BERLIN BULLETIN No. 204
Some readers might expect – at last – a jolly, happy bulletin from Berlin. Germany, fourth richest power in the world, the strongest in Europe, seems to have overcome at least for now the ravages of covid-Corona; except in public transportation and medical institutions, face masks have all but disappeared. There are more jobs again – at least in fast-food or discount shops, in restaurants and hotels. Or for computer experts. Subway, bus and streetcar usually run on time – and sometimes even the inter-city trains.
But all is not well, and anxiety is widespread, for living costs have soared. Worst of all – heating and cooking gas, and electricity. But also groceries: meat and sausage, many fruits and vegetables, bakery products, even margarine ; the many, many food pantries for the hungry, not a few of them from the middle class, can no longer cope. Most frightening of all – mounting rent costs for apartments, in Germany the homes of a majority.
Behind this distress – and for many like me most painful – is the Ukrainian war. During the many wars I have followed in the news I have learned to be highly skeptical about all news reports. I have seen so many lies and clever distortions that I know enough to believe neither side. But, distorted or not, every report, every picture of death and destruction wrenches at my heart. Though I was always lucky enough to escape it, I hate war. And especially heart-wrenching for me is that Vladimir Putin, despite my hopes and expectations, took that fateful step on February 24th and sent troops, tanks and planes across the Ukrainian border!
During the many wars fought in my lifetime, all the way back to Spain, Ethiopia and World War Two, it was usually easy to discern who was the perpetrator, the aggressor. And this time the media immediately and almost unanimously decided which devil to demonize for the hoi-polloi – occasionally with tail and horns added on. Since other old Satans are dead and gone, Putin could easily be consigned to an even lower circle in the Inferno than Xi Jinping.
The liberal, “center-left” three-party coalition now governing Germany adopted this interpretation immediately and unreservedly; it was Putin’s army which crossed that borderline and is now bombing and shelling or, allegedly, even worse.
I could not argue with the facts. But neither could I ignore worrisome questions: Where was the indignation, where were the flags, the welcome mats for refugees when NATO or its surrogates putsched, invaded, bombed, shelled or otherwise “democratized” Guatemala, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Indonesia, Libya, and a dozen or so others? How many wept with the mothers of Hanoi, or Santiago, Baghdad or Kabul?
There are so many uncomfortable questions. Yes, Russia has its oligarchs – too damned many in my view. And delusions of grandeur may be found in Putin’s court-like appearances, possibly overmuch Russian national pride. But with Russia facing an American armaments build-up thirteen times as big as its own, and seventeen times as big when NATO is added in, and with its heartland almost totally surrounded and cut off from warm water shipping in the Black Sea if Georgia and above all Ukraine are US-dominated – it was undeniably the underdog. Yes, underdogs can also bite sharply. But they remain underdogs – and on the defensive, primarily against products of Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing – and KruppThyssen; but also the unimpeded spread of Tesna, Bayer, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Aldi, Coke and Burger King – and the Murdocks and Springers.
Whose voices have been loudest in confronting the evil on the Moskva? In the USA it would be mistaken to say that the GOP and the Democrats are exactly the same. They compete, currently more than ever. But for the Ukraine they are flagbearers in the same crusade. It is similar in Germany with the current three-party ruling coalition, which is known as “the Traffic-Light”, for each party here has a campaign color. Green of course is for the Greens, red, not so naturally, for the Social Democrats.
Yellow (in German it’s not negative) is the chosen color of the Free Democrats. The basic program of this “Let ‘em eat cake” party is: no tax increases for the big-biz wealthy, the least possible “alms” for single parents, seniors, the unpaid and jobless – and as many weapons as possible for Zelensky (or almost anyone as long as the Euros keep tinkling – or rustling!).
As for the Greens, once viewed as leftist radicals, they have long led the chase against the Russian devils. Loudest among the exorcists is Annalena Baerbock, Green party co-chair and Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose life mission, long seen as wrecking Russia, is now best accomplished by backing Zelensky with all it takes. As she stated: “I will put Ukraine first no matter what my German voters think!” This did not go down well with some of her German voters, but friendly media quickly (if falsely) blamed the Russians for misquoting the video and are keeping her popularity undamaged. Yes, the Greens form the vanguard in backing “rules-based order” with Zelensky and NATO.
The Social Democrats of Chancellor Scholz are more complicated. A few SPD leaders can still hear and maybe heed the demands of labor union constituents, whose votes they urgently hope to win back. The hardships caused by the boycott of Russian oil imports – and by profiteers – with the soaring prices on nearly everything, threaten to motivate growing protests, one already very visibly with several thousand protesters in Leipzig on September 5th, yesterday in Chemnitz (called Karl Marx Stadt in GDR days.) Not all too far away, in Prague, an angry crowd reached five-, maybe even six-digit size.
This makes even stolid Chancellor Olaf Scholz , a Social Democrat, a bit shaky. Despite his coalition partners he has been accused of dragging his feet at meeting every new Zelensky demand for big tanks and more and heavier weaponry and for saying “We mustn’t move even faster than the USA and other NATO countries.” On September 14th Scholz had an unusual 90-minute telephone exchange with Putin, in which he “urged a diplomatic resolution of the Russian war in the Ukraine as soon as possible, based on a cease fire, a full withdrawal of Russian troops and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.” We had “very different views,” he said , but there was “definite movement” and “always a friendly tone.” Even the word “diplomatic” was almost unique – instead of “victory”. But his partners are actively reining in any undesirable deviation. Many are now scrambling to pass relief measures (but constrained by the Free-Democrat-yellow Finance Minister) to demonstrate their concern for hard-hit citizens – and thus discourage protests and demonstrations.
As for the two “Christian” sister parties, officially in opposition, they too bark loudly for more weapons for Kyiv and a more martial war spirit, and attack their unsteady rivals for doing a bit too much for families with children, the jobless and underpaid while they wait eagerly for the Traffic Light to fizzle out so they can resume rule of the highway.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), furthest right in the Bundestag, takes the perhaps odd position of supporting Putin, embarrassingly for some on the left. The AfD is always supports anything against the European Union, also a key Putin target because of its sanctions policy. But it wants to build up the German army with a big increase in armaments, re-introduce the draft and start up a compulsory year of semi-military service for young people, male and female, while opposing “alternative family lifestyles” and abortion. Its main line is to hate Muslims, hate all immigrants and– more discreetly – hate Jews as well. Its pace-setters are busy planning “Day X”, a German equivalent of January 6 in Washington. Their growth, generally stalled at 10-14%, is still strong in the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, where it leads with 26%.
For me, other voices are at least as alarming. While fully supporting NATO in the Ukraine and aiming at its main goal, weakening Russia and ideally replaying the 2014 victory in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in Moscow’s Red Square, they are hinting at a break with any further subservience to US power. “OK, keep on building up the military force of NATO, led by the Pentagon. But also, independently, strengthen European military power led by Germany. The €100 billion armament program advanced by Olaf Schulz – who wasn’t a bit hesitant in this matter – must be further increased; there is already a stress on aggressive weapons for attacking, for landing, for seizing and holding areas in Eastern Europe, in Africa, the Near East and now, with its navy maneuvers, in the “Indo-Pacific” region near China.
Here are a few samples:
Annalena Baerbock (in her English-language interview with Fareed Zakaria):
“Back in the 1990s Bush, Sr. said to our German chancellor, why don’t we start a partnership in leadership? But Germany was not ready. We were not reunited. Many other Europeans were a bit afraid of a strong Germany again, after the Second World War. But I think now… it’s really the time to step up a new step to set up this partnership in leadership between Europe and the US…
“I come from a region around Berlin. It’s called Brandenburg. … it has a direct border over the Oder River to Poland. And my own grandfather fought like in the winter of 1945 at this river, at this border. And I was there standing in 2004 on this bridge, … I thought, wow, we are standing on the shoulders … of our grandparents, who made it possible that countries who were enemies are again not only in peace but in friendship together.” (On Wehrmacht shoulders?!, VG)… “Germany is the biggest player in the EU and it’s crucial that if the EU wants to be strong, if the EU wants to play its international role and also its role in its own neighborhood, then it needs a strong, open, but active German foreign policy…”
Lars Klingbeil, Social Democratic co-chair, said: “Germany has earned a great deal of trust, accompanied by expectations of its international role. We should meet these expectations… For this new role …a completely different security policy debate in Germany is needed. In the competition of the political centers in the world, the European Union must develop a geopolitical significance … In competition with Russia and China, it must win over other countries and forge new strategic alliances based on economic interests and political orientation. Our claim must be that we are the most attractive centre… Supplying Ukraine with weapons from Germany is part of this…also heavy artillery… That is part of the role of the Federal Republic.” Klingbeil also called for “a different social approach to the Bundeswehr,” complaining (but with no evidence) that “the armed forces have moved further and further backwards in public debate.”
Am I mistaken in hearing echoes of grating radio voices from my childhood, in 1938, frightening even without translation, and omens of the giant tragedy which descended upon the world just one year later? Today’s tones are smoother, the words more circumspect, but I see election results in Spain, Italy, France, even Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, the wrecking of the Labour Party in England and news from many regions of the USA – and I grow fearful.
In Germany I took hope from one protective coral reef standing up to any such surging tides. It was not a big reef, but it acted as a barrier; the leftist LINKE opposed, mostly alone, the bolstering of aggressive weaponry, it alone (except for the dodgy AfD) called for a cease fire and negotiations in Ukraine and a full halt to weapons exports. Its deputies, almost alone, voted against sending troops to Afghanistan and Mali, bombing Serbia, strengthening military occupation in Bosnia and Kosovo and for ending the illegal coexistence of American atomic block-buster bombs next to top-speed German planes in the base at Büchel, with the giant base at Ramstein relaying to US drone missiles on their killer missions in the whole Middle East and much of northern Africa.
These positions, so often alone or nearly alone, justified the proud claim of those in the LINKE of being the “Peace Party”.
But for years, within the party, there have been those who opposed anti-NATO positions and a bar to deployment of German forces outside the country. Sometimes they were a minority, sometimes they gained strength. They hoped to join a national government coalition – for which the Social Democrats and Greens, their desired partners, if at all amenable (and then only in case LINKE deputies were numerically needed), would insist on pro-NATO positions. This led to a willingness to accept “compromises” – “always necessary in politics,” they explained. Even when the chances of getting a few of those comfortable, prestige-cushioned coalition chairs dwindled to the zero point in the 2021 elections, they stuck to their “flexible” positions, or widened them, often paired with total rejection of every bit of left-over respect for accomplishments of the defunct GDR plus a tendency to neglect large-scale militant action in favor of parliamentary maneuvering.
The war in the Ukraine has greatly strengthened their hand. Anyone in or outside the party who rejects more armaments for Zelensky is labeled pro-authoritarian, a Putin-lover or, at best, out of touch with mass opinion, hence unelectable and dispensable. At the party congress in June, with the help of emotional voices from Putin opponents and a curtailing of debate time, they pushed through on some key issues and on some elected officers, usually with 60-70% of the vote.
But while some top officers, including party co-chair Janine Wissler and Bundestag fraction co-chairs Dietmar Bartsch und Amira Mohamed Ali try to overcome the rift, they are finding it hard to stay impartial, while others compare the situation to an unsealed pressure cooker.
Then, September 8th, came the Bundestag speech by Sahra Wagenknecht, surely the party’s most controversial member – and best orator, a former caucus co-chair and popular talk-show invitee (no doubt thanks to her good looks, fine apparel and spunky, forceful disputation, mostly out-balanced by several male opponents). She shocked most deputies by vehemently arguing that ending all energy imports from Russia and basically breaking off all economic relations, Germany was cutting off its nose to spite its face, “unleashing an unprecedented economic war against our most important energy supplier.” This would hurt Russia less than huge sectors of German industry and millions who will soon face cold homes, extremely high prices, job losses and evictions. The war in Ukraine was “a crime,” she added. “But the idea that we are punishing Putin by plunging millions of families in Germany into poverty and that we are destroying our industry while Gazprom is making record profits—yes, how stupid is that?”
Her facts were hard to deny, but the position was heresy – and treated as such not only by the other parties and the media but by some in the LINKE who immediately launched a petition campaign to expel her from her seat in the Bundestag or even from the party. The petition was matched by a counterpetition in her favor which quickly received more signatures. But an open battle had been launched, dividing and endangering the party more than ever before, at a time when its polling average was stumbling at about 5% in the polls, the bare minimum required to seat deputies, which it has already failed to achieve almost anywhere in western Germany.
The LINKE, a small but important opposing reef in a corrupt ocean filled with rubbish and worse and an ally for struggling left wing parties all around Europe and beyond, has often been forced to fight inner erosion. It has now been threatened with a split which would mean its demise. (The latest news – this morning – is that a break-up of the LINKE in the Bundestag has been averted!) Some, further on the left, and long critical of status quo leanings within the LINKE, speak of the rebirth of a “truly socialist party“ and the German Communist Party, despite all past quarrels, has shown interest in some militant cooperation or even combination – and found a remarkable level of leftist enthusiasm at the annual press festival of its weekly, “Unsere Zeit,” in late August. But it has its own problems and is tiny in size, receiving only 15,000 votes in all of Germany in 2021 while the LINKE, though missing the 5% level and far weaker than in 2017, still received over 2,270,000 votes.
Will the anger of masses of people, hard hit in their daily lives, give rise to growing resistance and protest? Can pressure for peace negotiations increase and lead to a movement recalling the giant numbers in West Germany in the 1980s? The media – and some within the LINKE – stress their fears that the AfD and other far-rightists will barge in and utilize the protests. This can raise problems, but the rallies in Leipzig and elsewhere drew sharply visible lines against such unwanted intrusions and accused the media of using false or exaggerated issues to inhibit all protests. Some saw the warnings as attempts, within the LINKE, to tame a militant fighting spirit – and thus further inhibit their hopes of joining the Greens and Social Democrats in respectable, orderly coalitions on state or national levels.
I fear that I can offer no happy prognostications on the outcome. But I am greatly moved by an the urgency of motivating more and more people to oppose three giant menaces which approach us all, ever more dangerously: the growth of fascist forces, the threat of ecological disaster and the danger of atomic conflict. These three dangers create a moral compulsion: a search for unity in resisting every poisonous new head of the billionaire Hydra monster. But we can also rejoice at every victory, big or small, proving the power arising from united militancy: in an election in Colombia (and hopefully in Brazil), in massive protests and palace occupations in Sri Lanka, in every victorious union vote in an Amazon warehouse or Starbucks shop, in every victory of railroad workers or dockers or flight attendants. This is a time for resistance – to keep kicking! And, above all, to demand peace!
I have just received an internet message purportedly proving that Zelensky, when rejecting Minsk 2 compromises, had long aimed at a NATO-backed war against Russia – and provoked one. As I wrote above, caution about reports from all sides causes me to wait for more facts and judgements – until the next Berlin Bulletin.