Over half a year ago, on January 14, a total of at least 35.000 climate activists from all over Germany and beyond joined in a great demonstration close to the village of Lützerath in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to protest against RWE, a German multinational energy company, which was planning to destroy the village and mine 110 million tons of lignite located in that area. Several thousand, including Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer (one of the main organizers for Fridays for Future Germany), and myself, split from the main demonstration to attempt to enter the village through the police blockade and join the protesters who barricaded themselves there.
The police reacted aggressively to this move, punching several people I knew in the face, hitting them with clubs, spraying mace, and even using water cannons. This article is my attempt to explain why the situation escalated and why the German state chose to protect corporate profits against its citizens.
The development and the escalation of the struggle in Lützerath almost felt like a reference to classical fantasy novels. German media compared the protests to the book “Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, police officers were called “orcs” and the internet was full of memes featuring a “warrior monk”, who pushed policemen into the mud. But in reality, the history of Lützerath has little to do with naive heroism and fairy tales. It is a tragic story of a fight for our democratic structures, which have become more and more corrupted over the years. But let’s go back to the very beginning.
30 years of attrition
What was Lützerath? Lützerath was a village in North Rhine-Westphalia, the traditional industrial area of the German state, which is located on a large lignite deposit. The company RWE, a German multinational energy giant, had been mining coal in the Garzweiler surface mine (named after another village destroyed in the area) and had long been planning to extend the mining operation to the west (Garzweiler II), so they could access the rich deposits there.
Interestingly, the German “mining law”, which has its roots in medieval common law, allows companies like RWE to seek expropriation of land to access the resources underneath, as long as the landowners are compensated in return. In 1995, when The Greens (also known as “Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen”) and SPD, two major political parties in Germany, were attempting to forge a ruling coalition, the Green party was categorically against the expansion of the mine, but could not win the political fight against the social democrats. So the company started buying up the land, causing the villagers and the farmers to leave their houses and their farms. At the time, “The Limits to Growth” report by the Club of Rome had already been published for 23 years.
In 2023, nearly 30 years later, the situation is a different one. “The Limits to Growth” has ‘celebrated’ its 50th anniversary, and most of the predictions have turned out true. Climate politics have become a central topic of the political discourse. Germany, mainly in reaction to the catastrophe in Fukushima by Angela Merkel's government, halted the use of nuclear power. Member states of the European Union signed the Paris Climate Accords, according to which stopping coal and lignite usage is considered to be one of the main measures to keep the rise in mean global temperature below 2 °C, or, preferably, 1.5 °C. The new mass movement, which focuses on climate change instead of ecology in general, asks the government a simple question: “How will you reach the goals, which you signed up for?”
House squatted by activists, Lützerath, 2021. Photo: Superbass, Wikimedia Commons
As it turns out, the government has no sufficient answers. They started with attempts to compromise, continued with lies, and ended with ungrounded promises of hope. Even now, half a year after the destruction of Lützerath, the government is hoping the industry will find ways to solve the climate crisis by developing and implementing new technologies (E-Fuels for example) instead of passing legislation, which will actively protect the climate with the methods available right now. Coincidentally, RWE wants to keep mining lignite after 2030, which goes against the agreement with the government. Even after the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the German government is not doing enough to stop the climate crisis, they continued with their anti-climate policies. In March, they blocked the EU law aimed to end the sales of combustion engine cars in the Union by 2035, they also continue to discuss the plans of building more highways and oppose the speed limit that can drastically cut emissions if implemented. So it’s to no one’s surprise that the German ruling coalition, including the Greens, voted in favor of RWE continuing to destroy the villages for lignite.
You might be thinking that this was some sort of ‘necessary sacrifice’ made by German authorities in the dire circumstances of the energy deficit caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine or, at least, that it was framed this way. However, this is not the case, energy security arguments were secondary in this case. For example, the Greens said they voted for it because RWE had the legal right and contracts to remove all the villages surrounding the deposit, and they managed to ‘save’ six villages by ‘sacrificing’ one. They insisted that if they would have voted against the destruction of Lützerath, all villages would have been lost, thus framing it as a good thing.
Protecting profits over people and the planet
With that, we are back at the start of the year 2023. When socialist and environmental activists saw that the government would allow RWE to destroy Lützerath, they decided to occupy the village. They built houses in trees, to make it more difficult for the police to clean them out, barricaded the houses, and even built tunnels underneath the village. Lützerath was abandoned by the residents by the time, as they took the money from RWE and left their village to move elsewhere.
Activists stepped up to stop the expansion of the mine and protect the climate since it was obvious that the German government didn’t plan to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision and once again put the interests of big business over their people and the planet. So, what happened next? The police, the executive arm of the government, worked together with RWE to barricade the premises and evict the protesters to allow the mining to continue.
This is when we organized a large rally in solidarity with the protestors in the village. We did not manage to break the police barricade and enter the village, the rally was ended, Greta was carried away by the police, the rest of the activists in Lützerath were evicted, and now, half a year later, the place where Lützerath used to be looks just like the rest of the post-mining wasteland around it.
Protest march towards the village, January 14, 2023. Photo: Andrei Yagoubov
The German government claims that the decision to evict the activists was in accordance with the law because RWE expropriated the land legally using the “mining law”. But in 2021, when 56% of Berlin voted to expropriate major companies owning the housing market to lower the rent prices, which would be also legal according to the German constitution (Article 14 §2), the city’s government said they would simply not do it. The social democrats even went so far as refusing to form a coalition with the left and green parties after the latest elections, instead opting to govern with the conservatives; all because they wanted to prevent the expropriation at all costs.
What can we learn from this? The political system is working in the interest of the companies’ profit, not in the interest of the people. Why is this? For one, all of the major parties (except for DIE LINKE), accept major donations from corporate donors. Another reason is that many politicians get lucrative jobs in the industry after their political career, the so-called “revolving door” effect. The most notorious example of this is none other than Gerhard Schröder, ex-chancellor of Germany, who accepted positions at both Rosneft and Gazprom, Russian fossil fuel giants.
But the main reason is that our political system in general is tilted towards the interests of profit. In a representative democracy in which power is strictly delegated by means of parties and elections, companies will always find a way to make their voices louder than the rest of the voters.
Protests can be ignored, election promises broken (during their campaign trail, the Green party vowed to stop lignite mining as soon as possible, only to back away from their promise when in power), in some cases, like with the Supreme Court’s ruling, even law can be ignored. To save democracy, especially in a time of crisis as we are in now, we need to reform it to make way for real participation, for example via citizen councils with binding results. The same should apply to business entities, so workers and unions can participate directly in the transformation of the industry, and if the companies refuse to implement these mechanisms, they should be nationalized. Until this ultimate goal is implemented, our only means of direct political participation is civil disobedience, as has happened in Lützerath and will continue to happen in other places all over the world. We need to uncover the contradictions of the system to be able to change it.