Boycott Campaigns of the Radical Left in Cold-War West Germany

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

This chapter is based on a conceptual understanding of boycotts as politically coordinated consumer choices that are supposed to trigger economic consequences, critical discourse, and movement mobilisation in order to discipline, delegitimize, or overcome what were seen as morally reprehensible ‘regimes of provision’. The line of reasoning unfolds in three steps: after an overview of boycott activity in the 1950s and 60s and its legal repercussions, a second part looks at various boycott campaigns emerging from the radical left in the context of the new social movements; the final section analyses anti-Zionist boycotts as a particular example that highlights the moral and political explosiveness inherent in boycott campaigns. Against the backdrop of Nazi boycotts of shops owned by Jews, the protest form of boycott was largely dormant in West Germany during the 1950s. When it appeared, it was directed against East Germany or individuals associated with the Nazi past. This constellation led to two boycotts that triggered landmark cases of constitutional law (Lüth case and Blinkfüer case). The resulting jurisdiction provided the framework for subsequent conflicts over boycott campaigns. Politically motivated boycott was first staged by strong players in the political contest: the CIA-sponsored Combat Group against Inhumanity committed stink-bomb and incendiary attacks against East German department stores much earlier than any such attacks by left-wing protesters; Springer used boycott against a communist weekly long before the students boycotted Springer; Willy Brandt and the German Trade Unions called for a boycott of the East German-run Berlin S-Bahn prior to the students protesting public transport fare increases. The new social movements only embraced boycotts, coupled with direct action, in the late 1960s. A broader variety of boycott campaigns against multinational companies, and also against entire countries, only emerged from 1973 onwards (e.g. South African Apartheid; coffee companies producing in revolutionary Central America; Nestlé’s breast milk substitutes; feminist solidarity with sweated labour in South Korea). The boycott and fair-trade campaigns of the 1980s lend themselves to a quotidian and transnational mobilisation of solidarity networks and served activists as a performative signifier of commitment. Some of these campaigns were perceived as inappropriate or tasteless giving immediate rise to comparisons with Nazi boycotts. However, seen in conjunction with their precursors from the 1950s, boycotting will emerge as a communicative strategy of favouring or discrediting particular interests that can be used by any political persuasion. An essential part of the communicative strategy of boycotting is to bridge distance (both spatially and historically) and to connect seemingly far removed political struggles. This produces a discursive amalgamation: specific forms of protest or boycott assumed to be legitimate are justified with reference to past or present violence deemed to be illegitimate. Only a specific minority of left-wing radicals were prepared to put Israel on a level with South Africa and to subscribe to analogous calls to boycott Israeli products. When leftists embraced anti-Zionist boycotts, their calculations usually backfired. Some anti-Zionist activists displayed a simplistic understanding of National Socialism venturing into discursive territory with antisemitic connotations, but in contrast to Nazi storm troopers, left-wing boycotters symbolically attacked goods of Israeli origin from a position of relative weakness motivated by ideas of international solidarity.


  • boycotts, Germany (West) history, protest movements, radicalism, consumption, politics, economy, Cold War
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBoycotts
Subtitle of host publicationPast and Present
EditorsDavid Feldman
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)978-3319948713
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2019

Publication series

NameRethinking Antisemitism
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