Reds and Greens triumphant in Germany

BERLIN – Yes, “red-red-green” squeezed through to victory – by one single wavering vote.

Political parties in the USA have animal symbols, donkey and elephant. In Germany they have colors: the Christian-Democrats (CDU), due to clerical ties, are black, the Greens of course green, the Social Democrats (SPD) traditionally red. When the redder LINKE (Left) party came along critics said the SPD should switch to “pink”. But it didn’t, so the new government in the eastern state of Thuringia is a “red-red-green coalition” – the very first in Germany with the LINKE on top! A true sensation!

Were the SPD and Greens really willing to be junior partners with those scorned LINKE pariahs? They were, but in an almost exactly split legislature every vote was needed to beat possible maneuvers by the CDU, now very bitter at getting pushed out after ruling Thuringia since 1990. In the first (anonymous) vote count, one deputy broke ranks; if this happened again it might throw the whole coalition plan into question. But whoever it was fell into line in a second vote and the LINKE leader, Bodo Ramelow, 58, a West German union leader who had moved east, received 46 Yes votes (out of a total of 90) and thus became premier. On taking the oath of office, although a practicing Lutheran, he chose to omit the “so help me God” conclusion. A new cabinet was sworn in, with four LINKE ministers, three from the SPD and two from the Greens (despite their meager election results). Three of the LINKE and one each from the other parties were women.

This first-time coalition led to anger, rage, almost hysteria among some politicians, journalists and assorted anti-communists in other states. The head of Angela Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria called it “a day of shame for unified Germany…Twenty-five years after the fall of the wall our motto must once again be: together prevent a leftist republic!” A notoriously right-wing professor, Hubertus Knabe, said: “This is not a good day for Germany and especially not for victims of the SED dictatorship (the eastern part of the LINKE is the reformed descendant of that one-time ruling SED party in East Germany, VG). It is a great disappointment for many one-time victims that not a single deputy of the SPD or the Greens had the courage to prevent this coalition.”

But most SPD and Green leaders on a national level stressed volubly that this coalition was strictly local, maybe OK in one state but in no way involving any repeat on the national level after the 2017 elections, with LINKE positions on foreign policy, state security and such matters being so impossible. Only a few in the two parties dared oppose total taboos in advance, but not only they read polls showing that a Green-SPD alliance could hardly gain the needed majority without the LINKE.

There are hopes, less openly-stated, that this new experiment in Thuringia will push the LINKE towards modifying or even abandoning its troublesome, “radical” positions. Indeed Ramelow, in his first speech as premier, avoided talk of clear differences and instead stressed most vigorously a total rejection of that bad dictatorial GDR past and his wish to get along with everybody. His announced goals – offering one pre-school year in kindergarten free of charge, hiring more teachers, cutting the number of counties and helping the jobless ruffled few feathers, especially since the SPD and Greens had exacted a restrictive coalition pledge that the budget be balanced, with no deficits.

The LINKE membership in Thuringia, happy at having their man at the top for the first time, had approved the new coalition in advance per referendum by 94 percent. Indeed, many in the party rejoiced at this key breakthrough. Gregor Gysi, a leading figure in the LINKE from the start, said: “If Thuringia is now governed well the tidings will spread to all of Germany.”  

Matthias Höhn, another top leader, like Ramelow from the “reformer wing”, said: “How important this is can be seen in the nervousness and confusion in the Christian parties simply at the prospect of a red-red-green policy change now becoming reality in one German state.”

But other members and leaders were dismayed by the agreed-on description of the GDR as an “Unrechtsstaat”, an “unjust state”, a term now proclaimed and taught almost universally and demanded by the SPD and Greens as a condition for joining up. In the GDR, it was recalled, elections were not free, the judiciary was politically controlled and government rule was dictatorial.

Few really challenged these judgments, but their emphasis and their intent were questioned. Katja Kipping, party co-president, said that the new coalition “would make Thuringia a great deal more socially-conscious, more democratic and more ecologically green” but added that the term “Unrechtsstaat” would be difficult to understand for many who had lived in the GDR “because they see in this description a degradation of their efforts in Germany, after fascism, to build up a different – a socialist – country… That is what makes this discussion so difficult.”

A former co-president, Gesine Lötzsch, wrote: “The term ‘Unrechtsstaat’ is not only a key word in criticizing the GDR, it also has implications for the future” since it implies an alleged lack of any alternative to policies of the Federal Republic. “Thus there are no alternatives to shipping weapons to crisis regions, privatizing roads and highways, salvaging banks, to injustice in pension plans and certainly no alternative to capitalism… The next generation must not even think about alternatives to capitalism. The GDR, defined in toto as an ‘Unrechtsstaat’, is shoved into close similarity with fascism.”

In a similar vein, Wolfgang Gehrcke, deputy chair of the LINKE caucus in the Bundestag, said this term was “historically false, shaped by political motivation and scientifically invalid. The term ‘Unrechtsstaat’ is based on the ‘totalitarianism ideology’ equating Hitler fascism with the GDR… Branding the GDR as an ‘Unrechtsstaat’ denigrates the life-long efforts of so many citizens of that state…thus implying that all laws enacted in the GDR were unjust.”

And in a widely-seen talk show Oskar Lafontaine, former co-chair (and once chair of the SPD), was even more vigorous: “This discussion about the Unrechtsstaat is aimed at distracting from monstrous injustices now taking place.” He listed the killings by drones, the countless refugees drowned in the Mediterranean, and wars of intervention.”

Yet the terminology was officially adopted, and cooperation was to be rejected with any organizations disagreeing with this position, and no responsibility given to any such individuals!

Some Greens – in Germany they stand in some matters to the right of Merkel – are gloating over their influence in this coalition, which may soon resemble an “Eiertanz” – a daring dance in between raw eggs. One single deputy can always bring it down if he objects to a Ramelow position.

In a way the victory recalled those of Obama in 2008 and 2012. They marked an amazing defeat of racists; this coalition is a blow to primitive anti-communism. Will it also lead to other similarities – and perhaps disappointments? No-one can tell. But in the often heated debate on state injustice, some thoughts turned from long past sins to alarming current news of sudden deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island – or bombings in the Ukraine. Injustice is such a complicated matter.

Photo: Bodo Ramelow. AP


CONTRIBUTOR

Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: “Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany” (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).

 

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