How should we view violence on campus

G20 protest: Somehow left, somehow against violence, somehow for it

When cars are on fire: Do left-wing ideas win or lose among young people? Are they even radicalizing? How rebellious is the young left? Ask an expert

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ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Mr. Willems, in Hamburg tens of thousands of leftists demonstrated for the G20, not exclusively peacefully. You recently published a study on the conflicting relationship among left-wing youths to violence. Do you think that left-wing ideas will lose or win among young people after the G20?

Helmut Willems: Due to the nature of the demonstrations and the reporting, left-wing ideas were not really conveyed at all. You had to look very carefully to find the big left-wing issues such as social inequality or global poverty. In this respect, those who are responsible for the violence have done themselves a disservice: Because the riots were the focus instead of possibly legitimate arguments, I do not believe that left-wing content is now receiving more support as a result.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Can't the momentary attention stimulate you to take a closer look at left-wing perspectives?

Willems: Conditionally. I think young people who are currently developing a political identity and who are wondering how they can get involved in the big issues from climate protection to human rights will be rejected for the time being. Because that's not what they want. You don't want to belong to radicals or rioters.

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ZEIT Campus ONLINE: What do you want?

Willems: I believe that a lot of left-wing issues appeal to young people. Not in this radical form. But social inequality, human rights, co-determination, criticism of rule and discrimination motivate many young people to ask themselves: Where do I want to get involved?

Helmut Willems

62, is Professor of Sociology at the University of Luxembourg. He is an expert on youth movements, social conflicts and political participation - also in a European comparison. He and his colleague Wolfgang K├╝hnel recently published a study on left-wing young people in Germany and their commitment as well as their view of society and violence.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Can the perception of the protests also influence the voting decisions of the young voters?

Willems: Difficult to say, but I suspect there is some reflection. The events in Hamburg took place under a left political flag; Some political parties also feel at home with such an ideology, but at the same time say: That was a riot and has nothing to do with being left. Those who tend to look to the left will wonder how one relates to the other. But whether this results in a distancing or a different voting decision - I can only speculate.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: But do such images pass you by without a trace?

Willems: Political socialization research shows that decisive events, such as the G20 protests, play a central role in how young people anchor themselves politically. Anyone who has been to Hamburg has seen violent left-wing perpetrators beating police officers, or has been attacked harshly by the police themselves. The pictures that you take home from there can definitely influence whether you become more radicalized or reflect critically on the left strategy. But regardless of whether they were there themselves or followed the events in the media, young people are sure to ask themselves: Is there any way to understand this aggressive protest, let alone justify it?

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: How do young leftists feel about violence?

Willems: In our most recent study, we did not interview any radicals, but rather left-wing activists with many years of protest experience. It became clear that the left has never fully clarified its position on violence, even today - although many young leftists are thinking about it. You basically say: We reject violence against people. But then often add: except to defend myself and against police officers, because we don't actually see them as human beings. There is also the expectation to show solidarity. Even if the police call for it, even peaceful, moderate left-wing demonstrators will not part with violent criminals and thus make them identifiable. That would violate the group's own norms and most of them don't.

Debate are you left?

To be on the left used to mean dreaming of utopias and fighting the state, if necessary with violence. And today? Meanwhile, left positions are mainstream, the right is gaining strength again, and we ask ourselves: What does it mean to be young and left today? Send us your stories to [email protected] All articles in the series Young and Left you read here.

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ZEIT Campus ONLINE: For years the dissatisfied and left behind have been drawn to the right in society. Could protests like the one against the G20 get these people excited about the left again?

Willems: If anything, these completely out of hand protests have actually had the opposite effect. If you had discussed the G20 issues with the "left behind" people, the left might also have been able to interest and motivate them. But I cannot imagine that demonstrations that intensify violence and inhumanity would attract any people.