Berlin Bulletin No. 163
A quick Berlin Bulletin before tomorrow’s crucial elections:
Comments on “Germany’s Future Is Being Decided on the Left, Not the Far Right” by Noah Barkin in “The Atlantic”, August 28, 2019 (used by portside, August 29)
True enough, as this article points out, the German party called The Greens has certainly soared to an amazingly strong position in the political spectrum; it is even grasping for the very top job soon to be vacated by Angela Merkel, with some hope for success. But placing it on “the Left” is not at all so certain. It may be green in its environment program but in terms of political hues, unlike its American namesake, it is by no means so clearly in the red, or leftist, rainbow sector.
The party began nearly fifty years ago as a radical, angrily-attacked antidote to the stolid West German scene. With its feminist, anti-establishment, equalitarian and above all environmentally conscious words and actions, symbolized by wearing sneakers to government receptions and hand-knitted sweaters to parliamentary sessions, its break with traditions was almost a shade of Woodstock ten years earlier.
But its “realo” faction outscored its “fundis”, pragmatic “realists” beat leftist “fundamentalists”. When it joined a government coalition with the Social Democrats on the federal level in 1998, its radical aspects retreated. The major break came when Joschka Fischer, its leader and foreign minister, sent German bombers against Serbia, a brutal war crime based on lies (now increasingly coming to light). It was the first time since 1945 that Germans in uniform (in planes) killed people outside their national borders, and was made possible by German unification nine years earlier – and by the Greens. In its years sharing the helm of state, until 2005, a whole series of measures were also passed against Germans at home –hitting hardest at the jobless and at pensioners, while the wealthy were not just spared but richly rewarded with a multibillion cut in taxes.
Somehow, whenever the Greens gain state power, in those years on the national level or in state-level cabinet posts, their militancy often gets diluted like over-watered coffee in a bad café.
Strong on equality for women, LGBTI rights, on opposing racism, hatred of foreigners and neo-fascists of every new brand and variety, they gained their big new increase in strength largely thanks to growing awareness by millions of the rapid destruction of our environment, felt clearly in rising temperatures, droughts and floods. Their sins in federal cabinets were largely forgotten after 2005; indeed, a major plus point is currently their simple absence from any wimpy federal government.
But it’s better not to look too closely at their actions on state levels. After fighting long and conspicuously against further extending the huge Frankfurt airport – “Save our environment!” – they made the then unusual decision to join in a state government with the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU). When their leader became deputy minister president and economics minister, they somehow forgot opposition and approved the extension (though the Herr Minister himself was somehow unable to attend its fancy opening ceremony, with or without sneakers and a wool sweater.
A year ago a majority of Germans, with the Greens among the loudest, celebrated the decision to save the ancient Hambacher Forest between Cologne and Aachen after its passionate defense by countless demonstrators, with some holding out in tree huts. Rarely mentioned was the fact that five years earlier, when the Greens shared coalition posts with the Social Democrats ruling the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, their three cabinet ministers had all approved cutting down the forest in favor of open pit lignite coal digging.
Another example is from northern Schleswig-Holstein. While handsome Green national co-chair Robert Habeck loudly calls for capping rent levels – an urgent demand now heard on many sides – the three-party coalition up there, with the CDU and the Greens and the openly pro-capitalist Free German Party (FDP), quietly lifted the existing state lid on rent increases. Again the Greens bowed to their “Christian” partner.
In the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southwest Germany the Greens also joined in a coalition with the CDU-rightists, but this time, in the first and only case thus far in Germany, as head of a state government. But here, too. their somehow still popular, tall, scratchy-voiced Minister President Winfried Kretschmann seemed to overlook his Green roots. His roots searched richer soil; the giant Daimler-Benz maker of Mercedes cars is centered near his capital, Stuttgart. As he has often made clear, he knows which fertilizer is most advantageous. For years his special sleek green Mercedes government vehicle was famous for its 441 horse power. “I am very big and I need to travel quickly” he explained. (But a critical journalist asked if he really needed a speed of up to 150 mph.)
When even greater speed is necessary, he flies. Dismissing the highly-publicized demands of Robert Habeck for an ecological ban on domestic flights in Germany he said: “I don’t think much of all that moralizing … We shouldn’t dictate people’s style of life.” That also seems to apply when Daimler, like Volkswagen, BMW and the others go in for a bit of leaded exhaust pipe trickery.
The Greens have been finding it ever easier to abandon earlier inhibitions about teaming up with the right-wing Christian CDU – and making all kinds of compromises while doing so.
In this way, they seem to be replacing the Social Democrats, who have long been doing the same thing – and thus moving currently to the brink of disaster; their membership has halved, their status in national polls is now at 13 percent. This has forced them into an almost desperate hunt for new leaders; about a dozen male-female duos now choke the field of candidates, somewhat like US presidential campaigns. It is also forcing them to add an almost forgotten left-sounding timbre to their voices, at least when elections approach.
The Greens also speak in progressive tones – and still take some positions in that direction. Maybe a fitting symbol for them would be some kind of mixed bag, some contents generally attractive, others attractive only as coalition partners for the CDU, for unlike the Social Democrats they have almost no complicating ties to the union movement, hence must make no traditional bows in that direction. The Green membership was largely based on once rebellious collegians, most of whom are now highly educated, upper middle-class professionals. It is not yet clear if this base is now broadening.
When it comes to foreign policy, they are more Russophobic than any other party, always from a purely humanitarian standpoint, of course, like some American politicians on both sides of the aisle. While the Social Democrats sometimes lean here and there towards diplomacy in a world threatened constantly by the menace of atomic war, the Greens lean all too often toward confrontation.
But the Greens are not a monolithic bunch. Some members and some local groups still recall progressive trends from their past – and not exclusively restricted to well-spoken words.
The three states in Eastern Germany now facing elections (two of them on Sunday) will be forced to decide on coalitions; no party will be strong enough to rule alone, most likely not even in two-party tandems. In both Thuringia (due to vote in October) and Berlin, the Greens, Social Democrats and the LINKE (Left) have long since combined to get a majority of seatsand form the government. This will very likely happen now in Brandenburg; in Saxony it may even be necessary for those three to accept the CDU as boss in a four-way attempt – if only to keep the fascistic Alternative for Germany (AfD) out of office. With German politics ever more chaotic, the elections and weeks that follow will be of critical importance. Millions are waiting with bated breath!
And again I want to mention that my book “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” with descriptions, reflections, conclusions, plus many anecdotes and some jokes, is now available. If any of you have read it – and liked it – perhaps you can tell that to your addressees. If you didn’t like it – then, instead, tell me!