PEGIDA, SYRIZA, and the Future of Europe

Recent events here in Germany remind me of a playground seesaw, with constant ups and downs of one side and the other.

All autumn we watched the upward swing of PEGIDA, “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West,” most rapidly but not only in Saxony’s capital Dresden.  Its main features were a fast-talking, shady leader with some eerie charisma, channeling vague dissatisfaction with just about everyone and everything — most politicians and the media — rooted in worries about poor job, rent, and pension situations and fears for the future; and turning it into a dull hatred of anything and anyone “foreign,” especially the often arbitrary placement of newly-arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees into communities.  PEGIDA’s Monday “walks,” though ambling and non-violent, recalled disturbingly the murderous stamp of booted, brown-shirted marchers of a previous generation.  And some gimlet-eyed neo-Nazis reinforced such recollections.

But soon, all over Germany, the other end of the seesaw swung upward.  More and more demonstrated against the hatred crowd, welcoming asylum-seekers and reassuring peaceful Muslim families long resident in Germany.  They greatly outnumbered and at times blocked the path of the PEGIDA people — everywhere but in Dresden.  In Leipzig, Dresden’s rival in Saxony and with a very different heritage (never a royal court but open trade fairs since 1165 and book fairs since the 17th century), PEGIDA rallied 4,800 marchers in early January — but its opponents 30,000.

Then came the Charlie Hebdo murders.  Would narrow, blind distrust of “those Muslims,” dormant but present among about half the population, witness a new, upward PEGIDA thrust?  It did — but, happily, only in Dresden.  Five days after the murders in the rue Nicolas-Appert, 25,000 marched in the city on the Elbe but everywhere else they were a small minority; at the far-off mouth of the Elbe, in Hamburg, only opponents of racism demonstrated.  Leaders from almost all parties joined at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate with organizations of Turks in Germany to oppose both bloody violence and murder but also Muslimophobia.  Even Angela Merkel surprisingly spoke up, stating that “Islam belongs to Germany” — almost a heresy only a few years earlier.

“It’s hard to be co-opted by idiots. . .”

Not everyone sang so happily in this new choir.  Surface unity about Charlie Hebdo began to unravel, with some approving, some objecting to the provocative nature of its caricatures.  Others noted that many presidents who lined up in Paris sinned against press freedom in their own countries, and that Netanyahu’s triumphant waving was aimed not at mourners or freedom lovers but at voters back home.  Some in Merkel’s party broke ranks and voiced well-worn reservations: “Yes, maybe Muslims are OK, but certainly not Islam”; and “Now we must tighten surveillance of just about everybody to save ourselves from all those fanatical terrorists.”  These over-simplified old tunes caused some early hopes to sink again.  It was back to Bush — terrorists were the big enemy.

Though my optimism was reduced, I was inspired once again by Oskar Lafontaine, a key founder of the Die Linke (Left) party, largely in the background now, but as good a speaker as ever.  At the annual Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin, attended by leftists from all Germany and beyond (and always featuring Mumia Abu-Jamal in a taped message), old Oskar hit out again:

Unless we ask whether our allegedly good West also bears responsibility for terrorist attacks . . . we cannot conduct a meaningful debate or achieve any results.  For years I asked the chancellor in the Bundestag what terrorism was.  “Unless you tell us what it is how can we really fight it?”  She never answered, for good reason.  But some official framed a so-called “Anti-Terror Law” which stated — now listen carefully — “Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence to achieve political goals.” . . .  I read that aloud in the Bundestag and said, “Do you know what you have just agreed on?  You have just decided . . . that Bush, Blair, and all the others who supported the Iraq War are terrorists.” . . .  Until we grasp that, in the Arab world at least, Bush is viewed as a major terrorist because hundreds of thousands were killed due to his wrong decision, we in the West will never be able to conduct a genuine discussion on how to fight terrorism in the world.

On January 13th terror did hit again.  Not the kind loudly denounced in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, or Washington, but in Dresden.  Khaled Idris Bahray, only 20, was found dead near the door to the building where he and other Eritrean asylum-seekers had been given a few rooms.  For thirty long hours, crucial in finding clues and a murderer, the police called it “an accident,” somehow failing to notice the bloody gashes in his chest and neck.  Nor had they been worried about swastikas painted on the building, even on the victim’s door, nor the fears of his dark-skinned group to even go outdoors.  It seems that some policemen can suffer under disturbing eyesight problems (not only in Dresden).  Khaled had simply gone shopping; on a PEGIDA Monday that was evidently a fatal mistake!

That day the PEGIDA marchers reached a strength of 25,000, while 8,000 courageous opponents used big brooms to “clear their streets of racist garbage.”  Elsewhere the reaction to the murder was very strong; tensions heightened.  Then on Monday, January 19th, the Dresden authorities reported a mysterious, very peculiar jihadist threat to kill PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann and decided to forbid not only his “walk” but all demonstrations in that city for a day, unleashing debates across party lines on whether this might lead to more limitations on the constitutional right to demonstrate.  Debates also multiplied on whether to talk with the reticent PEGIDA marchers or with their hardly reticent leaders.  A coy flirtation developed between them and the new, “respectable” right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and grew more intimate.  Some right-wing “Christian” leaders called for a “dialogue.”  Meanwhile a talk-show host invited PEGIDA frontwoman Kathrin Oertel to voice her carefully-tailored “moderate” views on prime time TV.  She and Bachmann interrupted their shrill attacks on the “liar press” to hold an equally moderate-sounding, eagerly-attended press conference.

Such PR opportunities seemed to pay off.  For Wednesday, January 21st, PEGIDA called for 60,000 supporters to gather in hitherto unfriendly Leipzig (there to be called LEGIDA).  They later scaled that down to 40,000 but a police force of 4,000 visored officers still moved in from all over Germany.

A day before the big event, however, a Facebook “selfie” of Bachman was unearthed showing him mustached, combed, and leering uncannily like Hitler.  “Only a joke,” he explained.  Even less a joke were his Facebook references to refugees as “a dirty mob,” “trash,” and “animals.”  Due in part to these discoveries, but also because his numbers were an empty boast, only an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 bigots and fools showed up in Leipzig.  Though protected by the police they were met at every turn by at least 20,000 counter-demonstrators.  Then, in the evening of the eventful day, Bachmann found it necessary to quit his leadership job.  The problems and the poison were not gone, but the future of PEGIDA, LEGIDA, and its offshoots (even some in Denmark) remain very uncertain.

Thus 2015 began in Germany with many protests and counter-protests, often centering on the fates of a flow of war-weary refugees, few of whom could understand the language, nasty or friendly, which circled over their heads and the provisional housing where they were lodged.

A very different protest, this time larger than expected, moved through central Berlin on January 17th.  Organized by over 120 environmental, consumer, and political groups, it denounced the European Union’s giant trade agreements planned with Canada (“Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement” or CETA) and with the USA (“Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” or TTIP).  The police counted 25,000, the organizers 50,000, but either way it was impressive, and 80 farm tractors rolling through town were loud and more easily counted.  Scheduled during the annual Food and Agriculture Week, the protesters rejected everything from cruel stock-farm practices to American-style genetic modification, frequent antibiotic injections for animals, and chemical meat treatment. A main organizer, Jochen Fritz, said: “The TTIP serves only the global concerns and will take away the means of existence from many farms here and across the world.”  Countless signs and big puppets said “We Are Sick of Agribusiness”; others lambasted Monsanto or demanded a global right to food and bans on genetic engineering.

US and European politicians and big-business big shots have been secretly negotiating for over two years; but as more facts leaked out, growing pressure from an angry public was finally forcing Sigmar Gabriel, Economics Minister and Social Democratic Party head, to waver a bit in his thitherto all-out pro-TTIP stance, at least in public.  Even Merkel became slightly defensive.  An online petition against TTIP in the European Union now has over a million signatures, a large number from Germany.  “This is especially embarrassing for the European Commission,” said John Hilary, a member of the anti-TTIP coalition, “since it has repeatedly tried to block any citizen’s involvement.”

Both PEDIGA and TTIP are very important.  But the most basic question is war or peace.  Sending first weapons, then military advisers to “aid Iraq,” billed as humanitarian aid, reminded older critics of a similar escalation in Vietnam.  Even more worrisome is the escalation in the Ukraine and support for the unsavory government in Kiev, with the incessant media beating of Germany’s belligerent anti-Russian drums containing as many echoes of past tragedy as the marching racists.  While Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier vainly bargains about a ceasefire, Merkel and her crew, disregarding both the profit interests of companies dealing with Russia and widespread, majority hopes for peace, slide ever more to the other side of this menacing seesaw, joining bellicose flag-wavers like President Joachim Gauck and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.  Last fall Germany sent Phantoms and other fighter planes with the traditional “iron cross” markings to Baltic countries adjacent to Russia — for the sixth time since 2004.  A government bulletin proudly headlined its note on these incendiary actions with the all-too-true words: “Long-standing German experience.”

Such experience was also recalled in naïve but frightening candidness by Ukrainian premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk.  During a warmly smiling visit to Merkel to beg money, weapons, or both, he said, “All of us clearly remember the Soviet invasion of Ukraine and Germany.  That has to be avoided. Nobody has the right to rewrite the results of the Second World War.  And that is exactly what Russia’s President Putin is trying to do.”  His words leave few doubts as to which side Yatsenyuk would have chosen during that war — the side to which he still seems attached.  Neither Merkel nor the mass media took exception to his historic analysis and he will indeed receive more assistance from Berlin.  The peace movement against the resulting menace is active but, sadly, still far from being united or powerful.

There were also some happier thoughts — or wishes at least.  Despite great pressure, largely from German bankers and their elected friends, Sunday’s election in Greece could represent a badly-needed upward turn in Europe.  If the long-suffering people of that noble but oppressed country vote in the left-wing SYRIZA party, and even though such a government would face giant odds against domestic and foreign foes, the victory for working people could counter a threat already voiced in one of the old rhymes which, rarely noted, reflected fears and hopes of “the 99%” through the centuries: “See-saw, Margery Daw, Jacky shall have a new master.  Jacky shall earn but a penny a day because he can’t work any faster.”  (No one knows today who Margery Daw was — but I can think of several modern candidates.)

One answer to many present problems — of Jacky, refugees, farmers, and all of us — was offered by Oskar Lafontaine:

I am deeply convinced that peace in the world can only be fully achieved when a truly democratic society is constructed.  That would be a social order in which the interests of the majority of the people are realized. . . .  Democratic societies are inseparably connected with an economic order where human beings take center stage, where the exploitation of people is no more, where the wealth of the country, cooperatively achieved, is returned to the people who create it — and not with a social order where a minority becomes wealthy by making the vast majority work for it. . . .

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).