Omas gegen Rechts: the grandmas standing up to modern prejudice

Whether on Twitter or out on the street, the female-led movement fights against racism and climate change - and stereotypes about older women.

Annette Gardemann and Betina Kern are two prominent members of Omas gegen Rechts in Berlin.
Annette Gardemann and Betina Kern are two prominent members of Omas gegen Rechts in Berlin.Sabine Gudath

Berlin-When things get noisy on the streets across Germany, you’ll probably find the Omas gegen Rechts (Grandmas against the Right) there. The activist group takes to the streets against the AfD, to welcome refugees from Greek camps, to counter-protest the marches held by corona sceptics, neo-Nazis and so-called “Reich citizens”, and to demand climate justice with Fridays for Future. 

But they are also there in the quiet, more sombre moments: for example, at the rallies for the preservation of the Korean peace statue in Moabit. The Omas have been active for a good two years now, and they are not afraid of attracting attention. At demonstrations they sometimes wear colourful knitted hats, they usually carry signs with clear demands in black letters on a white background, and they always wear badges bearing the name of their movement.

Two Berlin Omas, Betina Kern, 73, and Annette Gardemann (not her real name), 59, are also wearing their white badges as they wait at the World Time Clock on Alexanderplatz on a cloudy December day. On a walk through Berlin's Mitte district, they want to tell the story of the still young initiative, which has attracted attention in recent months for its particular kind of activism. The walk will start at Alexanderplatz and end at Koppenplatz.

Members of Omas gegen Rechts regularly stand at the World Clock on the first Friday of every month - unless corona contact restrictions are imposed - to draw attention to their cause. "It's more for than against," says Annette Gardemann.

And for what, exactly? For a democratic society, for women's rights, diversity, the preservation of biodiversity, for welcoming refugees and for intergenerational responsibility.

World Clock, Alexanderplatz - the spot where Annette, Betina and their comrade <em>Omas </em>take a stand every Friday.
World Clock, Alexanderplatz - the spot where Annette, Betina and their comrade Omas take a stand every Friday.Sabine Gudath

The Omas have recently won praise and recognition for their commitment to their cause. In November, the Central Council of Jews in Germany awarded Omas Gegen Rechts the Paul Spiegel Prize for Civil Courage – an award given by the Central Council to individuals and groups who stand up against antisemitism and racism. 

It all began in 2017, when Monika Salzer from Vienna founded the first Omas Gegen Rechts group after the newly elected Austrian conservative government led by chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) formed a coalition with the rightwing nationalist FPÖ.

"You could only be against that," says Kern. She laughs briefly; it's a laugh that underscores her conviction. Before her retirement, she worked in the diplomatic service, and now lives in Berlin after serving four years as ambassador to Nicaragua. She chooses her words carefully.

Being an Oma is a state of mind

In spring 2018, the granny movement spilled over the border into Germany, initially as a Facebook group. Today, there are about 100 regional groups nationwide. The activists, who all call themselves grandmas, are mainly women – they are nearly retired or retired, some have grandchildren, some don’t.

Being an Oma gegen Rechts is more of an attitude than a definition. Their mission is to oppose the rightwing and fascist developments they observe in Germany and European countries. Their age brings knowledge on this subject: "Either through direct experience or stories, we are much closer to it," says Betina Kern. "We know what the Nazi era meant. All we can do is offer a warning."

The Omas themselves have very different backgrounds: Annette Gardemann still works part-time as a carer. She came to east Berlin in the late 1990s as a single parent because it was easier to organise care for her three children there than in the west. She has always been interested in politics, she says as we walk. In her early twenties, when she was employed at a clinic in Hesse, she couldn't help but become involved in coming to terms with Nazi crimes in psychiatric institutions.

Shortly before, in 1975, the West German government had completed the so-called Psychiatry Enquiry into the state of psychiatry in the country, and the role played by clinics was also being discussed at her workplace. "Then when I came to Berlin, I saw that politics was not an elitist hobby," Gardemann says. She started getting involved.

Ex-ambassador Betina Kern has never been enthusiastic about any political party. She tells us this during a brief pause in our walk in front of the Volksbühne, where the Omas recently joined forces with an alliance of initiatives against the so-called hygiene demos, which are now known to gather followers of ultra-right ideologies.

"The rightwing fringe doesn't exist in that way," Kern says. "Elements of that attitude are everywhere in society." Kern, a trained lawyer, worries about democracy. Because she has grandchildren to care for, Kern feels comfortable among the other Omas; the group allows everyone to participate as their lives permit.

Omas gegen Rechts at the Fridays for Future Global Climate Strike on Straße des 17. Juni, 25 September 2020.
Omas gegen Rechts at the Fridays for Future Global Climate Strike on Straße des 17. Juni, 25 September 2020.
imago images/JeanMW

That doesn't mean it's always easy. As is the case in many political movements, the Omas have strategic differences. At the end of 2018, for example, some of them decided to officially found an organisation, following their Austrian counterparts’ example. That would help them to accept donations more easily but would also let them organise themselves in accordance with the law on associations. Other members, like the Berliners around Betina Kern and Annette Gardemann, don't want that; they value grassroots democracy and their autonomy as a group. 

And so there are groups that feel they belong to the nationally organised association, and those that see themselves as part of the "Germany Alliance", affectionately called the "Northern Grannies" (Nord-Omas). The northern German regional groups typically belong to this category, while the groups in southern Germany tend toward a typical association structure. Both organisational styles exist in Berlin.

"Grandma on the road"

Some of their comrades in the movement first became politicised through their involvement with the Omas, while others have been active since they were 18. One such member is educator Getrud Graf, who was banned from her profession in her younger years because of her radical political work. She is the one to contact if you want to get in touch with the Berlin Omas association.

Graf, "almost 70" as she puts it, has been an Oma since day one. She had early contact with the movement’s Viennese founders, and organised the first meeting in Berlin after being inspired by their work. At the end of 2018, she says on the phone, she got into her car and spent a month driving to the places where there were already Oma groups, wanting to get to know those who were already active or to lend a hand in setting up the groups. She refers to her approach as "grandma on the road”. Even though Facebook is useful in outreach and mobilisation, Graf says she prefers face-to-face meetings.

That's why she can also report on the regional differences she has observed between groups in eastern and western German cities. In Freiburg, for example, she says, nearly 60 Omas came to an initial meeting; they were responding to a newspaper ad. It was different in Chemnitz: "We had to build up the group more carefully. The far right have a much stronger foothold there." While there are active Omas in western cities like Reutlingen in Swabia or Hanau in Hesse, eastern Bautzen and Görlitz have none so far.

Graf has no problem with the fact that the Omas are not uniformly organised. "It's part of being politically active that there are different focal points," says Graf. One reason for the "cell division," as she calls the moment when the idea of founding an organisation came up, was the question of whether men were welcome, for example. As a result, today there are groups with Opas (grandpas) and those where male support is only invited at protest actions.

Twitter loves the "grandmas of honour"

The Omas are currently holding their meetings via Zoom, as necessitated by corona. But that doesn't stop them from discussing fundamental political issues. For example, the government's nationwide ban on gatherings on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day was a recent topic, as Gertrud Graf explains. Some think it is good that the ruling will prevent the planned “Querdenker” march on New Year’s Eve. For others, the right to demonstrate is inviolable.

The groups have an appreciative relationship to one other, Gertrud Graf says. She sees herself as a "bridge builder" and has maintained contact with various groups since her road trip. The question she asks interested Omas is: "What do you need to be politically active?"

The fact the initiative uses the word “Oma” so prominently in its name explodes the stereotype of the nice but primarily passive older woman. The Omas have had to struggle with the old kitchen stereotypes all their lives, even more than today's generation of young women.

I'm not going out on the street because I'm bored. I want social change.

Gertrud Graf

Their age is definitely their asset, but is only linked to their work to an extent. "I'm not going out on the street because I'm bored. I want social change," Gertrud Graf says.

The name "Omas gegen Rechts" also doubles as a joke appropriating its members’ social position. One of the Berlin groups writes on its website: "The older woman as a public political force is not present in our collective consciousness. That's why women have to appear in public, not as individuals and exceptions, not as stars, but as a group that stands out."

As we walk down Linienstraße, Kern and Gardemann talk about how the older generation manages to get involved on digital platforms. "We have to show up, both in analogue and digital," Gardemann says. "That's our mission. Always keep the flag flying." The Omas who know their way around social media and video calls help those who struggle with technology.

The Twitter community, at least, celebrates the initiative. There, the particularly courageous among them are dubbed #Ehrenoma (grandma of honour) – Omas like Irmela Mensah-Schramm from Berlin, who has made it her mission to scratch Nazi stickers off lampposts, or the woman in Erkelenz, western Germany, who can be seen calmly standing up to a Covid-denier in a video circulating online.

Being a grandma doesn't protect from rightwing threats

But there are also those who aren't happy about the grannies' political engagement. Sometimes they receive threatening e-mails, especially directly after their protest actions, Kern says. And there have even been physical attacks on individual Omas, like in Halle, where the well-known rightwing extremist Sven Liebich and his entourage surrounded a group of five Omas who were there to protest one of his rallies, insulting and pushing them. "We all feel affected by that," says Gardemann. It’s a fallacy to believe that as older women they are immune from attacks, she says.

We arrive at Koppenplatz. This is where Betina Kern stood with other Omas on 9 November, the day when the Nazi crimes on Kristallnacht in 1938 are remembered. The group handed out flyers reading: "With shame we stand silently in front of the memorials. We are appalled by the increasing antisemitism and rightwing violence throughout the country. We promise to continue to do everything in our power to oppose all forms of antisemitic and radical rightwing attacks."

Now Kern stands here again, at the conclusion of our walk, in front of the bronze desk that serves as a memorial to the work of Jewish people in Berlin. The sandy gravel is still damp from the rain.

Betina Kern, Annette Gardemann and all the other Omas see themselves as historical guardians. They see it as their mission to ensure that history does not repeat itself. And they want their movement to grow, to show that there are many out there who share their views – both in the noisy and the quiet moments.

This article was adapted from the original German for the English Edition by Elizabeth Rushton.