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Berlin Bulletin by Victor Grossman

A nasty witch and apes—not from Oz

Does anyone remember “The Wizard of Oz”? Recent news made me recall its song  line:

Ding-dong the witch is dead. Which old witch, the wicked witch, the wicked witch is dead.

This “Wicked Witch of the East” is still alive. German law has no death penalty; she was sentenced to life in prison. While her appeal has little chance of success, the law permits those with life sentences to apply for parole after 15 years, often with success. But her murderous career is ended.

The trial in Munich of Beate Zschäpe and four minor accomplices lasted five full years! Many breathed a sigh of relief on hearing the verdict against this evil woman, who appeared in court every day, carefully coiffed and attired, with a mysterious smile and almost total refusal to say anything.

Beginning in 2000 she assisted two male friends in killing ten men in cities all over Germany. Mostly small shopkeepers, their only connection was their immigrant background, Turkish, in one case Greek. The killers also robbed banks, killed a German policewoman and set off an explosion in a Turkish-German neighborhood, wounding many. Their motive was to spread hatred; their cause, the National Socialist Underground, from the lying title Hitler chose for his party, in other words—fascism. In 2011 the two male killers allegedly shot themselves, or each other, in a single moment, and set fire to the mobile home they had rented, while Zschäpe set fire to their joint apartment.

Many unsolved mysteries remain. How did the local police chief immediately know the identity of the two dead men? Why had he inquired about them with the German FBI-equivalent just a day earlier—or was it the same day? Why were the two cops who immediately arrived at the scene so vague and contradictory about everything else, like their chief, but insistent that no one else could have been involved—and escaped? Why was the vehicle, only partially burned and still unchecked for clues, towed away bumpily to a garage, making any proper search of the death site impossible?

The questions piled up. Why, after each murder, all in different states, did the police reject the idea that hatred of foreigners might be involved, encourage suspicion of the victims’ families and, when intimidating searches produced nothing but distress, push the idea that some “Turkish Mafia” must be involved, thus hindering genuine searches which might have prevented the next tragedies?

And why was a government agent, one of many active participants in fascist movements they are spying on, right in the internet café of one victim when he was shot, and leave without hearing, seeing or knowing about the murder or the corpse he must have passed? Why was he protected from inquiries? Why did the Interior Minister of Hesse, where the killing took place, stubbornly reject being questioned about his agent—and hinder scrutiny of the relevant documents, which are now locked away from public (or legal) view for an amazing 120 years? (No, that number is not a typo!).

And why is the same man now Minister President of the state of Hesse and a powerful figure in the party of Angela Merkel, who promised a full examination of the case five years ago!

‘Winged Monkeys’

As in the Land of Oz, there seem to be swarms of “Winged Monkeys” flying around, not subservient to any Wicked Witch of the West but “obedient to anyone wearing the Golden Cap, pure gold with a circle of sparkling diamonds and red rubies running round it… Whoever owned it could call upon the Winged Monkeys, who would obey any order they were given, no matter how evil or silly”.

For author Frank Baum in 1900, that was certainly a metaphor. It is for me too! In my metaphor, wild creatures are also flying around, not just in Hesse. I see two sub-species: one, for me especially frightening, is looking for trouble in the world, seeking confrontation, even conflict, condemning dialogue as “treason” and pushing hatred of an “adversary” stupid enough to use a crazy alphabet and strangely fervent in opposing a threatening military power, at least ten or fifteen times its own strength, which regularly flexes its muscles—tanks and war planes—in maneuvers perilously close to its most vital borders.

And the other sub-species? The racist, secret groups like the National Socialist Union, now perhaps defunct, an openly fascist assortment of violent, booted, swastika-tattooed thugs, but also well-dressed citizens, welcome guests on talk shows and now holding 92 AfD  seats in the Bundestag but also to be found in the two “Christian” parties and elsewhere. They are the ones who preach hatred, sometimes against Jews again but most commonly now against Muslims, “Islamists”, immigrants or anyone they can label as a foreigner.

In their spirit a racist tornado hit Germany recently, like the Kansas twister which sent Dorothy spinning to Oz. The spinning in this case was with soccer balls. This game, called football here, is a constant topic, though for some the skilled kicking seems to get less attention than: Who’s playing whom! Hurrah for the home team! This is fairly normal, but it becomes highly emotional when the national team aims at another victory trophy, like last month in Russia. German fans, sure of victories like in Rio in 2014, jammed the broad avenue cutting through the central park (Tiergarten) as 100,000 or so watched the giant screens waiting to cheer every German advance. A real carnival!

But alas, this time the magic was missing, in three games the team failed to even make the quarter finals. Bitter tragedy—and that carnival mile stayed almost empty! Top-notch world football or not, who wanted to watch England, France or Croatia if no Germans were playing?

The anger at this national tragedy quickly found a scapegoat: Mesut Özil, one of the best players, who played well in all three games but not well enough to turn the tide.   

In addition, he had made a blunder. Several weeks before the games he and another team player with Turkish background, born like him in Germany, had appeared on TV in England in a smiling exchange with Erdogan, the president of Turkey, shortly before the election there. Erdogan was gunning for all those in Europe with Turkish roots who can still vote in Turkish elections, especially in Germany, where many have double citizenship. For the two possibly unpolitical athletes, they were flattered, and wanted to make clear that, although German, they were not ashamed of their Turkish roots and felt attached to the country of their parents and grandparents. Whatever the reason, it was politically a stupid mistake.

But that did not justify the vicious campaign unleashed against Özil after the team flop.  Although he was second in the number of shots at the goal, and perhaps second-best player in the lost games, the media-inspired boos of the fans were directed against him. Media analyses of the lost games almost always featured him in the middle, like one headlined “German Downfall”. An anti-foreigner tone was obvious; one paper spoke of 23 team members and two Turks; condescension ranging to hatred dripped from the pages, the TV voices, the social media. When top football officials, instead of defending him, joined in the attack, Özil broke a long silence with a statement, in English, that he is quitting the national team (both Turkish Germans, like other players, have season contracts in England or elsewhere.) He asserted: when the team wins he is “a good German player”. When it loses he becomes “the Turkish-German player” or “the Turk” and takes the blame.

This issue split the fans, also non-fans, and aroused new disputes about discrimination, revealing often ignored racist views. In response, some with a Turkish background are re-considering their decision to dismiss their past and become Germans. Too often they are met by intolerance—and also murder!

With militarism and race hatred, as with animals generally, similar sub-species can mate.

Leading the anti-foreigner mob (though not anti-Russian), is the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party, now competing with the Social Democrats in the polls, with the AfD nationally teetering between 13 and 17%, while the SPD has dropped to 17-19%. The AfD may soon win second place!

Victory at the foundry

I close with an item from Leipzig, the industrial center of Saxony, where the AfD is strongest. That meant nothing in the fight at a big iron foundry. In GDR days it was the pride of the region, successful enough in the 1980’s to commission a Japanese company to add an ultra-modern automated section. The number working here varied between 6000 or more…

After the demise of the GDR and almost all its industry, this foundry held out, almost alone, saving jobs for 700 employees. After various typical buy-outs and sell-outs, with a French, then a Dutch owner, it landed in the arms of a Bosnian billionaire with a firm called Prevent. A speculator, he tried to charge Volkswagen and Opel higher prices for the well-made motor blocks and drive shafts. But they proved stronger, punished him, and he planned bankruptcy for next year, meaning joblessness and only a few cents in severance pay for the 700 in Leipzig and 1300 in western Saarbrucken.

The workers’ answer—all 2000—was to go on strike. Locomotive engineers have dared that in recent years, also kindergarten teachers, airline personnel, post office workers, hospital staff, with varying success. But East German factory workers, with bitter joblessness staring them in the face, have rarely risked a strike. Of course the media called their step “hopeless”, “counterproductive”, “stupid”. Other VW and Opel suppliers cursed them for causing difficulties. But the 2000, in East and West, held out together. They organized well, came to strike posts each day and did their best to keep scabs from entering and products from leaving.

They resisted all arguments and pleas, until last Monday, after six weeks, the company finally agreed on arbitration, with an arbitrator chosen by the union. The workers agreed to stop the strike—or to interrupt it. They want to see the results of the arbitration—and then vote on it.

Even little victories are rare in the East German industrial landscape. But it is always worthwhile to oppose evil witches and even defy autocrats wearing golden caps full of diamonds and rubies.

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