German officialdom, accustomed to a complaisant citizenry of good, solid "burghers" who revere authority, has been shaken by some 15,000 grass-roots protest groups.
Battling nuclear-power plants and new autobahns, fighting to save city neighborhoods and historic buildings, combating air and water and noise pollution, the citizen groups - "Buergerinitiativen," or BIs, as they're called - have sprouted from zero in the '60s. Frequently they've forced reluctant governments to reverse or drastically revise official policies.
Though gathered in an informal federal union, the BIs tend to be free-floating, constantly appearing and often disappearing when an issue recedes. Their rise suggests that the groundswell of environmental, consumer and neighborhoot groups, so familiar in the United States, is taking on global proportions.
Indeed, counterparts can be found throughout the developed world - almost all West European countries, in Japan and, in a muted fashion, in Iron Curtain nations. Reports filtering into West Europe show the mayors of such cities as Leningrad and Budapest complaining of long delays in construction programs because of opposition from local Communist Party organs responding to citizen pressures.
The German groups achieved visibility through their fight against nuclear-power plants, which citizens claim the government has steamrolled through without adequate debate on the dangers of atomic wastes, potential accidents or alternatives in energy conservation. Little German towns such as Brokdorf, Grohnde and Whyl, selected by Bonn for atomic-power plants, have witnessed widespread - and sometimes violent - demonstrations!
Germany's established political parties, which critics accuse of being authoritarian and out of touch with the public, didn't even raise the nuclear power issue as recently as last year's general elections. But now, through the BIs, they're being forced into wide-ranging-and internally divisive-debate.
But the widely publicized nuclear protests are only a few of the initiatives:
A Berlin group fights effectively against a proposed autobahn through the city, citing danger to neighborhoods, air and noise pollution.
When their children are barred from overcrowded government kindergartens, parents organize private, "non-authoritarian" kindergartens.
Twenty-five thousand citizens in Hannover demonstrate against planned boundary reform of local towns and counties, saying they don't want their local governments swallowed up in larger less responsive units.
In the Leepe Valley near Bonn, citizens organize to stop plans to transform their green valley into a giant garbage dump for the cities.
In Frankfurt, students and workers move into an empty house and repair it overnight. Their purpose: to protest the destruction of a neighborhood by speculators who buy up middle class homes, let them decay and then sell them for office-buiding construction.
In cities all over Germany, citizens demand renovation of older neighborhoods rather than wholesale clearance and construction of housing projects.
In Berlin's Kreuzberg section, an old working class/small-factory neighborhood that now harbors thousands of Turkish guest workers, officials even sponsor a competition for ideas to revitalize the neighborhood.
Most members of the German political bureaucratuc "establishment" remain perplexed in dealing with citizen initiatives. They know the groups have eight to 10 times the number of members organized in political parties. Along with former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who urged Germans in 1970 to "risk more democracy," they acknowledge a need to broaden public participation.
But in practice, German officialdom often treats the groups with condescension, refuses to consult with them and challenges their legitimacy under law. The protest groups, it's charged, follow narrow and sometimes selfish interests, ignore the general welfare and sometimes serve as fronts for radical or Communist groups.
"Lots of construction just isn't taking place anymore,"says Paul Vogel, a Hamburg city official. He points to small groups selfishly organized to fight circumferential roads to relieve traffic through thickly settled areas or quaint old medieval villages, or to stop needed new factories or expansion of the Port of Hamburg. Many of the stalled projects, he notes, would mean hundreds of jobs for unemployed city residents.
Echoing many U.S. officials, who say citizens' protests make it impossible to launch projects promptly and economically, Vogel says there's a "crisis of the democratic system. Controversies get stronger. The inclination to compromise shrinks. We lose our capacity to make decisions for the overall benefit."
There certainly are groups that start out with selfish or egoistical goals, acknowledge Bernard Duffner of the Federal Union of Buergerinitiativen. But as people become more involved, he says, they gain a wider vision and try to find alternatives that don't hurt others.
The BIs can be discredited when Communists suddenly join their demonstrations and initiate bloody attacks on police. But the groups rarely have Communist members, Duffner claims, and in fact include many conservative farmers.
Why did the citizen initiative movements spring up on German soil? The U.S. Conservation Foundation's Cynthia Whitehead, an expert on German BIs, lists reasons similar to those often cited for American environmental and neighborhood groups. They include the protest model set by the student movement of the '60s, people's desire to look beyond material goals, concerns about the environment, resentment of bureaucracies, and "deep-rooted feelings of impotence and helplessness against powerful government and business interests."
And though the groups' leaders are mostly middle-class professional, Whitehead noteds that they "claim to represent the interests of hitherto neglected groups in society - the aged, children, poor and foreign workers." Actual BI membership ranges from students to the elderly, from white-collar workers to farmers and some workers.
Nobody in Germany pretends to know where the groups may he headed. But like their U.S. and other world counterparts, they will be part of the political landscape for decades to come.