BERLIN – Confrontations with the police in Germany have not been quite as severe as some have been in Ferguson and other U.S. cities. But some have been dramatic enough.
Back in September, 2010 mass protests in Stuttgart against construction of a huge underground railroad station at the cost of a prized old building and a central park were hit hard by cops with truncheons and water cannons, resulting in hundreds of injuries and most of one man’s eyesight. Yet last week the courts dropped all charges against the authorities; they had only borne “minor responsibility.”
Some are bitter that Winfried Kretschmann, Germany’s first and only Green premier (there in Baden-Wurttemberg), carefully avoided comment or involvement.
In Dresden, in February 2011, about 18,000 anti-Nazis were able to block a neo-Nazi parade. But later, after most people (like me) had left, some remaining anti-Nazis got into a fight with the police, who had been shielding the Nazis during the daytime. When it was discovered that the police had monitored the cell phone messages of the demonstrators that day.
Rev. Lothar König, 60, the huge, bearded pastor from Jena, once a dissident in the GDR, joined in the criticism of police tactics in an article in “Der Spiegel.” A few days later 30 policemen raided his home and he was charged with joining the fighting – “breach of peace, attempted obstruction of justice and attempted coercion.” He was charged with using a bullhorn from his van over which he allegedly called upon people to “stone the pigs.”
After three years of bureaucracy, postponements and trial hearings it was revealed that the police had withheld 170 pages of testimony and 160 hours of video tape, all of which exonerated König, and the case had to be dropped.
There is no such happy ending as yet for another anti-Nazi participant that day, charged similarly though never having been even identified properly in the crowd. Unluckily, not a pastor, he was sentenced to 22 months without parole! The fight for a revision is still going on. No Nazis were ever sentenced.
Recently in another city, Cologne, some 4,800 tough-looking characters arrived in town, took over the big square at the main station and then set out on a march. It was a show of power, actually, by a far right wing of the soccer fans in town. They are the ones who shout racist slogans during games. On the march they were joined by more or less openly fascist groups, some local, or others like the National Democratic Party (NDP), a national organization.
What unified the groups in the march was their hatred for both Muslim monorities and the left. Common slogans were: “Germany for Germans – Foreigners get out!” and “National resistance is on the march!”
Despite clear Internet signals the police had underestimated their strength and were hopelessly outnumbered. During and after the march the fascists attacked journalists, passers-by, courageous anti-fascists who had gathered to oppose them and, while they were at it, the cops as well – more than 40 of whom were injured.
The HoGeSa, as they were called, had planned a second march on Nov. 15 in Hanover. The police tried to bar it this time but a district court ruled for the right to “freedom of assembly.” So the police insisted at least on a set of rules: body searches for weapons, bottles and fireworks, no march through town, no alcohol.
For the expected 5,000 fascists and neo-Nazis they assembled 5,300 cops from eight states and roped off the square at the station. In the end only about 2,600 turned up – and up to 6,000 antifascists. The police worked as usual to keep them apart; most antifascists by far are against violence but there are frequently small groups, often with (illegally) covered faces and almost certainly including provocateurs (most likely also from the police), who throw things and give the media the desired headlines. But this time, and again in Berlin a week later, things stayed peaceful.
The role of the police is complicated. Neo-Nazis, with whom some at all police levels may secretly sympathize, must not be permitted to go too far, getting bad headlines abroad and a scolding from “respectable” party leaders. But the extreme rightists are useful. Building on race hatred and violence, they serve as a “reserve army” against possible leftward trends, and while the cops may rein in their worst visible excesses they also protect them against anti-fascists while the respectable politicians can denounce “extremists from the Left and the Right.”
It’s a tortuous, winding path. The dangers of things taking a bad turn in Germany are quite real. With an alliance of neo-Nazis and racist elements among the soccer fans, with a new party growing in strength due to its anti-foreigner stance (Alternative for Germany – AfD), and with unceasing attacks in the press against “violent Islamists and Salafists,” any economic downturn, currently threatening, could push things in a rightwing direction.
Two other subjects are dividing Germans. One centers in the peacefully-forested, hilly state of Thuringia, known as Germany’s green lung. It is an area full of famous old cities: Weimar, Erfurt, Jena and Bach’s birthplace, Eisenach. The other involves battle-torn towns in the flat plains of the Ukraine.
The central government, shared by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with its junior partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), keeps stumbling over relations with Russia; my metaphor still applies: trying to find footing on an up and a down escalator at the same time. Foreign Minister Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, flies with his handsome white shock of hair and mostly gentle manners from Kiev to Wales, Moscow to Brussels, trying, it would seem, to cool tempers and arrive at compromises. Backed by several former SPD leaders, he has opposed tougher sanctions against Russia, urging diplomacy instead, even stating that he opposes NATO membership for the Ukraine.
But is this (and perhaps the police at the Nazi rallies) the old method of the “good cop” and the “bad cop”? Chancellor Merkel, after some teetering, sounds tougher and tougher. Despite her late-night, four-hour tete-á-tete with Putin at the G-20 meet in Australia she has been heading toward greater confrontation, most clearly on the Crimea question and, under determined U.S.urging, joined in righteous agreement on this with the present (though not the past) SPD leadership.
With the LINKE party (the Left) there are no doubts about its opposition to weapons for Ukraine – or troops anywhere. In a remarkable half-hour speech in the Bundestag by the brainy Left theoretician and deputy caucus chair Sahra Wagenknecht, a rare opportunity for the minority party, Angela Merkel was confronted, I think, as never before. The clear, factual critique dealt mostly with economic issues, with temp jobs cutting fair chances in a strike, with the freeze on infrastructure, with cuts in education, health and care of the elderly, always bowing to the banks. But also on foreign policy matters: referring to Merkel’s blasts at Putin, she jabbed, “Though you warn against a conflagration you are one of those running around with a lighted matchstick!”
Merkel had to listen to the speech but displayed conspicuous disinterest or disdain by looking very bored, fiddling with objects on her desk or exchanging remarks with her SPD deputy Sigmar Gabriel.
Meanwhile, in hilly Thuringia, place cards waited on the Cabinet table for a new state government, the first in Germany to be headed by a premier of the LINKE party. The main question in the Thuringian capitol of Erfurt is whether the SPD and the Greens can withstand pressure not to accept a LINKE premier, even if he is a pious West German Christian, and not a “sinister left-over” from that East German GDR which, 25 years after its demise, is still hated and feared. The decision is due within a few days!
Photo: Police confront pro-fascist, masked demonstrators in Cologne, Germany in October.