Read our interview with Rebecca Rahe and Corinna Genschel, from #Unteilbar, one of the seven laureates from the Civic Pride Awards of 2020.
#Unteilbar (Indivisible) is a German movement standing for a society in solidarity and indivisibility of human rights. In 2018, the collective organised one of the biggest protests in the last decade in Germany against the far-right increasing presence in the public space and for a convergence of civil society’s struggles. In June 2020, ten cities demonstrated for a solidarity approach to tackling of the pandemic.
Can you tell us about #Unteilbar? When was it founded, who are its member and goals?
Corinna Genschel: #Unteilbar, which means “Indivisible”, was founded two years ago, in the summer of 2018. The Minister of Interior from the rather conservative Party CSU (ed.: Christian Social Union in Bavaria) was pushing against taking in refugees coming from Greece. This was just the last step after a long process shifting the government towards the right. The stand against refugees’ rights was a symbol. Back then, a small civil liberties organisation brought together other civic organisations and social movements to do something: not just another march or small initiative; we needed a larger response from the civil society and social movements. Throughout the summer, we sat down and reflected on what could be a response that would bring along the progressive civil society in its broadness, together. We wrote a short but decisive call and started gathering signatories.
Then, we had a major fascist incident in Chemnitz in Saxony, in South-East Germany. Following a murder, the far-right mobilised in mass, while the police did not step in. We were already out with our initiative, but this mobilisation really pushed the civil society in Germany to act and gave momentum to our call. We needed a response in that town, but we also needed a federal response. We called for a demonstration on 13 October 2018 in Berlin. In the end, 240 thousand people showed up; it was one of the largest marches in Germany in the last decades. And it was very mixed: young people, older people, families, people in wheelchairs, people from social movements and people who had never been in demonstrations before. We did not organise thinking of a huge federal mobilisation, but people came in from other cities and picked up the message “Unteilbar”, “Indivisible”. The meaning is that we do not let the welfare state be pitted against the rights of migrants, against climate change, against other rights. Human rights are indivisible, and we are in solidarity with each other.
The other very important element is that we are an organised civil society response, and we want to give voice to those people who are unheard. However, we do not want to just add all these voices and specific demands; we want to create a synergy that makes all of us stronger. The right-wing is dominating the public discourse: they are loud; they are aggressive. We felt we needed a way to fill the public space with all those people who are there but are not as loud. After this huge far-right mobilisation, activists, musicians, and people from the civic and public space organised a huge free concert in Chemnitz in September under the slogan “We are more” which was also addressing the issue of who is in the public space, who is influencing the political discourse.
Initially, we as #Unteilbar only intended to have a march (in October), but it was so successful that we started to think that #Unteilbar had a bigger political responsibility.
Rebecca Rahe: What made #Unteilbar so successful was that it was not just a demonstration against the push of the far-right or racism; it was a march to be united in solidarity and to unite our struggles. The subtitle of the call was: “Indivisible. In solidarity instead of exclusion. For an open and free society”. There were the trade unions and big social welfare organisations being allies with small initiatives of self-organised refugees or feminist groups, climate justice groups, civil rights groups etc. Everyone could unite with their own struggle under the label “Unteilbar”. #Unteilbar became more than a label: it was a way to do politics as a social movement, yet not a social movement independent from its parts. Inside #Unteilbar we can do things that we cannot do on our own.
How were you able to manage such a diverse coalition?
Rebecca: I think that one thing is the personal relations of people knowing each other and having built trust before. The movement was not born out of the blue. It was built by people willing to go a bit further than they usually would, because of the political situation. That was the time to build broader alliances. Since a couple of years, we had started understanding that we cannot do things on our own, and this created fertile ground for #Unteilbar.
Corinna: I think that there was the feeling that there was a momentum to act. We also have an organising core group, like a coordinating committee that has the duty to build the alliance and organising the marches. But this is not like a traditional alliance where you are voted into this core group. We work together because we trust each other on a personal level. We also always try to avoid merely adding our individual demands to the alliance; we try to think of those that march without us or those that are marginalised and might not be in the core group organising. We try to be representative and inclusive of more and giving voice to more, and that way bringing people into the alliance and the movement.
We keep the call rather short: we do not provide a long list of specific demands. Instead, we try to be abstract in a comprehensive way. The “indivisible” label tries to build bridges beyond our individual specificities, and we try to give voice to those who have specific concerns. We are trying to give another picture of the society. To give another example, last year we had a big demonstration in Saxony before the State elections. In the general public, there is an image of Saxony as a very white and racist state. We organised with various local anti-racist civil society organisations, migrants’ groups. For us, it was very important to have speakers to the press that made the “other Saxony” visible. This is a long process, so we usually do not organise a protest quickly. In the end, the march in Dresden was against racism not only for its messages but also for the visibility of persons of colour and an open and diverse society. In Saxony, there are a lot of groups of migrants or people working with migrants who struggle every day. They picked up the march as an opportunity to come out together and be strong in their togetherness. That was the beauty of it.
Why did you decide to organise the demonstration #SoGehtSolidarisch? What messages did you want to spread?
Rebecca: In Germany, the shutdown of public life came in mid-March. From that moment on, we were meeting every Wednesday in virtual space asking ourselves what we could do to address the consequences of the pandemic, but also how we could do it in the context of the pandemic and the limits to assemblies. Our main tool to protest and bring our claims into the public is through demonstrations, so we needed to think anew. There were some initiatives, for example under the slogan “Leave no one behind” that organised actions, rallies etc. for refugees to be evacuated from the Greek islands. We tried to broaden the attention of these initiatives. At the same time, the issue of migration as a civil rights question came back to the table given the hard stance our government (and the EU) took on evacuating the refugees from the Mediterranean. It found a small space in the press, but still, nothing happened. The people were creative in finding ways to protest during the pandemic. Yet, people were not evacuated from Moria. It was frustrating. At the same time, the social inequalities that existed before the pandemic were getting even more drastic. We know this from all countries and regions – there is so much written about this now. However, in this crucial moment bringing the voice of civil society on how the situation should be dealt with was still not possible. And when the lockdown was gradually eased, the streets were taken over, again, by right-wing demonstrations with wild conspiracy theories, spreading anti-Semitic ideologies etc. It was not just about the “streets”: the public discourse seemed to be dominated [Ed.: by the far-right] again. And that was the point in which we decided to act very quickly and organise a “ribbon of solidarity” in many cities in about three weeks. We thought that was the time to address the government but also the society differently. We wanted to communicate that solidarity is not just the practice of supporting one another in the neighbourhood but it is also about asking how the money is being distributed, who is going to profit from it, who is going to come out of the crisis worse or better.
Corinna: I think we can see very clearly in this mobilisation that #Unteilbar wants to be more than just “against the right-wing”. We want to work for a society in solidarity. We want to bring a different imagination to the streets. In that regard, we also had to engage with the issue of the pandemic. Masses of people rallying together are the life of social movements, but we could not do that, and not only because of the government’s restrictions. We also wanted people to feel safe going out in the streets. #SoGehtSolidarisch was both a political message with all these demands and connecting struggles, but it was also an experiment of demonstrating differently, in a safe way during the pandemic. This is how we came up with the ribbon of solidarity. It was very colourful; it was very nice. There were long lines of people, keeping the distance but being connected through the ribbon. And it worked. The beauty of it was that in the very small timeframe we had, ten cities decided to take that on and initiate small alliances and formed their ribbon of solidarity. Climate action groups, with anti-racist groups, with feminist groups…
Rebecca: As Corinna said, we wanted everyone to be safe – that is also why we put so much effort into the live streaming, which we also published on YouTube afterwards to reach people even in the aftermath. That day, on 14 June, we had more than 20’000 clicks on the live stream, and many thousands watched it throughout. On the streets across Germany, we were also more than 20’000 people. If you add everything together, we reached more than 50’000 people on the day itself, but even more in the aftermath through Youtube.
Is the protest connected with other strategies in different fora to obtain change?
Rebecca: #Unteilbar is a way to do things together that we cannot do alone. Individual organisations do so much political action, and it is important that it is that way. #Unteilbar does not take on specific challenges that can be done by the organisations themselves or other alliances. Of course, we network with others, we represent the idea of #Unteilbar in other circles, but our political strength lies in organising protests as an alliance, this is how we work for change.
Corinna: To give an example, after we cooperated with civil society in Saxony last year before the state election there, in the upcoming year, we will try to initiate a similar process in five States in the East. The “East” is a specific region and next year three State elections will be held, and we run the danger to have a big right-wing shift. The solidarity structure is struggling hard there; there is a difference between the East and the West because of the different history of civil society. This is one reason we started networking with several initiatives there to think whether it is feasible, and it makes sense to build up a campaign in solidarity with the East – to build special fora – to answer your question – in a way that does not say “the people from Berlin come there to protest the right-wing elections”, but to start a campaign of those initiatives and act as a magnifying glass to make it stronger. We might not be “more”, but the structure is there. Part of the society in the East is not voting right-wing, that is protesting and trying to build an alternative of solidarity.
What impact is this initiative having?
Rebecca: In February, in Thuringia, a parliamentarian from the FDP (ed.: Free Democratic Party) was voted as Minister-President with votes from the AfD (ed.: Alternative for Germany). There were spontaneous rallies all over the place and the next morning we received several calls to ask what #Unteilbar was going to do. #Unteilbar had positioned itself before, claiming that if AfD becomes the ruling party in one of the States, civil society is called to action. Of course, this was not exactly the case, but it prompted us to intervene. There was a local alliance in Erfurt/Thuringia that we joined and worked together with. It was clear that something had to be done and who was going to do it. For me, this was an important moment to measure what role #Unteilbar can have in society. I also think that the announcement of our demonstration provoked a change in parliamentary politics337: civil society was putting pressure on them, and that was going to be big. Then, I tend to measure the impact more in terms of the state of civil society rather than in terms of changes in the law or parliamentary politics. For example, now the Fridays for future movement is supporting workers’ struggle around higher wages for the public transport sector. I think that these kind of alliances are so crucial for social change. #Unteilbar does have some role and some impact in that people see it as possible to link up with movements and people that are not the closest to them.
Corinna: I totally agree with Rebecca. At the same time, I think the question of impact on power balances is fundamental, and there is a real need for reflection inside civil society in Germany and Europe. As #Unteilbar, and more broadly as civil society and movements, we have been on the streets in large numbers for years. We might manage to shift the public discourse, and that is important. But in the long-run the question for organised civil society and social movements is how to influence changes also legally, institutionally and structurally – and this is not just a question for #Unteilbar. I think that in the last five years at least, there has been a gap between the very strong public outcomes of social movements and the impact at the policy level. We see it for example with Fridays for Future and Ende Gelände: we have a very strong, continuous pressure on the politics of climate change, but the effects are really limited.
To connect to this, there has been a push to keep civil society outside of the realm of politics. Is this issue addressed inside of your movement?
Rebecca: Last year in Germany we had a big debate about “gemeinnütziger Verein”338. It is about tax laws, a bit boring but important, because it allows organisations registered as organisations working for the “good of the public” and, therefore, to be tax exempt (especially important for donations). When eventually also the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists (VVN-BdA) lost its “gemeinnütziger Verein” status (ed.: “public benefit” status), #Unteilbar addressed the issue head on by writing an open letter and collecting signatories. We had not done that before, but for us, this was a big issue for the state of civil society: how organisations can act politically or are structurally enabled to do so. We were concerned about what could happen from now on if such State decisions would become legitimate: What can organisation say or do if they are always threatened with losing their “public benefit” status? We stood in support of the organisation, also stating that civil society deals with issues that are political.
Is there a desire to get organised also transnationally in Europe?
Corinna: Well, #Unteilbar is always thinking globally or transnationally, but it is not organised that way – we act “locally”. Although we have strong ties, we do not organise for this issue across Europe. Within Europe, and I like to stress Europe rather than the European Union, we are in a different position compared to ten years ago when, with the financial crisis, all civil society and social movements came together and strategised together. We are in a different stage now, that does not mean that there are no networks organising in a pan-European way, but just saying it seems to be a different context right now. For us, getting this award is a way to be in companionship with these other groups.
Do you think that the European Union can be an ally in your struggle? In what way?
Corinna: No, not really. This is a state organisation, not an alliance partner, plus for us it is important to think Europe not just the EU. We are companions or allies of civil society in the EU and Europe but also beyond: there are other spaces or terrains of struggles that we look at, like the Balkans, the Mediterranean… #Unteilbar understands itself as an agent of civil society or organised civil society. We are independent of parties and states.
What lessons can be learned from this initiative that can potentially inform a post-COVID-19 institutional and societal response?
Rebecca: I think that, especially at the beginning, there was a discourse even in big media institutions that this crisis was a window of opportunity for some profound societal change, to organise the economy differently, for more equality and more justice. I do not think that this is necessarily a lesson from the pandemic but has more to do with the ups and downs of the political discourse and politics in general. We did see that there is a lot of money if governments decide that it is needed, and that politics can act together and solve problems in a crisis if they want to. Yet, we – civil society – need a balance between pushing, interacting, and interfering, and that was imbalanced or even out of balance before, particularly in COVID-19 times. Institutionalised politics can act, but we need to keep them accountable, transparent, responsive. For me, it is an open question: can we build up more pressure for them to act differently?
Corinna: What I learned is that strong and accountable institutions might be very useful, but for a society in solidarity we also need them to be in relation with an organised progressive civil society that can have a say in these decisions. It was civil society that pointed to the issue of refugees in Moria or the homeless people that could not find a shelter or other societal issues. In these kinds of situation, we need a relationship between accountable institutions and a civil society that allows finding a solution to these questions, needs and demands much earlier on. We need people voluntarily standing in solidarity in their neighbourhoods, but we also need organised solidarity, and it needs to be supported by “the State”. Linking to what Rebecca was saying about the “public benefit” status, this context makes that boring textbook question so crucial because for civil society to be organised, for solidarity to be functioning, it needs to have resources. We can learn this all the time, but these last months made it really clear that civil society needs to be much more cherished, not just by clapping on the balconies.