In early January 2023, in a tiny village in western Germany, tens of thousands of climate justice activists faced off against thousands of police in a showdown over the fate of the fossil industry in central Europe. The gigantic mobilization of means to secure the destruction of a village and the expansion of one of the world's largest open-pit coal mines—Garzweiler—in the center of Europe marks a new historical moment. To consider what happened in Lützerath as a defeat of the movement is to misunderstand history.
In Lützerath two historical forces clashed. On one side, the climate justice movement, which has been organizing for decades and since 2019 has become a global mass movement. In opposition to this was the German coal multinational RWE, backed by thousands of police coming from at least 14 German cities to defend the decisions of the German federal government and the government of North Rhine-Westphalia. More than symbolic, the battle of Lützerath was fought on the initiative of the climate justice movement to halt the extraction of 280 million tonnes of coal from beneath the devastated village.
Over the past two years, hundreds of activists have occupied the village houses. Meanwhile, the federal and state governments and RWE have negotiated and coerced the inhabitants of Lützerath, shortened to Lützi, to vacate the houses they inhabited. Earlier this year, more than 300 people set up various structures to actively resist the destruction, preventing the eviction and demolition of the houses and felling of the forest, scheduled for the 10th of January by a German court. The activists who were there, as well as others who joined in, barricaded houses, doors and windows, streets, built houses in trees, and prepared for the clash.
On the other side was not just one company, but much of the German state apparatus, put on the field in favour of the expansion of the Garzweiler mine and the fossil fuel industry. The German state mobilized thousands of police and their infrastructure from all over the country to drive out the activists and let the machines through. The German police used RWE media companies, RWE trucks, facilities and machines in their action, in a true public-private capitalist partnership. The German state spent millions of euros to secure the right to the destruction of Lützi by RWE.
At the center of the decision to destroy the village for the expansion of the coal mine is The Greens, a political party in Germany. It is part of the government of North Rhine-Westphalia in coalition with the CDU (right) and part of the German federal government in coalition with the SPD (centre-left) and the FDP (centre-right). The Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economy and Climate Action is Robert Habeck, former leader and member of The Greens. This party's election results in 2021, with 14.8%, were achieved after the huge mobilizations for the climate in the country. The party justifies its support for the decision to destroy Lützi in order to expand Garzweiler by indicating that in this way RWE will bring forward the end of coal to 2030 instead of 2038. However, the Garzweiler expansion only means that it will burn coal faster, which actually makes the situation even worse in terms of the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, the 11th of January, rows of police on foot, on horseback, and in jeeps marched on this hamlet like an army—complete with tanks, helicopters, and water cannons—ready to fight a real enemy. In Lützi they found dozens of activists hanging from tripods in all the streets, on the roofs of houses and balanced on tree tops. The police apparatus needed climbers, but brought shields, batons, and pepper spray instead. They came looking for violence which they found only at intervals and in small clashes. Meanwhile, RWE employees were cutting down with chainsaws the trees where activists resisted, cutting down the forest to make room for more coal. They didn't stop for a moment over the next three days, with shifts of police pulling out and arresting activists one by one into the early hours of the morning. It looked like it would all be over before the weekend. It was then that they received news that there was an underground tunnel, dug by the activists, where two people—self-named Pinky and Brain—were holding out under Lützi, closer to the coal but away from the heavy hand of the police. Brute force, the thousands of police deployed, the veritable war arsenal used, and the millions of euros spent could not do it all.
Outside Lützi, the issue became huge in communication terms, with part of the German press and the far-right calling the activists "climate terrorists," while headquarters of The Greens and RWE were occupied and international solidarity actions took place in countries all over the world. A poll was conducted in Germany about keeping Lützerath, and 59% of people were in favor of saving the village and just 33% in favor of demolition.
At least 35,000 demonstrators came to Lützi on Saturday, including Greta Thunberg. Thousands of police surrounded the demonstration as it progressed while others surrounded the village. More than a thousand protesters stormed the Garzweiler mine and forced coal mining work to stop. Police made violent charges in hollering small groups, trying guerrilla tactics against the activists, although the most striking images turned out to be the arrest of Greta and a group of police officers mired in mud, crawling to try and get to their feet before a "mud monk," immune to sinking. The police managed to prevent the demonstrators from "recapturing Lützerath," but needed to use all sorts of means to do so. In the following days, the Ende Gelaende coalition stormed the Garzweiler mine and forced coal mining to stop numerous times.
Only on January 16th did Pinky and Brain came out of the tunnel under Lützi, of their own volition, as the police had not been able to remove them. On the 23rd the police and RWE declared the village evicted.
Lützerath is at this moment razed to the ground. Next to it, the coal mine that will begin to engulf it looks like the surface of the moon, a territory unrecoverable for thousands of years. This was the achievement of the alliance formed between fossil capital and the German state.
The arrest of hundreds of activists and the expected sentencing of some of them to prison terms will be the institutional steps that follow. But something essential changed with the battle of Lützerath. The massive mobilization and use of state resources to ensure continued destruction was deemed necessary. And it will be much more so as the climate crisis worsens.
In the UK, draconian new laws against the right to strike and on political demonstrations have been passed in an effort to stop campaigners with Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, the remnants of Extinction Rebellion, and the strong wave of strikes. Climate activists in several countries in Europe are being preventively detained to try to stop major disruptive actions. In the United States, a climate activist protecting a forest in Georgia was allegedly murdered in cold blood by police.
Of course, none of this is new in poorer countries in Latin America, Asia, or the African continent. What is new is that they are happening even in the power centers of capitalism.
In the choice between halting climate collapse or ending the privilege of capitalist profit, the system has decided: it will mobilize whatever resources are necessary to maintain the destruction. Not only will it not do what it recognizes as necessary and what it has signed up to in agreements like Paris, but it will use brute force to keep the insatiable profit machine running, even at the cost of climate collapse.
Any consequent climate protest—or social resistance of any threatening kind—will have to be banned.
This will be done both with the backing of The Greens in Germany and Labour in the UK, and by so many political organizations more concerned with order than life. They have chosen the camp of catastrophe.
If we remember that the announced president of this year's climate summit is the CEO of one of the world's largest oil companies, we close the knot: the institutional way to stop the climate crisis has hanged itself in public and we can all watch its swinging corpse. No election and no summit will stop the path to catastrophe designed by capitalism. Without the action and courage of the climate justice movement there will be no path forward. As well as stopping the damage currently done, it must build the transformation that the historical moment we live in demands.
The battle of Lützerath marks the beginning of a new stage. The dominant system has already made its choice: it wants collapse and will violently confront anyone who opposes it. In Lützi, the movement has already shown that it will not retreat. The time has come for the movement to move forward.