The great author Goethe once caricatured fellow Germans’ chatter:
On holidays there’s nothing I like better
Than talking about war and war’s display,
When in Turkey far away, People one another batter.
Substitute “Ukraine”—or Yemen, Sudan, Sahara, Syria, Palestine … and we are back in Today. But who today is Faust, and who Mephistopheles? I will look to that later on.
Earlier in the same famous play the words of other citizens apply even better—in Berlin:
No, the new mayor doesn’t suit me! … And what’s he done to help the town?…
As always it’s us who must obey, And pay more money down.
Berlin’s new mayor, just inaugurated, has had no time to suit or anger anybody. But the first Christian Democrat to lead this city-state since 2001 inspires few joyous hopes—and will probably want “more money down”. His victory was as suspenseful a drama as any on Goethe’s stage!
First a bungled city-state election had to be fully repeated. The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) won the most votes, hence the most seats in the legislature, but lacked the necessary majority. The three parties who have ruled Berlin since 2017—Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and LINKE (Left) lost out, the SPD worst by far, yet if the three held together they still had enough to stay on top. But who would then be mayor? Franziska Giffey again, of the SPD? Attractive, always smiling, well-spoken but ever less popular as she leaned ever more rightward, she beat her rival, the Greens leader, after a cliff-hanging recount of the votes, by the skin of her teeth, (279,017 to 278,964—only 53 votes more!) But Giffey led. She could have pasted over past differences and rivalries, praised some thin improvements, and again embraced the Greens and the LINKE to remain Berlin’s mayor.
But then she chose not to! Amazing almost everyone, she switched horses, shoving her shaky Green and LINKE partners onto the opposition benches and aligning instead with the former opponents, accepting the CDU boss as mayor and, for herself, the second-best deputy mayor job plus a cabinet post as economics minister (called Senator here). Still smiling, she told audiences how these old foes, her SPD and the CDU, would now join hands and put Berlin on a new path of happiness and contentment. The new mayor, Kai Wegner, almost fully bald, almost fully unknown, but quite fully conservative, would now win the key job of top man in Germany’s capital and biggest city.
This astonishing turn-around faced two hurdles. SPD rules required approval by the membership, and many, especially members of the affiliated “Young Socialists,” saw this deal as a betrayal of values they still held. How would they vote?
Again a cliff-hanger. After all mailed-in ballots were counted, Giffey and the party officialdom had squeaked through with a meager 54% approval vote. Her smile began to look a little forced.
The last hurdle: The secret ballot vote of approval by the city legislature. 80 “Ja” votes were needed. The two supporting parties, CDU and SPD, had 86 deputies—more than enough. But when the colored ballots were counted—only 71 were in favor, nine short. Which ones voted against their own party? What a scandal! The leaders hustled around, putting pressure on presumed doubters—most likely SPD deputies who had opposed the whole deal. A second vote followed—and with 79 Ja-votes they were still one short of the needed number. This had never ever happened before! Giffey, Kai Wegner, yes, Berlin, too, were butts of ridicule in all Germany. For five bitter hours the legal experts consulted and who knows how many wrists were twisted or juicy offers made? There seemed no choice but to make at least one more attempt. This time the magic number 86 was achieved—just as many as the two parties had delegates! So the two were sworn in, Giffey with no trace of her happy smile, Wegner with as glum a scowl as was ever been seen on a winner’s face as he finally pledged, muttering the customary “With the help of God”. They may need divine help last the course until the next election, not always so certain in European systems.
Incredibly, to make things even worse, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) claimed that some of its deputies had voted “Ja”. If true, then some renegades, SPD (or CDU?) had voted against their own leader, to the end, and the new city government rested on far-right support, a strict taboo! Wegner quickly labeled this claim a lie, meant to sow discord. But balloting had been secret!
The new Berlin cabinet, mostly inexperienced newcomers, now face the same problems as their predecessors: integrating immigrants (now often Ukrainians), vehicle speed limits, the number and width of new bicycle lanes, a lack of teachers, especially in kindergartens, ecology activists blocking highways by gluing their hands to the pavement, food prices out of reach for modest-salary homes, overcrowded free food pantries, and worst of all, soaring rent prices and lack of affordable housing. Franziska Giffey, always comfy with the gents from big real estate companies, will find common ground with Mayor Wegner, while desperate home-seekers may feel less cozy. The LINKE, like the Greens in the chilly unrewarding opposition could use that position well if they try; it was in coalitions, like in Berlin, that they lost support and votes by becoming part of the “Establishment”.
Many of these questions are also national. A governing trio still rules: SPD, Greens, but instead of an occasionally troublesome LINKE a constantly troublesome Free Democratic Party (FDP). The SPD must try to win back its traditional working-class support, the Greens hope to hold onto ties with intellectuals, professionals and young ecology backers, despite multiplying compromises. But the Free Democrats pull unashamedly toward the right, oppose money for children’s aid or help for the poorest, but also say “Nein“ to tax increases on the wealthy or super-wealthy. The CDU, with similar policies, is salivating about collapsing the trio by pulling the FDP out, then taking over, like in Berlin.
Despite all maneuvers, one glue holds them all together; continuing the war in Ukraine. SPD, CDU, FDP, Greens all agree; Russia must be defeated, Zelenskiy must win, with ever more tanks, howitzers, artillery, drones, aircraft and whatever else he demands. A number of somewhat reluctant people in the SPD—including Chancellor Scholz—have been forced into line, a line dictated in Washington and most vociferously voiced by the Greens, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in the forefront, waving the troops on (but not getting too close to the battlefront; let the Ukrainians do the dying!)
The fearful destruction, the displacement of families, above all the killing and maiming must be deplored, condemned and brought to an end. But the underlying reasons for this terrible war, concealed in the media, must also be mercilessly examined, regardless of well-orchestrated accusations of “Putin-friendship” or “left-over allegiance to a past Soviet Russia”.
As I see it, two pro-war factors are basic. The fossil fuels lobby in the USA, immensely guilty of knowingly heating up the world and concealing its giant crimes with lies, feared any European coexistence, economic or otherwise, which was based on trade or above all, on Russian gas and oil, thus lessening its influence and threatening its huge super-profits. Many conflicts have centered on Saudi, Syrian, Iraqi or Libyan oil. I fear it again played a big role, symbolized by the years of U.S. pressure to prevent the Baltic pipelines. An almost total media effort to ignore Seymour Hersh’s detailed analysis of their destruction is good for laughs, including the very tardy, very ridiculous attempt to blame it on a small yacht rented by mysterious non-Zelenskiy Ukrainians. When that was shown to be impossible dead silence returned—until a sudden Scandinavian recollection of allegedly seeing a Russian ship seen in that area six months ago. The name Hersh remains strangely taboo.
Only a few people dared recall that it was Joe Biden, in February 2022, who clearly warned that if Russia attacked Ukraine “then there will … no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Asked how, since the project is in German control, Biden said: “I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.”
An 8-month media silence on the obvious pressure exerted on Amnesty International to retract its report that Ukraine and Russia both were responsible for civilians’ deaths was one more little sample of how the media seems to be directed by some invisible hands, just like in a marionette theater, certainly in Russia—but not only there. (And what have you read or seen lately about Assange, or Mumia Abu-Jamal?)
Washington’s pressure to break Russian economic ties with Europe, especially Germany, its main center, became all-powerful when the Ukraine war began. But is there another very vital reason?
The USA has opposed Russia since the Bolshevik revolution, when they sent in 13,000 troops in 1918 in a vain effort to strangle the hated system in its cradle. After a brief World War Two interruption, NATO, in 1949, became the main force to stop its spread and defeat it. This was accomplished after 1990. With its downfall it would seem that NATO had become superfluous. But it wasn’t.
On Feb. 9, 1990 Secretary of State Baker said that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” A day later Foreign Minister Genscher declared for Germany that NATO “would not be extended eastward.“ Some historians unsurprisingly raise doubts about those pledges, maintaining they referred only to East Germany or were limited in time. Only later did Robert Gates, a CIA director, admit that the Russians had been “misled.” Whatever the facts, the country-by-country advance of a highly militarized NATO membership meant undeniably that while Leningrad was 1200 miles from NATO’s armed edge in 1990, St. Petersburg is less than 100 miles from armed, hostile NATO-Estonia.
The old diplomat George Kennan, who had launched America’s Cold War “containment” strategy, warned in 1997 that this eastward expansion might become “the most fateful error of U.S. policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
His voice was not heeded. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Congress-financed CIA sibling with less cloak-and-dagger methods, indicated U.S. policy in its 2013 “Resource Summary”:
The NED “has been a proud partner of Ukraine’s civil society groups, media outlets, and human rights defenders since 1989 … The objective of the Endowment is helping new democracies to succeed. For Eastern and Southeastern Europe, this goal is best met through these countries’ accession to the European Union and NATO… In the Europe region, the 2013 priority countries will include Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo.”
But when I read about “helping new democracies to succeed” I cannot help but recall earlier samples of it, and the shape of freedom, democracy, or a “rule of order” when the CIA, NED, U.S. Army or its surrogates overthrew fairly elected governments and resulting in murderous dictatorships or chaos: in Guatemala, Iran, Haiti, Brazil, Chile, Congo, Burkina Faso and not a few more!
Yes, the Russian invasion is also murderous and tragic. But hardly unexpected; well before it began the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had warned:
“It’s important to understand that Moscow’s demands of the United States and NATO are in fact the strategic goals of Russian policy in Europe. Their aim is not to restore the Soviet Union, as some suggest. Rather, the idea is to reframe security in Europe—particularly in Europe’s east—as a contractual relationship between the two principal strategic actors in the region, Russia and the United States/NATO… This is regarded as a vital national security interest. If Russia cannot achieve its goal by diplomatic means, it will need to resort to other tools and methods…Russian officials have said that if the talks fail, Moscow will take military-technical and even military measures…
Having what would amount to an unsinkable aircraft carrier controlled by the United States on Moscow’s doorstep, on hostile territory, even if Ukraine is not officially part of NATO, would be far more serious than the Baltic countries’ NATO membership. This isn’t a full-fledged threat just yet, but it certainly could become one, and what happens then?
Another commentator used (or borrowed) the same analogy:
If Ukraine is turned into an unsinkable aircraft carrier anchored on Russia’s border under American control a few hundred miles from Moscow, it would be no more acceptable to the Kremlin than the other unsinkable aircraft carrier—Cuba—was to the White House almost sixty years ago.
Is it possible that Russia—or Putin—was alarmed last year to read reports like this:
Over 2,000 forces and 30 ships are taking part in exercise Breeze 2021 in the Black Sea. The Bulgarian-led maritime exercise, which began on 12 July … involves forces from 14 NATO Allies and partners—Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the USA. The exercise aims to … strengthen NATO’s readiness … ‘The Alliance remains strongly committed to Black Sea security,’ said Deputy Spokesperson Cazalet.
Or to see a photo taken during NATO’s annual “GlobalThunder exercise” showing a soldier loading up a B-52 with (as yet) unarmed cruise missiles. Twelve can fit under the wings; each bomber could deliver 1.8 Megatons of explosive power, the equivalent of 120 Hiroshima bombs.
And to learn that, in another annual nuclear exercise known as Steadfast Noon “more than 50 aircraft practice NATO’s nuclear strike mission … There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.”
A broad hint as to motives behind such activities was offered in a new book by John Bolton, once USA ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Adviser to Donald Trump:
After Ukraine wins its war with Russia, we must aim to split the Russia-China axis. Moscow’s defeat could unseat Mr. Putin’s regime. What comes next is a government of unknowable composition. New Russian leaders may or may not look to the West rather than Beijing, and might be so weak that the Russian Federation’s fragmentation, especially east of the Urals, isn’t inconceivable.
Do such ideas differ from those of current political leaders in Washington (and Berlin), aimed at prolonging the war—to the joy of Lockheed-Martin and Northrup-Grumman—but also at recapturing the sole position of leadership and power claimed by post-war USA since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is world hegemony. Is that behind many fine words about freedom and democracy, about opposing authoritarianism and brutality while ignoring the most likely results: Russia under a Yeltsin or, worse yet, what such liberation brought to Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Congo?
Nothing excuses the inflicting of killing and destruction on another country—with one possible single exception: self-defense. While condemning Putin’s frightful and deathly decision of February 24th a cool examination cannot dismiss the question: Were fears of such a fate—and a belief in the need for “preventive self-defense”—its basic motivation, and not a wish to “rebuild an empire”? Was he recalling the invasions of 1812, 1918, and, most horrifying, 1941?
A nasty side-effect of the Ukraine war: People on the left in many countries have been split sharply, not only about who to blame—Putin, Russia, NATO, the USA, or perhaps Zelensky—but on what course to support and march for. On the right—or center—important people have made their decision, as described by Steven Erlanger in the NY Times (April 17, 2023):
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the costliest conflict in Europe since World War II, has propelled NATO into a full-throttled effort to make itself again into the capable, war-fighting alliance it had been during the Cold War… more troops based permanently along the Russian border, more integration of American and allied war plans, more military spending …
NATO now has deployed a battalion of multinational troops to eight countries along the eastern border with Russia. It is detailing how to enlarge those forces to brigade strength in those frontline states to enhance deterrence and be able to push back invading forces from the start. And it is also tasking thousands more forces, in case of war, to move quickly in support, with newly detailed plans for mobility and logistics and stiffer requirements for readiness…
Previously, the annual exercises of NATO’s nuclear forces, known as Steadfast Noon, were kept quiet. But last year, after Russia’s invasion, the exercise went ahead openly. It was important, a NATO official said, to show Moscow that the alliance wasn’t deterred by nuclear threats.
Mr. Putin has long complained about NATO encirclement and encroachment. But his invasion of Ukraine provoked the alliance to shed remaining inhibitions about increased numbers of Western troops all along NATO’s border with Russia.
For me, such talk borders on insanity! Regardless of all disputes about blame or aim, for people on the left or for anyone, left, right or center, who is fearful of such developments, and the growing danger of atomic incidents or accidents that can lead to the annihilation of all of us, it seems to me there can be only one conclusion.
Continuing the war until a final decisive victory for Ukraine, demanded by so many politicians and so much of the media, is basically impossible. Russia, if it sees itself threatened in its existence as an independent nation, would assuredly with atomic weapons. And a threat of a defeat of the Ukraine would lead either to a long-lasting war of attrition at the cost of multitudes of lives, Ukrainian but also Russian, or to that same atomic Armageddon.
The only real alternative is to fight, internationally, for a cease-fire, for negotiations and some settlement, at least temporary, if possible permanent. This solution seemed possible at Minsk—but was throttled (most likely by the UK-USA). It seemed almost attainable with the unusual help of Israel’s Naftali Bennett and then Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. Both Lula of Brazil and Xi Jinping of China have made proposals and will hopefully continue pushing for them. Pressure—on Putin, Biden, on anyone involved in this war—must be increased in every possible way, even when the results are often disappointing. I took heart at the huge enthusiasm for peace at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in February, with perhaps 50,000. And I recall the movement against the Vietnam war which started off with “small bunches of hippies!” There must be a continuing pressure—not to win the war but to win peace—the overwhelming issue of our day and perhaps our lifetime.
This issue is also crucial for the shaky current and future status within the LINKE party in Germany. But I have dealt so long with the Ukraine that I must postpone the matter—and other matters—to my next Berlin Bulletin. Perhaps, to recall Goethe, I have talked too much about mayors—and far-off wars. But as to who, if anyone, plays Mephistopheles, I shall leave that to you.