German activist Josephine Witt gained fame with topless protests and most recently threw confetti on European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. She arrived by bicycle recently to speak with Handelsblatt’s Thomas Tuma and Nicole Bastian in Hamburg.
Handelsblatt: Ms. Witt, a few weeks ago you jumped up on a table during a press conference at the European Central Bank and threw confetti on its president, Mario Draghi. What did that action achieve?
Josephine Witt: The most important thing was the image of Mario Draghi's stunned facial expression. That is how protest works today through social media. It needs images. Authenticity. I deliver it.
Mostly we saw fear in Mr. Draghi’s face.
And it was something new for his otherwise tranquil poker face. The security guards dragged me into a side room and he was taking my confetti out of his hair. I asked him if everything was OK, person to person. Unfortunately he didn’t answer and was quickly hustled away.
So you aren’t searching for dialog, just images?
Here’s a counter question: Do you in all seriousness believe that someone like Mario Draghi would even want to have a dialog with people like me?
He definitely takes part in debates, but with journalists from established media.
I was prepared for that and on the other hand, was looking for the surprise. The surprise is the image. It shows him in another context and confronts him at the same time with protests on the streets, which he is completely shut off from in the new ECB tower. This fury had not reached or touched Draghi and his people before.
Did you first plan your attack after riots surrounding the opening of ECB headquarters?
No, a week before that. I registered under my own name as a journalist – and to my surprise got in without any press identification.
Why do you accuse the ECB of dictatorial power? It is now trying to help poorer European countries get on their feet with its bond-buying program.
The ECB prints money, which does not at all get to the economy of the southern countries, but rather to the banks.
Without this money, everything would be a lot worse, even if the medicine were dangerous. Actually, the European Union in Brussels should be your target.
The ECB is putting Greece under more pressure and is dealing politically without any democratic legitimacy. No one elected Mario Draghi.
He was named by the European Council.
Considering the power an ECB president has today, that is no comparison to a real election by the people.
What should he undertake, in your opinion? We assume debt relief for Greece.
Naturally. Only then can the country get the air to breathe again.
And then other suffering southern European countries would also get the idea of not paying their debts. Then chaos would really break out.
I admit it's not a great situation, but what are the alternatives? A voluntary exit of the Greeks from the euro zone or an accidental sovereign bankruptcy in Athens. In that case, I still consider a debt haircut as the most sensible solution. And someone should finally and honestly tell the German people: You are not getting your money back anyway.
Could you imagine apologizing to Mr. Draghi for the scare that you gave him?
No. My confetti is harmless and I am only a young woman, who jumped on a table in front of him. I don't have that much potential to threaten him.
The militant Red Army Faction was also young once.
You hopefully don’t mean to compare me with them, particularly since their members were in part extremely anti-Semitic and killed people. I stand for absolute non-violence.
But Mr. Draghi did not know that. He grew up with fear of terror – and not just from the Red Army Faction.
He also knows from children’s birthday parties that confetti is harmless, even if it does make a big mess.
Is that your program? Staging harmless messes?
It is about change. I am just a single building block in a new growing protest culture, where perhaps not everyone is as visible as I am. We are super-networked and the first totally European generation. And we are not buying the usual clichés … about lazy Greeks or stingy Germans.
Is your generation really more political?
A few years ago I was at a poetry slam where they talked about pets the whole time. Yesterday, I was at one that was crazy political. Yes, I do think that we are thinking and living more consciously again.
On Christmas Day 2013, during mass you jumped half naked in front of Cardinal Meisner on the altar of Cologne Cathedral to protest against the Catholic church. Did you have to make sure, in advance, that there were enough cameras there?
In that case, it was a real problem, because I had called everyone from Der Spiegel to Bild, but no one wanted to come on Christmas Day. A photographer from the Cologne Express, however, did make a killing.
From which you don’t profit?
Naturally not. My protest is not a business.
But without images, your surprise coups would also not be worth much.
Of course. That’s how it works. Visibility is what matters.
Another time, you stripped in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Hannover trade fair, then during a German TV chat show to protest against the World Cup in Qatar. What else are you so against?
I would not protest like that for a Veggie Day. But seriously, even when I was still active in the FEMEN protest group, I understood that our goals must sometimes seem relatively diffuse. I can only describe myself as an anti-fascist and feminist. My whole engagement comes from that.
When did your interest in politics begin?
I was a rather strange child in that my early superheroes were resistance or freedom fighters such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Also people like Marie Curie, although I am naturally also a big Justin Timberlake fan. After high school, I went for eight months to Bolivia, to work with girls who live on the streets. Back in Germany, I began my studies in philosophy and then also got together with FEMEN.
You protested with FEMEN in 2013 in Tunisia against the imprisonment of women’s rights activist Amina Tyler. You landed in jail yourself for weeks. Was that when it wasn’t funny anymore?
Imprisonment in Tunisia – that was a really terrible situation, especially when you don’t know if you’ll ever get out again. That was very, very difficult. I would not want to experience something like that again.
Video: Josephine Witt in the Confetti attack against ECB President Mario Draghi.
How did it change you?
It became clear for the first time how free I actually am at home, although we talk so much about lack of freedom here.
Why do people like you run around everywhere in the belief that you must enforce Western values?
That is not what I want. My actions are not a moral imperialism, if you are accusing me of that right now. I wanted to help Amina Tyler.
Her lawyer called your action counterproductive.
Perhaps she had to say that. Perhaps that was a necessary strategy. Other Tunisian feminists told me our appearance definitely helped. And Amina was freed a few months after me.
Why did you leave FEMEN?
Two months after my cathedral protest, the organization stopped speaking to me. I never got an explanation.
Because you became too independent?
Perhaps. I am definitely more of a loner.
There’s a bit of narcissism that goes with your kind of protests, right?
Yes. I'll be honest. I happily make use of the spotlight, even when I am risking entry bans, fines, imprisonment or bullet wounds. It is not only that Mario Draghi could possibly be afraid of me. I already had great respect for the bodyguards of Vladimir Putin.
What is your most dangerous weapon? Your youth? Your beauty?
I know that as a young, white female – who comes close to the conventional beauty ideal and had the privilege of a good education – I am in a special situation. And I am also protesting out of this situation. Because in reality, I don’t believe I have as much right to protest, for example, as black people do in the United States.
You don't want to protest naked anymore?
In the images of the naked protests, there is always a lot of depth, because we let our bodies, which are often perceived as objects, speak as self-determined subjects. But as a means of protest, it has become a bit hackneyed now.
Protest actions such as yours sometimes come to us as posts on Twitter or Facebook: one can very quickly demonstrate concern. It's enough for a bit of a clean conscience.
No, no, no. The art lies in getting to the point of really difficult questions, for example on Twitter, in 140 characters. That requires a great deal of application and work.
So the world is more complex than a few words of protest that you can write on your breasts?
With whom would you want have a discussion for an evening?
Not at all. There are many people who say that the political conscience of German citizens has suffered under Ms. Merkel. I see that differently and am interested in her and her strategies. I could learn a lot about power and how to hold onto it. She does not talk much about herself. Politically, however, she is sometimes crystal clear, for example against Pegida. I would really very much like to discuss that with her.
So Ms. Merkel is not a potential target for you?
The Christian Democrats have far bigger targets than Angela Merkel.