Americans wonder who will be president next January; Germans are still uncertain who will live in Berlin’s presidential mansion this February. Its current resident, Christian Wulff, has been under strong pressure to do just the same as his predecessor did — and resign!
For weeks the media have attacked Wulff with angry charges of corruption — and then lying to cover up the corruption. While still in his previous position as Minister-President of Lower Saxony he bought a house for 500,000 euros which he borrowed, not at the usual eight to ten percent interest rate but for only about four percent from a millionaire friend named Egon Geerkens, who often accompanied him on state visits to other countries. This could be considered preferential treatment — which is forbidden. When questioned in the legislature, Wulff denied financial connections with Geerkens, an old friend. When pressed, he insisted that the credit was not from Geerkens but from his wife. He also spent several vacations with the Geerkens and other wealthy friends; a few other dubious but minor transgressions were also discovered. This story lasted several weeks.
Then the media pounced again. It seems that Wulff, learning of the planned attack, had telephoned the editor and publisher of the huge newspaper BILD, the leader of the Wulff-hunters, and asked them to postpone publication until they could meet and talk things over. Otherwise it could mean legal action — and a war between them. This private message, spoken in great anger, was lustily trumpeted by the media as proof that Wulff wanted to suppress freedom of the press. What a bad example for the nation — by the president! Now he must resign!
Some observers (like myself) are a bit skeptical. There is no doubt about the sleaze involved. And, despite his good looks and pleasant manner, Wulff’s conservative background makes him hard to love. But it is likely that rags like BILD, part of the mighty Springer network, similar in power and politics to the Murdock empire, have dirty dealings files on many if not most leading politicians. Was their choice of Wulff as prey really due to a sudden discovery of older sins? Wulff, after winning the presidency by the skin of his teeth, surprised many by taking moderate, even courageous positions on some topics, most notably by opposing vicious attacks on Muslims which have been heated up in recent years — especially by BILD.
In one important speech, for example, Wulff said
We need to take a clear position. A view of Germany should not limit a sense of belonging here to a passport, a family background or a religious faith — it is far broader. Christianity certainly is part of Germany. Judaism is certainly part of Germany. That is our Christian-Jewish history. But in the meantime Islam has also come to belong to Germany.
BILD does not like such remarks. What BILD does like is the power to decide — using its eleven million readers — who should rule Germany and who should not. Until a year ago they were building up the jolly, handsome, rich, blue-blooded but very dangerous Baron Karl Theodor von Guttenberg as possible savior of Germany. Their plans were stymied when it was found that his doctoral dissertation included plagiaries on 371 of its 393 pages. All attempts to save his job as cabinet minister proved impossible. He fled to the USA, changed his image (no more gel in the hairdo), and wrote an autobiographical book titled menacingly Defeated for the Time Being (Vorerst Gescheitert). Now he has a job with the European Commission as consultant on assisting bloggers in “authoritarian countries.” And he has hopes.
But even BILD cannot hope to make him president — not yet anyway! Yet it did want to force Wulff out. The Greens joined the chase, so did the Social Democrats. Maybe they hoped to replace Wulff with the man he narrowly defeated, their choice, the East German preacher and Stasi-hunter Joachim Gauck, in no way progressive, perhaps closer in his anti-GDR polemics and general views to the one-time American hero J. Edgar Hoover. Promoting him would then offer another chance to provoke, embarrass, and perhaps split the Left party (whose co-presidents surprisingly joined the attack on Wulff).
It now seems that Wulff is stubbornly refusing to quit, despite BILD, and there is no impeachment process. And what is gradually becoming clearer to many Germans: the whole Wulff affair served to distract attention from other subjects, which were far too prominent for the bosses of BILD. One was the increase in the pension age from 65 to 67, a gradual process which began on January 1st. Though originally passed by the Social Democratic-Green coalition with the approval of the current ruling powers, Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, and opposed only by the Left Party, the Social Democrats, hoping to regain power in 2013, have suddenly discovered that they made a mistake when in government. Now they too are really opposed to a measure which clearly steals money from those workers in jobs too tiring for someone in their age group but also from all those who have trouble keeping or finding any job after 55 and will now have to wait until 67 to get much less in payments.
The Wulff affair also distracted from the very unpleasant pro-Nazi scandal. After the discovery of three pro-Nazi murderers, two of them as corpses, more and more facts are leaking out about the incredible inability of the Constitutional Defense bureau — a German FBI — to find a criminal Nazi gang responsible for killing ten retail dealers of Turkish or Greek descent and a policewoman in well over a dozen years. We now know more about close ties between the authorities and their spies within the Nazi movement who often held leadership positions and may well have been involved in some murders. Since German unification the total number of those mostly immigrants or left-wingers murdered by right-wing extremists in Germany has almost reached 200. But as ever the authorities, always active and interested in snooping on or damaging anyone on the left, have never gotten excited about Nazis. The head of the Constitutional Defense authority (Verfassungschutz), another man who refuses to step down, has just split the “extremism department” into two parts, left and right, and fired one department head in hopes of saving his own neck. The Bundestag is setting up a committee to investigate, a common method of changing nothing.
The woman who raises the issue of fascist violence every week in the Bundestag is a delegate of the Left party. All its delegates have fought the neo-Nazi menace, both its suit-and-tie variety, the government-financed National Democratic Party (NPD), and its wide network of semi-secret (but well-known) brutal gangs of marching, maiming, and sometimes murdering thugs. For the most part it is they who get police protection, as in Magdeburg a week ago when 2,000 cops protected 1,200 Nazis against antifascists trying to block their way (past the rebuilt synagogue) into the center of town, where 10,000 had rallied to reject them.
The leaders of the anti-Nazi blockade in Dresden last February are still facing legal charges, and thousands of private email and SMS messages of the more than 18,000 participants, carefully recorded, are still held in custody by the state authorities in Dresden and Saxony. No one can predict what will happen next month, when the Nazis again try to rally and march in Dresden, and the anti-fascists again try to stop them with two main slogans: “Fascism is not an opinion, it’s a crime” — amply proved in recent months — and, with memories of anti-fascists in Spain 75 years ago, “No pasarán!”
But those are not issues that BILD likes to offer readers. And now that Angela Merkel is maintaining support for Wulff the issue is fading, and BILD can again concentrate on its usual daily nudie photos and dramatic details about the Italian cruiser shipwreck.
Of little interest to BILD, the Left party and many smaller, more radical left-wing groups again took part in the annual pilgrimage to the gravesites of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who founded the German Communist Party in January 1919 and were brutally murdered two weeks later. Once again several ten thousand either paraded for two miles to the site with leftist songs and banners or went by subway and walked quietly the last 5 or 6 blocks to place the traditional red carnations on the gravesites of the two and other old Social Democratic, Communist, and GDR leaders and artists whose urns are set in the semicircular wall around the large memorial stone. Noteworthy this time: not only the faithful old-timers, many of whom worked most of their lives to build an anti-fascist, socialist Germany, lost their struggle, but maintain their dreams; but also, now outnumbering them, thousands of young people, mostly German but of other nationalities as well, who may carry on the fight.
A constant theme among the participants: where is the Left party going? It has been torn by personal and political disputes for over a year, failed to overcome media opposition or general apathy, and dropped from its high of almost 12 percent in the 2009 elections to a current level of 6 or 7 percent.
A meeting over the weekend pledged (once again, it must be added) to reverse the trend, stop fighting within the party and fight more for the people of Germany — and Europe, too, now threatened economically by the same powerful forces which are squeezing the money out of German working-class and middle-class pockets. Will the Left Party succeed in overcoming its quarrels and get moving again? The probable return of the skilled orator and political leader Oskar Lafontaine to active leadership on a national level, next to Gregor Gysi and the others, is a good sign for many. A new fighting spirit is urgently needed.
I might add this closing detail: a small but novel one-day gesture has been decided upon for International Women’s Day, March 8th. The female majority of 42 Left Party Bundestag delegates decided that on that day the 34 male delegates would work at jobs in the economy always relegated to women while the women delegates will hold all the party’s speeches in the Bundestag.
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).