Once again the time has come in Germany for bells to ring, fireworks to explode, politicians to declaim, and media to drench us with joyful, endless reminders of events of twenty years ago and the evils they overcame. Last November it was the Fall of the Wall. Now it’s German Unity which is so loudly commemorated: the final demise in 1990 of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.
A majority certainly did rejoice, those whose families had been separated above all, but also those who had felt so isolated from the real — the western world with its liberties, its free election choices, and its modern consumer joys and travel opportunities.
Perhaps one sixth in the East had mixed feelings. They too had so often been dismayed by the republic’s leadership, not seldom careerist, too isolated from the people it ruled over, helpless in some ways while too often brutal in counter-productive attempts to stay in power. Yet that one-sixth consisted of people who had for years devoted hands and hearts to building an anti-fascist East Germany with no poverty, no homelessness, many equal rights for women, loving and free care for children and education for all. Despite all the blunders which many had recognized and deplored, it had achieved no small part of this agenda. Now, good or bad, it was all to go down the drain, with all their lives’ endeavors. Few of these people applauded the speeches, were awed by the fireworks, or sang the Western anthem, “Deutschland über alles.” Many just despaired.
But others were reassured by the fact that West Germany, too, had a strong social welfare system, in some respects nearly as good as in East Germany, in some respects better, thanks both to old traditions as well as to decades of political competition between the two states.
A few found solace in a very different direction. Their attempt to change the world had failed, not only because of the blunders and false paths but also because the other side was simply stronger, cleverer, and luckier from the start. But now, they hoped, as Germans who still dreamt of a better world, at peace and without the bloodthirsty warriors symbolized by names like Krupp, Siemens, and BASF or by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, their efforts were no longer restricted to the small East German rump state but could extend to all Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, perhaps even to the rest of Europe which it often dominates.
This hope seemed a case of “delusions of grandeur.” Has it experienced even the slightest success? The answer is perhaps expressed with the handy German word: “Jein” — Ja (Yes) and Nein (No).
The West German state and its men of wealth soon almost totally destroyed the East German economy, not just the decrepit little factories waiting for credit but handsome state-of-the-art factories as well, and far too many concert halls and theaters, vacation homes, and thousands of recently-built, not always architecturally beautiful but comfortable apartment buildings, now emptied by a huge westward exodus of mostly young people hunting for jobs and a future.
Yet, as some had predicted, the traditional German social net meant that even the millions without a job did not go hungry, while those with no roof over their heads were largely those from broken homes, often drinkers or rebellious youngsters. Medical care was available and for many the advantages in terms of travel possibilities, consumer goods, and a decrease of dull propaganda outweighed any difficulties.
The socialists slowly recuperated from their losses in East Germany. At first dismissed as a dying ember, the PDS, a radically reformed descendant of the former ruling party, gradually won up to 20-30 percent of the voters. It was opposed but grudgingly tolerated by the German leadership as long as it failed to surpass a useless 1 or 2 percent in the far larger regions of West Germany. The four older parties managed quite comfortably with no one really rocking the boat.
But after joining a rebellious new West German party in 2007 to form the LEFT (DIE LINKE), and aided by the charisma of the militant former head of the Social Democrats, Oskar Lafontaine, it soon made a splash on the all-German political map, receiving nearly 12 percent of the national vote in 2009 and breaking into all but one of the western state legislatures where it competed (just missing out in right-wing Bavaria). And it drew a worrisome number of voters from both the Greens and the Social Democrats, a price they paid for the cuts in the social net when they held government power.
Thus, as the earlier optimists had hoped, the stage for dramatic action indeed greatly extended, and the German LEFT sent encouraging signals to tattered left-wing parties and groups all over Europe.
But now, also all over Europe, and in the wake of a crisis which has not really ended despite all rosy media claims, an attack has been launched against the “common people.” Sarkozy and Berlusconi, the British Tories and even the Spanish Socialists want to counter financial and economic woes with “unavoidable austerity,” the belt-tightening not of the bankers and speculators who caused them, or of the big companies now raking in profits again, but of those least able to make new sacrifices. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, after some hesitation and internal quarrels, has now stepped up its rough-riding attacks: cuts in allowances for children of the jobless; reduced assistance for home heating costs; bowing to all demands of the energy giants to lengthen the lives of nuclear power plants; opening the way for rent increases; rejecting a minimum wage law for the miserably underpaid; and big increases in health insurance taxes with an option for extra treatment charges while sparing the employers and increasing the split in medical care between the wealthy and the others, all but basic dental care being already forbiddingly expensive. Then, after a lengthy debate about the miserly payments for the jobless, Merkel’s minister finally announced an improvement: five more Euros a month — about two subway fares.
Meanwhile, the tabloids in all Europe supported a dangerous new movement against Muslims and Roma. It has gained rapid strength, most recently in Sweden and the Netherlands, but also in Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, Italy, and France; and it has surfaced nastily in Germany with the racist book of a well-known banker. With so many losing confidence in all the present parties, a new party of this kind in Germany could become an extremely dangerous menace, recalling all too acutely what once happened in Germany, then targeting Jews and today Muslims.
But where was the LEFT? For months it has been so busy with internal problems and quarrels about its future program and how militant it should be that all too few actions were taken on these burning issues. The Social Democrats and the Greens, also currently in opposition, were quicker to take up the cudgels on various social issues. This is ironic, since many nasty “reforms” were passed by them when they were in office, for instance cutting taxes on the wealthy while raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. (They must therefore count on voters’ poor memory). The Greens especially have pushed up high up in the polls, even rivaling their frequent partners, the Social Democrats. They have led in opposing nuclear power plants and the storage of their dangerous waste materials and in the fight, now turned very bloody, against the expensive, detested new rail station in Stuttgart. But in Hamburg, where they share power with the Christian Democrats, they have sadly capitulated.
Finally this past week the LEFT stepped up its actions. Together with Attac, the anti-globalization organization, it “occupied” offices of the Deutsche Bank in cities all over Germany. On Berlin’s shopping avenue, Kurfuerstendamm, 15 members of both groups moved in, stopped business, gave the staff chocolates to show their lack of animosity towards them, and put their signs in the big windows, while 150 sitting outside on the sidewalk sang and waved militant signs demanding that the bank pay for the crisis or calling for its nationalization. The same afternoon a long parade led by the Left walked through downtown Berlin, also denouncing the banks. The marchers, about a thousand, heard that up to 100,000 working people from all Europe were demonstrating in Brussels; they cheered at warm greetings from strikers in Athens; and they rejoiced that millions were on a one-day strike in Spain and that there were protests all over, even a big unexpected protest in Rumania.
Perhaps, after an all too quiet summer, things will move again. With attacks on pensions and the rights of labor now seemingly coordinated in the whole European Union, a coordinated, militant fight-back is crucial everywhere. A resurgence of the German LEFT would justify the current anniversary jubilation.
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).