Berlin Bulletin No. 185
The U.S.-American night-mare, tight-lipped and pouting, was finally forced to gallop off to its luxurious stable in Florida. Almost every European joined in “Hurrah!” cheers as it watched him go!
In Germany national elections will also be featuring the departure, in this case after sixteen years, of a very different kind of leader, Angela Merkel. The results are still nine months away, but we all know how much can develop in just nine months!
And despite all the differences there are echoes and parallels between Germany and the USA. I can testify to one; I was an unhappy witness, just a couple of yards away.
Every year in mid-January leftists have marched in Berlin–or paraded-to the memorial site for the anti-war Social Democrats, then Communists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, both murdered on January 15, 1919. The event differs greatly from year to year, depending on rulers and politics, but was never fully forbidden except in the Nazi years. This year the organizing committee called it off because of the corona virus–or postponed it until “maybe in May”. As expected, several thousand rejected this decision . Most of them, as ever, went by subway, then walked the last seven blocks to the cemetery to place red carnations on the plaques. Also as ever a smaller group of about 2000 started instead in the Karl Marx Allee and marched for two or three miles, with loudspeaker trucks, banners and flags of every leftist, progressive, anarchist, far and ultra left group in all Germany, plus a few other countries and exiles as well. Taken together, and despite some crazies, it was still a stirring sight for those who like the color red! (Colors here mean different things than in the USA!)
One little unit of about twenty wore the blue shirts and carried banners of the Free German Youth–FDJ – the official youth organization of the German Democratic Republic which died with it in 1990. This hardy group, refusing to accept either demise, moved to its assigned position in the long row.
Suddenly a helmeted, visored troop of police charged in against them: “The FDJ is an outlawed organization.” The parade leaders, including lawyers, explained that the FDJ was indeed forbidden in 1951–in West Germany. But the East-West “unification agreement” in 1990 had stipulated that East German organizations were not to be forbidden there. And this was East Berlin! So why attack them?
But who cares about niceties? I watched from a nearby stoop as the cops moved in, slamming hard with batons, kicking, knocking people down, upsetting a wheelchair and pepper-spraying. Two victims soon lay on the sidewalk four feet from me as friends with water bottles tried to ease their agony. For nearly an hour the cops charged in, again and again, hindering all attempts at social distancing. Finally a truce was agreed upon; the FDJ members took down the flags and banners and covered the blue shirts and the delayed parade moved off. It had been nasty, vicious, unnecessary–and clearly to prove “who is boss!”
There was irony involved. How could this happen in a Berlin governed by a three party coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and LINKE (the Left)? I heard bitter remarks about all three.
But this year will be marked not only by a national election on September 26th; there will be six state elections as well–and also Berlin on that same date. All the parties are jockeying for voters and the SPD, whose present leader, the city-state’s mayor, wants to move upward into national politics, is worried about the party’s low poll ratings. The current interior minister (here called “senator”) is SPD man Andreas Geisel, and is thus in charge of police. With hopes to win votes from some folks, those lovers of “law and order”, a show of violence is always seen as appröpriate, and not only in the USA! Last October Geisel sent in over 2000 cops, also with visors, shin guards and even an armored military vehicle, to forcefully remove a few dozen women from a building they’d lived in for years in an “anarcha-queer-feminist” commune. The victorious police were called in at the behest of shady foreign owner-speculators who prefer wealthier customers. And to win votes.
And yet for years Geisel’s diligent cops were somehow unable to find a bunch of pro-nazis who posted names and addresses of antifascists in internet, smeared the walls of their homes, stuffed their mailboxes with threats and set fire to their cars.
The LINKE, also hoping to win more votes in September, is taking a very different path, far more militant than in past decades (but totally non-violent). Two years ago, with the Greens, and the SPD as a reluctant partner, it pushed though a city law prohibiting all rent increases for five years and even reversing recent increases exceeding a certain level. Costs for improvements–real or exaggerated–were also tightened, and new renters could not be charged more than their predecessors. The real estate sharks were enraged–and are biting at the law in the highest courts.
Even before that final decision, the LINKE, with weak support from the Greens and resistance from the SPD (and from three right-wing parties not in the governing coalition) is pushing for an even more radical goal. A petition, after 77,000 signatures were obtained, must now master a far higher hurdle in order to qualify as a “referendum”. Within a time frame of only four summer months–and despite any remaining corona restrictions–170,000 Berliners must have signed the petition papers–7 % of all voters. If this tough task is accomplished the proposal will get on the ballot in September, along with the election–and will still require a majority of voters.
And if all hurdles are mastered? Every real estate company owning over 3000 homes will have to give them up, for an agreed-upon price, to a public enterprise owned by the city. The term used is confiscation! Hit first and foremost is a company, Deutsche Wohnen, which would then lose ownership of about 110,000 Berlin homes and apartments. Its irate boss, now very active in opposing the measure, would hardly go hungry; his current annual incomed is in the 4.5 million € range. And two other enterprises, each with about a 10% share, would hardly face bankruptcy: they are well-padded BlackStone and the Boston company MFS Investment Management. But a lot of low and middle income tenants could feel much safer. But win or lose, this is the kind of militant politics needed so urgently by the LINKE, especially in Berlin–and as a model for all Germany. And let those real estate czars foam at the mouth. Maybe it’s healthy (perhaps against some viruses.)
To add insult to injury for rightwingers and racists, the LINKE in Berlin has now proposed a law requiring all public services, from kindergarten teacher to garbage collector and court staff to meet a quota of 35% employees with first or second generation immigrant background. This corresponds with the city population but not with hiring–now with only about 12% of immigrant background, based on color, religion and name. This will certainly lead to a very hot fight–but again a good one!
The fight is also sure to be at least as hot on the national level. And complicated! Since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer surprisingly decided to step down as head of the Christian Democrats (CDU), a thousand and one (1001) delegates, voting on-line from their homes, handed the homophobic, muslimophobic far-right Friedrich Merz, former German boss of BlackRock, his second defeat in two years. The winner, after a speech less about future plans than about his father, a miner, was Armin Laschet, now minister president in the key state of North-Rhine-Westfalia. He seems (in only some ways) similar to departing chancellor Angela Merkel, sticking to softer tones while letting cabinet ministers be responsible for the dirty work. But he may not get chosen to fill Angela’s boots as ruling chancellor; more likely is the head of the Bavarian joint sister party Markus Söder, a man with a truly Mephistophelean smile and changing policy hues, perhaps recalling a chameleon–but without even one big eye glancing leftwards.
How will the next German leaders regard Biden’s Washington? The so-called Atlanticists see a chance to repair close connections damaged by Donald Trump. But others say: “Trump taught us a lesson! We must overcome trans-oceanic snuggling and build ourselves up, more on our own, the strengthening center of a strengthening Europe–diplomatically, economically and militarily!” I fear I’m old enough to hear disturbing echoes in such tones!
The SPD is similarly split regarding USA attachments and armaments, especially those atomic bombs now stored in the base at Büchel, each one far, far more devastating than the one at Hiroshima and all aimed at Russia. The SPD role as Merkel’s junior partner has withered its poll standing down to the 15% level–less even than the upstart Greens. Some SPD leaders sound currently more leftist than for decades, even bravely opposing those bombs and huge arms exports to countries like Egypt or Bahrein. But can brave words alter directions? And, if the SPD does decide to step away from its coalition, might it founder, split, go under completely?
Fluttering ahead in the political desert is always the vista-or mirage-of a “leftish alliance”, as in practice in Berlin and Thuringia-but on the federal level. But while in those two states the SPD, Greens and LINKE can stick together in quarrelsome togetherness with a majority of seats, or close to one, and no credible alternatives, on the national level the three together now stand at only 42%, so right now that mirage seems to be getting more faded or distant than ever.
And there are other obstacles than arithmetical ones. First of all, the Greens could choose to discard their last leftish remnants and team up with the CDU, as they already have in several states.
And more seriously, the LINKE has thus far upheld its rejection to sending troops to battlefields or missions outside Germany. Boots on the ground are followed by camouflage uniforms and, before long, to “protect” them, drones, panzers and bombers. Will the LINKE maintain this party principle despite its total rejection by the potential partners, the SPD and Greens?
Last week an important LINKE leader in the Bundestag proposed a switch; Germany should again play a part in “world security” matters, the LINKE must be more realistic, even spending more money on armaments–not as much as Trump demanded but more than ever before. The world has changed and so must Germany’s role in it, he insisted. In other words, the LINKE party should break with its role as the one and only “Party of Peace” and join the others in an alliance which, stripped of artistic camouflage coloring, is aimed at Russia, erasing all thoughts of the 27 million Russian war victims or the menace just one of those storaged bombs represents for all of civilization and environment too.
This will be fought out by the LINKE at its often-postponed, ZOOMED congress. The outcome could be fateful, like similar questions facing Joe Biden; will Germany–or the USA–treat Russia and China as adversaries, to be out-armed, surrounded and regime-changed, waving weapons costing ever more billions, even trillions, despite full knowledge as to who will pocket the billions and whose pockets will thusbe emptied? Or will instead–thanks to growing pressure from people everywhere–a path of rapprochement be chosen, of détente or, in plain English–of peace, the cause for which Rosa and Karl lived and died? And so many others!
Private note: I got my first anti-virus shot. Painless, no aftermath and no costs; even the taxi there and back was free for us Group One nonagenarians!