occupations in Poland, Switzerland, and France as well as fights in Sweden and Belgium that are networked with the fights in Germany. But a closer look at these would exceed the scope of this article.
Spreading Seeds, Taking Root
Forest occupations seem to be spreading throughout Germany. At Hambach Forest, which is being destroyed to make way for corporate lignite mining, at the zenith of the occupations before the eviction in 2018, forest defenders constructed more than 70 tree houses. Families came to the forest to build barricades together. At Dannenröder Forest, where developers cut an aisle for a highway, protesters built more than 500 barricades, tree houses, and other constructions between 2019 and 2020. The eviction at Danni took more than two months with up to 2000 cops involved each day and more than 2000 charges pressed against activists.
What are the reasons for this? Fifteen years ago, very few people were climbing trees to save the forests, raise awareness about airport expansions or lignite mining, and oppose the destructiveness of capitalism. Today, hundreds of people are engaged in the fights at Hambach Forest, at Dannenröder Forest, and even in some tiny urban woods.
In 2003, I got to know Lakoma, a small Sorbian village near Cottbus. The inhabitants had already been resettled in GDR times [German Democratic Republic, popularly known as East Germany], but the demolition of the houses was delayed by the reunification and artists had decided to revive the place. A cultural barn had been built and a “Wagenplatz” [an occupied trailer park]. Some of the houses were occupied. I spent the night in a wagon, participated in tree occupations, took walks through the remnants of the village. Passing wooden sculptures of resistance, demolished houses and half-demolished bathrooms, I began to realize that the ruthless displacement of minorities for resource extraction was not just happening far away, but right here.
Years later, I learn that in the GDR there was even a children’s song about coal, the oven-song (Ofenlied): “Good morning dear oven, we freeze so much. Therefore burn dear stove, so we don’t freeze anymore. I have no coal, I’m cold myself. Ask the digger for coal, in the valley behind the forest. Good morning, dear digger, in the valley behind the forest. Give us coal, for we are freezing and the stove is cold. I have no coal, my buckets are empty, ask the earth for coal in the shaft black and heavy. Good morning dear earth, in the shaft black and heavy. Give us coal, for we are freezing and the buckets are empty. Just grab it says the earth, bring the digger. Stoke the fire in the oven, then you won’t freeze anymore.”
But coal was and is also deeply rooted culturally in West Germany. Borussia Dortmund fans in the stadium and boys’ choirs still sing the Steigerlied (coal miners’ song) today, and many families proudly tell of their relatives who labored or even perished in hard coal or lignite mining. Phasing out coal is not only a technical issue and a climate policy necessity; it also requires a cultural rethink.
Why Forest Defense? Why Now?
Why there so many people getting involved in forest defense in Germany?
It’s not scientific knowledge about climate change.
The club of Rome published “Limits to Growth” in 1972. Since then, scientists have renewed urgent calls for change constantly.
It’s not the failure of politics.
Some of those who are engaged today report that they joined the struggles because of the failure of politics. Certainly, the fact that political efforts to achieve reform have failed is a good reason to search for more efficient and fulfilling strategies. But politicians have always failed to come through on their promises—this is not new. Is the failure of politics more obvious today than it was in the past?
Rather, the discourse has changed, and this has made its failure clear.
Who changed the discourse?
Without question, this change of discourse is a positive development—in contrast to many others, such as spreading right-wing beliefs and anti-Semitic tendencies. It is not only a matter of increasing awareness of climate or environmental issues, but also of the spread of emancipatory ideas, such as the idea that it is effective and legitimate to employ direct action to change society.
Who changed this discourse? Activists appearing on talk shows on TV? The arson attacks on cables leading to the coal mines? “Fridays for Future”? The mass protests of Ende Gelände in the coalmines? Sabotage on the railway tracks to the coal power stations? The NGOs? Local initiatives? The early activists who believed in direct action against seemingly insurmountable odds? All of these together?
Let’s have a closer look.
Local initiatives from those who are directly impacted by the things they are protesting are a crucial element in the success of large movements. Local expertise and continuous work over years and decades can neither be provided by activist groups nor by NGOs focused on nationwide work. BIs (“Bürgerinitiativen”—citizens’ initiatives) are indispensable for rooting resistance in regions. In phases of little interest, they are often the only ones working on issues for years. When questions arise, large NGOs often rely on their knowledge—often, unfortunately, without adequately valuing their work—and yet these initiatives are often forgotten, because during phases when a lot is happening, they are not necessarily in the spotlight.
For example, the Buirers for Buir regularly organize “red line” actions in which they form symbolic red lines between the Hambach open-pit mine and the threatened forest with red banners, flags, and T-shirts. They show films and hold educational events, they participate in rallies and marches and in alliances against the demolition of more villages for coal. It may seem insignificant, but it is important—especially in these fast-moving times—that some people are continuously mobilizing around the issue.
Fridays for Future
In December 2018, three and a half months after Greta Thunberg started striking in Stockholm, the first actions referring to her happened in Germany. Only two months later, regional groups in more than 150 cities all over Germany organized school strikes on Fridays. On March 15, 2019, some 300,000 people took part in actions in more than 200 cities nationwide; this number had grown even bigger by summer 2019, with actions in more than 500 cities.
It is remarkable that so many students are organizing with such commitment and perseverance. It is to their great credit that they have put the debate about climate policy clearly on the social agenda. Angela Merkel has responded with a transparently mendacious strategy of pretending to embrace the protests. “A very good initiative,” she said, claiming that she “very much supports students taking to the streets and fighting for climate protection” and that the protests have “certainly driven the federal government to accelerate.”
The Fridays for Future protests are heterogeneous. While in some places, participants express solidarity with the Hambacher Forest occupation and critically position themselves against demand-based politics, in other places, they let mayors speak at their demonstrations or sit down with politicians at round tables.
Jakob Blasel, one of the spokespersons of the German branch of Fridays for Future, describes how he went to the office of Peter Altmaier, the German minister of economy and energy. He knew that Altmeier had issued the invitation to the demonstrators to come to the ministry’s courtyard in order to exploit the whole thing as a PR event. So instead of giving Altmaier the opportunity to speak to the strikers, they announced that the students wanted to explain to Altmaier what they were fighting for. The Fridays for Future spokespeople had a conversation with Altmaier in his offices lasting about half an hour, whereupon the minister’s secretariat expressed the expectation that Altmaier would surely be allowed to address the demonstration. The strikers said no. Altmaier nevertheless appeared and was booed, drowned out, and sent away, told to go to the ministry and do his work there. And yet the photograph of the conversation in his office also ended up in many media reports. Although Blasel emphasizes that Altmaier obviously “didn’t get the message,” he nevertheless shows a certain pride in having talked to the minister.
The relationship between Fridays for Future and the political class is ambiguous. FFF has presented demands, justifying this with the claim that politics needs a clear line of action. Although participants often name politicians as part of the problem, many demands are directed specifically at them. Participants accuse the politicians of failure, but at the same time, they assume—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—that this failure is due to a lack of information. I consider the latter to be naïve wishful thinking. If destructive behavior were due simply to lack of information, we would find an unusual number of pitifully uninformed people in high political offices. In that case, education alone would be enough to remedy the problems.
But the decision-makers are not uninformed. Rather—as inconceivable as this may be to some—they are consciously and knowingly opting for short-term profits, doing so in full knowledge of the consequences. They are doing this simply because it is beneficial to their careers—in short, out of pure egoism.
In addition to the risk of appropriation by external actors, another great danger of the FFF is pacification from within. While at the beginning, there were more radical demands, in mid-2019 I read on fridaysforfuture.de that a German coal phase-out should be implemented by 2030. It is sad how quickly the demands softened due to the supposed necessities of realpolitik. Of course, this should not be surprising when one of the spokeswomen is also active in the Green Party. Fortunately, however, this is internally controversial, and she is accused of personality cult and career politics.
Mass Protests: Ende Gelände
What started out as more of a unifying slogan and an alliance of different groups quickly became the brand name for an association of initiatives and individuals capable of putting on a very specific kind of mass action: Ende Gelände (“Here—and no further”). The image is undoubtedly impressive: thousands of people, dressed in dust masks and white painting suits, entering the huge open pit mines and blocking the diggers. Their presence paralyzes operations, making it impossible to continue excavating. At the same time, elsewhere, just as many people block the rails on which coal is transported from the mine to the power plant. Because the power plant does not have enough supplies, it has to reduce its output.
Ende Gelände has been organizing mass actions since 2015, mostly in the Rhenish lignite mining area. Already that first year, around a thousand activists were participating; in the summer of 2019, according to their own figures, as many as six thousand people took part in the blockades and blockade attempts.
Ende Gelände is a participatory action—explicitly intended to enable people with little or no experience of action to take part. Days in advance, people organize themselves into affinity groups so that they can look out for each other during the action. They simulate breaking through police lines and practice rinsing pepper spray from their eyes. They pack straw sacks as seating pads for hard rails. When they set out on the day of the action, the atmosphere is thick with expectations, with determination, with fear—or at least respect—and deafening chanting. Many people and groups from other countries attend. People exchange experiences; debates take place.
In preparing the actions, Ende Gelände develops an “Aktionskonsens” (action consensus) describing the intended framework of the actions. This typically includes a commitment to openly announced mass actions and a description of the prescribed behavior.
In 2019, this framework included the following:
“We will behave calmly and courteously, we will not endanger any people. We will block and occupy with our bodies. The goal is not to destroy or damage infrastructure. We will not be held back by structural obstacles. We will flow through or around police or plant security. Our action will convey a picture of diversity, creativity, and openness. Our action is not directed against RWE workers, companies commissioned by RWE, or the police. The safety of the participating activists, the workers, and all those involved is our top priority. We are preparing well for a safe journey to our places of action.”
Ende Gelände is gratifyingly clear in its criticism of the existing economic system, stating online, “Without a turn away from fossil capitalism, neither a serious fight against the climate crisis nor global social justice is possible. A profound, socio-ecological transformation is needed to achieve a good life for all.”
Ende Gelände works on shifting the discourse of society as a whole, that is, what is sayable and thinkable. This is precisely where the great merit lies.
And yet, after the action weekends, I am not only overwhelmed by the many people who are willing to take personal risks, but I ask myself questions. I ask myself whether the assembly line-style action format leads to the fact that people simply blindly consume this model without understanding themselves as a formative part of the action. I wonder to what extent people understand the action framework as a negotiated consensus of the participants, or if many only perceive it as something immutable, external to themselves.
In my opinion, a movement is not particularly powerful when it does the same thing over and over again in an almost traditional way. It is better to be unpredictable, incalculable, uncontrollable. This is what is missing from Ende Gelände. Although it is important to offer a certain security to new activists, ritualized and predictable events will eventually become politically dead, both internally and externally, and therefore meaningless.
In an evaluation paper, the Hamburg anti-nuclear office writes about Ende Gelände:
“It is necessary for the survival of a movement to take itself and its own goals seriously. The goal of addressing the operation of coal-fired power plants through direct intervention is not limited to conveying images of this project in the media, but must also include the practical attempt to implement it.
“We are serious about shutting down coal power stations; this became very concrete in the moments when it was not simply “Here and no further” (“Ende Gelände”) at a predetermined location, but when people in the action took it into their own hands, broke away from the structures of the campaign, and went ‘off the rails’ on their own. At this point, the power of the movement becomes directly visible. By taking themselves seriously in their goal to shut down the power plant, people were able to go exactly where it really hurt the operators and for which there could be no plans from the campaign. The howls of rage from police, operators, and politicians triggered by this determination clearly show that after two days of embracing [i.e., of surrounding the plant without actually impacting its functioning], we had finally found the pressure point where it hurt our political counterparts.
“The blessing and curse of movement campaigns is to be able to grow, but also to have to. Each campaign event has to surpass the previous one in order to continue to convey the hope of being the most important intervention point of the movement at the moment. This is very unfortunate, but apparently cannot be changed ad hoc. In the long run, the only thing that helps is to continuously build social sites of resistance, and to deny oneself [sic] campaign hopping. Only in this way can it be possible to reorganize resistance after a movement cycle has been broken off and have a lasting effect, as was achieved in the Wendland.”1
“What if a significant portion of the population still finds the storming of a lignite-fired power plant more scandalous than its sheer existence?” Arranca magazine asks in Issue #53. They summarize that the Ende-Gelände actions are “for some, an expression of mass militancy, and for others, a peaceful disobedient mass action. The form of action fits diverse subjective states of consciousness—and expands them without making the question of militancy the central question.”
Militant activists often communicate their analysis and techniques through letters claiming responsibility. Since they try to remain anonymous due to the high risk of repression, they seek to express themselves in the media via the actions themselves and the written statements. The numerous very emotional debates that follow militant attacks show that the actions, in addition to the undeniable intervention in the normal operation of opencast coal mines, can do at least one more thing: incite controversy.
On April 13, 2016, the Aachener Zeitung reported on an act of sabotage on a power pole that carries lines that supply power to the Inden open pit mine. An angle grinder had been used to saw into the pole directly above the foundation.
“Tonight, from 11.04.16 to 12.04.16, I tried to turn off the lights of the Inden open pit mine. To express my anger about the ongoing lignite mining and the repression against the people who oppose it, I started to fell a power pole between Fronhoven and the power plant Weisweiler. This mast carries the lines that supply the open pit mine with electricity and thus render work possible. Even though the mast is still standing at the moment, it is damaged to such an extent that RWE will probably have to relocate it itself. I was aware of the risks for me, but I think it is necessary to take drastic measures in the fight for a better world…
“To achieve this, we should stop thinking in categories of good and bad resistance and be in solidarity with each other. The castor resistance could only be so successful because militant and peaceful actions complemented each other. Change the electricity provider! Occupy houses, offices, and excavators! Block access roads and work processes! Cut down power poles instead of trees! What I dared to try, you’ve been able to do for a long time!”
Just a few days later, on April 25, 2016, another act of sabotage hit the Hambach open pit mine. The Aachener Zeitung wrote on that day that it was an unprecedented act of sabotage. A fire under a cable bridge led to a short circuit and thus temporarily paralyzed the entire open pit mine, including the main coal excavator. Once again, there was a statement claiming responsibility:
“We are speaking out as those who brought about the failure of the Hambach lignite mine last Sunday morning, April 24, 2016. As the target of our attack, we chose the exposed underground cables between the coal bunker and the conveyor collection point. All excavators, spreaders, and conveyors are connected to these cables. The cables run from the substation at the western edge of the mine near Oberzier, where the transformation from 280kV to 30kV takes place, to the belt collection point via steel scaffolds at a height of about 20 – 200 cm. Including the insulation, they were about 10 cm thick. To be sure of achieving an effect on as many cables as possible, we placed an enormous amount of gasoline under the cables and ignited it. There were no buildings or equipment near the fire site that the fire could have spread to. No people were staying there either. The various blackouts were accompanied by bright flashes that were visible throughout the pit. These were caused by discharges from the power cables as soon as their insulation had melted through. Our action is not only directed against RWE, but also against the prevailing conditions. Radical resistance is necessary in a world in which capital interests are in the foreground and the power apparatus ruthlessly enforces its shortsighted interests against all reason as well as against man and nature. We want to oppose this system with a clear ‘NO,’ as a first step towards overturning these power relations at some point.(…)
“The attempt to mediate between RWE and the lignite resistance exposes the power relations at play. Mediation means to ask the resistance to be less radical, less ‘mean’ to RWE, or in other words: ‘the resistance must not disrupt which accepts the existence of RWE and its work of destruction as a given. That is, the authoritarian violence legitimized by domination, which lies in the mining and conversion of coal to electricity, is accepted; the rebellious violence that resists it appears illegitimate. The result can only be a guarantee of continued existence for RWE, however it may be, which now also has the blessing of a part of the resistance. The part that allowed itself to be included in the arbitration process. The resistance is split into the eliminated and involved part and the remaining and isolated illegitimate part. When people claim that such an action would harm the resistance, it speaks of consideration for the power of the rulers to divide the resistance into good and evil. Evil is that which hurts, really disrupts, and is effective.
“The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger writes: ‘Arson, violence against people, occupations of excavators and senseless destruction of technical facilities with the aim of paralyzing open-cast mines and power plants—the ferocity of criminal acts is increasing.’ At the same time, occupations, arsons and blockades are not senseless, but stop the destructive frenzy of RWE very precisely. What harms the resistance is the obedience to the ruling power and its media, which seek to tell us what is good and evil. We should listen to our consciences and our reason, not to the media. With our action, we have delivered the proof that clever and careful militancy, with moderate and justifiable danger to oneself, can put an end to RWE’s normal operations. Our action could have been done by any small group. No special skills, knowledge, or access were needed. All the necessary information is publicly available.
“For a radical, decisive, and direct resistance! For a world that is not destroyed for capital interests!”
The latter act found imitation a year later, according to indymedia reports:
“On 24.12.2017, we set fire to the cables that supply the Hambach open pit mine with electricity. So at least part of the huge machines there were shut down. In this case, the cables were located at the vantage point on the open pit (the one after Terra Nova).
“Stop Coal now! To RWE: Merry Crisis and a happy new fear!”
Debate broke out on the Hambach forestry occupation’s homepage:
“Legitimate? I believe that the means should be chosen as appropriately as possible. Why hit someone in a conflict when a conversation would have done? Why kill an aggressor when he/she could be put out of action with one blow? I cannot determine in advance what effect the acts of sabotage will have on the resistance. The saboteurs certainly couldn’t either. But they had the courage to try it, and for that I am grateful. Because in order to stop the opencast mines, talks were tried a long time ago. Without success. Legal action was taken. Without success. Education, demonstrations, chains of lights, human chains. Without being able to stop the destruction by themselves. Civil disobedience, occupations, blockades. Maybe a little bit is moving. But climate change and its devastating consequences continue. There is not even a decrease in emissions.
“Moreover, the price for people who engage in civil disobedience is being driven up. Civil suits and damage claims are designed to make activists keep quiet by threatening financial ruin or imprisonment. Those who evade this by remaining anonymous, refusing to give their personal details and fingerprints to the police, are mistreated at the police station, or arbitrarily picked up near the occupations and imprisoned for hours. The logical consequence is actions that disrupt or paralyze operations and where the actors do not fall into the hands of the police and the securities.”
Militant actions were also discussed at Climate Camp 2016, with a climate camp newspaper posted in the restrooms stating:
“Actions that dispensed with a militancy aesthetic of fire and destroyed police cars could be ‘just as effective in their blocking effect,’ according to the Action Consensus. In this formulation, it seems as if ‘effectiveness’ per se is the most meaningful criterion for judging actions. We do not see it that way, but would argue for weighing (risk, effectiveness, communicability, connectivity, etc.). However, if effectiveness is already used, we consider the above claim to be simply wrong in view of the operational failures and damage caused in recent months, for example, by arson attacks (including an at least partial shutdown of an opencast mine for several days). Of course, it does not follow that open blockades are not highly useful. However, measured by their blocking efficiency alone, they are less effective, but much stronger on other levels such as connectivity, public sympathy, etc.”
Resilience and Continuity
The occupiers gained nationwide notoriety in summer and fall 2018, but occupations in this forest have already existed since April 2012. At that time, activists were able to tramp there and away very easily because the occupation was in direct proximity to the highway exit. Today, the highway from Cologne to Aachen runs further south; it was relocated over a distance of several kilometers because of the open pit mining.
In November 2012, police carried out the first major eviction operation in the occupied forest. It took four days to get one of the squatters out of an underground tunnel. With gratifying naturalness, the call for reoccupation followed shortly thereafter, and new huts, barricades, and tree houses began to appear in September 2013. Over the following years, these became several villages in the forest. Signposts stand at some intersections along the trails through the remaining portions of the forest. I am pointed to ‘Oaktown’ or ‘Beechtown,’ the direction to ‘Lorien’ is indicated, or the way back to the meadow. ‘Mordor’ is written on the arrow pointing into the lunar landscape of the open pit and the mine.
Asking in the Hambach Forest about Ende Gelände, we might get the answer that Ende Gelände only shows up once a year bringing massive media attention to the topic of lignite mining while leaving the activists alone on the trees in winter. We might also hear that people who take part in actions of Ende Gelände do not learn how to do actions in small groups because they just experience following a few leaders to block the infrastructure.
This definitely is one side of the coin. But still, some of the participants in the mass protests do not feel comfortable simply consuming plans a few functionaries made up behind locked doors. Thanks to groups like “Zucker im Tank” (“sugar in the tank”) that have offered skillshares at Ende Gelände camps, ties have developed between Ende Gelände and self-organized affinity groups. The “Anti-Kohle-Kids” (anti-coal-kids)—who use the slogan “Let’s establish a positive connotation for AKK” (referring to the former head of the German conservative party CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, often just called AKK)—are establishing ties between Fridays for Future and Ende Gelände. And last but not least, the guided tours through the Hambi by forest guide Michael Zobel introduced thousands of visitors to forest occupations, explaining the uniqueness of the forest in one sentence and the function of the tree houses in the next.
But of course, in all these groups, we can find people who believe in state solutions as well. Some of the spokespersons of Fridays for Future Germany are involved in the youth wing of the Green Party; a former spokesperson of Ende Gelände is now running for Bundestag [the lower house of the German parliament]. Some of these people might be seeking to advance their personal careers for egoistic reasons; others are probably naïve.
What It’s Really About
But the forest occupation movement is about more than trying to influence the decisions that politicians make in the halls of power. Experiencing the need to optimize every facet of ourselves within capitalist reality increases the attractiveness of spaces where we can try a totally different way of being, places where it does not matter whether we have an academic degree nor where we were born. Places where we can develop new ways of making decisions. Places where we share rather than ceaselessly competing. Where we dare to live as kinky queers, where we try out being straight edge, where we meet beautiful people and participate in challenging debates. Places where we can at least start to dream about a better future. Places where people can stand an inconvenient and honest answer to the question “How are you?”
And even though the experiences of participating in the occupation movement are mostly associated with experiences of intense police brutality, it is impossible to erase the memories of the beautiful moments. These memories are seeds that spread. Some might never germinate, but others will soon bear fruit, and still others will eventually grow as well.
In 1980, when anti-nuclear activists established an occupation called “the free republic of Wendland,” they hung up a banner proclaiming “Turm und Dorf könnt ihr zerstören, aber nicht die Kraft, die es schuf”—“You can destroy our tower and our village, but not the strength that created it.”
Innovations: Tactics and Strategy
Let’s conclude by identifying some of the strategic decisions that have strengthened the movement.
Forcing the police to evict: If there are very few of you in the occupation and you can’t keep the occupation going for much longer, you might consider provoking an eviction, because leaving might feel like a bigger defeat than being evicted. In the past, expanding from tree occupations to occupy the construction site itself has served this purpose effectively enough.
Refusing to identify as nonviolent: While concentrating on offering low-threshold blockades of coal infrastructure, Ende Gelände consciously never used the term “nonviolence.” Instead, they described their plans as an invitation to those who might feel comfortable with a certain approach. This compromise between the different groups involved in the network enabled very different players to cooperate.
Refusing to be reduced to a few demands: On the webpage of the Hambi occupation, most articles are explicitly marked as the opinion of some participants; sometimes discussions take place between different writers online. Additionally, many of the barrios (the different neighborhoods within the occupation) and sometimes even individual treehouses maintained their own social media accounts. There is no such thing as a headquarters in the movement.
Refusing to give your ID to the cops and the court: First used at the Ende Gelände protests and around Hambi to protect international people joining the struggle, this is a double-edged strategy, as those who refuse to give their IDs risk being held in pretrial detention and face a higher likelihood of having their fingerprints taken. All the same, this strategy has successfully discouraged the state from pressing charges against many activists. As always, it is always possible that the police won’t imprison hundreds of activists for longer, but many people wouldn’t have joined the mass protests without this option, and were willing to take this risk.
After some years of participants experimenting with refusing to give their IDs, some of the long-term effects have become more obvious. Those people who are recognized by the police are sometimes isolated in court, because the other members of their former affinity groups fear to have their IDs checked and to be persecuted as well. People live in fear of being recognized by chance somewhere else. Communication between activists and groups gets more complicated, as people change their names often, making it more difficult to build long-lasting relationships and cooperation.
From the forests to the factories: In 2018 and 2019, the topic of traffic was discussed within the movement; some people focused on car exhibitions as potential targets for actions, while others described a need to hit where it hurts most: at the production sites. One of the results of these debates was a big blockade of VW in Wolfsburg 2019.
Sometimes leaving an occupation is an important step for thinking strategically about a struggle. If you are involved in the daily life of an occupation—constantly working out where to get food and drinking water and building material and how to handle the authorities—it can be difficult to take a step back and think about the big questions. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for the movement is to take a few days or weeks off, to avoid the tendency to miss the forest for the trees (a saying that is used in German as well). Keep in mind: the number of structures and barricades will not necessarily correlate with the media attention (if that is your goal) or the “quality” of a struggle. The eviction at Hambi in 2018 raised more media attention than the eviction at Danni in 2020. Sometimes building more tree houses is just a form of self-deception: what seems to make the occupation bigger could end up becoming an ineffectual ritual if we don’t manage to push things further.
Announcing the reoccupation in advance: Before the occupation at the Hambach Forest was evicted in autumn 2014, activists had already announced that they would reoccupy the forest; one month after the eviction, the forest was squatted again. Even if you personally aren’t sure you will be able to engage in a re-squatting on account of being exhausted, announcing a reoccupation as the only possible answer to an eviction makes a very strong statement. It invites people who have not been involved yet to participate, giving the movement an opportunity to renew itself.
Internet access: During the pandemic, when people can’t go to school or university or their job is changed to an online “home office,” this home could be a tree house. At Dannenröder forest, many students were thankful for reliable high-speed internet connections near the occupation or even in the tree houses.
Skillshare: At Hambi, yearly events for sharing skills take place to circulate knowledge between those who already have experience and the future inhabitants defenders of the forests. Sharing knowledge while the movement is still small makes it possible to handle the challenges that ensue when a movement grows rapidly and everyone is busy dealing with other problems.
Common reference points: Having been to the same squatted forest is a reference that connects people. Even if the first occupation at Hambi in 2012 doesn’t have a lot in common with the occupations there in 2014, 2018, or today, we immediately feel connected to people when we share our experiences of being in Hambi. It is similar to people going to the ZAD or to Christiania in Copenhagen; Hambi, too, has become a sort of legend. This was only possible because the forest used to be so big that as soon as the occupied parts were evicted, people could occupy other parts of the same forest.
Infrastructure: Maintaining open (and generally “legal”) “project houses” near the occupations offer participants the option of sleeping in a warm, dry room when they need to, along with an address at which to receive letters and a place to fill up drinking water and take a shower. These spaces can serve as an office with an internet connection and perhaps a printer or copier. Self-organized open projects can offer space to paint banners, build lockboxes, or just relax without the fear of being beaten up or evicted—without being dependent on the solidarity of more bourgeois supporters who might not like to support all the different types of actions that might require indoor preparation. Activists bought a house close to Hambi at the same time that the first occupations at Hambi started. They opened up WAA (the Workshop for Actions and Alternatives) explicitly to support the fight against lignite mining.
One simple reason to occupy trees rather than joining political parties or old-fashioned NGOs is the possibility of victory. Success is always relative; we might save one tree while hundreds of trees are cut down. But still—in this day and age, saving a tree is something to be proud of. It is the right thing to do in a society as destructive as ours. It’s a small demonstration of respect for nature—and therefore, of respect for ourselves.
A region in Germany famous for decades of resistance against the nuclear industry. One of the best known Hüttendörfer (“hut villages,” i.e., protest camps) was constructed—and then evicted—there in 1980, known as the “Free Republic of Wendland.“ Between 1995 and 2011, high-level nuclear waste transports to Gorleben (Wendland) marked the crest of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany of that time, bringing together everyone from local farmers to militant activists and middle-class people. One of the main objectives (to prevent the salt mine in Gorleben to be used as final storage for the waste) was finally achieved in September 2020. ↩