Confrontations with the police in Germany have not been quite the same as in Ferguson and other USA cities. But some were dramatic enough. Back in September 2010 mass protests in Stuttgart against a huge underground railroad station at the cost of a prized old building and a central park were hit hard by cops with truncheons and water cannon, costing hundreds of injuries and most of one man’s eyesight. Yet last week the courts dropped all charges against the authorities; they had only borne “minor responsibility.” Some are bitter that Winfried Kretschmann, Germany’s first and only Green premier (there in Baden-Wurttemberg), carefully avoided comment or involvement.
In Dresden, in February 2011, about 18,000 anti-Nazis were able to block a neo-Nazi parade. But later, after most people (like me) had left, some remaining anti-Nazis got into a fight with the police, who had been shielding the Nazis during the daytime. When it was discovered that the police had monitored a full million cell messages of the demonstrators that day, Rev. Lothar König, 60, a huge-bearded, very popular youth pastor from Jena, once a dissident in the GDR, a resolute opponent of all Nazis, dared to criticize their tactics in Der Spiegel. A few days later about thirty policemen raided his home and he was charged with joining the fighting — “breach of peace, attempted obstruction of justice, and attempted coercion,” including amplified calls from his VW van to “stone the pigs” (still known as “bulls” in German). After three years of bureaucracy, postponements, and trial hearings it was revealed that the police had withheld 170 pages of testimony and 160 hours of video tape, all exonerating König, and the case had to be dropped.
There is no such happy ending as yet for another anti-Nazi participant that day, charged similarly though never even identified properly in the crowd. Unluckily, not a pastor, he was sentenced to 22 months without parole! The fight for a revision is still going on. No Nazis were ever sentenced.
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“HoGeSa” they yelled, and “HoGeSa” was painted on some leather jackets, often with the addition: “Together we are strong.” This strange new word stood for “Hooligans gegen Salafisten” (“Hooligans against Salafists”). They registered with the police for October 26th a demonstration of soccer fan clubs (some proudly use the term “hooligans” because they love a good, bloody fight against opposing fans) who wanted only to show sympathy for Iraqis and Syrians and condemn extremist Salafists — causes pushed almost daily in the mass media. But when about 4,800 tough-looking characters arrived in Cologne, took over the big square at the main station, then marched through town, it became all too clear: this was a far-right show of power by that wing of the soccer mob who shout racist slogans during games, now joined with various more or less openly fascist groups, local or, like the National Democratic Party (NDP), national. Not in the least interested in the Near East (their hopes lay rather in the near future), what unified them all were their attacks against all Muslim minorities — and leftists. Common slogans were: “Germany for Germans — Foreigners get out!” and “National resistance is on the march!” Despite clear Internet signals the police had underestimated their strength and were hopelessly outnumbered. During and after the march they attacked journalists, passers-by, courageous anti-fascists who had gathered to oppose them, and, while they were at it, the cops as well, over forty of whom were injured.
The HoGeSa planned a second march on November 15th in Hanover. The police tried to bar it this time but a district court ruled for the right to “freedom of assembly.” So the police insisted at least on a set of rules: body searches for weapons, bottles, and fireworks, no march through town, no alcohol. For the expected 5,000 hooligans and neo-Nazis they assembled 5,300 cops from eight states and roped off the square at the station. In the end only about 2,600 turned up — and up to 6,000 anti-fascists. The police worked as usual to keep them apart. Most anti-fascists by far are against violence though there are frequently small groups, often with (illegally) covered faces and almost certainly including provocateurs (most likely also from the police), who throw things and give the media the desired headlines. This time, and again in Berlin a week later, things stayed peaceful.
The role of the police is complicated. Neo-Nazis, with whom some at all police levels may secretly sympathize, must not be permitted to go too far, getting bad headlines abroad and a scolding from “respectable” party leaders. But the extreme rightists are useful. Building on race hatred and violence, they serve as a “reserve army” against possible leftward trends, and while the cops may rein in their worst visible excesses they also protect them against anti-fascists while the respectable politicians can denounce “extremists from the Left and the Right.” It’s a tortuous, winding path. With this possible alliance of neo-Nazis with the soccer racists, with a new party growing in strength due to its anti-foreigner stance (Alternative for Germany — AfD), and with unceasing attacks in the press against “violent Islamists and Salafists,” which feed racist feelings, any economic downturn, currently threatening, could lead to very great dangers.
Two other subjects are dividing Germans. One centers in the peacefully-forested, hilly state of Thuringia, known as Germany’s green lung and full of famous old cities: Weimar, Erfurt, Jena, and Bach’s birthplace, Eisenach. The other involves battle-torn towns in the flat plains of the Ukraine.
The central government, shared by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its junior partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), keeps stumbling over relations with Russia, trying to find footing on an up and a down escalator at the same time. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, flies with his handsome white shock of hair and mostly gentle manners from Kiev to Wales, Moscow to Brussels, trying, it would seem, to cool tempers and arrive at compromises. Backed by several former SPD leaders, he has opposed tougher sanctions against Russia, urging diplomacy instead, even stating that he opposes NATO membership for the Ukraine.
But is this (and perhaps the police at the Nazi rallies) the old method of the “good cop” and the “bad cop”? Chancellor Merkel, after some teetering, sounds tougher and tougher. Despite her late-night, four-hour tête-à-tête with Putin at the G-20 meet in Australia she has been heading down toward greater confrontation, most clearly on the Crimea question, and, under determined USA urging, joined in righteous agreement on this with the present (though not the past) SPD leadership.
With the Linke party (the Left) there are no doubts about its opposition to weapons for Ukraine — or troops anywhere. In a remarkable half-hour speech in the Bundestag by the brainy Left theoretician and deputy caucus chair Sahra Wagenknecht, a rare opportunity for the minority party, Angela Merkel was confronted, I think, as never before. The clear, factual critique dealt mostly with economic issues, with temp jobs cutting fair chances in a strike, with the freeze on infrastructure, with cuts in education, health, and care of the elderly, always bowing to the banks. But also on foreign policy matters: referring to Merkel’s blasts at Putin, she jabbed, “Though you warn against a conflagration you are one of those running around with a lighted matchstick!”
Merkel had to listen to the speech but displayed conspicuous disinterest or disdain by looking very bored, fiddling with objects on her desk or exchanging remarks with her SPD deputy Sigmar Gabriel.
Meanwhile, in hilly Thuringia, place cards waited on the Cabinet table for a new state government, the first in Germany to be headed by a premier of the Linke party. While not everyone in the Linke is happy about concessions being made to win agreement (and the party on the Bundestag level is still disagreeing and divided about policy towards the Israeli government), the main question in Thuringia’s capitol Erfurt is whether the SPD and the Greens can withstand pressure from all sides, including a not so angelic Angela Merkel and, in words lacking any love or charity from a one-time pastor, President Joachim Gauck, never to accept a Linke premier, even if he is by origin a pious West German Christian, and no sinister left-over from that East German GDR which, twenty-five years after its demise, they still hate and seemingly still fear. The decision is due within a few days!
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).