May Day remains a national holiday in Germany. So does Jesus’s Ascension Day (whose German name, I’m afraid, is Himmelfahrt) and this year, for the first time in many years, both occurred on the same day. Less pious males frequently celebrate the religious holiday with markedly sexist outings of loud tipplers, often on horse-drawn wagons and wearing funny hats. Less class-conscious Germans of both sexes usually avoid workers’ meetings on May Day with uncontroversial family picnics. Thus, there were plenty of contrasts last Thursday, and some were quite political after all
First for the somewhat good news. This year, a few big unions were finally able to win wage raises worthy of the name and by and large beat back attempts to increase weekly work hours. This cost a number of hard-fought strikes, one of which, by postal employees, was just successful, while another, involving transportation workers and other city employees in Berlin, is still unsettled, with intermittent strikes on and off. A major issue these days is the fight for a national minimum wage — hitherto unknown in Germany — and this was a central theme of many union leaders and their guests from the Social Democratic Party at the official May Day rallies. A minimum of 7.50 euro an hour has been achieved in a few industries thus far, while the governing coalition is still split on enacting a national law, fought over by the politicians, with the Christian Democratic Union and its leader, Chancellor Merkel, still playing coy while the Social Democrats, their coalition partners, are trying to sound pro-labor again. Actually, the Social Democrats were hardly interested in this matter until the new party, The Left, demanded a national minimum wage (of 8 euro). The Social Democrats, facing a rapid decline in members and voters due to their anti-social policies in past years, have now picked up this issue in hopes of winning back lost strength. The role of The Left is carefully ignored by most of the media and most union leaders.
The big port of Hamburg was the scene of a very questionable event. In the elections last February in that city-state, the Social Democrats, in what used to be a major stronghold, failed to win the strong gains they had hoped for. But the incumbent mayor, a Christian Democrat who has been less virulent than some others in his party, also failed to win a majority for his party, while The Left broke through the five percent hurdle and got eight seats in the city-state legislature (with 6.4 percent of the vote), its fourth success in a West German state since it was formed less than two years ago. (In the East German states it has always been quite strong and currently seems to hold first place in most polls).
Since both the Social Democrats and the Greens refused to form a coalition with The Left, the ball returned to the mayor’s court, if he wanted to stay in office. But the closest friends of his Christian Union, the rightwing Free Democrats, had failed to get the needed 5 percent and thus had no seats in the city-state council. And a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, like the one on the national level, was taboo from the start since both parties are already maneuvering to end this dubious alliance after next year’s national election. The only remaining possibility, aside from going to the polls again, was to join with the Greens. But would that party, always considered to be on the left of the party spectrum, join with Germany’s main rightwing party on a state level? It had been tried in some towns and villages, but it had hardly counted there. Would the Greens concur on a Black-Green coalition on such an important level? The media and most readers held their collective breaths at this possible new turn. Then the answer came: they would, and they did. After lengthy negotiations and a number of compromises by both parties — no new power plant based on coal, but dredging of sections of the Elbe for bigger ships — this first real break in the traditional party line-up was agreed on. Thus, while keeping their position of never joining with The Left, at least in Western Germany, the Greens took a big step to the right. Although they swore they would never join a coalition with Christian Democrats on the national level, there were those, in and out of the party, who looked ahead to 2009 and expressed their doubts.
A third event was all bad. In the one-time East German state of Thuringia, the home of historical centers like Weimar, Erfurt, and Jena, the Christian Democrats are strong enough to govern on their own, with no coalition partners. The prime minister, a West German “immigrant” named Althaus, was forced by a number of scandals to shake up his cabinet — and handed the government ministry responsible for education to Peter Krause, also from his own party, who has thus far distinguished himself only by writing for a very reactionary newspaper, the Junge Freiheit, which leans sharply towards one or the other neo-nazi parties in Germany. He claims to have stopped writing for it some years ago, but has otherwise showed no signs of changing his views. This is the man who will soon have a decisive voice in choosing history books for Thuringian schools. Although The Left is already the second strongest party in Thuringia, it was unable to prevent this choice, and its delegates are now considering plans to turn their backs to Krause during the inauguration ceremonies.
This is no abstract matter. Every weekend, in numerous cities throughout Germany, neo-nazis march ominously through the streets with their flags and shout anti-foreigner slogans. They almost always face larger numbers of anti-fascists who sometimes block their paths. Violent confrontations are usually prevented by the police, who often seem to favor the neo-nazis. Hamburg was no exception, but while a lukewarm May Day union rally changed its site to avoid run-ins along the legally permitted parade route of about 1,000 neo-nazis, a crowd of over 10,000 determined anti-fascists from many parties, church groups, and militant union youth groups, took a stand against the nazi menace. Some bottles and stones were thrown by both sides, some of the police were injured, and there were many arrests. Ten of the busses which brought the fascists to Hamburg for the march were wrecked before the night was over. The new city-state government in Hamburg — and Thuringia’s new Cabinet — will have their hands full from the start.
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).