Germany: Icy Times and Rays of Hope


2016 began here with an icy chill, not only with the weather but far worse, with human relations.  It also offered some, like myself, at least a few warm rays of hope.

First the larger scene.  The huge influx of immigrants and asylum seekers, over a million in 2015, saw Germany effectively split in two nearly equal halves.  One half, motivated by empathy, generosity, a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood, went out of its way to help the new arrivals, contributing everything from teddy bears, warm clothing, medical care to German lessons, and volunteering many unpaid hours, often to the point of exhaustion, to help and care for them.  This was sometimes accompanied by admirable endeavors of local public employees, many of whom stayed on their tough jobs far beyond daily and weekly working hours.

Unfortunately, some officials, not up to the sudden, unaccustomed numbers, proved fully inadequate.  Countless immigrants in Berlin received food, warm clothes, and at least a mattress, bedding, and a narrow spot in a school gymnasium or empty airport building.  But far too many waited long, cold, also rainy hours, often much of the night, to get the required registration documents, medical passes, or a small allowance.  Callousness was all too frequent; one official had to quit in disgrace, while his boss, a cabinet member, has had to bury any hopes of moving upward to the job of Berlin mayor.

Some negative responses, including from hired security guards, had a worse motivation, reflecting the reaction of that other half of the population.  Hatred toward anyone who is different is all too common in the world, in the USA now most audibly in the words and threats of presidential candidates.  But a brief look in a book on German history adds an especially frightening aspect.  And Germany is the strongest country in Europe.

Such hatred grew fast in 2015, often connected with worries about jobs and housing, but also with malicious tales of immigrant crimes and misdemeanors.  Internet is flooded with fascistic racist remarks.  There was an alarming increase in attacks — 850 were officially registered — against buildings reserved or planned for the arrivals and nearly 400 violent attacks against presumed immigrants.  One man was hit at Christmas time by a bullet fired into his room, where children were also sleeping.

And then came New Year’s Eve!  In Hamburg and elsewhere but most nastily in Cologne, the celebrations were horribly marred by attacks on several hundred women.  Groups of young men surrounded and groped them and, while they resisted, stole handbags or cell phones.  Much is still unclear, including the role of the police and early muting of the story, possibly because most men have foreign backgrounds.  A few are German citizens, one is an American, but many seem to be from Algeria and Morocco, thus perhaps not part of last year’s influx of mostly Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.  Some questions are still unanswered: were the attacks spontaneous, internet-connected, or somehow organized — and if so by whom and why?

On New Year’s Eve, German cities often offer organized fireworks.  But many also buy fireworks privately (their sale is permitted two days in advance) and fire rockets, often ten, twenty, or fifty from one box, from sidewalks or balconies, or in city squares, resulting in several hours of total pandemonium.  This must have been new to many immigrants, possibly frightening to children from war-torn regions.  There were many young husbands who left families behind until, as they hoped, they could find a job and a home, but also many single men.  A large number came from backgrounds where women are rarely alone without a male relative and far less respected outside home.  An all-too-common oversupply of untamed testosterone in a loud, wild, crowded night may also help explain (but in no way excuse or rationalize) the criminal conduct.

A racist backlash based on stereotyping after the attacks was all too predictable, especially coming so soon after the also bigoted reactions incited by the mass murders in Paris (plus large-scale media reminders of the Charlie Hebdo killings one year ago).  Messengers of hatred against undesirable nationalities, wherever they are from and whoever they are if not “German,” have had a heyday, resulting in more violent attacks and almost certainly upsetting an approximately 50-50 balance of views in 2015.

The Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the only such separate state unit, is named the Christian Social Union, an egregious misnomer.  Though closely tied to the CDU in the Bundestag, it has been growing increasingly independent.  It would strongly reject being called “racist,” but Bavaria, where all immigrants from the southwest must enter, is the most rightwing of Germany’s 16 states and led the way in pressuring Merkel to abandon her wide-armed, seemingly humanitarian welcome to all refugees, whatever her motives.  Faced by growing signs of mutiny, also in her own party, she has retreated, step by step, followed by her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party.  Immigration rulings are to be tougher, numbers cut, far more denied entry or sent home, most especially after any trouble with the law.  Speculation that usurpers might use the question to replace this clever, powerful tactician has become far-fetched.

But the entire political scene has been pushed to the right.  The racist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is sure to get seats in three state elections in March, and most likely in the Bundestag in 2017.  PEGIDA marchers still hoist their “Save Our Western World from the Islamists” signs, most recently in Leipzig, and again with violence.  A vigilante posse descended on Cologne calling for “vengeance” and the rescue of endangered German womanhood — while waving thinly disguised pro-Nazi signs, openly giving the Hitler salute and attacking a few unlucky people of color.

The decision in Bavarian Munich to publish the hitherto forbidden Mein Kampf again after 70 years could well be seen as a bad omen, even though every page has a marginal analysis rejecting Hitler’s fanatic phrases, thus attaining approval from various institutions (including the Jewish congregation).  But its devotees are on the march, in France, where they may soon achieve top positions, in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the Ukraine, where they already have some, in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, where they are menacing, and sadly in Germany, in the vital middle.

In my first paragraph I spoke of rays of hope.  There has rarely been a parade of PEGIDA or similar groups without an active opposition often outnumbering them.  In Leipzig their march was opposed by a ring of people holding candles in protest, while others, more militant, tried to block their path, with the usual giant police contingent keeping them apart.  (Only CDU politicians refused to join any protest!).  On January 9 in Cologne, at least a thousand women (and a few men) met at the site of the New Year’s Eve attacks and demanded respect and when necessary protection for women.  It was loud and jolly, with a song from the city’s famous Mardi Gras festival, “Karneval in Köln,” but it was also very determined!  Many signs made clear: the women were not joining in the hatemongering; their protest was not aimed at immigrants or Arabs but against the sexist atmosphere everywhere, including harassment or violence at drunken Bavarian Oktoberfests, in many a private home, and in too many police stations which ignored women’s rights.

For me the following weekend was a special one.  Sunday was the annual memorial day for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, courageous, still dearly-loved left-wing Social Democrats who opposed World War One, founded the German Communist Party, and were murdered two weeks later, in January 1919.  Several thousand faithful old rebels and many young people went by subway and walked the final six or seven blocks to lay red carnations on the monuments to Karl, Rosa, and the urns of many leftwing leaders, writers, and fighters from 1900 to 1990.  Others, starting at Karl Marx Allee, took a far longer route, with flags, banners, and loud music.  Again there were disputes, even a partial boycott, by some who objected not only to the usual groups of ultra-left admirers of Mao or Stalin but also to the presence of Palestinians and others who called for a boycott of Israel.  As for me, though my youthful admiration for Stalin or Mao has long since been quenched, and I certainly don’t love all the strategies and tactics advocated here by some, I am still ready to walk in the same march with anyone who opposes exploitation and the war-loving One Percent.

After the visit to the memorial site, tired from the long walk, my hopes were again rekindled and my heart moved by a wonderful Linke rally in a beautiful auditorium, once a wonderful film theater.  There were many songs: by a beautiful Andalusian guitarist, a wonderful Turkish band (at last, I thought, the Linke party is bringing progressive German and Turkish cultures together), and by amazing Esther Bejarano, now 91, who survived Auschwitz as an accordion player in the girls’ orchestra, lived for many years in Israel, and moved to Hamburg in 1960, where she became a singer and activist.  In recent years she was persuaded to join young rap musicians in an attempt to offer progressive songs in German, Yiddish, and Hebrew in a novel, mixed manner which has made a hit with all audiences, old and young.  We heard three of them here — with long, standing ovations for her amazing voice, vigor and musicality.  Then she spoke eloquently about her life-long fight against Nazis, old and new, and those who learned nothing from the past and are making war again!

There were many short speeches as well, informative, hard-hitting, by visiting leaders from Spain, Portugal, from Turkey on Erdogan’s atrocities and by a Jewish Knesset member who champions equal rights for Palestinians.  It was a truly international occasion.

Most important were speeches by top leaders of the Linke.  Both co-presidents spoke, the West German union man, the woman from East German Dresden.  Also the man and the woman who chair the Left caucus in the Bundestag, Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch.  Past quarrels were forgotten; both were in friendly accord, near together on the stage and in their speeches, in enthusiastic calls for a fighting program.  In the final speech the one-time national party leader Oskar Lafontaine (now also Sahra’s husband) made as stirring a speech as had been heard in a long time: for action against German military involvement in Afghanistan, Mali, or anywhere, and against armament shipments worth billions to bellicose oppressors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, both of which give Merkel’s wordy welcomes to refugees a sharp smell of hypocrisy, as Germany joins the USA, France, and Britain in supporting these culprits of conflict while worsening poverty in the global South with cheap exports, suffocating local agriculture and industry, and forcing people to emigrate.  The Linke will fight such policies and such hypocrisy, demanding resources for integrating refugees but also opposing attacks against working people here, such as the higher medical care fees, soaring rent costs, and fewer permanent jobs.  It will join progressives around Europe in fighting “austerity” policies dictated by German politicians and banks to Greece and others.  Nor will it forget its ultimate aim — replacing a system which must always breed poverty and war.  There were many valiant words and songs; it remains to be seen how well they are transformed into action, not only as Bundestag speeches but in the streets, factories, colleges, and offices.  Only insofar as this program reaches wider circles can it invigorate the disillusioned, filling a political vacuum where extreme rightists have been winning ground so alarmingly.  Many, I think, went out into the icy, slippery night with new hope.

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).