Lützerath protests – older man wearing a green rain jacket and a blue beanie, standing in front of a crowd and looking tired.
All photos by the author.

Mud Wizard and Mayhem: Germany’s Huge Anti-Coal Protest is Ongoing

Over the weekend, between 15,000 and 35,000 people showed up to protest the expansion of a coal mine. We spoke to them.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Over the past few days, the hamlet of Lützerath, located between Aachen and Düsseldorf in Western Germany, has been the stage of one of Germany’s biggest climate protests in recent history. The town stands next to a brown coal mine and has been abandoned since 2018, when German energy giant RWE planned an expansion of the mine and the demolition of the village. But over the past two years, climate activists have been squatting the hamlet and the surrounding forest to halt the works. 

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The situation escalated when the police launched an operation to dismantle the camps last Wednesday. During the weekend, between 15,000 and 35,000 people showed up to protest the excavation. The police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, accusing participants of violence.

By Sunday, the squats had been cleared, but protests are still happening in Lützerath and in nearby cities every day. Swedish activist Greta Thumberg also joined the movement over the weekend, and was briefly detained on Tuesday after the police broke up a demonstration.

Lützerath has become a symbol for the German environmental movement, which has a long history of opposition to coal mines. Its members feel largely abandoned by the Green party, which governs the local state of North-Rhine Westphalia together with the neoliberal FDP party, and has signed off to the RWE’s expansion. The party has justified this decision by saying it’ll allow the state to phase out coal by 2030, eight years earlier than projected. But many activists view the move as short-sighted and hypocritical.

Besides, Lützerath is not just a symbol, it’s also a very concrete place where carbon is about to be excavated and released into the atmosphere. In an open letter addressed to the North-Rhine Westphalia government by the organisation Scientists for Future, a group of experts stated that the coal under Lützerath isn’t necessary to secure Germany’s energy provisions over the next few years.

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What’s more, burning brown coal – a particularly energy-inefficient and polluting type of coal –  will make it increasingly difficult for Germany to maintain its emission promises to avoid global warming of above 1.5 degrees Celsius, in contradiction with the country’s commitments to the 2015 Paris agreement and to EU climate directives.

The cards seem stacked against the movement in Lützerath. And yet, the protests are ongoing and people are still showing up every day. Last Saturday, I talked to some of the protesters at the demonstrations about their hopes for the future of Lützerath and of the environmental movement in Germany in general. They only shared their first names because they didn’t want their political opinions associated with their full names online.

“We don’t believe everything will be alright, but we stand in this crisis in solidarity with each other.”

Lützerath protests – young man with blond hair, red glasses and a black rain poncho smiling at camera in front of people walking towards a hill.

Jakob, 33.

“I’ve been following what’s happening in Lützerath from afar in Cologne and was here last Sunday, too. I’m hopeful about the fact that there’s still a lot of people coming over this Saturday. Even if everybody knows the situation is doomed, there’s more and more people participating and people are still keeping up the fight.

If they actually end up excavating the coal under Lützerath and burning it, it’ll be harder for me to hold on to this hope. Lützerath is not just a symbol, it’s also a place that pumps CO2 in the air and contributes to the destruction of the world.

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But I think there’s something characteristic about the environmental movement that’s described in the book ‘Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet’: We don’t believe everything will be alright, but we stand in this crisis in solidarity with each other to maintain another version of the world. This gives me courage. But unfortunately, the crisis remains.”– Jakob, 33, history and philosophy student

“If you give up hope, you give up your future too.”

Lützerath protests – Woman with a grey bob with bangs, wearing a blue red jacket and a red backpack, carrying a heart-shaped sign with a print of the earth reading "Omas for Future"

Birgid, 70.

“If you give up hope, you give up your future too. That’s why it’s important to fight for a healthy future for our kids and grandchildren and to show up.

We are fully aware that our fight in Germany won’t be enough. It must go further. But we, in Germany, can set an example. Even if the camp is being dismantled – that seems unavoidable –, people will see the protest in Lützerath. The example is still important here and we are hopeful and confident about this movement getting bigger and bigger.” – Birgid, 70, Omas for Future (Grandmas for Future)

“The world shouldn’t be destroyed.”

Lützerath protests – A woman and two children wearing winter jackets and hats and standing with signs in front of a big crowd.

Ruben, 8 (middle), with his mother Karen, 48, and brother Samuel, 11. Their signs read: "Stop the excavation" (left); "Leave Lützerath alone!" (middle) and "The environment is our future" (right).

Samuel: “I still have hope for Lützerath. Naturally, I don’t really know, but I believe it won’t be totally excavated because so many people are here.”

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Ruben: I wanted to come to the demonstrations, because brown coal destroys the world and the world shouldn’t be destroyed.

Samuel: I wanted to come too.

“It’s absurd that the government is sticking with this RWE deal. To me, the deal is a sham.”

Lützerath protests – man with bushy eyebrows and a five o'clock shadow in a black rain jacket, wearing the hood over his head and smiling at camera.

Leon, 26.

“I came here because I saw how many people showed up and how much is going on in Lützerath right now. I followed the situation on social media, mainly on Instagram and Telegram. This always motivates me to participate.

I’m also here because of the research, which clearly opposes the expansion of the mine in Lützerath. That’s why it’s absurd for me that the local government is sticking with this RWE deal. To me, the deal is a sham. Seeing so many people is very moving. That’s why I’m so happy to be here.

I am not really sure whether I have hope for Lützerath itself. In my heart, I do, and I fight for it. But rationally,I think there is a 50% chance it will work.

I’m optimistic, though, and I still have hope for the climate. That’s what makes us human – that we cannot give up this hope, because it drives us and bonds us together. When I think of what’s happened in the past few years, I think that the diverse ways we connect through social media is good for the climate. This also gives me hope.” – Leon, 26, student and a self-employed worker at a cacao manufacturing company

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“I don’t really have any hope, but I’m here to make them pay.”

Lützerath protests – older man wearing a green rain jacket and a blue beanie, standing in front of a crowd and looking tired.

Joachim, 63

“Of course Lützerath will be excavated. Politicians signed a binding contract with RWE and got involved in this dumb deal. But to me, this is all about showing that we will not simply accept this, and making the price politics will have to pay for this as high as possible. To let them know: not like this. Not with us. You can do it, of course, but you will lose your structure, Green party. Or there will be pushback, there’ll be a devastating international echo. I don’t have hope, but I’m here to make them pay.

Realistically, I no longer have hope for the environmental movement or for the climate in general. The planet is on fire, while politicians drive at full speed against a concrete wall, as per usual. Phasing out coal would have already been possible years ago, the Lützerath excavation is not necessary at all. It’s simply a deal with a big company, and companies only care about profits, not what happens to the world in 30, 40, 50 years.

Nevertheless, I’m here to be part of the resistance. I’ve been part of it autonomously for the past 40 years and I don’t see why I should back down. I can’t sit at home and watch the images on TV, it’d break my heart. I find it important to show that we are the old generation, those who messed up the politics, those who didn’t manage to effectively fight back against the destruction of the environment in time. So we have to support young people – we can’t do more than that.” – Joachim, 63, doctor