Germany’s Left Party on the EU and NATO

Running up a down escalator is itself mighty difficult.  Trying to keep your footing both on an up and a down escalator at the same time is simply hard to imagine.  Yet it gives an idea of Germany’s present Ukrainian policy.

Soon after Soviet soldiers left East Germany between 1989 and 1994, the newly-unified country swiftly forgot all promises to the contrary and joined in expanding not only the more economic European Union but also the more military NATO — first into East Germany, then on to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic; to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia; to Albania and Croatia; and, not yet quite fully, to Azerbaijan and Georgia among others.  A glance at a map makes it all too clear: adding the wide Ukrainian expanse meant almost total western encirclement of Russia’s main territory, further diminishing its access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and moving alarmingly close to its heart.

Yet Berlin again joined in happily with Washington.  But its Maidan Square hero, the tall, tough, German-backed boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, was pushed out of the ring.  The famous hacked telephone call of the State Department’s Victoria Nuland with the US ambassador, at ringside in Kiev for the Kagan-Clinton-Kerry “betting syndicate,” betrayed that US man Arseniy Yatseniuk was fixed in advance to win the champion’s belt as new premier.  And the entries of the European Union?  “Fuck the EU” . . .  “Yats is the guy,” Nuland declared primly.  When the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France tried to referee the bout, and cool it, they landed on the ropes.  Cooling was out, “Yats” was in — and still is today.

Now Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are caught on those contrary moving escalators.  They can no more buck the stronger players from across the Atlantic in Kiev than they can keep them from tapping their telephone talk at home.  But the Rhine and the Spree are far closer to the Moskva than the Potomac, geographically and economically; many weighty German corporations feel protective about Russian oil and gas pipelines or export and investment opportunities, and keep pushing for moderation.  Which way to go?

This split helps explain why Ursula von der Leyen, the German Defense Minister, talks tough and sends the military to Russian borders while Foreign Minister Steinmeier keeps on with building bridges and roundtables, hopefully with success; and why Merkel urges the European Union to step up pressure against Russia with sanctions and visa denials but then cautions against any military actions.

Most media are less cautious.  They are always careful never to criticize one word or action of men like Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Avigdor Lieberman in Israel — because of Germany’s horrendous past (and/or a desire for recognition and respectability).  Yet the same media rarely if ever recall that Nazi Germany killed 25 million or more Soviet people, in the majority women, children, or starved POWs.  It appears at times as if such media never really “forgave” the Russians for horrors like the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  But Putin will not have forgotten them as he observed the growing NATO encirclement of Russia.  Nor will he have missed stray, unofficial hints that some view Maidan Square as a dress rehearsal for a grand-scale repeat performance on Red Square.  Yet somehow it is Putin who is unceasingly accused of aggressive ambitions!

Aside from the balancing acts, neither Merkel, Steinmeier, nor the media majority seem to note — or care — that the Kiev junta includes members of the Svoboda party, leaders in the Maidan uprising, with a menacing fascist past.  Its boss, Oleh Tyahnybok, says it stands for “Christian values” and the “rejection of various deviations.”  While it has discreetly superseded its early hero, Hitler deputy Josef Goebbels, with Stepan Bandera, who joined the Nazis in 1941 in killing Russians, Jews, and Poles, Svoboda not only wants bans on most abortions and homosexuals (its only agreement with Putin) but wants to make Ukrainian the only legitimate language, pushing out the Russian spoken in the eastern Ukraine.  Its ally, a band of extremists called the Right Sector, is evidently being built up as a sort of National Guard, uniformed, more disciplined, but as violent as ever in its killing sprees — from the flaming building in Odessa to tank and parachute raids into the Eastern Ukraine.  Both groups only thinly conceal their anti-Semitism and seem to have had ties to neo-Nazis in other countries, yet western leaders remain oh-so-generous in sending money, arms, and propaganda to what a retired top German Social Democrat called the “only government in Europe which includes open fascists.”  Especially disappointing perhaps: the Green Party in Germany is the most belligerent of all, rejecting any criticism of Kiev and all but demanding provocative action against Russia.

One major party in Germany refuses to join the dangerous game: the Linke — or Left Party.  The Ukraine crisis was high on the agenda of its congress in Berlin May 9th-11th.  Opinions did differ.  Gregor Gysi, its best-known leader, chair of the party’s caucus in the Bundestag, criticized Putin on the Crimea annexation.  Others supported him.  But the entire congress gave major blame for the crisis to NATO, the European Union, and the German government.  It opposed both sanctions against Russia and financial assistance for Kiev.  The almost equally well-known Linke leader Sahra Wagenknecht charged: “A coup d’état government with neo-fascist and anti-Semitic members has been installed with the blessing of Merkel and Steinmeier.”  Even those critical of Putin called for more respect for Russia.  Berlin chairman Klaus Lederer said: “We must never forget the immeasurable losses of the people of the Soviet Union during the invasion by Nazi Germany nor the sacrifices they made in freeing Europe from fascism. ”  Above all, the congress demanded negotiations and a rejection of any military escalation.  Its Ukraine resolution, with some compromises, was passed almost unanimously by the congress.

Also almost unanimously, such agreement dismayed all its foes, and not just because of the one resolution.  In the Bundestag the Linke, which must be given at least a little TV time, offers the only real opposition to military adventures and rightwing actions, at home or abroad.  It is therefore universally loathed (or secretly feared) by the other parties and their pet media.  They always hope such a congress will end in a knock-down-drag-out fight, maybe even a fatal split.  To their disappointment there was neither the one nor the other.

There was indeed some tension leading up to the congress.  In a Bundestag vote on April 9th on sending a German frigate as escort to the American ship carrying poison gas away from Syria, Linke delegates experienced a real split for the first time.  Five, from the so-called “reformer” group, joined the other parties and voted in favor.  18 members abstained; they saw the deployment as part of a disarmament move — and thus not to be opposed.  But 35 delegates braved angry attacks from the entire establishment (with two courageous exceptions from other parties) and voted No.  For them sending that warship to the Mediterranean was no real necessity at all but rather one more global extension of German military and naval strength.  The Linke, they insisted, must keep its position of adamantly rejecting all such expansion.  It must remain the one party of peace.

The main repercussions came from the outside.  Both Social Democrats and Greens regard this strict “hands off” principle, extending even to causes they label, rightly or wrongly, as “humanitarian,” as a major stumbling block against any coalition with the Linke in 2017.  That worries some so-called reformers who hope for just such a coalition.  Others, who proved stronger at this congress, fear that weakening this basic tenet would land the party on the same slippery slope which turned the SPD and the Greens into weak-kneed collaborators with the same old powers that be and thus render the Linke largely superfluous.

Such basic principles were not directly involved on a state level, thus permitting more flexibility on joining with other parties.  Some approve cooperating with the SPD, others maintain that such coalitions do the party more harm than good.  No general rules were determined.  In the state of Brandenburg the two parties have governed together since 2009 and will most likely continue to do so after state elections in September.  In Thuringia there is even a chance that the Linke and SPD could win a majority and form a coalition, this time with the Linke stronger, and if the SPD agrees to be a junior partner this could result in the first Linke minister-president in unified Germany.  That would be a true sensation, but one fraught with many possible traps and temptations.

On other issues there was general agreement: support for Venezuela against violent putsch attempts; rejection of military drones for Germany or their use from its bases; basic rejection of a capitalist system now forcing so many into poverty, also in Germany; rejection of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being secretly negotiated between the EU and the USA; and support for the Occupy movement, now planning a world “Blockupy” action against the big banks.

Calls to oppose neo-Nazis, fascists, or any racists wherever they raise their hateful banners and stiff-armed salutes against Muslims, Jews, Roma people, or immigrants were especially stressed by Gabi Zimmer, chair of the small leftist alliance in the European Parliament in which the Linke, with 8 seats, has until now been the biggest group.  On May 22nd-25th Europeans from 28 countries will vote for a new parliament; it seems almost inevitable that the extreme right (and an only outwardly more moderate extreme right) will become much stronger, with more mandates for the Hungarian Jobbik, the Golden Dawn of Greece, France’s Front National, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Freedom Party of Austria, maybe even Germany’s almost openly pro-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP), and certainly the new Alternative for Germany (AfD), still wobbling in its position but like the others based on hatred toward foreigners and most minorities.

Gabi Zimmer stated that despite justified aversion to the European Union and its aims, it is wrong of some further-left groups and parties to reject participation.  The European Parliament, the only elected part of the European Union, is worth fighting for; even the small leftwing alliance she has chaired, whose 35 members from 13 countries vary quite widely, has had some surprising achievements.  She hopes for encouraging increases in its numbers from Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, and most of all from Greece.  And Alexis Tsipras, top foreign guest at the congress, head of the strong Syriza party in Greece and candidate of the 26-member Party of the European Left for president of the European Commission, called for increased solidarity among progressives in Europe and a build-up of the left alliance within the European Parliament as “the only counterweight to the nightmare of the extreme right and the rebirth of the specter of fascism in Europe.”

In its election of all Linke party officials conflicts between the varying party wings resulted in some tight races.  But despite conflicts there was no split but again a balance, with an equal number of women and men, of easterners and westerners, of reformers and more leftist “radicals.”  Both co-presidents were re-elected — Katja Kipping, a woman from Dresden in East Germany, not really in the “reformer” camp; and Berndt Riexinger, a more leftist West German union leader.  Together the two have managed to calm the stormiest party waves during their time in office and both are quite popular (the pro-or-con vote for Kipping was 77 to 16%, for Riexinger 89 to 7%).  Here in conclusion, for anyone interested, are some quotes from Riexinger’s main speech.

Looking back at the last two years we can feel truly proud of what we have achieved and accomplished together.  I can well recall those months before and the weeks after Gottingen [the last congress, VG] — the negative poll results, the positional struggles which upset, demotivated, yes frustrated so many in the party.  We presented no good image then.  But together we have moved out of this trough.  We are now the strongest opposition party in the German Bundestag! . . .

While a small sector of society spends its boundless income and fortunes on luxury apartments in the world’s big cities and showing off the size of its yachts, millions of people in factory jobs, temp work, mini-jobs and midi-jobs, short-term contracts, low-income jobs, or self-employed, do not know whether they will still have work in the month ahead or how they can pay rent and electricity bills and manage to live on their slender incomes. . . .  We must spread hope that circumstances can be changed and improved.  We must give people courage and the assurance that they can alter things, with elections and in the streets. . . .

The Linke will never become adjusted to a system which excludes millions of people from equal participation.  We will never accept a situation where, in one of the world’s wealthiest societies, people must work and live in insecure, even lawless conditions. . . .

If one says one is a leftist one often feels pressure to say what one is not for.  Not for barbed wire, not for dictatorship, not for injustices in China or some other place.  No, we’re not.  Period.  But we must proudly say who and what we are for.  We are for social justice which is a thousand times better than being for injustice.  We are proud to be on the left because that means we are against war, we favor policies of peace.  We are for a future for young people, for unity of ecology, social justice, and the economy.  We are against exploitation and oppression.  We believe that people can take their future into their own hands.

No, dear comrades, we need not be ashamed of ourselves.  Looking at the world today, it is those who are not on the left who actually need to justify themselves.  That is why we are proud to be on the left.  To be a leftist means to squarely face the people, life, and the future.

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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