Where Is the Left in the Austere Germany of the “Patriots”?

Things in Berlin are all really up in the air!  No, cancel that!  Just the opposite; they are grounded — indefinitely!  That giant new hub airport for Berlin, named after Willy Brandt, was due to be opened last June after weeks and months of ballyhoo.  But it wasn’t.  Something was not quite OK with the fire emergency system, it was announced.  The postponement cost a host of retailers and bus companies all kinds of trouble and expense.  Before long, rumors of other building botch-ups made the rounds — instead of planes!  One postponement followed the other.  All work was halted but a fifth opening date was promised for October 2013.

Then — big news at last!  What was up?  No, only that Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who had chaired the Supervisory Committee, finally resigned.  It was found that the committee had known of the coming calamity for months but stayed mum and kept vainly dreaming.  Wowereit, his popularity figures in a crash, passed on the chair to the head of the neighboring state of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, also a top Social Democrat.  And the great opening day was again postponed, with no date this time — except perhaps what Germans call “Sankt Nimmerleinstag” — translated as “Never-Never Day” or “When Hell Freezes Over.”

The Pirates and the Greens, parties in opposition in Berlin, are now calling for Wowereit to resign as mayor, which would cause no end of turmoil.  There’s plenty of that already at pleasant little Tegel airport, which was to have been replaced but is instead hopelessly overloaded.  For nearby residents this means a big increase in the roar of ascending or descending planes.  Those due to be hit by the ear-deafening progress of a new airport (and battered in home value) are the only ones rejoicing at every delay.  As for taxpayers — the original cost was set at two billion euros.  It’s now over four billion — and ascending skywards.

There was also turmoil at Germany’s other end in southwestern Stuttgart where every January the Free Democratic Party holds its Drei-Königs-Treffen or “Three Kings’ Meeting.”  Though named for the wise magi — or maybe kings — in the Bible, there was little wisdom and even less Christmas spirit as the select audience in the ornate opera house reacted to current party boss Philipp Rösler with reluctant applause and a taste of highly unusual heckling.  Rösler, born not quite forty years ago (in Saigon, where he was adopted as a baby by a German couple) and dapperly-clothed as ever, looked toothlessly pathetic.  Despite ties to big business, his party just can’t seem to regain its one-time (if limited) voter base.  Poor Rösler has done almost everything but stand on his head to regain prestige and a corner of power, but opposing a minimum wage, any job protection, or a rise in taxes on the very wealthy has not even won back much of big biz or the prosperous professionals who used to like his party.  Too many now prefer to put their eggs in the twin baskets of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party or its Bavarian sister party.  For Rösler, a countdown has begun: if his Free Democrats fail to win the needed five percent in state elections in Lower Saxony on January 20th, Rösler’s day is done with his party — or what is left of it.  Not many would regret the loss, aside from Ms. Rösler and their daughters of course.  But maybe he could return to his old job as army doctor.  And his party might finally be shoved to the gloomy wings of the political stage.

But halt.  What if Rösler and his Free Democrats drop through the stage trapdoor like Don Giovanni in the opera (but without any hellfire, for he is at least a good Catholic)?  That would deprive Angela Merkel’s “Christians” (and she at least, as a pastor’s daughter, should be a good Lutheran) of their junior partner.  And therein lies the rub!  Her side still leads the polls with about 40 percent, in part because Merkel is a clever, knowledgeable politician, clear-headed, seemingly kind and friendly, without the boasting, blustering, and braggadocio of many predecessors.  Too few notice, in the not-so-fashionable but soft-looking glove, a hand, tough as nails, pushing for “austerity” and hunger for millions in southern Europe while still sounding surprisingly socially-conscious for Germany’s working people — up until she can win the September elections.  But forty is not a majority!  She needs more!  And so do her opponents, the Greens and Social Democrats who, even together, also lack fifty percent.

The Greens are currently riding rather high, as third biggest.  In fact, while their old rivals, the Free Democrats, gnashed their vote-hungry teeth in the opera house in Stuttgart and feared downfall, the Greens, a few streets away, were setting tables for a victory dinner.  The very next day their man took his oath of office as the first Green mayor of a major German city.

What about the Social Democrats (SPD)?  Instead of the planned flying start into the year’s emerging election campaign, their take-off recalled the Berlin airport fiasco.  Their candidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor next autumn was tight-lipped Peer Steinbrück, the Bundestag delegate with the most side earnings, mostly lectures at big companies for 15,000 to 25,000 euros each, totaling 327 lectures in three years and a million and a half euros.  Plus 56,000 for attending two board meetings of the Thyssen-Krupp company, to whom he evidently promised his influence in getting them lower energy costs.  The 8,000 euro a month he gets as mostly absent member of the Bundestag amounted to peanuts.

This did not jive with loud attempts by the SPD to sound socially-conscious and hope voters forget how it and the Greens, when in office, slashed benefits for middle and poorer classes while cutting taxes for the wealthy.  Now they plagiarize all the social demands of the Left party — which rarely if ever gets mentioned in the media.

Then Steinbrück hit the headlines again, this time by asserting that the salary of the German chancellor is too low, less than the director of a provincial bank, as he put it.  The first reaction was laughter: the only person who could gain from a raise would be the winner of the September election, Merkel or Steinbrück, and Merkel said she’s satisfied with the 17,000 euro she gets monthly.  The laughter was not so hearty among the SPD’s traditional working-class voters, with some getting wages or pensions less than 1,000 a month, sometimes far less.

These are the ones, a majority, who have good cause to worry about the years after the voting, no matter whether it is Merkel’s crew or the SPD and Greens who settle into comfy Cabinet chairs and perk Mercedes or BMWs.  Rumors are flying (quicker than anything at the new airport) about plans the former have tucked away for Germans under an “AUSTERITY” label.  And the SPD and Greens are noted for their agility in forgetting pre-election promises.

What should be at least as worrisome — but unfortunately isn’t for most people — is the century and a half old policy of German expansion, political, economic, and, increasingly, military as well.  The military urge was sublimated until 1990 when its key barrier, the East German Democratic Republic, was finally “disappeared”; since then it has been flourished with warplanes against Serbia, warships swaying in waters off the coasts of Lebanon and Somalia, troops and planes in Afghanistan, tanks exported to Saudi Arabia and potentially atomic-armed submarines sold to Israel.  Now a new chapter has begun: with the USA and the Netherlands it is shipping “Patriot” rocket launchers to Turkey, aimed at Syria under the guise of a mock protection.  No one has yet explained what is “patriotic” about them!  A couple of courageous Greens opposed this latest expansion; a few more Social Democrats voted No or abstained.  But their parties approved.

Lower Saxony Polls by Infratest Dimap, 2002-2013
Lower Saxony Polls by Infratest Dimap, 2002-2013

The one party all of whose deputies opposed such “Patriots” is still opposed to any such future expansion.  It also leads in fighting against a resurgence of Nazis in everyday life and consistently supports the welfare of working people.  Yet for the Lower Saxony vote in a few days the polls show it with hardly a chance of getting the needed 5 percent; on the national level it wobbles between 6 and 8 percent.  Its adherents are wondering impatiently: Where is it?  Its inner quarrels are more or less out of the limelight, its two new leaders, Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping, have taken good positions on many issues, so have the two most mentioned in terms of leading the election campaign, caucus chairman Gregor Gysi and Vice-President Sara Wagenknecht.  But while statements, courageous votes, and parliamentary elocution are good and necessary, the party has thus far failed to breach an almost universal barrier of distortion or silence and reach the grassroots people worried about rent increases, steeper utility costs, stress and anxiety on the job, and job losses.  What might be called Mayor Wowereit’s Airport Folly should be a warning to get the right thing done at the right time.

Here’s a Berlin postscript: When the East German GDR disappeared, so did many offending street names like Lenin Platz, Dimitroff Street (after the man who defied Goering and won acquittal in 1933 in the famous Reichstag Fire trial), and those named for the women’s rights leader Clara Zetkin, GDR leaders like Wilhelm Pieck, and Hans Beimler, a Communist deputy in the Reichstag who escaped the Dachau concentration camp and then fought (and died) in the Spanish Civil War.  The changes were determined by city or borough councils.  In West Berlin other name changes might also have been considered — of a host of war-minded kings, kaisers and their queens, or of fifteen German World War I aces (one of whom lived to be a top Nazi officer).  Recently one street name did indeed become a candidate for change.  Treitschke-Strasse in a prosperous West Berlin borough was named after the Prussian historian who from about 1871 to 1896 advocated German expansion with a “pitiless racial struggle” against Eastern Europeans.  He was even more infamous for coining and propagating the slogan “The Jews Are our Misfortune!” — which spread and led directly to the deportations and mass murder under Hitler.

The borough council, instead of the usual practice of voting on street names, agreed to let residents of the street vote on the matter.  Generous offers were made to alter documents, visiting cards, and other papers free of charge.  In the mail vote nearly three quarters of the residents sent in ballots; 64 voted to alter the name, 226 to keep it as it was.

But my next article — I hope — will have some good news!

And here, for the few who still like to watch polls (like me), is the most recent picture.  The first number is for January 6th, the second (another company), for January 9th: CDU-CSU: 40/42%, SPD: 27/25, Greens 14/15, Left 8/9, Free Dems 4/2, Pirates 4/3.

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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