When politicians vacation and little action is expected, the words German journalists use for such summer doldrums is “Saure-Gurken-Zeit” — “sour pickle time.” Since German often squeezes things together into what Mark Twain called “not words but panoramas,” it’s usually written with no break, “Sauregurkenzeit,” and may be derived from the time before the harvest when pickles were all that was left to eat. Others think it may be a combination involving the Yiddish word for troubles, “tsores.”
Whatever the origin, it seemed to apply soon after a world soccer victory evoking excited adjectives from “historical” to “hysterical,” with Berlin marking its euphoria with countless private rockets “bursting in air.” And “the flags were still there” too, countless black-red-gold German colors. (The Stars and Stripes were increasingly unpopular here after scandals about the NSA-tapped phone of Angela Merkel — and most likely everyone else as well.) Anyway, after the games things slowed down.
For Sigmar Gabriel, times were perhaps a bit too sour. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) he heads — though firmly set in a ruling coalition with its love-hate partner and rival, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), and despite constant self-praise of early achievements, a long overdue minimum wage law and an earlier retirement age for some people — just can’t seem to break out of the poll doldrums, glued nationally at about 25 percent while Merkel’s “Mommy” image (“Mutti” in German) helps keep her party steadily at over 40. Even those two proud achievements, it turned out, contain more holes and loopholes than Swiss cheese. But instead of trying to improve its frayed, faded image as a progressive force, Gabriel now calls on his party to pay more attention to “healthy business interests” and thus “encourage the economy.” But this route, all too familiar to many Americans, has not helped but only further soured and weakened the small left-leaning caucus within the SPD.
The standing of the SPD will soon be tested in three state elections, all in former East Germany. On September 14th in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, the SPD is quite safe to win and will almost certainly continue its coalition with the Linke (Left), which gives that party the only cabinet seats it is currently holding anywhere.
In Saxony, the first to vote on August 31st, the Christian Democrats are sure to keep the strong lead they have had there since joining up with West Germany. But they probably won’t reach the 50 percent mark and will need a partner. Like Merkel on the national level, they may well offer junior partnership to the SPD (in a weak third place there), whose politicians, if invited, will surely bow their heads, mumble “yes sir” (the Saxon head of state is male), and settle gratefully into new cabinet seats in Dresden on the Elbe. Any resemblance with Dresden dolls is purely coincidental.
The most suspense will be in Thuringia, Germany’s forest-rich “green lung.” A partnership between CDU and SPD has held sway there for five years, but the latter, unhappy with the marriage, may seek a divorce after the September 24th election. Though here too probably strongest, the CDU may well be too far from the needed 50 percent, thus opening the door to a coalition between the Left and the SPD — here a real sensation! Since the poor SPD now polls only around 19 percent, this would mean having the Left — now at 27 percent — lustily on top in any new coupling. And that means getting the job of minister-president (like a US state governor) and would make Thuringia, the land of Weimar and Jena and long the home of Goethe and Schiller, the very first Left-led state in all Germany. This is still up in the air; five years ago the Social Democrats rejected just such a solution — but later came to regret it.
The Christian Democrats are very sour about perhaps getting ushered off to the cold opposition seats in the state house for the first time since 1990. To no one’s surprise, a leading CDU-man stridently warned the SPD against the Left, “a band of Stalinists, extremists, people from the ‘black bloc,’ leftist lovers of violence and former Stasi spies.” Actually, the Left leader who might wind up on top in Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, is Bodo Ramelow, 58, a devout Lutheran from West Germany, once a leader in the union of bank, insurance, and retail employees, and never yet seen brandishing a Molotov cocktail. Indeed, surprisingly for a Left, socialist party, he chose a peculiar, tame election slogan: “Not everything needs to be changed but we can do many things better.”
On the far more earnest international stage the SPD, by no means tame, joins Merkel’s CDU and the Greens in blaming Russia alone for the horrifying bloodshed in southeastern Europe. According to party chief Gabriel, “The aggressor in the Ukraine is the Russian government,” and he added threateningly: “It cannot be possible for anyone to plunge another country into chaos and then go unpunished. . . . If we accept that then the European Union isn’t worth a penny.”
Gabriel, who is also Economy Minister, has barred shipment of military training equipment to Russia by the giant Rheinmetall company. The Left, the only party consistently opposed to the export of any military hardware (at which Germany now ranks third in the world), would be happy if such an arms export ban were strictly applied to the less than democratic countries lining the Persian Gulf and other bellicose customers. Also to Israel and to the Ukrainian rulers in Kiev, who get more and more support despite their bloody battering of all opposition in Donetsk and its surroundings. But Kiev, successfully using the tried and true formula, loudly labels all its opponents “terrorists.”
Not sour pickles but sour words had to be swallowed by Joachim Gauck, who is usually expected to stay above the political fray as non-partisan “president of all Germans.” He is usually adjusted to “sweet”; a benevolent smile, attaining almost Cheshire dimensions, is his outstanding feature. He occasionally tempers this with bitter tears when recollecting those awful days before 1989 when he battled Communist repression. But unfriendly witnesses recall that his battling was quite invisible until just before final victory was assured. One clerical colleague from those days, Rev. Friedrich Schorlemmer from Wittenberg, says Gauck was never part of the GDR church’s peace movement. “For him the Weapons of Freedom, the weapons of the West in other words, have always been the good weapons.” “For myself,” Schorlemmer added, “it’s alright to shoot for a goal in soccer but not to shoot at people.”
Now this issue landed on his plate again, and the sour herbs irritating his taste buds came not from old Left Party foes but again from the very group he once belonged to — East German pastors! What got them angry? More and more sharply, President Gauck has been stressing how Germany must get more involved in the world — militarily! Always and only for good causes, of course!
At the Munich Security Conference, Gauck urged that Germany “must be ready to do more to attain that security which others had guaranteed it for decades.” And, as he assured his prominent audience, “when at some point the extreme case occurs — the need for the Bundeswehr [armed forces, VG] — then Germany can neither respond on principle with ‘no’ nor on reflex with ‘yes’.” In a radio interview he made it even clearer: “In the struggle for human rights or the survival of innocent people it is sometimes necessary to take up weapons.” In other words, any reticence based on historical German military use had for him become passé.
Sixty-seven East German ministers disagreed: “We are grateful that the fall of the Wall, the end of the GDR and the unity of Germany were achieved without violence and without a shot being fired by the heavily armed forces of the countries involved.” In 1989, when Germany was unified, Gauck had also signed a “Letter to the Children” from Protestant pastors stating: “We must all do everything we can so that never again any person shoots and kills another person in a war.”
“This is still valid,” the pastors wrote him. “With your speech you have rejected the 1989 consensus and, as president, you recommend a different policy than the one we demanded at that time.” To his rejoinder that good causes justify military involvement they replied: “The Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan proves all too clearly how little the use of military forces is conducive to ending conflicts. . . . We owe it to the many meaningless victims of that deployment not to increase our country’s military capacities but rather to make civilian peace service our popular German export.”
Gauck’s bugle blasts for German military intervention in all continents were not solo serenades. Captivating trumpet notes were added by Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen, who wants to send more troops to various parts of Africa, while SPD Foreign Minister Steinmeier stresses the need to keep German troops, tanks, and planes in Afghanistan. Surprisingly only for those who have not followed the metamorphosis of the Green Party to its current bellicose nature, its top leaders are among the loudest bugle-blowers. Their main foe remains Putin’s Russia.
Leaders of the Lutheran Church are split on these issues, like those in many other groups. Yet while popular opposition to keeping German troops in Afghanistan, for example, peaked recently at 69 percent, this was reflected in Bundestag votes (with courageous exceptions) only by the Left Party.
And what about Gaza? There have been many demonstrations against the bombing and shelling, largely but not exclusively by people of Palestinian, other Arab, or Turkish descent. Also a few favoring Israel. On these complicated issues even more groups have been split.
There was a clear reluctance by many politicians to stress anything but the subject of anti-Semitism in Germany, France, and elsewhere. Indeed, this menace always exists — like anti-Black racism and Muslimophobia, both more widespread today, but in Germany without the same awful echoes from the past. And there are indeed always some fascists, here and elsewhere, who try to misuse anti-Israel feelings, especially when some Jewish and non-Jewish leaders equate Israeli actions with Jewishness, calling any opposition to Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman “anti-Semitic.” Very unfortunately, this evokes the similarly false conclusion blaming all of Judaism for Netanyahu’s bloody policies. Sadly, too many fail to regard all human life everywhere as equally sacred — including all children, whatever their ethnicity or religion. Dr. Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Jewish Council of Germany, said: “The West should sometimes try to place itself in the situation of Israeli parents. They must live daily with the uncertainty as to whether, when they say goodbye to their children going to school in the morning, they will ever see them again.” No pleasant thought, it is true, but while such fears almost completely fail to materialize, there is no uncertainty at all that over 400 children of Gaza will never see any schoolroom again — nor their parents. The almost total failure to think of their death — and so many others — shocks me with its one-sidedness.
True, a group of emotional protesters in Berlin shouted some anti-Semitic slogans on one occasion, and a few excited young Arab men ignited some material at a synagogue door in Wuppertal. Yet while so many mosques in Gaza were destroyed, and although hundreds of children, women, and elderly people were killed there, almost all anti-Israel demonstrations were free of anti-Jewish slogans or caricatures. All the same, it seemed that for too many this question outweighed any horror at the scenes of death, destruction, and so many, many weeping parents.
I must beg forgiveness that I have turned not sour but certainly bitter. I will try to avoid this in the future and hope I have offended no one. But I cannot remain silent on events recalling the bombing of Madrid, Barcelona, Guernica, and many others. The pictures have been all too similar!
I will close on a totally different note. Berlin, now third most attractive tourist attraction in Europe (after London and Paris), is still dependent on two older, greatly overburdened airports, one in former eastern, one in western Berlin. The giant new Berlin-Brandenburg “Willy Brandt” airport, one of the biggest investment projects in all Germany, was to replace both of them. It was due to open ceremoniously in June 2012. But somehow that fabled German efficiency was missing. It will now open not in 2014, not in 2015, or even 2016 but just possibly in 2017. Those living near Tegel are sour at the continuing noise over their heads, while those near the planned new airport are more than happy at the delay. Happy, too, are all those earning lots of money because of it. Many of us still praise the crowded little Tegel airport — but perhaps that has less to do with sour pickles than with sour grapes.
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).