Berlin Bulletin No. 147
Germany’s politicians played the chicken game last week, testing which party, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union or its Bavarian “sister party”, Horst Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, would be the first to swerve.
When new parties were founded after World War II, Bavaria, Germany’s biggest and most locally patriotic state, wanted to save its own very special Christian soul – with lederhosen, dirndls, Alpine yodeling and lots of crucifixes. So it set up a separate party, several degrees even further to the right than its big sister in the rest of West Germany. It was as if Texas had a Lone Star party, close to but not identical with the GOP everywhere else. The two siblings (none of whose names are really justified) were supposed to get along in a happy combination known as the “Union”. Usually they did. But sometimes collisions did occur, and this seems to have been the worst one. The media are still arguing as to who chickened out.
The subject was “refugees and immigrants”, a major cause of quarrel since Merkel opened the doors to a huge human wave in 2015 with the words, ”We can manage that”. Widely praised at first for what was seen as a humanitarian message (though some cast doubt on her motivation), these words were turned more and more against her, as the welcome mat for the nearly a million who arrived became increasingly frayed. Less than half the German population had rejected the welcome, but their numbers grew as most of the media, after reciting standard compassionate superficialities, grew ever more brutal in a constant stress on every misdeed committed by the newcomers. Since some were young males, uprooted from undereducated slum conditions and thrust into often unfriendly, even hostile new environments, without families, often without jobs or schooling in the new language, some crimes were committed. Not only nasty rags like the BILD newspaper but “respectable” government–run TV channels dwelt on such events for weeks, even months, down to the last detail, while reports on crimes committed by “bio-Germans” (a new word), including hate crimes against the immigrants, were usually given short shrift or ignored.
This is where the young Alternative for Germany party (AfD) jumped in. At first it had dwelt on opposition to the European Union from a nationalist point of view. Then it took up the fascistic yelps about the “Islamization” of Germany, Sharia Law and terrorist dangers. Now its openly racist stress is on hating immigrants, who are “taking over” – in much the same way Latinos are supposed to be “taking over” the USA. Muslims, even after the immigration wave, number at most 5-6 million (out of a total 83 million in Germany) and a large proportion are the children or grandchildren of workers brought in from Turkey in the 1960s after the Berlin Wall ended the influx of East Germans. But the built-up hatred of “others”, worst in economically hard-hit areas like East Germany (where there are the fewest immigrants) turns at times into a lynch atmosphere, with the AfD denouncing all other parties – but especially Angela Merkel. With about 15% in national polls (27% in eastern Saxony), the AfD threatens to beat out the Social Democrats (now at about 18%) as second strongest party.
State elections are due In Bavaria on October 14th. With one brief interruption decades ago the CSU has always headed the state government there. Although it remains strongest party, its expected skimpy result of about 40%, with no visible coalition partners in sight, will threaten the ruling position of both Seehofer and the eager rivals in his party. Their situation is becoming desperate – and that explains why the CSU broke with Merkel to take up a position so far to the right that, as it hopes, it can win back many voters who deserted it and switched to the AfD.
Its basic position is: Close the borders, let almost no more immigrants or refugees in and throw out as many as possible of those already allowed in. “Transit centers” should be set up at border crossing points where all immigrants would be kept until their status was determined and if possible they could be sent back to the European country where they were first registered, often Greece or Turkey. That line, the CSU hoped, should steal the thunder of those AfD racists, even though nasty comparisons might be drawn with Japanese internment camps in the USA after Pearl Harbor – or even nastier comparisons.
Although Merkel and her CDU have been leaning ever more in that same direction, also in fear of a growing AfD, she could not go along with such a plan and keep her face. But Seehofer, who is Minister of the Interior in her cabinet, rules over the federal police rule and threatened to go it alone at the southern border, joining defiantly with far-right-led Austria. When that extreme plan foundered he threatened to resign his post. That would almost certainly lead to a collapse of the coalition government and probably to new national elections. These, frighteningly, would most likely bring big gains for the AfD – at the cost of all the others.
After this clear, nasty and unprecedented ultimatum, Merkel begged for a two week chance to get the other European Union members to take in something approaching a fair share of refugees. But the one-time “East Bloc” countries, who had so gloriously achieved freedom and democracy after 1989 – Poland, the Czechs, the Slovaks and Hungarians – wanted no non-Christian people of color! Thumbs down – hard! Austria and the new government of Italy loudly added their Nein and No. It was Nix all over and they refused to budge!
Things looked tougher than ever for Merkel. Right-wingers in her own party, who never liked her occasionally almost moderate positions but had stayed docile because of her popularity, now began to circle menacingly in the clouding skies.
After some all-night sessions the chicken game was ended in a way aimed at placating both sides – but closer to Seehofer’s position. There would indeed be “transit centers” at the borders. Their inhabitants, waiting for decisions on their fates, could move around freely – within these camps! European borders against “the South” would be tightened. But the whole affair still depends on the approval of the right-wing leaders in Austria and Italy, which is where most refugees come from – if they survive the Mediterranean storms, the interference of European-backed Libyan coastal vessels, and the walls and barbed wire fences now marking the many Balkan borders created after the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.
And the Social Democrats must also approve. They will, I’m sure, despite earlier pledges and the anger of many members. Their “Nein” – or the elections which could follow – would emasculate the party even further. To placate them, a 48-hour limit on the internment seems likely.
Speakers of the LINKE party say the game was less chicken than charades or some other sort of play-acting, with the final compromise worse than the original positions. Ironically, those big refugee waves of past years have been cut to a trickle; there is no longer any real problem with unmanageable numbers of immigrants. But the whole dispute distracted from burning social issues and from related but far worse threats, like the growth of the AfD and its grasping handclasp with those far-right governments all over Europe. The situation increasingly recalls 1930 or 1931 in Germany and Europe.
The European Union, never a force for basic progress but rather the favorite Lego game for Merkel & Co. to build up German power, is visibly falling apart. And the recent game of chicken distracted – in a way also disturbingly reminiscent of past tragedies – from the unceasing growth of the German armed forces and their deployment, with annual maneuvers, and together with the USA and other NATO members, along the Russian border. There is a constant danger of some igniting spark, planned or unplanned, with unimaginable consequences!
The role of Donald Trump, like the man himself, is contradictory and unpredictable. On the one hand he demands that NATO spend ever more billions for rearmament, just what Defense Minister von der Leyen wants – 43 billion euro next year, an increase of 4 billion. And she will get them – from the CDU, CSU and SPD!! But Trump is also preparing to meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, offering a certain hope that the most dangerous hot spots, from Estonia and the Ukraine to Syria, could be defused.
Peace activists in Germany and elsewhere are clearly trying to diminish these dangers. 6000 demonstrated outside the recent congress of the AfD in Augsburg. And 4-5000 traveled to the out-of-the-way US base at Ramstein, from which all US killer drones are directed by electronic relay from safe spots in the USA. They protested for a week, even enjoyed their own small-scale friendly soccer match between immigrants from Yemen and a leftwing music band, they heard topnotch speakers in a local church, formed a kilometer-long human chain and defiantly blockaded the main road to the base for a full 45 minutes. They are an energetic and courageous bunch, far too few in number as in the USA, but constantly searching for new ways to reach those millions for whom the bitter defeat of their soccer team in Russia hit their emotions far more than the on-going mass murder of men, women and children in the Yemeni port of Hodeida. Or the threat of a far greater conflagration.