Losing Heads and Sending Arms

Two famous heads got lost in Berlin.  Neither loss, I hasten to add, was connected with brutality.  From the past or near future, they caused melancholy or rejoicing, depending on your viewpoint.

One loss really occurred twenty-two years ago, when the 62-foot red granite statue of Lenin on East Berlin’s Lenin Square and Lenin Allee (meaning Boulevard not Alley!) was, with the names, removed two years after the state which had erected it.  Unlike a dramatic scene in the popular film Goodbye Lenin showing the whole statue whisked away by helicopter, it was really first beheaded, then sawed into 129 parts, despite some angry protests, and buried in the sand of an outlying wooded district.

Now the organizers of an exhibition in 2015 entitled “Berlin and Its Monuments” decided, hardly out of sympathy, that at least Lenin’s head should be included.  No one objected to monuments from the eras of Hitler, kings and kaisers; the warrior king Friedrich (“the Great”) still rides (in stationary bronze) down famous Unter den Linden Boulevard, also his stone head gazes proudly down in a park near Lenin’s former site.  But Lenin evidently still caused bellyaches for some, who announced with regret that “the head’s location is unknown.”  Then American filmmaker Rick Minnich proved that in 1994 he and his crew had found, dug out, and filmed it.  If desired, they would gladly find it again.

The other head, still alive but less menacing, belonged to Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit.  After thirteen years in office he unexpectedly announced that he would quit the job in December.  He is that courageous, left-leaning Social Democrat who, spiting malicious gossip, announced: “I am gay — and that’s a good thing!”  The phrase, crisper in German (“Das ist gut so”), became part of Berlin’s vocabulary.  He led his party to victory three times and was extremely popular until the catastrophe with Berlin’s giant new airport, for which he was officially responsible.  Ballyhooed for completion in 2012, its opening date is as uncertain as the final bill, sure to exceed 5 billion euro.  While no planes soared, “Wowi’s” poll results nosedived, and he decided to get out while the getting is good.  The scramble to replace him already seems to be splitting Social Democratic membership.  Once seen as a progressive challenger to Merkel, his coalition with her party in Berlin let that image fade away.

To turn to far more earnest worries, another head featured in the press belonged to a man who was certainly not gay nor a Lenin, but in fact a son of one-time Leningrad.  Sadly, both thoughts of that once tortured city and, even more, current references to Vladimir Putin, evoke all too sharply recollections of German language used against every Russian leader since the start of World War I a hundred years ago.  Indeed, in today’s Russia and its leader the mass media have found subjects of attack as welcome as all their varied predecessors.

The BILD newspaper, with its millions of readers, led the charge: “Putin . . . wants to complete what the Tsar and Stalin could not achieve.  He wants to create a Russia to which the rest of the world bows down.  In the long run he will not succeed! . . . But the fear which he instills in others isolates Russia. . . .  For a moment Putin may be the mightiest in the world.  But he is Russia’s evil spirit.”  Recalling the unhappy 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, it drummed up feelings for a boycott of the World Cup in 2018, quoting the head of the Greens in Bavaria: “Russia is treating human rights and freedom like dirt.  We should not give Putin a stage for his propaganda show.”

The slightly more respected Der Spiegel magazine, though evasive about ascribing full blame for the Malaysian plane tragedy, nevertheless featured photos of its victims on its cover with the words in big print “Stop Putin Now” and editorialized: “Putin’s true nature has shown itself.  The Russian president has been revealed not as a statesman but as a pariah of the world community. . . .  The shooting down may have been a tragic mistake.  Whoever fired the missile probably did not want to hit a passenger plane.  But it is the direct result of Russian military armament of the separatists in recent weeks.  It is a symbol of Putin’s nefariousness — and of the failure of western policies thus far.  The wreckage of MH17 is also the wreckage of diplomacy.”

Despite renewed doubts about the MH17, and disregarding evidence that Putin was basically interested in protecting Russia from total encirclement by an unceasingly expansive NATO, with the growing threat of military weaponry at its doorstep and to its southern seacoast defenses, the weapons makers stepped up pressure and readied the first six German Typhoon planes to join Portuguese F-16s in flying reconnaissance flights over Estonia — the closest German warriors have come to Russian borders since World War II.  Some glorious Prussian traditions of those years — like bundles of very valuable stocks (now combined into AIRBUS) — remain extant.

But such operations were high in the clouds; Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her supporters wanted ground action.  Then, too, other business interests, not to be scoffed at — like oil and gas importers and machine exporters — were not happy about increased sanctions against Russia.  A majority of the population was also decidedly against dangerous advances in this direction.

Then, while the Ukraine crisis escalated ever more tensely and dangerously, the more bellicose faction in Berlin’s political scene found a new crisis which offered prospects for quicker action.

This was the ISIS in Iraq — and soon in Syria as well.  The misery and bitter tragedy of many thousands were involved, the aggressors’ clothes and beards made them even more easily distinguishable as evildoers than those of the traditional Russian menace.  And action was demanded.

One problem soon arose.  Early in August Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel had aborted a long-standing deal of the huge Rheinmetall corporation for delivery of a modern military training installation to Russia.  “I cannot take responsibility for this,” the Social Democrat stated.  It would mean risking “military expansion, that military conflicts could be enlarged. . . .  It is not a matter of money but of human lives.”

Actually it was also a matter of German law, which expressly forbids the delivery of arms to areas of conflict.  Nearly everyone approved Gabriel’s decision, even though this law had somehow lost its force in past years when Germany, the world’s third biggest weapons exporter — delivered everything from Heckler & Koch revolvers and rifles to “Leopard” tanks and Thyssen-Krupp submarines with atomic weapon potential to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Indonesia, Israel, Greece and Turkey, South Korea and many others.

But since Gabriel had so publicly revived this seemingly moribund restriction in the case of Russia, how could one disregard it in Iraq?  Defense Minister von der Leyen defiantly urged military intervention — without interrupting her efforts to obtain military drones for future years.  Others of various parties were quick to back her up.  The mass media obliged with heart-breaking pictures of human tragedy (they did not have to lie or exaggerate in this case).  There were increasing calls — at first — for humanitarian help per helicopter — food, water, clothing, even toys.

But this did not suffice; military assistance was required, it seemed — of a non-lethal kind, of course, only bullet-proof vests, night goggles, and the like.

Yet the ISIS remained as dangerous as ever.  Soon enough, politicians like the Social Democrat Christoph Strässer, national Human Rights Commissioner, were insisting that in the case of the hard-fighting Iraqi Kurds a fight against terrorism was involved, those stuffy old rules and regulations should (again) be overlooked and military hardware sent in.  And that is just what is happening.

The editor of the state-owned radio station in Bavaria (the state where most weapons are produced) triumphed: “It was high time to break this taboo.  That basic tenet of German foreign and security policy is no longer worth the paper it is written on: ‘No weapons into conflict areas’ is now passé.  The historic decision is risky but it has no alternative. . . .  The matter is now earnest.”

But Volker Kauder, top parliamentarian leader of Merkel’s CDU, indeed, her right-hand man (the stress on “right” perfectly fits this notorious homophobe and Muslimophobe), still stated clearly after a very safe visit to Iraq: “A deployment of German or European troops to fight the terror militia of the Islamic State is not necessary.  True, this would provide a possibility to maintain control over weapons sent to Iraq.  But at the moment I see no necessity for that.”

Only a few days later the same Volker Kauder informed us that Germany had after all sent six Bundeswehr soldiers to Iraq “to coordinate the delivery of German assistance and train Kurdish troops. . . .  As quickly as possible they need anti-tank weapons, anti-mine equipment, as well as rifles and ammunition. . . .  Otherwise the terrorists from the IS will probably invade Kurdistan as well.”

Sympathy for beleaguered Christians was not surprising, the plight of the hitherto hardly-known Yazidis and other victims was also frightening and truly demanded assistance.  But somehow the odor of hypocrisy clung to official German sympathy for Kurdistan.  Such sympathy had been remarkably absent during tragedies for civilians in Gaza, the Eastern Ukraine, and many other areas.  Were there hopes for an oil-rich, independent Kurdistan, with no interference, regulations, or participation from Bagdad?  What hidden secrets existed?  And did no one recall how after 1990 the newly-united Germany sent tanks and other weapons of the disbanded East German armed forces to Turkey — for the brutal, bloody suppression of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?  Some estimate fighter and civilian deaths at over 30,000.  But then, unlike today’s Iraqi Peshmergas, the men and women in the PKK, who demanded autonomous and cultural rights, were left-wing Kurds.  And their homes were in Turkey, a NATO ally.  In Germany the PKK is still verboten.

This week the Bundestag debated military aid to Iraq, although its vote is an impotent one; in such matters a secret Cabinet group makes the relevant decisions.  But once again the debate showed that it was the Left party, almost alone, which, in accord with public opinion, voted No.  After a brief early dispute in its own ranks it quickly renewed its basic position that while humanitarian assistance is necessary and urgent, and that better Near East policies are long overdue, too many past disasters, old and new, have proven that German weapons and especially German troops should never again be sent outside German borders.  Despite the most assertive humanitarian justifications of such exploits — from Kosovo to Kabul — not one has ever meant less bloodshed or suffering.

Is it too flippant to enquire whether a modern Ms. Muffet in Berlin, dealing with Kurds, has lost her way?  As for the “tuffet” she sits on; whatever that is, let’s hope she neither loses nor gets kicked in it!

But to end more properly: the first of three current state elections, in former East Germany’s less hard-hit, most conservative state Saxony (with Dresden and Leipzig), ended with another expected victory by the Christian Democrats (39.4%).  The Left Party kept its second place (18.9), the Social Democrats got 12.4, and the Greens a shaky, disappointing 5.7.   The traditional right-wing Free Democrats missed 5 percent (only 3.8), thus losing their very last seats in any state (or federal) legislature.  Replacing them, for their first victory in any state, the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) balanced in at 9.7.  Its goals remained foggy but its nationalist immigrant baiting clearly placed it far too close to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, which, with a vote of 4.95% — barely lost its seats in the state legislature — by just 808 votes.  But this meant that almost 15% of voting Saxons chose the “right” (partly thanks to a record low turnout of under 50%).  And now the victorious CDU must win Greens or Social Democrats to form a government.  Which will agree to the necessary compromises?

A final note: After Lenin Allee (Boulevard, not Alley) was given its old name Landsberger Allee again (after the town it once led to), some wag painted a long-lasting graffiti on a nearby wall: “Who was Landsberger?”

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).