Massive opposition to war across Europe

Issue 

By Tracy Sorensen

PRAGUE — The news that war had broken out met with an instant response right through Europe.

In Berlin in the early hours of the morning on January 17, hundreds of high school students ran through the streets shouting: "Wake up! The war has started!" That day, thousands of school students failed to appear in their classes: They were out demonstrating.

At noon in Hamburg and Hanover, all public buses, trams and underground trains stopped for five minutes while announcements over loudspeakers explained that the drivers were against the war.

Such scenes were repeated right through Europe as hundreds of thousands of people, sickened that their governments, which had so recently been arming and aiding Saddam Hussein's regime, were now railing against the "new Hitler" and endorsing the wholesale bombing of Baghdad.

Continuous demonstrations, vigils, teach-ins, phone-ins and other antiwar activities culminated in an international day of actions against the war on January 26, which saw hundreds of thousands participate in huge national rallies in Bonn, London, Washington and other major cities.

Germany

Alongside the mass rallies and marches — an estimated

250,000 demonstrated in Bonn and 100,000 in Berlin on January 26 — there has been a burgeoning of locally based actions and initiatives.

White flags hang out of windows, and antiwar banners are strung up on every third or fourth apartment block in many towns; in Bremen, a golden cow stands in the square in the Turkish sector as a reminder of the money made by German companies in arms deals with Iraq.

In Berlin, a barrel of ox blood was trailed between the Iraqi embassy and the headquarters of the US forces.

Roads to airports have been blockaded, and there have been demonstrations at US and British military facilities and bases.

A particular feature of the German protest movement has been the targeting of stock exchange buildings, banks and other financial institutions for the role played by Germany in selling arms, including chemical and biological weapons, to Iraq.

As part of this campaign some 300 demonstrators occupied the Frankfurt stock exchange on January 21, and the same number blockaded the Dusseldorf stock exchange on January 24. "German stocks go up when German arms kill!" the demonstrators chanted.

The German Consumers Association has initiated a boycott campaign against products of German companies suspected of involvement in exporting arms to Iraq.

Towns and localities have declared themselves "war-free zones."

The mayor of Erfurt declared it a "City of Peace" and proclaimed that "Erfurt refuses any military or political participation in the Gulf war".

Local authorities, action groups and individuals have promised sanctuary to any armed service personnel seeking to avoid being sent to the war.

Pacifist and conscientious objector support groups have experienced a dramatic increase in the number of soldiers seeking advice on how to obtain CO status. One office in Berlin which customarily deals with about 10 cases a week is now getting over 100 calls a week.

Pacifist groups are planning to blockade rail lines on April 2, when special troop trains are laid on for the spring induction of conscripts.

The German Green Party, in a project called "Winter Holiday", has called for soldiers, including US soldiers based in Germany, to leave the army, and for German people to give them asylum.

"This has provoked repression from the German state", Green Party spokesperson Jurgen Maier told Green Left. "We are accused of 'public incitement to commit a legal offence'. So various Greens, including me, have been indicted." Close to 100 soldiers have refused to go to the Gulf.

Party of Democratic Socialism leader Gregor Gysi made a major speech in parliament against the war; he was heckled so badly by the Christian Democrat politicians that it was difficult for him to get through it.

The PDS was the only parliamentary party to refuse to be part of a delegation of German politicians to Israel to evaluate that country's demand for military aid.

Britain

Two days before the January 15 deadline, there was a demonstration

of 50,000 in Trafalgar Square organised by the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf. The committee is headed by leaders of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. On January 26, 50-60,000 marched again.

Turkish and Kurdish associations have also organised demonstrations.

"The main thing is the massive repression against Arabs, especially Palestinians and Iraqis", London antiwar activist Ben Cohen told Green Left. "This includes people who have been campaigning against Saddam Hussein. There is massive racism here, with Muslims and mosques being attacked. The hysteria is being led by tabloid newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Star."

Cohen explained that the project of Socialist Movement, a broad coalition of left groups and individuals associated with left Labour MP Tony Benn, to launch a new paper of the left has been put on ice so that resources can be devoted to publishing the War Report.

Three issues of this paper have so far appeared, and have been enthusiastically received by the antiwar movement.

"It's probably the only left paper in Britain making a profit", said Cohen. "It highlights the news censored or not covered by the mainstream media. [Well-known author and peace activist] Noam Chomsky has written for it. There's a market for the paper: people sick of the bullshit in the media."

London-based journalist John Pilger and left-wing newspaper columnist Paul Foot have set up Media Workers Against the War, which attracted 800 people to its first meeting. A subsequent organising meeting also attracted a few hundred people.

A 24-hour women's vigil outside the Foreign Office at Whitehall lasted for nearly four weeks before it was evacuated by police after an IRA mortar bomb landed in the backyard of the prime minister's residence 200 metres away on February 7.

Until that point, it had gained such an air of permanence that the post office had begun to deliver letters addressed to "Women's Vigil, outside the Foreign Office, Whitehall, London". The women are now discussing another site for their protest.

Greece

Public opinion in Greece is overwhelmingly against the war. Seventy per cent oppose the war, and 90% believe it is all for oil.

According to local activist Mike Karadjis, 30-40,000 people demonstrated in Athens on January 24.

"There is a strong anti-imperialist section of the movement forming", he said, "which is pushing for the removal of US and British war bases from Crete and Rhodes, and the recall of Greek ships from the Gulf."

Demonstrations are being organised by a coalition of peace groups, trade unions and student groups. "The official peace movement is just a rubber stamp for PASOK [the Social Democratic party]. They were very slow to get moving, although once the war actually began, they got going."

School students involved in the recent wave of strikes and occupations demanding improvements to the education system incorporated peace slogans into their demonstrations.

Italy

Opinion polls show that close to 75% of Italians are opposed to the war, which is the first in which Italy has been involved since 1945.

School students have interrupted classes to go on marches, women in black are demonstrating all over the country, and local trade union organisations have clashed with their national leaderships over their preparedness to call strikes lasting a few hours to protest against the war.

Workers in Verese are fasting, asking for the conversion of arms production to peaceful purposes. One group tried to block a train leaving Florence with Leopard tanks, while on February 17 a human chain will be formed around the Tornado base at San Damiano.

Christian groups have mobilised around the Pope's Christmas message: "War is a venture from which there is no return".

Although there are comparatively few Italian soldiers in the Gulf region, and mostly not conscripts, people are beginning to discuss forms of civil disobedience and support networks for objectors.

The war has also brought a new immediacy to Italy's war tax resistance movement, already the strongest in Europe.

Netherlands

About 15,000 people demonstrated in Amsterdam under the banner of "No Blood for Oil" on January 26.

Some have speculated on why antiwar sentiment has been unexpectedly muted in Holland.

A writer in the February 15 Peace News suggests that the main factor is the strength of pro-Israeli feeling throughout the country, particularly in the Calvinist churches: "Once the Scud

missiles started landing in and around Tel Aviv there was a huge wave of public sympathy in favour of Israel.

"This widespread feeling that the war is a just war has made the situation of the peace movement rather difficult."

And, comments the Peace News writer: "One has to take account of the fact that in the '80s the Socialist Party in Holland was in opposition. Nowadays it is a member of a government coalition with the Christian Democrats, with the result that they have failed to mobilise their supporters against the war."

Belgium

A national demonstration on January 13 gathered about 40,000 people, mostly from Flemish peace groups. The Forum voor Vredesaktie, the Flemish section of War Resisters International, has mounted a permanent vigil in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Internationale des Resistantes a la Guerre (a French-speaking peace group) is building a network to support deserters, in cooperation with libertarian groups. More and more conscripts are asking for information on how to apply for CO status.

Spain

Over the weekend of January 19-20, tens of thousands of people participated in demonstrations throughout the Spanish State: more than 80,000 in Madrid, 50,000 in Barcelona and more than 10,000 in cities such as Seville and La Coruna.

Four young soldiers summoned to join the Spanish fleet in the Gulf have refused to embark. The union movement is currently discussing the possibility of a general strike against the war.

Czechoslovakia

In Prague, Middle East Dialogue, the Campaign for Youth Rights and local anarchist groups have all organised antiwar activities. There have been three demonstrations of several hundred people, mostly high school students, and a public meeting.

Czechoslovak public opinion, encouraged by a slavishly pro-US press, is overwhelmingly in support of the war.

Every Monday since the war began, the statue of Czech national hero Jan Hus in the Old Town Square has been draped in antiwar banners and placards, and lively, sometimes heated, discussions have taken place with passers-by.

Activists include members of Prague's large Arab community and some of the thousands of young people from Western countries who have

come to Prague to teach foreign languages.

Left Alternative, the political grouping associated with the well-known former dissident Petr Uhl, has called for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of the small contingent of Czechoslovak soldiers from the Gulf, a ban on allied warplanes flying over Czechoslovak airspace and more balanced media coverage.