'Open Source' Anger Unites Europe's Antigovernment Protesters

Protesters in Stuttgart with an effigy that says “Kehrwoche,” a German reference to cleaning house. Johannes Eiselle / AFP-Getty Images

On a recent Thursday evening in Stuttgart, the richest city in one of the wealthiest states in Germany—the country that has weathered the financial crisis better than any nation in the West—eight titans of industry called an emergency meeting with the press. At a row of conference-room desks sat the heads of companies such as chemical juggernaut BASF and tech giant Robert Bosch, firms that help make the straitlaced state of Baden-Württemberg the heart of the German economy. The summit's purpose was hinted at by a tiny button pinned to Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche's lapel: "I (Heart) S21".

S21—or Stuttgart 21—began, simply, as a construction project. The city decided to level and replace its historic train station with an underground system that would put Stuttgart in the vanguard of European high-speed rail. Plans had been in the works for well over a decade. But after construction finally started this summer, the people of Stuttgart took to the streets en masse to block the project. When Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her weight behind S21, the protest only swelled, and it included even the older, wealthier conservatives who form the base of her Christian Democratic Union.

Merkel and the CDU seemed caught off guard—after all, the party had ruled the state for almost 60 years, and Stuttgarters are famous for their reserve and fastidiousness: hardly typical troublemakers. But the protests were part of a grassroots anger that has taken hold across Europe in the wake of the financial crisis. Author John Robb, who used the tech term "open source" to describe the conflict in Iraq, says protests like the one in Stuttgart fit the label as well. People from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of different objectives are lashing out against governments that they feel are ignoring them—tapping into an open-source anger that's hard for politicians to grasp.

Photos: Trashing London Over Tuition Fees Oli Scarff / Getty Images

The Stuttgart protests became a national fiasco in late September, when protesters clashed with police wielding batons and water cannons. Mediation sessions were called to ease the unrest. Suddenly, the CDU faced the prospect of losing state elections in Baden-Württemberg in spring 2011, an event that would send shock waves through the national political scene.

When Daimler CEO Zetsche was asked what the protests meant, particularly in a country accustomed to enthusiastically churning out massive infrastructure projects, he became visibly flustered. "It goes beyond my understanding," he finally said. The sentiment was later echoed by Heike MacKerron, who heads the German Marshall Fund's European desk in Berlin. "We used to trust our politicians, particularly on projects like this. Now we're all wondering: 'How the heck—in Stuttgart? There must be something going on.'"

The opposition to S21 was a Hydra without a head: the protesters shared no common denominator such as class or political ideology, and their complaints about the train station were all over the map. Some opposed the project's $5.4 billion price tag; others just wanted to conserve the station and nearby park; still others didn't want the construction hassle. Even the protest's ostensible leader, 66-year-old Gangolf Stocker, admitted that the groundswell was outside his control. "It's not being organized. They do it themselves," he said. The protesters seemed united only in their opposition to the government's plans, and by the notion that their frustrations weren't being heard by the powers that be. Malte Plathe of the anti-S21 activist group Parkschützer saw the protest's decentralized nature as its primary strength: it was easy to join and impossible to contain. "The point is, nobody's in charge," he said. "It's open source."

In the tech world, "open source" describes software that lets anyone link up and contribute—think Wikipedia, or Google's Android. Control is exchanged for crowd-sourced creativity. The term has also been applied to social movements, most notably insurgencies: Robb called the Iraq quagmire "open-source warfare" to explain how various and often competing groups, united only by their resistance to American troops, could morph into a dynamic enemy that the U.S. military found nearly impossible to combat.

Robb's work has been drawing a lot of interest from protesters of late, as people use any available protests as vehicles for their frustration with the establishment. "There's a sense that the parties in power have been co-opted," he says. "No political ideologies hold water anymore. So people have fragmented. What we have now is different groups, openly sourced."

In addition to the unrest in Stuttgart over S21, smaller campaigns have sprung up against closing a street market in Frankfurt, installing new cobblestones in Münster and planting trees in Rheinberg am Rhein. And open-source resistance against government initiatives has been cropping up in nearby countries such as the Netherlands, where citizens are trying to block a bridge project, and France, where a mishmash of protesters came together to oppose a small hike in the retirement age. Even America's Tea Party had an open-source aspect at its outset, before it became closely allied with Republican donors: part of the movement's ostensible appeal was its aura of common people rising up in a "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" moment against bank bailouts and government stimulus spending.

But whereas grassroots rage at Washington is commonplace in every American election cycle, Europeans are only just starting to mobilize around a general distrust of the state, says Cas Mudde, an expert on populism. "There's a long history of that in the U.S., but not in Europe, and particularly not in Northern Europe," says Mudde. "For most of the post-war period, what stood out there was that people actually trusted the state, and trusted it to do a lot. That has really been lost." German think-tankers and politicians use the word Politikverdrossenheit—its literal meaning is disenchantment with politics—to express the sense that politicians are ignoring or abusing the common trust.

It's a feeling that's reflected in Germany's already falling numbers for party membership and election turnout, which have continued to sink as voters feel that they've been forced to bear the brunt of Europe's debt crisis, and that domestic politics are spiraling out of their control. Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations points to a slew of recent polls in Germany that put estrangement from government at an all-time high. "There is an increase in this feeling of not participating," she says. "And it's not apathy, because a protest culture is also on the rise."

But unlike Germany's famous 1968 student movement, which helped push the society to the left, today's protests offer little in the way of a coherent ideology as an alternative to the status quo. Instead, they only focus on stopping the immediate action at hand, whether it's the retirement age in France or the station in Stuttgart, says Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria and selected one of Foreign Policy's top 100 intellectuals for his work on European democracy. Krastev says the protests we're seeing now aren't part of a larger movement at all. He calls them "negative coalitions": "People don't feel like they have an impact on political life, so the focus is on preventing certain things, to at least assert that they still have a say," he says. "You push for something not to happen. You're not pushing for reform."

In fact, Krastev says, where past protests were mainly minority groups looking for social change, today's are being buoyed by just the opposite types of folk—people who, like Merkel's conservative and wealthy base, could be thought of as having lots of power and political recourse available to them already. That even they feel so estranged shows the depth of government's loss of credibility, at a time when faith in leaders is more essential than ever for finding the way out of the current economic mess. But instead of becoming symbols of a new future direction, protesters like Stuttgart's are symptoms of a politics stuck in place.

"Normally, the railway station is really a pretext for something bigger," Krastev says. "Now there is nothing bigger. It really is about a railway station."

Some politicians stand to gain from this open-source anger, at least in the short term. Baden-Württemberg's regional Green Party had long pushed for a referendum on S21, and they trumpeted the mediation sessions as an important first step for people to be heard. (Mediation has also confirmed Green claims of S21's inept planning.) In the hours before the CEO's summit in Stuttgart, townspeople had been mesmerized by the latest mediation round, packing into local bars to watch on TV as if it were the World Cup.

The Greens were enjoying a newfound political stature in the state thanks largely to their opposition to S21, and much of their new support came at the CDU's expense. A win in March's state elections would be a first for the party nationally, and the Greens at least look likely to form a coalition that could oust the CDU. Tanja Gönner, the CDU's local spokesperson for S21, says the possibility has become a real concern. "It would be like the Social Democrats losing North Rhine–Westphalia in 2005," she says, referring to the electoral embarrassment that sparked a no-confidence vote in then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and that paved the way for Merkel to take his place.

But while open-source protests may have immediate political implications, Robb says, they've had little success with the issues at hand—the stimulus package went through in America; the retirement age was raised in France—which he predicts will further exacerbate open-source angst. The final mediation session on S21, meanwhile, was held late last month and ended with an order to continue as planned. The project and the protests are again underway. Both are likely to continue, even if the CDU is ousted in the spring, and protesters should be even angrier for the next target that ends up in their sights.