Berliners fighting to save everything from their homes to the planet
A Berlin family stands on the balcony of their apartment beneath a large red sign that says, "Affordable rents, not fat returns!" The sign is part of Die Linke's affordable housing campaign in the capital which aims to take one of the city's biggest real estate companies, Deutsche Wohnen, under public control. | Courtesy of Die Linke

BERLIN – People on the march are a common sight here lately. On March 8 it was mostly (but not only) women demanding women’s rights and an end to the 20 percent wage gap with men. A big majority were young.

For months now, on a weekly basis, many even younger marchers have been playing hooky! Every Friday afternoon thousands of kids have been walking out of their classrooms and demonstrating, carrying countless hard-hitting and witty posters and banners. The movement is called “Fridays for the Future” and the main demands are an end to the use of fossil fuels – and that politicians move far, far faster with tough laws and measures against worsening damage to the world the kids want to inherit. On one Friday 25,000 took part in Berlin alone, more than 300,000 in 220 cities all over Germany and two million in 123 different countries.

It all started last summer in Sweden with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. There were politicians who righteously recalled that going to school is required by law – hooky playing can mean punishment for parents. But what can you do against hundreds of thousands of kids saying: “School learning is important, but our planet’s well-being comes first.” And with 26,000 scientists supporting them – some briefly joined a sit-down blockade of a main Berlin bridge and even President Frank-Walter Steinmeier approved their message. The mightiest coal barons and their rightwing politician friends hesitate to contradict the kids too openly or sharply.

How much positive action can be expected is another matter. For years the government let the big automakers get away with a diesel fraud crime, at the cost of the environment, until it simply became too dirty to hide – and prevent indictments. The kids’ fight is being matched by adults – in a so-called Extinction Rebellion by a half-million in London last week, while the youngsters keep demonstrating, as they did even on Germany’s Good Friday holiday. One of their banners against climate disaster asked plaintively: “Grandpa, what does a snowman look like?” Another, inspired by the now world-famous Swedish girl (with a side glance at a world leader) punned: “Make the world Greta again.”

On a very different level, more footwear than usual was used recently by Berliners when bus, streetcar and subway workers went out on a one-day “warning” strike, third of its kind, to win higher wages from the state-owned enterprise. The 2,900,000 passengers who daily use this public transportation could partially resort to elevated trains, run by a different, nationally-owned rail system, but many more than usual had to use bicycles, cabs or “schusters rappen.” The idiom means “the shoemaker’s dark horse.”

That 24-hour strike did the trick. The service union with the acronym “ver.di”, Germany’s second largest with almost two million members, won a 7-19% raise plus an increased 200 € Christmas bonus. The final deal, a compromise, did not include the demanded 36.5-hour week – possibly meant as a bargaining chip. This was one of a growing number of recent strikes, among them the long-lasting conflict with Amazon. That brutal exploiter is as fanatically anti-union here as everywhere else!

But the issues most deeply troubling Germans are rent increases and affordable housing. All major cities are hit by gentrification. In Berlin, where most people live in rented apartments, fear is spreading – and anger too. Alleged “necessary renovations,” with huge rate increases, are forcing elderly people out of homes they have lived in for 30, 40 or more years – with few if any affordable substitutes. Young couples search desperately for homes; retail shops or clubs which bound neighborhoods together are forced to close by impossible new demands of distant owners.

But resistance is growing. On April 9 more than 35,000 demonstrated in Berlin while smaller rallies were held in other cities. At the main rally on Alexanderplatz special tables were set up for a so-called initiative; about 15,000 signed up. If 20,000 sign within six months, which seems easily possible, the next goal is to get the signatures of 7% of all Berlin citizens within four months. That is a far more difficult task, but it has been mastered a few times in recent years. If they succeed, a referendum must be held and if more than a quarter of all Berliners (16 or older) go to the polls and over 50% vote “Yes” that means victory! The city-state legislature must then pass an appropriate law seizing Deutsche Wohnen’s apartments.

The initiative’s demand is a militant one! “Deutsche Wohnen enteignen” – Confiscate Deutsche Wohnen. That company – “German Housing” – is the biggest of 12 companies owning more than 3,000 apartments each. It owns over 111,000 and has the worst reputation for nastiness, most recently against decades-long inhabitants of East Berlin’s wide Karl Marx Allee, built in the 1950s as “Germany’s first socialist street,” but gradually being privatized since German unification.

The PR machines of Deutsche Wohnen and other privateers are working overtime, aided by many media, to convince citizens and city rulers that the required reparations paid them for confiscated apartments would cost billions and bankrupt the city. Their figures are highly imaginative, and any price paid them would be regained when controlled rent payments went into the city budget and not stockholders’ private pockets, the deepest of them belonging, it turns out, to American global investment management corporation BlackRock.

The initiative was launched largely by two devoted left-wingers (though not LINKE members). One, as a youngster, had fled persecution in Iran. Now the LINKE (Left) party has decided to support the iInitiative! That could be very important in holding the party together after long fractional fights nearly tore it apart. Since it belongs to Berlin’s governing coalition, it bodes well for a “Ja” vote! Nationally, the Christians oppose it as “GDR socialism,” the Social Democrats, though trying to seem leftist, avoid support, and the Greens reluctantly approved so as not to lose ground to the LINKE.

Die Linke poster calling for the take over of Deutsche Wohnen. | John Wojcik/PW

Fragile LINKE party unity, at least in this key issue, is vitally important at present. Countless lantern posts are adorned with election posters with elections for seats in the European Parliament due on May 26. Even many skeptics of the EU support this fight if only to stop advances of the far right! A host of local elections will also be held then and, in September, important state elections in Eastern Germany will show how strong the racist Alternative for Germany has become. It aims for first place in Saxony. A Social Democrat-LINKE coalition in Brandenburg is fighting for its continued life, while in Thuringia a triple coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the LINKE, with the latter – strongest of the three – supplying its one and only state Minister-President in all Germany.

Will the LINKE become more militant? Can a fight for public housing and controlled rents or, far better, for the confiscation of ravenous housing predators convince people to vote for the LINKE and no longer view it as just another part of the establishment? Or will they choose the racist AfD or the Greens, who often talk progressive while willingly joining the Christian party in coalitions and sticking to its frighteningly bellicose foreign policy? Can the LINKE, deflating inner conflicts, convince people that the only genuine path to housing and rent control, to decent jobs, adequate pensions, child care, and infrastructure employment is to stop spending billions on weapons, on fatally dangerous NATO maneuvers along Russian borders or on creating a new “European army”?

Young and old demonstrated in the traditional Easter Peace Marches with just that message: no drones, no giant weapon purchases, no confrontation, no weapon exports to conflict areas and to murderers like the Saudi leaders. They also called for no complicity in attacks on Venezuela, Cuba or any other country. The lamp-post placards of the LINKE this season are sharp and clear, but the European Union is far off, very questionable in its aims and seems to be crumbling.

The main fight in the months and years ahead is to mobilize people, far more than at the Easter Marches, and fill the streets with protesters and the workplaces – whether factories or bus terminals, hospitals, kindergartens – with people demanding change, for themselves as working people and for all those they serve – against the powerful little knot of millionaires and billionaires and their oh-so-eloquent marionettes.


CONTRIBUTOR

Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled 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 books available in English: Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, reasons for the fall of socialism, and importance of today's struggles.

 

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