Berlin Bulletin No. 170
Looking out my window at the wide Karl Marx Allee boulevard below, I have seen many a big May Day parade march by in the old GDR days, and many a passing bicycle race or Marathon. Recently, for the first time, I saw a slow, endless column of green or yellow tractors. I learned later that 5600 of them, after blocking traffic while driving in from North, South, East and West Germany, had converged at the Brandenburg Gate, parked in orderly rows and then voiced their demands: “Fewer or better pesticides, OK! Less or better fertilizers, also OK! We too want to save our planet. But not without consulting with us, who are fighting a bitter battle against monopoly agriculture giants and monopoly retailing giants which are threatening the survival of us family farmers.”
Four days later, also at Brandenburg Gate, 35,000 “Friday for Future” demonstrators joined other kids around the globe to demand an end to long debates about wind farm placement, higher prices for gas and plane tickets, lower ones for railroad fares, to dubious procrastination and all kinds of bamboozlement so as to quickly produce results in cutting global warming.
The next day, in southeastern Lusatia, other young people, mostly in white, blocked roads to the huge, landscape-devouring pit mines for low-grade lignite coal until the police tear-gassed them away. As its sole natural resource, the GDR had been forced to excavate this crumbly fuel as a needed base in building or saving its fumbling economy, but the motivation of the privatized pits is now simply profit.
In southwestern Stuttgart, a week earlier, IG Metall, Germany’s biggest union, organized an angry outdoor rally with 8000 workers from the nearby giant Mercedes plant, also from Audi and parts suppliers like Bosch and Continental.
Germany’s auto industry, its major exporter, is huge and powerful. It helped build up Hitler, made billions from slave laborers during the war and grew even stronger after 1945, as the backbone of West Germany’s “economic miracle”. Those with steady work making Mercedes, BMW, Opel, VW, Porsche won relatively high wages and benefits and became one of the best situated sectors in the economy – but no longer the most militant. The atmosphere in worker-manager company councils was often friendly, sometimes even chummy.
But that is changing – fast! The nasty emission-concealing scandal, an escalating switch from stinky fluid fuels to odorless electricity, from assembly lines with humans to twisting, turning robot arms, with software replacing skilled workers, are taking effect. So are sanctions against Russia, a major importer, and sinking sales to China. Management promises to save jobs where possible are not all too convincing; workers realize, now if not earlier, that the main worries of the big bosses circle around profits, while for them, as one woman at Stuttgart said: “It’s the same wherever you go; no job is safe!” Was this protest an omen of big new conflicts ahead?
Big demonstrations can be highly dramatic, or bloody at times, but can also be stirring examples of solidarity, determination and courage, as in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Sudan, Lebanon. Of course, they vary; an unusual abundance of US flags does not always prove a progressive ground swell, especially when loudly greeted, almost unanimously, by both the US Congress and Donald Trump.
USA flag-bearers, and those of other countries, may find few cheering crowds in April and May when 16 NATO countries plus Finland and Georgia conduct, right on Russia’s borders, one of the biggest military maneuvers since the Cold War, with 37,000 soldiers, among them 20,00 GIs with heavy equipment flown over to join in. With Germany in the middle of Europe, much of the super-modern weaponry, with deathly missile bearers overhead, will be causing train delays and traffic tie-ups and see tanks clanking over the “blossoming landscapes” once promised to East Germans if they vote for unification. Some made bitter comparisons with all too similar military moves in 1939 and 1941.
Aside from the noise and turmoil, such “defensive” maneuvers always contain a fearsome possibility; one blunder, one missile fired mistakenly at a false angle, one accidental plane crash or a malicious provocation could be a spark and, within seconds, render all worries about fertilizers, hungry polar bears, emission concealment, multiple job losses or Ukrainian phone calls forever irrelevant.
Some hope to disrupt this fearful menace and discourage its expansion or repetition. A hundred experts from a mix of opposition organizations met in Leipzig to plan some action; legal challenges, leaflet distribution to those in or out of uniform, posters and banners, also hung from bridges, anti-maneuver relay races, perhaps civil disobedience action and a big demonstration near the main highway route, perhaps in East German Cottbus or Magdeburg. This won’t be easy; protesting has lately become more attractive – or urgent – as noted earlier. But while a polled majority of Germans oppose international confrontation it has been difficult to win people for peace parades or rallies ever since the giant but unsuccessful protest against an Iraq war in 2003.
How do Germany’s main parties face up to these issues?
The strongest, the two joint “Christian“ parties, are sinking in the polls as their commanding figure, Angela Merkel, though still chancellor, gradually fades. Any hopes that her follower as party head, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, might move the party in a moderate direction also faded, but not so gradually. AKK, as she is known, is now Minister of Defense and just as belligerent and aggressive as her predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, who now heads the key European Union Commission. AKK has called for a new German National Security Council to help achieve “a stronger German military presence in the world” … ”ready, together with its partners, to assume more responsibility”. All partners (except the USA and perhaps France) would be junior partners, so when AKK says “we cannot simply stand on the outside observing things but must join in international debate, pushing things forward” we are wise to be worried. AKK defied a challenge from even further right and gained her party’s full support, for now, not on a question of policy but of personal power.
Her party rules in coalition with a frightened Social Democratic Party, whose poll results have sunk to a sickening 14% (while the Christians stand at 29%). And now it is suddenly in a state of total turmoil. Is its loss in membership and poll figures caused by its membership in the increasingly unpopular Great Coalition (Grosse Koalition or “GroKo”)? If so, should it heighten leftish demands, maybe cause a crisis, leading to an early election – and perhaps an even worse disaster for the party? Or should it stick it out? Its leading politician Olaf Scholz, a right-winger and now deputy chancellor and powerful Minister of Finance, says energetically; Stick it out! He clearly prefers the bird in the hand! A turkey?
But after six months of electioneering, with as many candidate duos as there are Democratic candidates in the USA, two relative unknowns have won out in a membership vote for party leadership, beating a visibly stricken Scholz duo. And now the winners, a hitherto largely unnoticed Bundestag deputy, Saskia Esken, and an equally unknown minister in a state government, Norbert Walter-Borjans (shortened to NoWaBo), are thinking about insisting on a higher minimum wage law. The Christians would not go along! Even the militarist foreign policy is being questioned. The Young Socialists, a party adjunct, and a majority of the voting membership see a left turn as necessary to save the party, even with risky new elections. The present leadership is really scared, rather like the Tony Blair establishment with Jeremy Corbyn or establishment USA-Democrats with Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Who will win out? A party congress next week may be decisive.
As for the Greens, still euphoric after overtaking the Social Democrats in the polls (with 22%) and despite a slow-down of their upward swoop, they stick largely to their stress on the environment. But in international affairs they sadly remain the most belligerent of all in their confrontation policy towards Russia. Just now they are hinting that, if really necessary, they might just patriotically consider replacing the Social Democrats in a government with the Christians.
They have done this before. Right now, in Saxony and Brandenburg, state governments of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens are in the making, called “Kenya” coalitions (with the colors of that country’s flag), and both excluding the Left and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The AfD held its congress this past weekend in Braunschweig, after finally finding a hall willing to accept them (the Volkswagen company in this case). While outside thousands of anti-fascists protested all day, kept carefully at a distance by a thousand cops, they chose their leaders. One artisan painter now represents East Germany, where they have registered their biggest gains. Known for using unmistakable Nazi jargon and, when questioned, resolutely sticking to it, he will replace Alexander Gauland, 78, now honorary president and still the main AfD spokesman of its 91-man Bundestag caucus (almost no women). They are all still viciously anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner but ousted one delegate for being too overtly anti-Semitic. They now make a policy of this, supporting Israel as a bulweark against Islam. Although their far-far right group “Der Flügel” (“The Wing”) stayed in the shadows, its dominance prevailed, and Gauland’s prediction that the “Christians” would soon have to seek the AfD as partners was as menacing as the words: “Just wait two or three years”.
DIE LINKE (The Left) also had a meeting as the 69 members of its Bundestag caucus chose co-chairs, always a man and a woman. Dietmar Bartsch, an East German, remained in office. But prominent Sahra Wagenknecht had decided to step down after sharp disagreements as well as health problems, so a new co-chair was needed. The winner, with 36 to 29 votes, hitherto largely unknown outside Oldenburg in West Germany, was Amira Mohamed Ali, 40, whose father was Egyptian, her mother German. She is considered closer to the left wing but called for more unity within the party and stated: “What’s important is to achieve notable improvements for the great majority of the people. If that is possible by working with the Social Democrats and the Greens I am naturally in favor!”
A major test site for this combination is the city-state Berlin, where a coalition of those three parties is now passing a rent control law, defying bitter opposition. If the courts give their OK it will prohibit (with some exceptions) any rise in apartment rental charges for the next five years. But a more radical initiative, aiming at a public referendum, would also confiscate big chunks of housing from often international corporations. It is supported by the Left but not by the Greens and Social Democrats. (“It’s like the GDR” some opponents whine!). It is just possible that the local coalition could split on this issue, leading here too to a new local election before completing the normal term. The basic direction of the Left would be intricately involved.
One other question is heating tempers. Many organizations survive only thanks to tax-free contributions by their supporters, like a group I am in, “Fighters and Friends of the Spanish Republic 1936-1939” and a wide range of solidarity groups, but also many right-wing groups. Suddenly, out of the blue, the German finance authorities have denied the “non-profit character” of the VVN- BdA, the organization of survivors of Nazi political and racist oppression and those (like me) who oppose modern fascists. The move was based on a decision by the Bavarian “constitution protectors” (like the FBI) that it is against “our democratic rule of law”. A few people recalled an attempt to outlaw the organization in 1962 which was dropped when the defense proved that all three trial judges had been active Nazis, stormtroopers or SS judges. Now the fight is on again. Many are joining to force a reversal of the decision, which hits at just a time when fascist threats and murders are finally, if hesitantly, being officially condemned. All in all, Germany political future looks anything but placid.
To read more about Germany, east, west, past, present and future, and how it relates to questions of socialism and repression here and in the USA, may I recommend my book, “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee”. If you have read and, like many others, liked it, perhaps you could plug it on your Email address lists. Let others also be provoked, entertained, amused or activated!