Gran scheme: German oumas square up to far-right menace
Armed with placards, woolly hats and a long memory, they have a dire warning about nationalism
A strange sight has begun to appear at political demonstrations in Germany: a group of elderly women, most of them wearing distinct hand-knitted woolly hats, holding up placards that read: Omas gegen Rechts (Grannies against the Right).
At a time of life when most people are content to live in retirement and play with their grandchildren, the Grannies are out on the streets in the bitter cold of a German winter, braving police lines and counter-protesters, with what they say is a warning to today’s generations not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The women, many in their 70s, say they fear the far right is returning to German politics and they want to stop it while there is still time.
“I was born in 1943. I remember the ruins of destroyed houses and destroyed streets,” says Cordula Grafahrend. “For us it’s easy to see what we have gained in security, peace and freedom. Our children don’t know what it is to live with your life in danger. It’s our responsibility to tell them and our grandchildren.”
Grannies Against the Right began in Austria in 2017 when a group of grandmothers, horrified at the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) joining the country’s coalition government, decided to form their own protest group. Since then the movement has spread to Germany, with more than 30 groups springing up.
The German Grannies say they are concerned by the rise of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD). “Nationalism destroyed Germany and brought Germany to its knees,” says Grafahrend. “Democracy is not a given. You have to fight for it.”
The Berlin group was started by Gertrud Graf, a former schoolteacher who says she decided she had to act when she witnessed a demonstration at the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate. “There were two different groups. There were protesters on one side, and on the other side were AfD supporters carrying the German national flag, and I felt the divided Berlin again,” she says. “It was just like in Cold War times. We were divided.”
Today, the Berlin group has about 100 members aged between 50 and 80. They are mostly women, but there are a few grandfathers as well. “We are the generation of 1968. Many of us were out protesting on the streets in our youth,” says Graf. “We hope that when people see us in our woolly hats with our placards, they will notice us and hear what we have to say.”
‘I suddenly became furious’
The Grannies meet regularly in a small Berlin café to plan their protests. The conversation is rambling; they frequently wander off topic, and Graf has to use her experience as a teacher to intervene and bring the discussion back to order.
But when you ask the Grannies why they are out protesting at their age, the answer is unanimous: the rise of populism.
“I used to be political when I was younger,” says Renate Voigt, a retired Lufthansa cabin crew member. “When my daughter was small I stopped going to demos. I gave up my job to take care of her, and I stopped being political. But a few years ago, when the AfD started doing well and Trump was elected, I suddenly became furious. I’m still furious.”
The AfD became the first nationalist party to sit in the German parliament since the 1960s after making dramatic gains in 2017’s election, campaigning on an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim platform. Its leaders dispute descriptions of the party as far-right. They say it is committed to democracy. But the Grannies do not agree.
“I think it would be interesting to read Mein Kampf again and compare it to what the AfD is saying,” says Karin Lucke, a member of the Grannies who also runs the café where they meet. “Of course, back then it was against the Jews, now it’s against the Muslims. But they use the same language. They use words like Volk [nation] and Heimat [homeland]”.
The Grannies are by no means made up of the stereotypical left, and their conversation is far from politically correct. One complains that people of Turkish origin in her neighbourhood drive too fast. Another is unhappy at Muslim women who wear headscarves in the swimming pool. But they are united in their dismay at the anti-migrant policies of the AfD.
“My parents had to leave Berlin after World War 2. I ended up living in southern Germany, but I never felt accepted there,” says Voigt.
“I understand what the refugees face, I went through it in a way, though I’m German.”
It is cold outside and Voigt has her coat wrapped around her, despite the heating inside the café. “I think that deep down I’m still that little girl in 1945,” she says.
– © The Daily Telegraph