BERLIN — I’ll begin with a happy report. The Hamburg group of “Fighters and Friends of the Spanish Republic 1936-1939” had its annual get-together in late May, again honoring those bravest of the brave men and women who risked and often lost their lives fighting for democracy in Spain. Only a handful survive, none at all in the USA, Germany or Austria, but a video greeting from Gert Hoffmann in Vienna, who came to these meetings until shortly before his death, was especially moving.
A boat trip around the harbor and a visit to a seaman’s club hidden in the amazing labyrinth of piers and channels in the giant port facilities, with a fine worker’s choir and militant songs, offered chances for German and foreign participants to exchange ideas on past and present. There was a fascinating mix of accents of people from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, various regions of England and the U.S. and that of the good German translator. A group of Danes, a Dutch fellow, a Frenchman and two Russian women were also there.
Most were children of volunteers in Spain, which made a ceremony at three monuments especially moving. One monstrous structure built by the Nazis in 1936 showed soldiers marching off to battle in World War I with the slogan “Even if we die Germany must live.” All attempts to get rid of it were in vain, but now, next to it, a smaller, modern structure honors men the Nazis executed because they refused to join in the killing and deserted. Next to it a large statue recalls the Nazi burning of the books in 1933 and the horrors that followed, up to the burning of Hamburg in 1943. Death prevented its great, defiantly leftist sculptor from Austria, Alfred Hrdlicka, from finishing it. For now a large banner concealed part of the Nazi monument and listed the names and ages of 25 Hamburg volunteers – and where they had died in Spain.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the International Brigades to help the Spanish people fight Franco’s fascist putsch. This is all too relevant today, with far-right movements gaining strength or control from Hungary, Austria and Poland to Honduras and Brazil while President Erdogan of Turkey moves ahead, crushing all opposition and attacking the Kurdish people in his own country and in war-torn Syria. Yet he still enjoys at least some mutual understanding with Angela Merkel and her government, who seem willing to make any compromise if it keeps refugees from the dangerous flight to Europe – and them from worse poll percentage losses. As in Spain, countries proudly calling themselves democracies may complain, but in the end choose a Franco, a Pinochet or an Erdogan over true representatives of the people.
Most alarming, I think, since Germany is the strongest, most central country in Europe, is the strength of its far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), now getting 10 to 15 percent in the polls and is certain to win its first delegates to Berlin’s parliament in September and the German Bundestag in 2017.
Its lack of any public program except hating Muslims (and less publicly supporting gains for the wealthy at the cost of everyone else) hit a snag last week; in an interview, Vice-Chair Alexander Gauland, referring to dark-skinned Jérome Boateng, one of Germany’s most popular soccer-players, said: “People like him as a soccer player. But they don’t want a Boateng as neighbor.” What a blunder! The team (in a TV ad) and countless fans slammed Gauland who then retreated, mumbling that he had not known that Boateng, born in Berlin, with a German mother and a father from Ghana, was “both a German and a Christian.” “And I don’t follow soccer much,” Gauland stuttered. Countless fans twittered, many asking: “And what if he weren’t Christian or not born in Germany?” One of the less caustic comments was: “I know I wouldn’t want Gauland as a neighbor!”
Three main themes at the party congress of Die Linke
But was it perhaps no real blunder but a bid for the haters’ votes? The AfD danger was one of three main themes at the party congress of Die Linke (Left party).
One, “For democracy and solidarity,” a response to the growing danger from the right, aimed at appealing to and hopefully recapturing protest voters whose insecurity and fears for the future often led them to reject every “establishment party,” including, for many of them, Die Linke as well. Some party candidates had even used slogans calling for the same policies as before, but carried out better. Such slogans, seeking respectability and acceptance, could hardly attract protest voters – and had indeed failed miserably to do so!
The second theme, therefore, was an offensive of and for working people, with or without regular, precarious or threatened jobs or faced with poverty-level pensions and higher costs for rent and prescriptions. A study released by the government after an inquiry by a Linke delegate showed that more than 15 percent of German children are hit by poverty; one and a half million have parents – or commonly a single parent – on the German equivalent of welfare. As co-chair Bernd Riexinger stressed, the party must urgently strengthen its weak ties with the union movement, most of whose leaders are traditionally tied to the Social Democratic Party, even though it has repeatedly betrayed them with half-measures, compromises and worse, currently as coalition partner of Merkel’s right wing Christian Democrats and the even more conservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria.
Thirdly, the party must stress its opposition to the militarization of German foreign policy – now rationalized as a “war against terror” – and explain to voters how German leaders have been almost as guilty as those in London, Paris and above all Washington in engaging in wrong battles while arming the worst offenders. The billions Germany’s Defense Department is demanding for ever more modern weapons and more regiments, some of them now maneuvering threateningly not far from St. Petersburg, almost exactly 75 years after German armies attacked and razed untold numbers of homes and factories, leading to the genocidal death of some 27 million Soviet people, mostly civilians, should rather be spent to helping and housing the million new arrivals, caused by new wars, and also those of German background who require affordable housing, education and utilities. Many delegates demanded that the dangerous demonization of Putin and Russia must be sharply opposed.
As usual Die Linke had faced internal disputes in recent months. The co-chair of its Bundestag caucus and leading theoretician, Sahra Wagenknecht, had spoken of limits to Germany’s ability to integrate new waves of immigrants. The idea was rejected by most of the party and got her an over-reaction or provocation when a man slipped up and smacked a chocolate pie in her face. She quickly recovered, changed clothes and gave another of her fiery, militant speeches. All agreed on expressing solidarity with striking workers in France, those repressed in Egypt and Turkey and the Kurdish Rojava region in northern Syria, governed and defended equally by women and men. It was decided to join a “Blockupy” protest rally on September 2nd in Berlin and a demonstration against racism the next day.
A constant dispute – should Die Linke join coalitions with the Social Democrats and Greens in a future federal government – stayed unresolved but largely irrelevant. Even together the three would not achieve a 50 percent majority. But the question remains on the state level, especially in Berlin in September.
Since completing it, Germany has been hit by terrible storms and floods. Somewhat less disturbing, President Gauck has announced he will not run for a second term next February. Then, more disturbing, his heart for military might was probably warmed by the news, this time not heavenly storms, that the largest NATO war games for years are beginning in Poland with 14,000 U.S. troops, 12,000 Polish troops, others from 24 countries and German tanks crossing through Poland for the first time since the attacks 75 years ago, perhaps by their recent ancestors. Gauck, once a pastor, must know the Biblical warning, “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Let us hope that the violent rightist hooligan types being recruited in Poland, and deployed in maneuvers, do not cause what the media refer to as a “possible mishap”!
But despite disputes – and the absence of former top Die Linke leader Gregor Gysi, no longer in a leading position and, for the first time not invited to give a main speech – the party stuck together and reelected its two co-chairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger by a vote which was not overwhelming – 74 percent and 78.5 percent – but sufficient to keep the party together and – it hopes – moving away from a its current 8-9 percent stagnant status and proving itself as the one and only party of peace and – hopefully – change.
Photo: A banner fixed on flats for asylum seekers during a right-wing, anti-Muslim rally in Erfurt, Germany, June 4. | Jens Meyer/AP