German peace activists mark 50 years of Easter marches

( dpa )- It's a far cry from the heady atmosphere of 1983 when 700,000 turned up for peace marches across Germany, but a few dedicated thousands were out in miserable weather conditions for the traditional Easter protest this year.

"This is a signal from a truly anti-war movement," Willi van Ooyen, the chief organizer in recent years, said in Frankfurt, the centre of the peace movement.

The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, marked earlier this week, along with the nearing end of the Bush administration in the United States - an object of universal contempt among peace activists - were cited as the driving force.

Older activists look back fondly to 1983, when Germans felt directly threatened by the pending stationing of medium-range Pershing II missiles with nuclear warheads on their soil. Ronald Reagan was US president at the time.

"There's simply no burning issue at the moment," said Peter Strutynski an activist at one of the peace organizations trying to mobilize activists this year.

The year 1968 was an earlier highpoint. Then the issue was the Vietnam War, and the "peace sign" was everywhere.

The committed few turning out under leaden skies this Easter to plod through the sleet trace their tradition back to the Aldermaston march 50 years ago, when British "Ban the Bomb" activists walked the 80 kilometres from Trafalgar Square in central London to the nuclear warhead plant at Aldermaston.

It was there that the "Ban the Bomb" symbol, comprising the flag-signalling signs for N and D - or nuclear disarmament - got its first outing.

The hippie movement subsequently made the drooping cross its own. "Peace" was the word on everyone's lips at the concerts, sit-ins and demos of the movement which took the Vietnam War as its main target.

Opponents of the movement interpreted - or misinterpreted - the peace sign as the symbol of the anti-Christ, and there were attempts to have it banned in some countries.

The marchers displayed the symbol once again this Easter as they marched to the US military headquarters near Heidelberg or straggled through cities like Bremen, Hanover, Stuttgart and Munich Dusseldorf.

But the enthusiasm of 1983 is long gone. Then West Germans, living as they did along the fault line between NATO and the communist Warsaw Pact, felt a direct threat from nuclear missiles.

Five years ago Iraq was potent issue as the invasion got under way. Germany came under pressure to join the United States and Britain in the invasion, and the numbers of peace marchers were boosted once more.

But the then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder kept the country out of the war with the strong backing of the population, and the war lost its urgency for Germans.

Most Germans are opposed to the deployment of 3,500 German troops in relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan, but in the absence of casualties from combat operations, sentiment among the population is weak.

"There must be a feeling of direct threat and the sense that something is going wrong in your own country that you need to demonstrate against," says Matthias Dembinski of a peace and conflict research foundation in Frankfurt, the headquarters of the peace marchers.

That feeling was simply absent in the case of Afghanistan, he acknowledged, although he insisted the marches still had a purpose.

"War and peace are still an urgent issue," Dembinski said.

That is a sentiment still shared by many Germans, and not only those that grew up in the shadow of World War II.

Some 200 made their way to the start in Duisburg of a three-day procession through the Ruhr region, which was heavily bombed in that war, from Duisburg to Dortmund.

And around 1,000 turned out in the south-western city of Stuttgart on Saturday.

The organizers said some 70 events were planned, with Saturday and Monday being the main days.

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