Berlin still hopes for an end to all war

BERLIN – The hot, seemingly untroubled vacation days in Germany have been disturbed by two abbreviations, NSU and NSA.

The former, known all too well since November 2011, stands for National Socialist Underground, the secret pro-Nazi cell which murdered ten men of Turkish or Greek background and a policewoman, blasted a Turkish-populated street with a bomb and robbed several banks.

The two main NSU killers died, perhaps suicides, in the closing scenes of this tragic series of events. Beate Zschäpe, the survivor who burnt down much of the building where the evidence was stored, has been on trial since May, together with four alleged accomplices. With eleven defense lawyers, 600 witnesses plus the families and lawyers of the murdered men, it is due to continue until the end of 2014.

At first, in the early dawn, crowds shoved and fought to get seats and journalists quarreled over accreditation. But despite the weather the long months have cooled things off. The four male defendants still hide their faces while Zschäpe, the main defendant, does the opposite, refusing to say even her name but displaying varying hairdos and ever new, fashionable clothes and looking around cockily, even arrogantly.

There was some stir when Semyia Simsek, only 14 when her father was murdered in 2000, now a young mother, took the witness stand on the 31st day of proceedings. Looking straight at the responsible police officer she recalled how, after the shooting of her father (a respected, peaceable florist), the police had bugged the family telephone and car, and grilled them about one phony scenario after another: a “war” between Turkish florists, an ancient “blood feud,” money-laundering, an invented love affair of her father’s – anything but the true motive, hatred of foreigners and hopes of creating more hatred.

The widow’s contention that hatred was the problem was ignored by police even after nine additional immigrants were killed. Cops, it was clear, were after foreigners or leftists, not immigrant-haters. Worse still: one slip after another indicated that many police, and the men in the FBI-like Constitutional Protection Office, were so closely linked to their enthusiastic secret agents in the ultra-right scene that defining lines between those rabid, violent parties or groups and the state authorities were very blurred. Much evidence of this had somehow disappeared, inexplicably shoved through government shredders.  

A wide array of mysterious facts is still under investigation in the Bundestag. But after nineteen months of contradictions and months of routine trial scenes many people have lost the thread – or lost interest. And whether Zschäpe and her accomplices are convicted of murder, abetting murder, knowledge of intended manslaughter or some such variation will hardly get much media attention before 2014. Indeed, with both trial and investigation now taking summer breaks, NSU has been causing no losses in election poll ratings for Merkel and her candidates.

What about NSA? When Ed Snowden and Glenn Greenwald went and spilled the beans they spilled lots of German bohnen-salat (beans) as well. Ever since those revelations hit the headlines the German government has been tying itself into knots over the questions: “How many secrets?,” “How long already?” and how illegal is it for the BND – the German CIA equivalent – to supply the NSA with “metadata” or let NSA gather all it wants itself.

Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, sent by Merkel to Washington to make loud noises and righteously pound on the table, was described as “gently tapping the table from underneath.” But when he returned, looking sillier than usual, he insisted that Attorney-General Holder, even Vice-President Biden, had personally assured him that “everything was for the best” and no “industrial espionage” was going on.

Merkel, hoping this new scandal would not hurt her election chances, said one day, “We must insist that German laws be respected” but the next day that close friends and allies would never ever damage each other and must always “work together” against common dangers.

The media, as ever, are trying to turn the race into a personal duel between Angela, always a sure-footed tactician, and the colorless and awkward Social Democrat, Peer Steinbrück. His only faint chance is that if Merkel’s junior partners, the Free Democrats, miss the needed five percent and are left out, and if the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens accept a coalition with the LINKE (Left), now standing at about 7 or 8 percent, they may have just enough Bundestag seats to win power.

But, as ever, Greens and SPD reject any such coalition with the “Schmuddelkinder” – grubby urchins from the wrong side of the street. The price might only be one lesser cabinet seat granted the LINKE (The Left Party). “But no, not with ‘them'”! Never! We’d rather team up with right-wing Merkel & Co.”

A major club used to beat the LINKE (which is descended from the Socialist Unity Party, the ruling party in the German Democeratic Republic or East Germany as it was called in the West), even after a quarter of a century after the collapse of the GDR, is its so-called “Stasi past.” Within three years after the second world war former Nazis were welcomed into West German society. After 25 years former Communists, however, are still anathema.

But now the NSA scandal has added a strange irony to all the charges about the LINKE’s so-called Stasi (the old GDR security agency) past. One journalist figured out that the files of that hated Stasi covered a full 0.019 square kilometers in shelf space. The space for electronic NSA files in Utah is expected to cover 17,000,000 square kilometers.

Another journalist said that present total coverage of E-Mail, phone, Google, even the comings and goings of virtually every citizen, makes the activity of the Stasi in the GDR look like Boy Scout efforts.

Of course, there are many differences. One is that the tough, if often clumsy, Stasi was hunting for right-wing supporters of western “free market” capitalism, which proved too strong for the GDR in the end. NSA’s information gathering, while officially against terrorists, is potentially available to people who want to useit against any opposition from the Left.

But please, no comparisons! As Angela Merkel told the press clearly, she rejects any Stasi parallel: “These are two completely different things…The work of intelligence services in democratic states was and will always be indispensable for the security of citizens,” she stressed. “A country that doesn’t undertake intelligence work would be too vulnerable.”

Another frequent attack on the Linke because, of its partial GDR past, also took a slightly ironic turn. The world media linked doping in sport so closely with the GDR that the terms seemed almost synonymous. Now a group of experts from Berlin’s Humboldt University has suddenly rocked an almost sacred boat and spilled more beans:

“…Since the early 1970’s a systematic, organized and state-financed doping program existed in the German Federal Republic (West Germany)!” The report describes the breadth of doping during the Cold War and how research was conducted in West Germany. For decades the state used taxpayers’ money for experiments with body-strengthening substances like anabolica, testosterone and estrogen.

This was not done as a reaction to state doping in the GDR, the report stated, but ran parallel to it. Various threads joined up within the Federal Institute for Sport Science (BISP), founded in 1970, which is still subordinate to the Interior Ministry. The study evidently includes the names of officials, trainers and athletes involved as well as politicians who knew about it. The abuses reached into many sports, including track and field and soccer, and the West German sport doctors did not refrain from doping minors. In 1988 they began experiments with Epo blood enrichment.

How’s that? Not only the GDR? And what was that saying about the pot and the kettle? But caution is required here, for of course there was a big, big difference. Michael Vesper, director general of the Olympic Committee, insists almost tearfully, much like Angela and the NSA:

“What in my view is not correct is any equation of what happened here in West Germany with what was practiced in the GDR.” But no worry, even this amazing exposé will have little if any electoral effect.

Of course, the main charge against the GDR, hence against working with the LINKE, is the Berlin Wall, though ever fewer people can be found today who were in any way involved. But as its anniversary approaches (it was built on August 13, 1961), we here, as every year, are already being reminded of how nasty it was. And this too is part of the election campaign.

I find less room for irony here; the Wall, undoubtedly tragic in many ways, meant hardship, broken families, sometimes death. Pot and kettle reproaches don’t apply. And yet, if only because the commemoration may reach beyond the German media, a few items of history are appropriate.  

In 1961 the Adenauer government claimed all of the GDR and also parts of Poland and the USSR lost by Germany after World War Two. Attempts to reclaim any of this territory would have led to war. Since West Berlin was right in the middle of the GDR and the world’s two major armies, both in possession of atomic weapons, stood only a meter or so apart at Checkpoint Charlie, the situation was volatile and dangerous.

The GDR had adequate supplies of necessities at low prices but could not compete with availability, variety and changing fashions;  it certainly labored under other disadvantages as well. West Germany, stuffed with consumer goods thanks to the Marshall Plan and its better position in general, played Lorelei and lured hundreds of thousands of the best-trained East Germans to move west in numbers dangerous to GDR stability. With its substance threatened, any spark could ignite a fire, even an explosion, possibly of atomic dimensions. The Wall was seen as the only possible salvation – and prevention – measure.  

Noting this, Senator William Fulbright, often a “peace now” spokesman, said on July 30 on television: “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border, because I think they have a right to close it.” Under pressure, he soon apologized, but when the Wall did go up two weeks later John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying (among others by Frederick Kempe in his book “Berlin 1961”): “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

I lived in Berlin at the time and could subscribe most warmly to this sentiment. I still do. Wall barriers are always malignant  – whether in Berlin, Texas or Palestine – but any judgment of them must be viewed in context of time and circumstances. With NSU, NSA, doping and world peace, and as this summer proves again; we must continuously alter our ideas on so many issues. And keep hoping for an end to wars wherever they may be.

Photo: The author lived in Berlin when Soviet and U.S. tanks faced off against one another in the city streets in 1961. He says he shares then-President Kennedy’s assessment in Frederick Kempe’s book “Berlin 1961,” that “the building of the Berlin wall was not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” AP Photo


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post 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. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.