Editor’s Note: Just before the Sept 1 election in two parts of Germany that were previously under the rule of the Soviet imposed regime GDR or East Germany (as opposed to the Western U.S. imposed regime) Victor Grossman shared his assessment of the Greens. Following the election, he wrote his analysis of the outcome. Both are well worth reading to get a real account of what is happening there, though missing the psychological analyses that we normally seek. —Rabbi Michael Lerner . firstname.lastname@example.org
ARE GERMAN GREENS ON THE LEFT
A quick Berlin Bulletin before tonight’s crucial elections:
Comments on “Germany’s Future Is Being Decided on the Left, Not the Far Right” by Noah Barkin in “The Atlantic”, August 28, 2019 (used by portside, August 29)
True enough, as this article points out, the German party called The Greens has certainly soared to an amazingly strong position in the political spectrum; it is even grasping for the very top job soon to be vacated by Angela Merkel, with some hope for success. But placing it on “the Left” is not at all so certain. It may be green in its environment program but in terms of political hues, unlike its American namesake, it is by no means so clearly in the red, or leftist, rainbow sector.
The party began nearly fifty years ago as a radical, angrily-attacked antidote to the stolid West German scene. With its feminist, anti-establishment, equalitarian and above all environmentally conscious words and actions, symbolized by wearing sneakers to government receptions and hand-knitted sweaters to parliamentary sessions, its break with traditions was almost a shade of Woodstock ten years earlier.
But its “realo” faction outscored its “fundis”, pragmatic “realists” beat leftist “fundamentalists”. When it joined a government coalition with the Social Democrats on the federal level in 1998, its radical aspects retreated. The major break came when Joschka Fischer, its leader and foreign minister, sent German bombers against Serbia, a brutal war crime based on lies (now increasingly coming to light). It was the first time since 1945 that Germans in uniform (in planes) killed people outside their national borders, and was made possible by German unification nine years earlier – and by the Greens. In its years sharing the helm of state, until 2005, a whole series of measures were also passed against Germans at home –hitting hardest at the jobless and at pensioners, while the wealthy were not just spared but richly rewarded with a multibillion cut in taxes.
Somehow, whenever the Greens gain state power, in those years on the national level or in state-level cabinet posts, their militancy often gets diluted like over-watered coffee in a bad café.
Strong on equality for women, LGBT rights, on opposing racism, hatred of foreigners and neo-fascists of every new brand and variety, they gained their big new increase in strength largely thanks to growing awareness by millions of the rapid destruction of our environment, felt clearly in rising temperatures, droughts and floods. Their sins in federal cabinets were largely forgotten after 2005; indeed, a major plus point is currently their simple absence from any wimpy federal government.
But it’s better not to look too closely at their actions on state levels. After fighting long and conspicuously against further extending the huge Frankfurt airport – “Save our environment!” – they made the then unusual decision to join in a state government with the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU). When their leader became deputy minister president and economics minister, they somehow forgot opposition and approved the extension (though the Herr Minister himself was somehow unable to attend its fancy opening ceremony, with or without sneakers and a wool sweater.
A year ago a majority of Germans, with the Greens among the loudest, celebrated the decision to save the ancient Hambacher Forest between Cologne and Aachen after its passionate defense by countless demonstrators, with some holding out in tree huts. Rarely mentioned was the fact that five years earlier, when the Greens shared coalition posts with the Social Democrats ruling the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, their three cabinet ministers had all approved cutting down the forest in favor of open pit lignite coal digging.
Another example is from northern Schleswig-Holstein. While handsome Green national co-chair Robert Habeck loudly calls for capping rent levels – an urgent demand now heard on many sides – the three-party coalition up there, with the CDU and the Greens and the openly pro-capitalist Free German Party (FDP), quietly lifted the existing state lid on rent increases. Again the Greens bowed to their “Christian” partner.
In the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southwest Germany the Greens also joined in a coalition with the CDU-rightists, but this time, in the first and only case thus far in Germany, as head of a state government. But here, too. their somehow still popular, tall, scratchy-voiced Minister President Winfried Kretschmann seemed to overlook his Green roots. His roots searched richer soil; the giant Daimler-Benz maker of Mercedes cars is centered near his capital, Stuttgart. As he has often made clear, he knows which fertilizer is most advantageous. For years his special sleek green Mercedes government vehicle was famous for its 441 horse power. “I am very big and I need to travel quickly” he explained. (But a critical journalist asked if he really needed a speed of up to 150 mph.)
When even greater speed is necessary, he flies. Dismissing the highly-publicized demands of Robert Habeck for an ecological ban on domestic flights in Germany he said: “I don’t think much of all that moralizing … We shouldn’t dictate people’s style of life.” That also seems to apply when Daimler, like Volkswagen, BMW and the others go in for a bit of leaded exhaust pipe trickery.
The Greens have been finding it ever easier to abandon earlier inhibitions about teaming up with the right-wing Christian CDU – and making all kinds of compromises while doing so.
In this way, they seem to be replacing the Social Democrats, who have long been doing the same thing – and thus moving currently to the brink of disaster; their membership has halved, their status in national polls is now at 13 percent. This has forced them into an almost desperate hunt for new leaders; about a dozen male-female duos now choke the field of candidates, somewhat like US presidential campaigns. It is also forcing them to add an almost forgotten left-sounding timbre to their voices, at least when elections approach.
The Greens also speak in progressive tones – and still take some positions in that direction. Maybe a fitting symbol for them would be some kind of mixed bag, some contents generally attractive, others attractive only as coalition partners for the CDU, for unlike the Social Democrats they have almost no complicating ties to the union movement, hence must make no traditional bows in that direction. The Green membership was largely based on once rebellious collegians, most of whom are now highly educated, upper middle-class professionals. It is not yet clear if this base is now broadening.
When it comes to foreign policy, they are more Russophobic than any other party, always from a purely humanitarian standpoint, of course, like some American politicians on both sides of the aisle. While the Social Democrats sometimes lean here and there towards diplomacy in a world threatened constantly by the menace of atomic war, the Greens lean all too often toward confrontation.
But the Greens are not a monolithic bunch. Some members and some local groups still recall progressive trends from their past – and not exclusively restricted to well-spoken words.
The three states in Eastern Germany now facing elections (two of them on Sunday) will be forced to decide on coalitions; no party will be strong enough to rule alone, most likely not even in two-party tandems. In both Thuringia (due to vote in October) and Berlin, the Greens, Social Democrats and the LINKE (Left) have long since combined to get a majority of seats and form the government. This will very likely happen now in Brandenburg; in Saxony it may even be necessary for those three to accept the CDU as boss in a four-way attempt – if only to keep the fascistic Alternative for Germany (AfD) out of office. With German politics ever more chaotic, the elections and weeks that follow will be of critical importance. Millions are waiting with bated breath!
MIXED JOY AND GREAT SORROW
State elections in eastern Germany on September 1 brought mixed joy to some and great sorrow to others.
With many, it was less joy than sighs of relief; neither Saxon nor Brandenburg voters gave the far-right, fascist-leaning Alternative for Germany (AfD) the Number One position it had hungered for.
In Saxony this was prevented by the rightist but not extremist Christian Democrat Union (CDU), which held on to the first place it has held there since German unification in 1990.
But its present coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) is no longer possible; to obtain the 50 % of parliamentary seats needed to form a government it must now form a trio. Since for it the AfD and the LINKE (Left) are taboo, a strange manège-a-trois seems inevitable: CDU, SPD and the Greens.
In Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, an AfD victory was also averted when the Social Democrats retained the first place it holds there since reunification. But its current duet with the greatly weakened LINKE (Left) must give way to a trio. The Greens are sure to be invited in as second violin. Will the LINKE be called in again or, now seen as out of tune, be replaced by the CDU, thus moving this state toward the right? Either decision is possible.
Thus, in both states, the leading parties held their lead and headed off the threat by the AfD. But in both states they were painfully weakened. In Saxony the poor Social Democrats, currently losing strength everywhere as they feverishly hunt for new national leaders, got the lowest state election vote in their post-war history – less than eight percent!
There could be no happy clinking of champagne glasses in either party headquarters.
As for the Greens, they could be quite satisfied. Until now they were very weak in East Germany. Now they improved their standing by three or four points and would now be represented in both states’ new governments, and soft, warm cabinet seats are far more comfortable than colder, harder chairs in the opposition. They also offer many more opportunities, both political and personal.
The AfD missed the victories it had aimed for but had no reason to complain: In Saxony it jumped from 9.7 % in 2014 to a new high of 23.5 %; in Brandenburg it soared from 9.7 % to a very strong 27.5 %. It thus became the biggest opposition party in both states; swift progress for a six-year-old. The opposition benches did not feel so hard after all (especially if iron crosses and swastikas were tattooed under parliamentary trousers. The AfD could be more than happy; everyone else was well-advised to remain fearful or – far better – to keep alert.
But alas, hélas, ay, ach and oy vey: the party suffering most last Sunday was the LINKE. In Saxony, where it had long been the main opposition party, it sank from nearly 19 % to 10.4 %; it was similar in Brandenburg; until now junior coalition partner, it now it dropped from 18.6 % in 2014 (and 28 % in 2004) to 10.7 % on Sunday. The fitting word is “devastating”!
What explains this? Many faithful old GDR leftists are dying out. Just as important, for years the LINKE was seen as a protest party, fighting hardest for working people in the former East German Democratic Republic, who still feel they are treated as second-class citizens. Compared with western Germany, wages and conditions are worse and industry has never really recovered from its nearly total destruction when East Germany was “united” (many now say “colonized”) and West Germans took control in almost every sphere of society. They have largely kept it until today; entire regions are economically arid, empty, deprived of important but less profitable shops and transportation.
After the early 90s, years of extreme suppression and discrimination, the LINKE (or Party of Democratic Socialism before it united with a West German party in 2007) gradually achieved a more respectable status and won elective positions on local and state levels, especially in cities like Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt (Oder). This varied. In Saxony the ruling CDU constantly equated the LINKE, the GDR and all socialist ideas and ideals with fascism and fascists. In some hard-hit towns such well-nurtured prejudices encouraged fascist elements, often in cahoots with Christian Democratic mayors, police and other authorities, to attack and sometimes prevent LINKE activities. The stench and threat of violence was often in the air – and often enough reality.
But a wholly different problem arose in cities and areas where the LINKE regained strength, often with 20 %, 25 % or more voters, it occasionally won political positions as mayor, county chair or Bundestag deputy. Ironically, however, even a LINKE mayor felt it necessary to attract West German or foreign companies so as to get badly needed jobs (and taxes for schools, street lamps or other needs. But support of workers’ demands and struggles for higher pay and better conditions was not exactly a strong inducement for such companies. Which way should a LINKE mayor turn? Or a member of a coalition government? Many found it wise to remain loyal to “economic progress”.
No matter what they decided on, the media was sure to distort it, viciously but cleverly! The result and a main factor in the Sunday defeats: many East Germans came to view the LINKE as part of the despised, even hated “establishment” – especially, as was mostly the case, when the LINKE appeared “moderate”! And, may thought, at least the AfD was no part of that “bunch up there”!
There are some parallels with post-Civil War USA. The upper classes in North and South were able to funnel the resentment and bitterness of the “losers”, all white, into hatred for “the others”, the ex-slaves, thus misdirecting any opposition to their brutal control in both North and South.
In East Germany, where so many rightly feel they were the losers, deluded, deprived, discriminated against by condescending “Wessis” who took over, the AfD has been able to misdirect a quarter of the population into taking out their frustration against those who speak German with an accent, wear unusual clothes or believe in that so constantly denounced Islam. “The ‘others’ were being favored – at our cost”! – Shades of Trump!
The severe defeat, like the miserable 5.5 % result in the European Union election, demands vigorous re-thinking on policy, strategy and tactics. It would seem urgently necessary to patch up the year’s nasty quarrel about the formation of the “Aufstehen” (Stand Up”) movement led by caucus co-chair Sahra Wagenknecht which undoubtedly hurt the party severely in the public eye.
I was not in Brandenburg or Saxony this past year and cannot criticize. But the problems of the LINKE are national in nature, indeed, often international. I see solutions in far more militant fights for working people’s rights. Though always an integral part of LINKE programs and electoral campaigns, I think that words in programs, on posters or declaimed in parliamentary speeches with TV sound bites should form only a background for highly visible shows of strength by “ordinary people”. Despite the malicious media, clever actions must be sought which bring people away from an overwhelming stress on multiple apps, video games and the like, and toward outdoor activities where they join hands and combine both heads and moving feet to advance their own cause. These should stress friendship and solidarity with immigrant groups and never neglect the emotional value of songs and the arts. Many a movement, from Marseilles to Santiago, from the Civil War to the civil rights struggle, has benefited greatly from good, fighting songs, often in varied languages.
In the course of such actions it can be explained, though never looking down a wiseacre nose, that unaffordable housing costs, bad jobs, uncertain jobs, or no jobs, fears for the future of one’s offspring are closely connected with support for lives in dignity and peace on other continents.
A new home or better school is connected with larger issues like armament costs, war and peace, and in the long run with a future goal of system-changing. That would mean (in East Germany for the second time) confiscating the immense wealth and power of a small clique of giants profiteers, from farm seeds to pharmaceutics, from media control to missile construction, from guzzling cars to guzzling retail emperors, breaking their grip on all those cheated and exploited, from the Amazon warehouse in Berlin to the sweatshop in Bangla Desh. The hopes of seeing workshops run by those who work in them need to be kept alive or reawakened.
Would bold moves like these revive LINKE strength? Some on the left have given up on the LINKE, which was also riven by internal quarrels about a movement called “Aufstehen”, led by the great LINKE speaker Sahra Wagenknecht, but which split the party rather than strengthening it. But if the party should sink lower with the voters, or split and then disappear, there would be no loudly audible voice or vote in the Bundestag or the states to oppose wars in Afghanistan or Mali, to clearly oppose the fascist danger, to speak out for the rights of working people.
If only it can learn from the disaster on September 1st and engage in militant, well-aimed, visible struggles at the grass roots level, the LINKE can be rescued before it is too late. In this powerful country, in these increasingly difficult times, this is desperately necessary!