Berlin Bulletin No. 180
“Mirror, mirror on the wall…” Nearly every German knows the story of Snow White. Currently, the question of who is “fairest of them all” faces nearly every German political party or, in modern terms, who can attract more votes in next year’s election. The U.S. equivalent question, which will seek and hopefully find answer much sooner, is simpler; the poisonous apple has been exposed often enough. As for dwarfs – a political species – they abound in both countries, though never so cute as Walt Disney’s. As for the wicked witch, I must be cautious about any German analogy!
In Germany a year is left to go, but with the corona crisis, threatening economic collapse and a tattering friendship with Trump’s America, the suspense is already heightening. Choices are getting urgent. And for the Social Democrats (SPD), while Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s smiling face is not exactly the fairest of them all (although nowadays bald is seen as sexy), some hope he can at least become the gallant prince riding to the rescue!
Germany’s oldest party needs rescuing! It has had a troubled history. In its militant youth Chancellor Bismarck outlawed it from 1878 to 1890, but after regaining legality it became, by 1913, the largest party in the Kaiser’s unified empire. But alas, its youthful ardor had cooled, or twisted, and it betrayed all its principles by joining in the “On to Paris!” cheers at the start of World War One. When Germany’s November Revolution ended the murderous, lost war, SPD-chief Ebert joined the far-right officers’ corps and war profit millionaires in blocking a socialist path – and at least abetting the murder of its devoted advocates, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
In the following years the SPD made many compromises with Right and Center. As Hitler gained strength, it opposed the Nazis, though never as militantly as the Communists. The failure of the two to join in this fight proved fateful, but (despite many such interpretations) this was not only the fault of the Communists, who continued to lead in the resistance – before and, until 1945, in the underground. The exiled SPD failed sadly when it came to supporting the elected Spanish government against Franco and Hitler in 1936-39. After 1945 it joined in Cold War policies and massive attempts to wreck the (East) German Democratic Republic. When the SPD’s Willy Brandt won the top job as chancellor (1969-1974) he helped pass a tough witch-hunt law copied from McCarthy while switching to a cooler “Eastern policy”, not attacking with a Holy Crusader battering ram but with Lorelei temptation, which proved successful in 1990.
In its next administration (1998-2005), this time with the Greens, the SPD joined in the bombing war against Serbia and supported every policy of its protectors and patrons in Washington and the Pentagon (except, in an election-related abstention, the Iraq war of 2003). It also pushed through an economic austerity program under which the jobless and poorer seniors suffer to this day.
And yet, contrariwise, its policies on some economic issues were contradictory enough to keep the allegiance of nearly all labor leaders and a large portion of the working class, who saw no other alternative. (Think Clinton, Obama, etc.) But in recent years German workers have become very skeptical, causing a drastic slump in the polls, now between 14-17 %, less than half that of its current coalition partner, Merkel’s “Union” of two “Christian” parties (one is a purely Bavarian sibling). This position as the weak junior partner of its traditional rivals has surely been a main cause of its slump.
November 2019 brought a big surprise. After its latest electoral losses new leaders were urgently needed, if possible a male-female team (thus copying the Greens and the LINKE). In a first-ever mail-in referendum vote by its membership, the SPD made a flip-flop worthy of any Brothers Grimm tale. Instead of the expected team with Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, always on the right in the party, the membership squeezed in two little-known Social Democrats, their names hardly known outside their own bailiwicks, but who definitely belonged to the SPD’s left wing! Norbert Walter-Borjans (the name after the hyphen was from his wife) was for protecting whistle-blowers, legalizing marijuana and most forcefully for taxing the wealthy. Saskia Esken was strong on opposing racism, reining in police brutality, supporting antifascists (even when they were called “antifa”) and also legalizing marijuana (at least medically). Neither of them liked the current coalition with the right-wing rival party.
This result was a shock to the leadership, it was almost as if AOC and Ro Khanna were to win a referendum to head the Democratic Party National Committee!
A second shock followed in May. For years leftists and other anti-war activists have been warning and demonstrating against the menace of some twenty unimaginably catastrophic US atomic bombs at a base at Büchel in Germany, next door to a German air base with swift planes to carry them to an all too obvious destination. There are now plans to replace them with more modern, even more murderous planes. But not many listened to the warnings – the media saw to that!
All of a sudden the co-chair of the SPD caucus in the Bundestag, Rolf Mützenich, little-known but important, joined in demanding the removal of U.S. bombs from German soil. There was an angry outburst against him, also from within his SPD, including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. But then the new party co-chairs, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, backed him up against the bombs!
It began to look as if a majority of left-leaning members had moved their party to the left. Some in the LINKE have long hoped to join a possible national coalition with the SPD and Greens but have been restrained by LINKE membership rejection of NATO’s aggressive military policy and of once again sending German troops far and wide to police the world. But these new statements seemed to be steps onto a bridge spanning such differences. The three parties now work together in governing the city-states of Berlin and Bremen and the state of Thuringia; why not on a national level?
But the powers behind the SPD throne took another look in the mirror, seemingly more one of the twisty fun-house variety, and found conservative Olaf Scholz as the fairest – or safest – for next year’s election. It looked like a repeat of that old SPD tradition; blink left – then turn right! We shall see!
At the same time the chairman of the little right-wing Free Democratic Party tried to explain why he fired its young secretary-general Linda Teuteberg after less than a year and a half. Many found the young blonde fair enough, but the party was barely keeping its nose above the 5 % level in national polling. Less than that means it’s out of the Bundestag and faces oblivion. So why not blame the vivacious young East German and replace her with a dull, allegedly efficient man from the West? It’s hard to imagine that he will have more luck.
The “Christian” Union parties were also scrambling in their hunt for a successor to Merkel, all three now in the running are male, ambitious and conservative. But the pandemic has caused them to postpone the face-off until – well, maybe in late autumn. Until then it’s all-out one-upmanship.
But DIE LINKE has definitely scheduled its next congress in the city of Erfurt for October 30th-November 1st, with face masks and social distancing. It too must look in the mirror and make a choice, not for one but two chairpersons, somehow both male and female, eastern and western, rightish and leftish. Almost like squaring the circle! This was achieved with the current co-chairs, but their time in office runs out after a two-term limit (or will it be extended?). There may well be hot debates and some not so social distancing – on various issues, but first and foremost on that question of joining in a federal government coalition – if improved voting results permit it.
The SPD and Greens have always insisted on that one main condition: support for NATO and the use of Bundestag troops abroad. Some of the LINKE view any compromise on these issues a sacrifice of basic principles by the only genuine Peace party in Germany. Others say some compromises are necessary in politics if a party wishes to stay relevant. Hidden behind this issue is a larger one: Should DIE LINKE set its goals on attempts to win better conditions for working people, seniors, children, the jobless – concentrating on winning improvements and opposing slashes but accepting a basic status quo? Or should it use such conflicts as steps, even small ones, towards changing the system? That would mean sharply squaring off against firms like Aldi and Trader Joe’s, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz and BMW, Bertelsmann-Random House, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Purdue, Bayer, BASF, Amazon and Facebook before they completely rule the world – and against Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon and Rheinmetall – before they destroy it. And that would also require a rejection of expanding military missions and invading armies and navies, from Afghanistan to Mali or the South China Sea – the modern equivalent of all wicked witches.