Germany suffered two losses last week and underwent one very intimate decision. Whether the latter was a win or a loss depends on your (point of) view — about male circumcision.
Most important to most Germans was probably their hope to win the European soccer championship, held this year in Poland and the Ukraine. Germany was triumphant in one match after another, the old rah-rah spirit heightened, more and more cars sported red, black, and gold flags, in the blocked-off avenue in Tierpark tens of thousands waited to rejoice. But alas, in the semifinal, the tall, muscular black ace Mario Balotelli of Italy shot two magnificent goals (2-1) and sent the German team home, not disgraced but very despondent. The usual left-wing arguments — did all those flags reflect good-spirited patriotism and hometown solidarity or call up nasty ghosts from the past? — faded away with the defeat, while Italy went on to lose to Spain in the final game.
No, singing Deutschland Über Alles was not called for. Nor was it at the summit meeting of 27 European heads of state. Once again, it was those Italians. Premier Mario Monti led the field against Angela Merkel this time, and although most of the media saw the result as a victory of Italy (and Spain) over Germany — just like the soccer scene — it was no time to sing Bandiera Rossa either. The proper anthem was that old lefty favorite The Banks Are Made of Marble, for, as usual, they were the main winners.
The Merkel method for solving the brutal economic crisis hitting the economies all over Europe, even endangering the survival of the euro in the seventeen countries which use this currency, is simply austerity, that is belt-tightening. Those weak sisters, mostly in the south, like Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain, and very possibly Italy, should simply cut national expenditures, reduce government staffs, pay their debts, and thus regain solvency and financial wellbeing. Just be more like Germany and everything will be dandy; that was her basic message, and it was long applauded by most of the German media. The most important, the rag called BILD (meaning “picture”), with its alleged eleven million readers (expanded last week by a one-day celebration of its sixtieth birthday, with free copies stuffed into forty million letterboxes) has led the way. After forcing one president out of office and putting its own man in to take his place, it went back to bashing Greece, or rather the Greeks, as if their economic misery was their own fault, due to laziness and living on Easy Street. But this brutal nonsense got people asking: “Why should we pay our hard-earned money to support those good-for-nothings?” National elections are due in 2013, Merkel’s Christian Democrats have been slipping; it is hard for Merkel to buck this vicious stuff even if she should want to.
Only this time, on key issues, the political big shots of Spain and Italy prevailed over Merkel. Like Greece, they are facing disaster and collapse, with unions, the jobless, above all the young people fighting back more and more vigorously. The prevailing austerity policies, which Merkel wanted to make even tougher, can wreck the euro and cause crisis and depression everywhere, also in Germany, whose economy — relatively solid thanks to big export success and low or stagnant wages — is now showing menacing cracks. Italy, Spain, and France pushed together — and won some safety valves in the austerity machine, giving those countries a little more breathing space, at least financially. Without Merkel’s buddy, Sarkozy, holding hands with her, German economic power was no longer supreme and despite a mix of confident smiles and strong-sounding words, Angela’s image suffered visibly at home and abroad.
But she has a reputation for resiliency and succeeded in pushing the resulting Fiscal Pact through the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (Upper House) with the necessary two-thirds majority. But just barely. A group from her own governing coalition deserted, but the two main opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, gave her the needed votes. They justified their support by pointing to concessions they had won — a tax on financial transactions at long last (a very tiny one), some money to combat youth unemployment, and somewhat higher taxes on the very wealthy. But all were vague and uncertain.
This is where the Left party moved in. Aside from a small but media-effective demonstration outside the big Bundestag building, it took this Fiscal Pact right up to the German Supreme Court, claiming that the rights of the duly-elected German Bundestag to make decisions for the people of the country are abridged, granting key powers into the hands of European financial and political institutions and banks unelected and uncontrolled by the people. It is therefore unconstitutional. Several others joined in, including a prominent member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, a member of her coalition government. Until this claim is ruled on, the president cannot sign the law, with its bailout fund for the southern sisters.
Then the brainy, eloquent theoretician Sahra Wagenknecht, newly-elected co-vice-president of the Left party, took the floor in the Bundestag for the 15 minutes allowed her. What a quarter of an hour! I have rarely seen a more powerful, hard-hitting speech! She mercilessly exposed the whole racket at play in European economies. The people, especially the poorest people, are forced to pay for the crimes of the banks. This was seen most tragically in Greece, where unemployment has soared, to about 50 percent among young people, where pensions have been cut, thousands of government employees laid off, countless people evicted, health and education cut, and valuable properties given to the highest bidders. The billions granted Greece so graciously to regain stability went almost entirely into the same banks which caused the disaster and which simply kept on gobbling up the wealth of both the neediest country and the neediest people in the donor country. When the banks are in trouble, as today in Spain, it is they who get rescued, not the millions of jobless. Wagenknecht named three of the main beneficiaries: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the Deutsche Bank, whose recently retired boss Josef Ackermann was a close buddy of Merkel and many others in the government.
Wagenknecht called on the Social Democrats and Greens to examine their consciences. In exchange for vague and minor concessions they were supporting the Merkel government in a move which can further impoverish the countries in trouble, cut social benefits and democracy in Germany, and move further to a Europe dominated by financial monsters and devoted to cutting living standards everywhere — while expanding its military muscle in areas around the globe. She recalled how both parties utter many progressive words when out of office, but in power forget them, and in cases like the present, when the chips are down, they sing along with the ruling parties in fearsome quartet. But the politicians she was addressing either tried to heckle her or tried to look terribly bored.
Now what about that other item (hardly if at all reported in the US media, I believe)? A District Court in Cologne, striking down the ruling of a lower court, decided that circumcision was illegal, indeed a punishable offence, since the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.” Although this was no decision on a national scale, it was a precedent, which could be broadened in scope, and understandably raised a huge amount of debate. It involved not only the small Jewish community — estimated to be somewhat over 100,000 religiously affiliated and perhaps another 100,000 who are not in a congregation. But there are also about four million Muslims in Germany, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, North Africans, Bosnians, Afghanis, and Iranians, whose religion also calls for the circumcision of young boys.
Despite the fact that this is no binding law, it does mean that doctors will carefully consider whether to risk a sentence for “mutilating” their young patients. And so will perhaps the few mohels in the Jewish community (who are traditionally the practitioners).
One Jewish leader said that if such a decision becomes law, all Jews might find it necessary to leave Germany — difficult to imagine in view of the close relations between the German government and the Netanyahu government and its predecessors.
And as for the Muslims, a key part of many communities, sometimes more, sometimes less integrated into German society, what will they do? While debates rage about the medical plus or minus of the operation and about religious freedom versus rights of the individual, one strange development is conceivable. Unfortunately a few leading right-wing members of the Jewish community had joined in the Muslimophobia hate campaigns; could there now develop a sort of United Front against foreskins? Who can imagine the outcome?
A flash item on a totally different subject: the neo-Nazi murder conspiracy, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish and one Greek man and one policewoman as well as bomb explosions and bank robberies, lasted for over ten years before it suddenly came to light after the death of two of the murderers and the arrest of a third one. A parliamentary committee has long been studying why the Constitutional Protection Agency (like the FBI) and other crime-fighting offices never found or stopped this series of killings, but instead put the blame on Turkish mafia elements or preferred to concentrate on left-wing people and Islamic terrorists. But since the Constitutional Protectors had filled the ranks of the neo-Nazi groups with their own spies, often themselves pro-Nazi, they should certainly have found clues as to the real murderers. There were indeed clues, but nothing was done. Now, suddenly it has come to light that the Protectors had been ordered last November 11th to turn over all relevant documents to the investigating committee. Instead, somehow, one day later, all or most of the material was shoved through a shredder and destroyed. The president of the Constitution Protectors was forced to resign — and the story has not yet ended. One clue on the thinking and activities of this institution, from the beginnings, came to light recently: a man working for the Protectors (and its American-run predecessor) after the war was Karl Josef Silberbauer. He was the same man, then an SS and Gestapo officer, who arrested Anne Frank and her family in their Amsterdam hideout.
It has been a full week!
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).