Decent news to begin with: Near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate a memorial was finally unveiled to mark the murder of approximately 500,000 Roma people (often called Gypsies) in Nazi death camps. The decision to erect it was made in 1992, the year a pogrom in the East German city of Rostock was unleashed when Roma refugees were forced to camp outdoors in public gardens, angering (almost certainly intentionally) the local neighborhood. It took twenty years to overcome controversies and problems concerning the simple monument, by Israeli architect Dani Karavan, a circular water pool about 12 meters wide (c. 40 feet) with a low triangular stele in the center, to be lowered and raised daily, bearing a single fresh flower. Nearby are the names of the death camps, a chronicle of events, and a poem, “Auschwitz,” by the Italian Roma musician Santino Spinelli. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke movingly, followed by a survivor of the annihilation of so many of the Roma population who spoke of the “forgotten holocaust” and of his regret that society had learned “almost nothing” since then, in view of continuing discrimination from France to the Balkans.
That was on October 24th. On October 25th Merkel’s Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, demanded that entrance visa and asylum rules for people from Serbia and Macedonia be sharply tightened, that decisions on approving or rejecting applications be speeded up, and that skimpy cost-of-living allowances for those waiting should be reduced. He avoided the word — but it is common knowledge that 90 percent of these would-be immigrants are Roma people, whose living conditions in much of southeastern Europe have become intolerable.
Meanwhile, a protest camp of people seeking political asylum here spent a third week in tents in a square in Berlin’s borough of Kreuzberg. About 60 people, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from several African countries, walked 28 days from Wurzburg in Bavaria to Berlin, 250 miles, some with small children, to demand humane treatment. Kept on waiting lists for months and years, often housed in old barracks or public buildings in wooded areas isolated from towns or cities, they are restricted from leaving the one county they are assigned to, even to visit friends and family members. They are not allowed to take jobs to increase paltry allowances sometimes given them in vouchers instead of money. The mayor of Kreuzberg, a left-wing member of the Green party, obtained permission for them to remain until the end of November, but cold weather is already taking its toll. Some of the group have begun a hunger strike near Brandenburg Gate — not far from the handsome new memorial.
For most media such hunger strikes, if mentioned at all, are not big news. Berlin’s big news for months deal with a local calamity, the giant new Willy Brandt airport in Schönefeld, southwest of the city, a hub to compete with Frankfurt/Main and Munich. A ballyhoo crescendo preceded the big opening on June 3, 2012. Invitations had been mailed out, new hotels, bus services, and retail shops were ready to go. Suddenly, four weeks before the big day, Mayor Wowereit, co-chairman of the oversight committee, announced shamefacedly that the deadline could not be met: the fire emergency system was flawed. As a new opening date was planned for August, then October, December, March — now precariously standing at a year from now, October 27th — it became clear that not just one system was flawed! The original cost plan, 2 billion euros, now stands at 4.2 billion and is as unsteady as the opening date. One thing seems definite: Mayor Wowereit, a Social Democrat, who headed the popularity list polling in Berlin for years, was last seen down around ninth place (of ten).
This was not the only fiasco. Aside from big and little breakdowns in the elevated train system, by now almost normal, the giant new headquarters for the Federal Intelligence Bureau (BND), at the site of a main stadium in former GDR times, was also hit by delays caused by mismanagement; the price tag, originally set at 720 million euros, has already reached 912 million. This bad-luck espionage center, less a sister of the CIA than its daughter, was set up in 1956 by a top Nazi espionage general, Reinhard Gehlen, after absolving his service with the American cloak-and-dagger chiefs. He immediately staffed his organization near Munich (where it remains until the Berlin building problems are overcome) with all his old SS, Gestapo, and other war criminal buddies. The more anti-Communist they were the better their chances of a good job — until a scandal in the 1960s forced him to fire 71 of the very bloodiest. By now those men have died off, a small consolation to judge from the present lot. And no one here seems overly worried about delays in this particular moving day.
This BND agency also has a German sister, the Constitutional Protection Bureau — rather like the CIA and FBI siblings in the USA. But the sister also directed its main attention to obstreperous leftists or, more recently, other sinister elements who don’t even speak German properly. Thus it somehow overlooked a widespread neo-Nazi underground network which killed people (mostly immigrants) and set off bombs for over ten years without being detected, even though rightwing groups and the neo-Nazi “National Democratic Party” are filled, even staffed, with highly-paid secret government agents. Lengthy investigations of what has obviously been collusion were rendered more difficult because this government agency shredded thousands of relevant documents when the facts first started to bubble up out of the morass. The investigations are still in progress.
But, alas, there is further bad news from the construction sector! Stuttgart often made headlines last year when tens of thousands objected to a major alteration of the famous main station and a neighboring park, both favorite city treasures. Months of almost daily demonstrations, with occasional violent clashes with the police, were finally resolved when a thin showing of voters voted in favor of reconstruction, even though here too the original price tag had long been crumpled up and thrown away. Not 2.5 billion euros but 4.5 billion were required, and they are still counting. And what has happened now? Since work began there have been three train accidents in or near the construction sites, luckily with only a few lighter injuries, but frequent enough to make people wonder whether the largely national railway system and the giant private companies they hired know what they are doing. And to add a variant of “I told you so!” in the Swabian dialect of German spoken down there!
Such feelings were reflected in their voting pattern. Last year Baden-Wurttemberg, this once so conservative home of both Daimler-Benz and Porsche, elected the first Green politician to head a German state. This October 21 the voters in Stuttgart, its capital and sixth largest German city, elected a Green mayor, the very first to rule in a state capitol. Both the new mayor, Fritz Kuhn, 57, and Minister President Winfried Kretschmann, 64, are from the conservative wing of their party (Kretschmann views his brief spell as a communist student a “fundamental political mistake”). Their success in winning jobs formerly held almost eternally by Christian Democrats was only a local setback for Angela Merkel’s party, but did indicate the disappointment of many German voters in both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, both of them now striving to break out of the 30 percent range before national elections next September.
Merkel’s “Christians” are still leading, but their partners, the big-biz friendly Free Democrats, seem unable to break out of the 4 percent doldrums, which would leave them out of the Bundestag and possibly erase them altogether from the national blackboard.
This would likely lead to an unholy “Grand Coalition” of Christians and Social Democrats, as from 2005 to 2009, which would not bode well for working people in Germany, now being torn by almost daily switches from optimistic to pessimistic prophesies for the near future.
If these two biggies join together again that would leave the Greens (with their current 14 percent) out in the cold, despite the recent victories in the Swabian southwest corner.
And the others? The Free Democrats, as mentioned, are gasping for breath and grabbing at straws. Their youthful leader, the handsome, Vietnamese-born Philipp Rösler, a man of the right, has pretty well botched their chances. The once hopeful Pirates, with their cool clothes and hair fashions, are no longer so hot either. Aside from stale calls for transparency and internet freedom they can agree on no policies, right or left, and their inner party wrangling makes it seem ever more likely that they, too, will miss the magic 5 percent level.
That leaves the Left Party. It slides up and down the polls between 6 and 8 percent, and must keep on its toes if it wants to make it back into the Bundestag. Its internal quarrels have seemingly subsided and it is beginning to sound more aggressive, with its two new leaders sounding interesting new notes. Katja Kipping of Dresden, 34, has a personal wish to see a guaranteed basic income for everyone, whether working or not — a view not widely shared in the party but open to discussion — like her recent, equally unusual statement, echoing the French leftist Mélenchon, that 40,000 euros a month are easily enough to live on handsomely and all above that might well be taxed 100 percent. Such radical views are balanced by her West German co-president Bernd Riexinger, a quiet union man but evidently a fighter, who defied the rabid German media by joining protest crowds in Athens recently when Angela Merkel came to push for further cuts in the ravaged Greek living standards. Most indications are that members of the Left Party approved of his courage and international spirit and hope that rapport between the two co-presidents will help push the Left Party “onward and upward” in the months ahead. For all the Germans in miserably low-paid jobs or no jobs at all, and now fearful of rising rental costs, the party’s pressure is badly needed.
I will end with a biting joke sent by a reader and email friend, reflecting the resentment of many Greeks towards German bankers and weapons dealers — with memories of the past: When Merkel entered Greece she was asked her name at immigration. “Angela Merkel” she replied. “Occupation?” asked the agent. “No,” said Merkel, “I’m only staying a few days.”
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).