Fear of the Left Cripples German Defense Chiefs

What a difference a party on the left can mean!

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, at the annual International Security Conference in Munich, stepped up pressure on Germany to send more troops to Afghanistan and commit them to active fighting there, not only in the currently more peaceful north but in the battle-ridden south as well.  US troops are in short supply.

Germany Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung says categorically No.  Not us.  Or at least not just now, anyway, certainly not until October.  Or if at all, then only in emergencies.  We can’t overturn the decisions and limitations imposed by the Bundestag, he insists.

Gates doesn’t quite understand that.  His president in Washington has never given a tinker’s damn for what Congress says — on the rare occasions when it hasn’t kowtowed to him.  So why should Jung worry?

Of course, basically, Defense Minister Jung wouldn’t give two euros for the Bundestag’s opinion either.  And in the past the governing coalition, whether it consisted of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats or of Social Democrats and Greens, almost always played “follow the leader” in Washington.   The one exception was during the second Iraq War, when Gerhard Schroeder wanted to win the election so desperately that he suddenly began to talk like a king of peace.  But even then the Rumsfeld warriors were permitted to use every military facility in Germany — and are still using the country as its main pivot for the war against the Iraqis.  In general NATO laid down the law, and everyone knows who writes the laws of NATO.

But this time the situation has changed.  For years, the little PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) was confined almost entirely to the five eastern provinces of Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, and to some extent to Berlin.  It had hardly a tiny toehold in the far more populous ten western provinces, limiting it to the role of a rarely-needed extra in a B-Film.

But then it merged with a small but dynamic new West German party, made up largely of disgusted ex-members of the Social Democrats and Greens, who rejected the miserable anti-social, pro-corporation positions and the growing military readiness of both their two parties.  Add to this mixture the people’s rapidly growing dissatisfaction with the whole economy, with the wealthy perching atop more and more millions and billions while working people and the jobless had more and more debts to sit on.  The new, merged party started chalking up gains in both the West and the East.

The big fear of the four ruling parties (the fourth being the right-wing business party FDP — the Free Democrats) was that this new party, calling itself Die Linke, or The Left, might some day seep out of its East German ghetto and influence politics in the West.

And this is just what happened!  Last spring it won seven seats in the city state of Bremen, finally breaking the East-West spell.  However, Bremen is small, strictly urban, and always a bit more liberal.  But then came Lower Saxony, where the Christian Democrats had a popular winning candidate, the Social Democrat got walloped, and the Left won eleven seats, creating, for the first time, a genuine opposition.  At the same time, in the state of Hesse (where Frankfurt/Main is located), a far more bitter battle was waged.  The ruling Christian Democrat Ronald Koch used every dirty anti-foreigner trick in the bag to keep his ruling position, while the attractive young Social Democrat, Andrea Ypsilanti, stole most of the demands of the Left — like calls for a minimum wage and a return to free college education — to steal its thunder and win against Koch.  She gained greatly, Koch lost significantly, but in the end he still had a plus margin of a single tenth of one percentage point.

The bigger news, however, was the 5.1 percent vote for the Left, just barely enough to get into the provincial parliament with seven seats, but enough to pull the bottom card from a shaky house of cards.  Koch and his FDP buddies on the right did not have a majority of the seats, but neither did the Social Democrats and the Greens.  They would only be able to rule if they formed a coalition with the Left or at least agreed to gain power with its support, though without its membership in the government.  But both the SPD and the Greens refuse to do that — they won’t have anything to do with the Left, whom they redbait as roundly as the two parties on the right.  The result — a stalemate, and nobody knows how or when it will end.

The next provincial elections are on February 24th in Hamburg, another city state, not too big but hardly unimportant.  The polls now give the Left about ten percent, but they are often too low in their estimates.  It seems almost inevitable that the Left will make it into the fourth West German legislature, with more votes coming up next year.

Jung’s tough words about obeying the will of the Bundestag and not sending more fighting troops to Afghanistan was undoubtedly pronounced with an eye on the coming elections in Hamburg, for the word has been spreading that the Left is the only party which opposes military actions by German soldiers or sailors anywhere on the globe — a position reflecting the will of perhaps 70 percent or more of the German population.

The generals and admirals are yearning for fancy new medals and braids on their uniforms, with big foreign crosses and stars for the top men.  The big shots in the economy are facing eastwards in the hope of gaining new markets and cheap new sources of oil, gas, and other products.  The powerful old forces of 20th-century Germany, or their offspring, are striving to make Germany a world power once again – not just economically but militarily as well, and their slogan, coined by the last Social Democratic Minister of Defense, was “the boundaries of our security requirements lie in the Hindu Kush” — in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in other peoples’ countries.  And thus far, only the Left has said No.

Important as provincial elections can be in German politics, no one is forgetting that the next national elections are in the autumn of 2009.  The Left is not untroubled by inner disputes regarding strategy and direction, and one important disagreement concerns the question of joining a coalition with the Social Democrats or the Greens, a policy some members reject completely.  But it is unquestioned that the Left not only opposes foreign military intervention but also calls for a minimum wage, for preserving the medical insurance system, for winning back free education, for saving the many unemployed from compulsory, menial  jobs at starvation wages, and for ending discrimination against immigrant minorities.  The media strive daily to suppress these facts, while the mud is also flying somewhat thicker already.  But the worst fears of the powers that be are becoming reality.  The Left, possibly now becoming the third biggest party in all Germany, can no longer be ignored, and the tough-sounding rejection of Robert Gates’ demands by the Defense Minister in Munich has been the clearest proof of this.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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