Underground Environmentalists: The Origins and Outcomes of the East German Environmental Movement




Associate Professor Of German, Founding Director PPEH

Project Summary

In recent months, activists across the country have engaged in guerilla data archiving to protect government climate datasets amidst fears that the new administration will restrict this data’s access. These modern hacktivists have a valuable model in a pre-digital age: the 1980s East German environmental movement. By exploring this historical and often ignored antecedent, I discovered lessons for today’s environmentally engaged, from tips on orchestrating mass protest to warnings for avoiding decline.

My research centered on samizdat, a Russian term meaning “self-publication” and describing countless illegal newspapers produced across the German Democratic Republic. In an archive in former East Berlin, I analyzed the content, form, and their trends throughout the environmental samizdat. I traced the origins of the movement in the East German churches, the increase in political engagement of the movement following Chernobyl and as a reaction to state oppression, and the decline of the movement following reunification. In my work, I outline methods utilized - despite a ban on the production and distribution of environmental data, constant repression, and no internet - to inform the public of the country’s environmental degradation and ultimately inspire mass mobilization. I also highlight reasons for the movement’s success and its diminished importance following the wall, concluding with lessons for today’s activists. Most centrally, I suggest the need for unity and a cohesive identity throughout a movement’s life in order to ensure success.

This research informs active work of today’s environmentally engaged. It also served as a culminating experience for my academic career, as I poured through pages of German documents in order to better grasp an important period of cultural history. The research experience also provided an improved understanding for the roots of today’s environmental opposition and the important role politically marginalized individuals can play in shaping the course of the future.