Back in 1963 Bob Dylan (soon to be 75) wrote a bitter song; Pete Seeger also sang it often. It asks, after the death of a young boxer: “Who killed Davey Moore? How come he died, and what’s the reason for?” Then came the alibis of all those responsible, from the manager and media to the boxing crowds: “Not I . . . Don’t point your little finger at me.” Europe today, though not dead, is in deep disarray, heart-rendingly for very many and menacingly for the world. Here, too, one might inquire: How come? Who is to blame?
Many countries caused the tragic exodus from Afghanistan — over 2 million refugees — but for fifteen years the US government has been the alpha wolf. Iraq, well before the bombing and invasion of 2003, faced almost the same pack with the same alpha leader, and still suffers this never-ending fate, with over 4 million refugees, half within, half outside the country. Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen followed; for most of these ongoing explosions the lit fuses pointed again to the lands of the wealthy.
Who is to blame for the hundreds of thousands of distraught fellow human beings from Syria who risk drowning to flee to Europe, for all those, from infants to grandmothers, still in a survival struggle on rocky Aegean islands or in Greek mud, facing Macedonian barbed wire and tear gas? Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey play a part in the misery, buying oil and ancient relics, or selling — and often firing — modern new weapons. But the major mover is typically a tight, mighty band of heartless neo-cons and obscenely wealthy weapons-makers and profiteers with its center near the Potomac. Joining in were their blood brothers on the Thames, the Seine, and the Bosporus, beside those from the Rhine, Spree, or Elbe, who, with their long traditions, were key junior partners to those from the USA, though in Europe were again the most powerful, with tentacles stretching ever further outward.
Despite its role, the alpha wolf rejected any share in facing the consequences, while the results of these wars hit their victims’ neighbors hard — but also Europe, especially junior partner Germany. Angela Merkel’s welcome call to all those seeking asylum, whatever its motivation, was followed by countless Germans working heroically to make life easier for refugees crammed for months into school gyms, airport hangars, and empty buildings. But much of the media switched all too soon from seeming empathy into growing collusion with foreigner-haters who use every discomfort for local residents, every misdemeanor, true or false, of the frequently traumatized, jobless immigrants, often separated from their families, to reinforce existing prejudices against all people of different colors, languages, or religions and to expand their own bigoted strength.
The PEGIDA groups still march in Dresden on Mondays against “Islamization” but are overshadowed nationally by a party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), not so openly thuggish as other far-right groups, but all the more dangerous. At their recent conference their demands in “fighting Islam” aimed at easy targets like the face-covering burka and niqab — hardly ever seen in Germany — and against muezzins, minarets, and new mosques. Their slogans and demands recalled those heard during the GOP nomination campaign in the USA; much like Donald Trump, they seek support among people whose livelihoods are insecure, whose jobs are precarious, whose future is uncertain, and who blame this on all established parties but also on victims suffering more than they. Far less emphasized, hardly even mentioned by the party, are the AfD’s demands for a return to the military draft, a build-up of German armed forces, lower taxes for the wealthy (no inheritance taxes), an increase in police snooping, a tougher penal system, making twelve-year-olds as accountable as adults, with “no pampering” of those in prison, no special treatment for addicts or “psychiatric felons,” no improvement in gay rights, and opposition to abortion. Women would do best to stay at home and care for bigger families so as to achieve an increase in the “German” population.
As with Trump, this program is also combined confusingly with some acceptable social demands, a call for a better relationship with Russia, and a rejection of both the European Union and the euro — for all the worst, nationalist reasons. Yet the main trend of the AfD is more than clear and its menace all too reminiscent of Germany 85 years ago. Xenophobic traditions are truly long-lasting in some minds. Today, however, Muslimophobia is far more useful than anti-Semitism, in older or newer forms, if only for the relative numbers of targets to victimize.
With next year’s elections approaching, all other parties are hunting for lost voters, frightened by the strength of the AfD in state elections in March, with 13% and 15% in two West German states and a startling 24% in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The changing polls now give the AfD overall 14%, in third place and ahead of Die Linke (Left) and the Greens.
The worrisome results recall the tea party in Alice’s Wonderland, where everyone kept moving one seat further along — and only the first in line got a clean tea set. In today’s German version, fear of the AfD led to each party moving a seat to the right. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the reactionary Bavarian sister of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the only such special state affiliate, distanced itself sharply from the plight of the refugees and came close to a split with its “Christian” partner, calling Merkel, from the very first words of her welcome, far too soft.
Merkel, on the other hand, fearing threatening stabs in the back and losing popularity almost for the first time, modified her friendly stance, agreed to toughen conditions for the refugees, and met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to have him stop the refugee flight to the nearby Greek islands in return for greater acceptance into the “European community,” especially his main goal, visa-free travel. He was clearly using the refugee issue as blackmail; his formidable army and navy can undoubtedly permit or prevent the departure of the tiny, dangerous coastal boats at will to suit political policy.
But eager as Merkel was to dam up the stream, a rapid increase in repression in Turkey made her bargaining more difficult. Erdoğan was jailing all journalists who criticized him, left-wing delegates were forced by physical attacks to leave the Parliament, and whole Kurdish-majority cities were put under murderous sieges. A critical satire on German TV caused dissonances; it was followed by a jolly poem, somehow squeezed onto state TV, which insulted Erdoğan in a jolly but intensely obscene manner, accusing him of pedophilia and sodomy with goats. Poor Merkel was caught in the middle (of the TV controversy); she shoved all decisions about the TV comedian and freedom of speech to the German courts and carried on with European Union negotiations with Erdoğan (who fired his own prime minister for bargaining too leniently). They are still unresolved.
Making clear that she is as tough as ever, Merkel’s government, especially its evil genius, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, has refused to weaken pressure on poor Greece, which is not only burdened by many of the refugees but is still forced to push its population further into poverty and misery in order to pay off German and French banks for dubious past loans. Thus far the once-left SYRIZA Party has gone along, but anger — and perhaps desperation — are mounting.
As for the German Social Democrats, these junior partners in the government have weakened their high-minded defense of refugee rights to a whimper, while their top man Sigmar Gabriel has thus far gone along with the tougher restrictions, the policy on Greece, and support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the European equivalent of the Asian-American Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). His party’s move to the right — though no very big change — has meant a sharp decrease in their polling figures and election results, but a left-wing opposition in their party has gained little traction thus far.
As for the Greens, they avidly oppose compromises with Erdoğan’s Turkey but are divided on issues like immigration. The popular Winfried Kretschmann, first and only Green state government head, has formed a new government in Baden-Wurttemberg with the Christian-Democrats as junior partners, the first such alliance — and seems to be taking the Greens one more chair to the right.
None of these parties has rejected demands by “Defense” Minister Ursula von der Leyen to nearly double previous plans and spend $142 billion in the next 15 years on increasing the army size and buying ever more murderous weapons. Nor have they cried out against sending German military units, including planes which can carry atomic missiles, to join other NATO forces in maneuvers along the Estonian-Russian borders within a stone’s throw of St. Petersburg, despite fearful memories of June 22, 1941 and the mass murder that followed. After a number of recent incidents near Russia, and knowing that some neo-cons and brass still dream of repeating Kiev’s Maidan in Moscow’s Red Square, all this has blood-chilling character.
Against all this, in the Bundestag at least, the little Linke has almost always been alone. Yet recent election results were very disappointing and its poll figures remain stagnant at 8-9 %. Part of this is because of its courageous support of the immigrants and their rights, but some trace this to a lack of bold, visible grassroots activity — “on the street” — which could convince confused, unhappy voters, especially in the working class, that the Linke is not just another establishment party but the main fighter for their rights!
In recent years differences within the party have been moderated by a balanced leadership. Its coming congress in Magdeburg on May 28-29, which elects or re-elects party leaders and decides on directions in the German elections season, will determine how and how well the party can react to the constant danger of military conflict, to the question of refugees, to the economic troubles of so very many with bad jobs — or no jobs — and to the quasi-fascist menace of the AfD and its strong allies in Hungary, Poland, the Baltic countries, and even France and Scandinavia. How well can they forge alliances and succeed, despite all the obstacles, in gaining strength and pointing a convincing finger at those forces, inside and outside Germany, which deserve the basic blame for all of these worries, tragedies, and potentially deathly dangers?
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).