First, a glance at long-past history — at the American hero Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin von Steuben, known as Baron Steuben. In many ways he was really a phony. His noble title and rank as “Prussian Lieutenant General” were inventions; he had really been dropped from Friedrich the Great’s army as a lowly captain. That he was probably gay may have made things tougher. But with the help and advice of Benjamin Franklin in Paris and a stunning general’s uniform from Franklin’s tailor he was able to impress George Washington and other top officers — and when he got to America, Steuben proved his mettle: amidst the freezing huts and tents at Valley Forge he played a major part in forging a disciplined, fighting, and victorious revolutionary army. You can see a statue of him in Magdeburg, where he was born.
And now Magdeburg was in the news. As in Valley Forge, the weather was icy. But it wasn’t hostile Hessians who were marching. Far worse, it was Nazis. After their annual marches through Dresden on the anniversary of its destruction in February 1945 were repeatedly blocked by anti-fascist resistance, they switched further down the Elbe River to Magdeburg, also an East German state capital. Once again they chose a date near the day when Magdeburg suffered its most devastating air raid, January 16 1945. Again they hoped to win sympathy for their constant claim that in the war it was heroic Germany which suffered worst of all.
Just like in Dresden, the city fathers felt compelled to protest the arrival of several thousand Nazis from all over Germany and neighboring countries but wanted no troubles and no confrontations; only a downtown street of protest with booths and stands offering everything from books to hot wurst was OK — while the Nazis were permitted to march, but well away from the downtown area. That was the policy of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, also some unions and church groups. More militant organizations, including the Left and the Greens, wanted rather to block the Nazi marches, as in Dresden, and convince them never to return with their typical bull-like napes, their black flags, and their menacing anti-foreigner slogans. As in Dresden, the official policy was against any anti-Nazi blockades, and here they succeeded. They altered the Nazi route at the last moment, again using the Elbe, so while the anti-Nazis waited and froze on the east side of the river, the police protected the Nazis marching on the west side — including a provocative rally in front of the left-wing, anti-fascist Libertarian Centrum. When anti-fascists then tried to get there to protect their center, they were encircled by the police; some were arrested. As always, estimates varied: there were probably about 900 Nazis. And 2,000 anti-Nazis, acting in the spirit of old Steuben.
A hundred miles eastward, in Berlin, the picture was very different. Sunday was the day when those of left-wing persuasion mark the memory of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, brutally murdered by the Nazis’ predecessors in January 1919. Thousands go every year to the memorial site where they were once buried, often placing red carnations around the large, simple stone saying: “The dead warn us!” Around them, in a semicircular wall, are urns of leading socialists and communists from the early 1900s until 1990.
Every year a group of several thousand mostly younger people, with flags, banners, and music, walk two and a half miles from Karl Marx Allee. On arriving they join the far bigger main crowd who go by subway or other transportation and walk the last seven or eight blocks to the memorial site at the edge of a larger cemetery holding the graves of many progressives.
This annual event, renewed after the Nazi years by the GDR government though in an official, overly organized manner, was retained after the end of the GDR and became an emotionally moving gathering for all the faithful old leftists plus a growing group of young people. But this spirit and solidarity with both the past and the international present always angered some important people, and every method was used to break the tradition. In the 1990s they tried intimidation, with constant frisking, hundreds of police vans, helicopters, mounted cops, and frequent attacks into the marching group, often when they spotted some young Kurd carrying a small flag of the forbidden Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). One year a dubious written threat to blast the demonstration and resultant Verbot (and withdrawal by the Left) almost ended the march, but many defied the ban, using side streets to get as close as they could.
Another threat came a few years ago from within the Left party, whose leaders are usually the first to place their carnations at the site. A stone marked “To the Victims of Stalinism” was embedded near the entrance, causing immediate controversy; many considered this the wrong place for such a stone or were dismayed at what they saw as support for constant attempts to denounce the GDR as just another dictatorship, hardly better (and perhaps even worse) than the Nazis. There were scuffles, a few radical hotheads tore up flowers placed there, and the media lapped it up. But aside from some quarrels, the people keep coming, if not in the huge numbers of the first post-GDR years — many are too old, many are gone — but with a new infusion of enthusiasm from the young people.
This year another dent was made. Among those taking the longer route are always groups of ultra-leftists from all Germany (and other countries as well). There are Maoist groups, Trotskyist and Spartakist groups in a wide variety, plus some Turkish, Kurdish, and smaller immigrant groups, with their varied banners and a chance at the loudspeaker truck. In general the factions simply agreed to disagree. But last year it was noticed that one radical Turkish and one radical German group carried banners with portraits not only of “Karl and Rosa” and occasionally Lenin but also of Stalin and Mao. The leaders of the march managed to push such banners well to the rear, but a clearly unspontaneous group of young men in a building along the route tried with slogans to provoke a melee over the issue. A resultant shouting match and perhaps a few harmless blows went unnoticed by all but a few among the marchers. But somehow the media were right there, and they made the most of it.
This year, using that little controversy as justification, an autonomous youth organization connected to the Left party called “solid,” which is often torn by controversy, decided by a narrow vote to join some mostly West Berlin organizations, the Young Social Democrats, the Young Greens, the youth sections of some unions, and the century-old leftist youth organization Die Falken (The Falcons) to boycott the four kilometer march and have a separate memorial ceremony in West Berlin, ending at the place on the canal where Rosa Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the water. This split was viewed with great dismay by a majority who earnestly regretted glorifying Stalin or Mao but saw this as a new danger possibly resulting in the whole memorial tradition breaking up and dying out.
In the end, only an estimated 400-800 showed up for the new grouping in West Berlin; about 4,000 militants walked the four-kilometer route which, lacking some from the other groups, had a proportionately larger share of ultra-leftist “rrrrevolutionaries.” But at the memorial site, the roadway bordered left and right by book dealers, a dozen or so political groups, and soup or sausage stands, aside from a very few loud-mouth agitators, the crowd was friendly and thoughtful. Many are pensioners, many others are active for the causes of peace, environment — and democratic socialism as well.
Not all was peaceful. A small crowd had gathered as usual around the controversial stone. They too were peaceful. But two grim cordons of menacing, helmeted cops stood nearby, the outside ring with police dogs. Then a young woman passed by, quite innocently. But her dog, half the size of the police dogs, was soon in an angry argument, first snarling, then loudly barking and lunging at one big opponent, who answered in kind. In a minute all the dogs were wildly barking. Even after the little marcher had been pulled away the police dogs began to argue very loudly amongst themselves. This is when a new order arrived and the canine cop group withdrew well away from the scene, to the laughter of nearly all the witnesses, some of whom went ahead to congratulate the woman on her “left-wing dog” and his victory.
But now, for the five larger German parties, attention is focused tensely on the state elections in Lower Saxony next Sunday. The Left, the right-wing Free Democrats, and the young Pirates party must all fear missing the needed five percent and getting left out of the legislative game in Hanover, the capital. While the Christians fear losing to a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, the Social Democrats, facing a continuing decline in support, must also fear ending up out in the cold. All are watching the last minute maneuvers of the opponents and staring at the latest poll figures like rabbits hypnotized by snakes. The results will certainly influence the big vote in September. The weather in Germany remains icy. And while many of the leaders are phony, not many could be seen as valiant as “Baron Steuben.”
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).