Berlin Bulletin No. 174
In Germany, much as in the USA, political poles are getting more sharply defined than ever. Will the results be good or bad?
There and here, certain people are nervously wringing their well-manicured hands. While in the USA it’s the Bernie backers who have them worried, in Germany it’s the changing scene in the off-the-mainline state of Thuringia which sends shudders up some powerful spines. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), though now torn by internal jostling, is still Germany’s strongest party. But in recent weeks, faced by the lure of the far, far rightist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) and outweighed locally by the often despised, ostracized little party the LINKE (Left), was caught in a quandary of its own making. Five years ago, the LINKE in Thuringia upset or enraged nearly everyone by achieving a three-party coalition headed by its own first and only German minister-president, Bodo Ramelow. Since last October it seemed very possible that it might renew it for another five years. For the CDU and its secular, equally right-wing little partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), that simply had to be prevented by any and all means, even the dirtiest.
The background has been tense and terrible. As in the USA, last year was hit by bloody massacres. In October a man tried to shoot his way into a synagogue in Halle; failing to break in, he killed two customers in a nearby döner shop. Last week, in Hanau near Frankfurt, a German gun-sport enthusiast fired blindly into a café where Muslim men were quietly smoking their hookahs, then shot others at a second shisha cafe before killing his mother and himself at his home. Ten deaths within an hour!
As usual President Steinmeier, Chancellor Merkel, Interior Minister Seehofer and the minister-president of Hesse where Hanau is located all spoke with solemn miens and slow, sorrowful tones, condemning this latest deploring act, offering sympathy to the families, urging a strengthening of human bonds, and demanding increased vigilance, perhaps stricter new laws. Then they turned off their prompters or folded their weighty words, to be filed within easy reach for the next such event, and went on about their business.
One Kurdish mourner grumbled angrily: “The problem is exactly this guy Seehofer, these cowards or other politicians have to answer for it because they don’t do their work properly … the AfD is growing day by day.” He also blamed the media. “They always say Islam is equal to terrorism. And there are so many ignorant, sick people out there who believe in bloodshed. …attacking Muslims, whether Afghans, Turks or Kurds, it doesn’t matter at all. Those are planned attacks by people who are sick and have been blinded by the media.”
Another man said: “Our biggest fear is not that people out there hate us, but that right-wing extremists have infiltrated the institutions meant to protect us, like the police or the intelligence agencies… Again and again we hear that the kind of people who carry out these attacks are being watched by intelligence agencies. Why aren’t they arrested?”
Unlike so many police reports on less sensational attacks, politicians could not blame such crimes solely on loners with psychiatric problems in their heads and guns in their hands. The latest killer’s confused but unambiguous “manifesto” showed that he was against Jews but especially hated Muslims. Indeed, while anti-Jewish prejudice was also growing, the most menacing bigotry was clearly “Islamophobia”. But while eloquent politicians now denounce far-right parades, movements or parties – PEGIDA, NPD, Identitarians and, in recent years the biggest and strongest, the AfD, while they call for tolerance and togetherness, they are very hesitant about turning for solutions from psychiatrists to anti-fascists. Many prefer to condemn the latter – or even stifle them financially, like current steps against the Victims of Fascism/Antifascist Alliance. They proclaim two-pronged attacks against both foes, against “terrorism of the left and of the right”! After all, weren’t they two sides of the same “totalitarian” coin, equally endangering our freedom-loving democracy? To make this immutable, a CDU congress voted categorically to reject “any coalition and similar form of cooperation either with the LINKE party or the AfD.”
This decision was both far-reaching and dubious. Yes, some “far left” groups called “autonomists” (often egged on by police provocateurs) do occasionally throw bottles and stones at cops, break shop or bank windows and set a dumpster or a car on fire. But such masked marauders consistently oppose the LINKE for “selling out”! And even this conspicuously undisciplined fringe, though doing precisely what the mass media eagerly await, do not shoot and kill people like the rightists. And genuine members of left-wing parties, especially the LINKE, if and when they do march and demonstrate, do so in orderly, peaceful fashion. This forces those who denounce both right and left equally, who call themselves “the middle,” to turn to blaming LINKE people for sins of the fading past, like “barbed-wire Stasi prisons” or “death-dealing killers at the Berlin Wall“. Whatever one’s view of such matters, they lie over thirty years in the past, before many LINKE leaders were out of grade school. Indeed, not a few were raised not in East but in West Germany. (To surmount this problem, the European Union formally decided, in its condemnations of modern leftists, to turn even further backward, to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939).
There was another hitch. Those on the Left could hardly be called racists, since a major part of their doctrine is to fight racism and any form of national chauvinism. Attempts are made to overcome this hitch by labeling any and all criticism of Netanyahu or Israeli policy, or any support of Palestinian rights, “forms of anti-Semitism”, hence racism. This method has some success and manages to cause division in leftwing ranks, but is a weak straw in the face of the rightists’ blazing guns and torching of refugee homes. And it is mostly leftists, including those of the LINKE, who fight most vehemently against the German racists, in counter-demonstrations from Chemnitz and Dresden to Hamburg and Cologne, trying to block their routes of march and limit their expansion.
On the other hand, as the Kurdish mourner asserted, the far-right has deep, racist roots within official structures: soldiers and officers proudly displaying Nazi symbols (in camps still named for Nazi generals), police departments riddled with fascists, often in cahoots with local groups which they protect, aided by rightist judges and prosecutors (often imported from West to East Germany). In fact, the Constitutional Defense agency (like the FBI) was founded in 1956 by a former Hitler espionage chief, General Reinhard Gehlen, it was staffed for years with his murderous old buddies, and was headed until November 2018 by Hans-Georg Maassen, a close friend of the AfD.
The continuing political chaos in Thuringia spotlights these contradictions dramatically. Bodo Ramelow had become LINKE minister-president because the local Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens were willing to join him as junior partners. After last October’s election they were willing to try it again but while the LINKE got more votes than ever, they came out weaker – and their previous tiny one-seat majority was now out of reach, short by the votes of four deputies. No winning combination among the six different parties seemed possible, it was a stalemate! After months of dickering an agreement finally came into view. If the Christian Democrats, in third place, would neither vote for nor against a Ramelow government but simply abstain, and then tolerate it on mutually-agreed issues, then at least a shaky conclusion of the month-long Purgatory might be possible.
Then came the moment of horror! Back into Inferno! On February 5th, when the legislature voted, the Christian Democrats (CDU) did not abstain as expected, but joined instead with the fascistic AfD to elect the almost unknown leader of the little secular pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which had barely managed to get seated at all. Thus, the CDU (and the FDP) broke all pledges never to cooperate with the AfD. As so frequently in history, the “upright center” chose fascists over leftists, even though Bodo Ramelow’s team was composed of the mildest, least militant members of the LINKE, and he himself was a pious West German who could not possibly be stamped with the barbed-wire-Stasi-Berlin-Wall label.
What followed was hardly short of seismic! That vote by the Thuringian “Christians” had exposed in nasty nakedness how empty their self-righteous “neither left nor right” stand had been, a cover-up for the longings of many in the CDU to snuggle up to the far right and wage far sharper attacks in both domestic and foreign affairs. Since their new chairwoman recently threw in the towel, their party is currently caught up in a bitter struggle to seize her emptying party chair, with its near certain coronation as chancellor as soon as the long reign of the careful, relatively moderate Angela Merkel finally ends in 2021. But the pledge to repudiate any connection with the AfD was always marked indelible by all contenders, whether sincerely or not. And now this sudden U-turn in Thuringia, this crummy secret deal with the AfD!
There was total confusion! Some sent congratulations on this victory over the bloody red Ramelow regime. That old wheelchair-bound war-horse Wolfgang Schaeuble stayed stubborn: “The struggle against Communism is integral to the CDU… Naturally Bodo Ramelow is not a Communist, he was a union leader in (West German) Hesse…But that doesn’t alter the fact that the LINKE wants to leave NATO, has an unclear position on the European Union and a foreign program which includes greater consideration for Russia.”
But such applause was quickly stifled by other CDU and FDP leaders who rapidly reined it in – most notably Merkel, then visiting South Africa, who truly seemed shocked and angered. A main reason for the swift switch was certainly the immediate reaction by thousands of angry German citizens, gathering in spontaneous demonstrations all over Germany and insisting:” No Deals with Nazis!”
But in Thuringia, now a center of nation-wide attention, the Gordian knot still needed cutting. But while the CDU could no longer show even the least affinity with the AfD, its decision barring any path to a Ramelow re-election still hung over its stalemated knights, bishops and pawns. A former female minister-president, more flexible than most CDU leaders, offered to head a brief, neutral care-taker government of experts until a new election could be held. Ramelow said “OK!” But the central CDU watchdogs kept insisting: “Reject all cooperation with the left! Get rid of the LINKE!”. To increase the tension, the polls in Thuringia showed slight gains for the Greens, the SPD, also for the AfD – but the most damaging results for the CDU – now down to 14% – while the LINKE soared to poll results it had never dreamed of anywhere in Germany – now at an amazing 40%. What an awful beating the CDU would take in an election!
The debates stayed heated, the rock and a hard place dilemma seemed insurmountable. A few local, less hard-bitten CDU leaders called for a relaxation of the strict anti-left rule, at least in exceptional Thuringia. Perhaps Ramelow secretly won over a few of them; at the coming legislature session on March 4th, when he will stand for election again, the wily politician claims he has a “stability mechanism” which will enable him to bridge the gap, set up a minority government with the CDU in “constructive opposition” and put off new elections until April 2021. Another key motivation; with a new election put off at least until then, the 21 CDU legislators will be sure of staying in office, receiving good salaries and allowances for at least another thirteen months.
A major result of all this has been an increased polarization in the whole country, with a surprisingly large outcry against racists and fascists. This was most evident Sunday in the city-state election in Hamburg, Germany’s second biggest metropolis far off to the north. Not unexpectedly, the Social Democrats retained the top position they have almost always enjoyed there, with less votes than five years ago but more than sufficient and a balm after the savagely sagging national poll figures in recent years. The Greens gained the most, coming in a strong second, and will continue as junior partners in governing the huge port city. The sensation was the battering suffered by the CDU, the sharp losses by the AfD, which barely managed to take the hurdle with only 5,3% and stay in the city-state council, and the disaster for the Free Democrats, who failed to take that 5% hurdle, losing miserably – a merited punishment for their betrayal to the AfD.
The right-wing menace, its violence and threat of a genuine fascist take-over, is far from ceasing with the happy ending of a Grimm fairy-tale. Many recall that it was Thuringia where the Nazis gained their first foothold in 1930; the AfD leader here today, Bjorn Hoecke, is the most vicious and dangerous man in Germany, and he has proved that he is clever. But a good half of the citizens in Germany’s “green lung” proved that they were on the alert.
In West German Hamburg the improvement for the LINKE was far more modest than in Thuringia; they got 9.1 % of the vote. But it was an improvement, not another downturn, and its membership is eager to keep up its fight to put a ceiling on rent rates. This goal, a five-year ceiling on most apartment rents, has just been achieved in Berlin, won by the same coalition as in Thuringia, LINKE, SPD and Greens, though with the LINKE here a strong junior partner (and in charge of housing affairs). Thus, there was good news for this party in Thuringia, Hamburg and in Berlin. A stepped-up militancy is more urgent than ever: fighting racism and its AfD purveyors, trying to halt soaring rent prices, supporting an incipient new strike movement and, above all, opposing acute new war dangers, with DEFENDER 2020 tanks rumbling through Germany on their way to maneuvers along the Russian border in Poland and Estonia. The coming Strategy Conference of the LINKE on February 29-March 1 in Kassel could help it regain leadership of a new resistance, with similar determination to that shown in Thuringia.
As usual, I plug here my book “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee”, discussing the above problems and many others, historical, personal, humorous and futuristic. If you’ve read and liked it, pass on the good word go others. If you disliked it or disagreed with it, write me!). That also holds true for these Berlin Bulletins!