During my month in my home country, the USA, things kept moving along on this eastern side of the Atlantic. I must try to catch up!
In early June Europe had to digest results of the European Parliament elections — and choke down some pretty revolting clumps. Far-right groups took alarming leads in France and Britain, and came in stronger than ever in Austria, Denmark, and Belgium, always building on hatred against immigrants, mostly Muslim immigrants. In Greece and Hungary outright pro-Nazi parties shot upward in votes and influence. Left-wing parties also registered big gains in Portugal, Spain, and Greece but on the whole the balance was very negative. Dissatisfaction, distrust, also real distress all too commonly resulted in either not voting at all or supporting right-wing parties opposed to the European Union. Voters’ reactions to nasty policies were very often misdirected against refugees from wars, political or economic repression in Africa or the Mideast who were worse off than them.
How was the vote in Germany, the strongest of the European Union’s 28 member countries? The two parties forming the government coalition, Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD), more or less kept their positions, with small gains for the latter.
But since the usual 5-percent hurdle did not apply this time, even small parties could win a seat with only 0.6 percent of the vote. So the big German delegation with 96 Mandates (out of 751) will now include one delegate each from the Pirate Party, the Animal Protection Party, the Family Party, the right-wing Ecological Democratic Party — and one called simply “the Party,” a purely satirical group which, aside from other total nonsense, calls for “more old age pensioners in Berlin; they improve the social atmosphere” and “police water cannon to be filled in future only with beer or, for visiting car drivers, with lemonade.” “In general, crime will be forbidden. . . . As for ourselves we totally reject juvenile delinquency.” — “There must be round-the-clock free daycare for all children and youth up to the age of 18.” — “When we win we will make sure that managers’ salaries are limited to 25,000 times that of a worker’s wages.” And so on! Yes, even this nutty party with its crazy but sometimes pointed demands won a seat in the European Parliament. But so did the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) with exactly 1 percent.
More significant was a new star on the German political horizon — not of high magnitude (as yet) but worrisome enough with a 7-percent result and seven seats. Although this Alternative for Germany (AfD) has not positioned itself clearly on many issues and has a variety of “wings,” it won votes because it is sharply critical of the European Union — generally unpopular even here — and loudly “pro-Germany” and anti-immigrant. This appeals to those same xenophobic fears and racist trends, if at first not so rabidly expressed as to lose it respectability. While Merkel officially shuns this evidently evil star, some of her party leaders are whispering about dropping their uncomfortable ties with the SPD and joining this new spark on the firmament, which has stolen votes from all the others, especially from the Free Democrats, now largely vanished from the scene, but even from the Linke, or Left Party. The AfD hopes to play a key role in three states in eastern Germany which hold elections in August and September.
What about the Left Party? It did not do as well as hoped, getting 7.6 percent of the German vote, which, like the AfD, meant seven seats in the Parliament, one less than before. It was no catastrophe, even showed a small gain in absolute numbers from the last such election, and was not unexpected, but certainly reflected the failure of the party to win a much broader audience over and above its fairly stable base of 18 to 28 percent in the eastern states, 7 to 13 in a few smaller western states and 2 to 5 percent in the others.
There were two constant problems: differences within the party; and unrelenting attacks by the media, which magnified and gloated over any and all inner-party disagreements although they are a common feature in all parties.
On June 4th one such tussle became public. The ongoing, bitter, increasingly bloody events in the Ukraine are a central issue for Germany’s government. On the one hand its whole history since 1945 (and actually well before that) commits it to join the USA in extending “western” influence and NATO military presence ever further eastward, very obviously encircling Russia in the process. But on the other hand Merkel & Co. are under pressure from major German corporations to maintain profitable economic ties with Russia, especially with respect to very important gas and oil imports.
In this dilemma it has been the Green party, not in the government coalition and thus lacking any such responsibilities or pressures, that outdoes all the others in demanding ever tougher sanctions or other measures against Russia. The Greens in Germany are not like those in the USA. Their once rebellious roots have largely withered; with some exceptions they have become a quite conservative party, worst of all in foreign policy. In the Yugoslav wars and the attacks on Libya they were the most belligerent of all, and in the current bloody Ukraine crisis they were louder than any other party in their support of the new government in Kiev. And, like all except the Left, they were undisturbed by the presence of vicious chauvinists and anti-Semites in the group which seized power.
Stephen F. Cohen wrote in The Nation:
Independent Western scholars have documented the fascist origins, contemporary ideology and declarative symbols of Svoboda and its fellow-traveling Right Sector. Both movements glorify Ukraine’s murderous Nazi collaborators in World War II as inspirational ancestors. Both, to quote Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok, call for an ethnically pure nation purged of the “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and “other scum,” including homosexuals, feminists and political leftists. Both hailed the fiery massacre in Odessa as “another bright day in our national history.”
And both were part of the new Kiev government.
Katrin Göring-Eckardt, co-leader of the Greens’ caucus in the Bundestag, disregarded such reports. She made statements like: “Many of us Greens have long been connected with the reform movement in the Ukraine . . . motivated by the defense of European values and the protection of human rights.” When she stuck by this stand, criticizing Left opposition even after events like the brutal killings in Odessa on May 2nd, she was attacked by fiery little Sevim Dagdelen of Bochum, one of two Left women delegates with Turkish background and a party spokesperson on foreign policy issues: “It makes me angry, I am really shocked at your claim that, because candidates of the Svoboda party and the Right Sector got few votes in the elections, the problem of neo-fascism, the problem of anti-Semitism, in the Ukraine is eradicated.” Dagdelen then quoted the German author Bertolt Brecht: “Whoever does not know the truth is simply a fool. But whoever knows the truth and calls it a lie is a criminal.”
This was tough talk, and three top leaders of the Left Party, its co-chairs Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping, and Gregor Gysi, its leader in the Bundestag, distanced themselves from it. “Such criticism by no means justifies calling delegate Göring-Eckardt a criminal.”
Dagdelen quickly responded, regretting that the three had not first spoken with her. They might have learned that in 1983 the Secretary General of the Christian Democrats had used the very same quotation in criticizing leaders of the SPD — and his party leaders had found no reason to distance themselves from him. “I wonder why the three leaders of my party feel they must distance themselves from me.”
Indeed, some Greens, including Göring-Eckardt, have on occasion been far nastier, like when they published a cruel photomontage depicting Left-leader Sahra Wagenknecht at the head of a menacing group of Russian soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs.
But the disagreement within the Left Party also reflected the ongoing debate as to whether the party should aspire to a joint SPD-Green-Left coalition after the elections in 2017, which would require toning down some of its key positions and certainly avoiding such tough comments.
On another question the Left stuck together, abstaining — almost alone — on a vote for a minimum wage in Germany. It had been the first to call for the measure, thus far lacking in Germany, but after first rejecting its demand the SPD and, more grudgingly, the CDU, then swiped it, re-wrote it, and made it into law. The Left abstained because it finds 8.50 euro too low and because some groups will be left out, including the long-time jobless, who can be hired at lower wages for six months, and those under 18. (And, at least temporarily, newspaper deliverers. The press lobby proved too strong.)
Three other items deserve mention. Asylum-seekers from conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East have occupied a square and then a school in Berlin for well over a year, demanding that their residence applications be dealt with at more than a terrible snail’s pace — while they are restricted to mostly miserable barracks in only one county and barred from any jobs and most education. After a sharp conflict between the arch-conservative head of the city Interior Department and the somewhat left-leaning Green woman borough mayor, a shaky solution may finally be in sight, this time with a minimum of violence.
For several months there have been big “Monday peace demonstrations” in over forty German cities, reflecting popular rejection of any German military action. This sounds good, and could be very good — except for attempts by very dubious groups to mix anti-American words with barely disguised anti-Semitic slogans (often attacking the Federal Reserve Board, claiming it has been to blame for all past wars and hinting that it is Jewish-dominated). Now there is news that the traditional peace movement has decided, not quite unanimously, to join the fray and take part on Mondays — but with a clear rejection of anti-Semitism or any other fascist ideas.
Finally, on an almost humorous note (for a change), the special Bundestag committee to investigate NSA snooping — not only of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone but of just about everybody else’s — suddenly discovered a snooper in its own midst. In line with a recent swift increase in anti-Russian propaganda, Putin was immediately suspected. But, alas, the 31-year-old official has allegedly been selling secret committee documents to — you guessed it — the NSA (or an equivalent). Poor Merkel must still walk a tightrope: loud indignation towards Washington while keeping it as its main ally. No easy balancing job!
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).