Germany: Turn Left or Right?

October 7th marked the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic, and the media let no one forget it!  Sarcasm prevailed, the attacks were all-embracing and almost interrupted, the only GDR relics spared in the attacks were the TV Sandman broadcasts for children, the jolly green and red figures on traffic lights for pedestrians, and the popular champagne made in East Germany.  Everything else was evil, it was all wrong (including many of the facts in their media broadsides).  This will all be repeated on November 9th, the date the Berlin Wall fell.

Why do nearly all the media and the politicians never refrain from kicking a dead horse twenty years after its demise?  Almost nobody wants to have the GDR back the way it was, so why do East Germans get hammered all the time about how miserable they had it in the years from 1949 to 1989?  Why is it all so distortedly one-sided?

The answer is an open secret.  Whether the powers-that-be are best symbolized by the 99 billionaires and several thousand millionaires controlling most of the wealth, or the four parties which have largely run the country, they are worried because ever fewer citizens trust them or even go out to vote at all.  And because a new challenge is developing, especially with the young party called the Left.  It is a party of mixed political parentage, with not a few inner differences, but which continues to call for a socialist future.  It demands withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan and elsewhere, a reversal of anti-social measures adopted by both the Social Democratic-Green and CDU-Social Democratic governments which have run Germany since 1998.  It demands job programs, more child care, free education, a return to the retirement age of 65, decent support for the jobless, better pay for working people — and a rise in ridiculously low tax rates on the wealthy to pay for them.  For some, all this can be frightening.  The tried and tre answer?  Red-baiting, or here, “GDR baiting.”

But this is wearing thin.  Four years ago 27 election districts out of 51 in eastern Germany gave the Left over 25 percent of the vote.  This time it was 41.  Back in 2005 in western Germany only eight districts gave 8 percent or more to the Left; this time it was 109, with many reporting double-digit results.  In the capital of Berlin, even the snooty southwest borough gave the Left a surprising 7.2 percent, a borough with many foreign — and unemployed — voters nearly double that.  And in former East Berlin the Left won all four boroughs hands down, getting up to 41 percent.  Those seemingly dry statistics creased many a brow in once untroubled office and government buildings.

But the gains of the Left on the federal level did not stop the right-wing parties.  Angela Merkel’s CDU, though it had lost two million voters since 2005, was still in the lead.  The Social Democrats had lost over six million — their worst catastrophe since 1949 — so the government will again be run by Angela Merkel and her CDU, but this time together with the Free Democrats, which got about 15 percent.

This can be a damaging mix.  The Free Democrats is on the right, a “big biz” party, with one curious exception.  It is a so-called “liberal” party, which in Germany today generally means all for “free enterprise,” with as few regulations or workers’ rights as possible.  But one wing of the party, a rudiment of earlier years, opposes the controls of telephones, Email, private homes and snooping on employees which have increased so much, usually coupled with panic cries about terror attacks.  Many Free Democrats oppose this — but may well buckle under in current negotiations.  In most other spheres, they are even to the right of the CDU, which still gets votes from some working people in small towns and enterprises.

It is generally assumed that the new government may go fairly easy in many policies until the May elections in the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, which has the largest population in Germany, and where Cologne, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Essen, and the Ruhr Valley are located — a sort of Rust Belt.  The CDU wants very much to win there, but the SPD still has a few strongholds and the Left has been moving ahead.  After May, non-wealthy Germans expect tougher anti-labor laws, sharp cuts in health insurance, more privatized utilities and higher consumer taxes.  In other words, the works.

Tension is still strong in three areas which already had recent state elections.  In western Saarland the Social Democrats may form a coalition with the Left — if only the Greens agree.  Otherwise the SPD could join with the Christian Democrats.

In eastern Brandenburg, surrounding Berlin, the Social Democrats are the strongest (their last stronghold, actually).  They can choose to continue governing with the Christian Democrats, or they could join for the first time with the Left, which was in second place in the recent election.

Thirdly, in East German Thuringia, the ruling CDU took a beating at the polls but managed to remain in first place.  Many voters were sick of it and its unpleasant erstwhile leader, who caused the death of a woman skier last spring.  The Left was again in second place, well ahead of the SPD and the Greens.  The Social Democrats could have chosen to join those two and push the Christian Democrats out for the first time since 1989.  The leader of the Left even renounced his right to be minister president to make the choice easier.  The Greens were also willing.  But then, unexpectedly, the head of the Social Democrats decided swallow any remaining pride, snub the Left (and the Greens), and become a junior partner of the CDU.  This angered so many grassroots Social Democrats that it may be possible to force a change.  Or it could even split the party.

It was the same old story, a tradition going back to the years of the Spanish Civil War and the Munich Treaty.  When the chips are down some people — some call themselves democrats, liberals, social democrats — decide to side with the right rather with that awful left.  The results have often been disastrous.  It is just this decision — turn right or left — which is being faced in three states of Germany, and which may arise on a national level in four years’ time.

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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