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Response to Review of Better Active than Radioactive! Anti-Nuclear Protest in 1970s France and West Germany

I am grateful for the attention the reviewer has given to my book and the many kind words she has found for it. I would, however, like to address a handful of matters where she seems to have come away with a different understanding of the book than I intended.

First, the book is ‘transnational’ history, but of a particular kind. My goal was to examine how cross-border links among grassroots protesters worked, and sometimes didn’t work. In focusing on these activists, I wanted to take a different approach from much of the transnational scholarship on protest, which tends to interpret social movements through the lens of formal organizations, prominent individuals, or key texts. The reviewer thus rightly describes this as an effort at ‘history from below’, viewed from a transnational perspective. It is not (as she also describes it) a ‘comparative’ study, because I did not seek to compare ‘French’ and ‘West German’ movements, or even to frame protest in national terms such as these, which too often obscure both local and transnational dimensions.

Second, this book is about recovering the history of a complex social movement which had multiple origins and contradictory outcomes. It therefore does not take the familiar form of a ‘success story’, be it for non-violence, parliamentarization, or environmentalism. I sense (and partly share) the reviewer’s frustration that the book does not make broader claims about ‘democracy’ – a contested and multivalent term that I avoided because of its normative implications and frequent appropriation by social movements themselves. Instead, my final chapter (barely touched upon in the review) focuses on a range of concretely identifiable legacies, including contributions not only to the Greens, but also to peace activism and so-called ‘black bloc’ protests; alternative living projects and renewable energy; and personal trajectories of activism that included setbacks as well as successes.

Finally, the review’s discussion of my chapter on violence is misleading. In it, I argue that much protest activity took place in the grey area between strict non-violence and overt militancy, with discourses of ‘non-violence’ often serving more as a mechanism for local control than as a moral position. In the wake of a transnational escalation of protest violence around 1976–7 (unrelated to ‘terrorist’ activity), mass demonstrations declined and the movement nearly split, with each faction experimenting tactically on its own. When large demonstrations occurred again around 1980, factions cooperated not because they had reached consensus about violence through ‘participatory democracy’, but precisely because they refused to engage in extensive debate over an issue that had already proven too divisive.

These points aside, I am pleased that the reviewer has seen fit to give such careful consideration to the book and I thank her for so clearly drawing out many of its key arguments.