German troops in Africa evoke bad memories

BERLIN – Germans are talking a lot these days about soccer, about horse meat being sold as beef, about “bio” eggs that are the same as the regular ones, about the end of the Pope’s reign, and about a recent court decision that allows a gay man or woman to legally adopt the child of his or her partner.

Far less attention has gone to a Feb. 28 decision by Bundestag members of most political parties to send German troops to Mali. Both government parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, and the two opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, voted in favor. One courageous Green delegate defied party discipline and abstained. Only the Left Party, which among other trends includes groups that trace their lineage back to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) until it was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1991, stood as a bloc against sending troops into North Africa.

The decision to send 180 soldiers for “training” and 330 to aid in transportation and air refueling well into northern Mali, are now valid for one year. Experience teaches us, however, that a vote like this can be used to increase troop levels in the future. As one Christian Democrat made clear, this “process…could last a long time.”

The Green party delegate Kerstin Müller praised the ongoing French intervention in Mali, saying Paris was “acting in principle quite properly.” She described the French action as “an emergency operation to prevent even worse from happening.”

Gernot Erler, a spokesperson for the Social Democrats, said it would be “politically irresponsible if Germany did not support France.” No, of course not with combat troops, he insisted. But in war-torn desert regions of Mali how could any thin red lines be distinguished between combat and non-combat?

Just as it is with beef and eggs sold here, things are not always as they appear. A delegate from the Free Democrats, still part of the government coalition, lifted the lid a little by stating that with Mali it was fully clear that “a destabilization in that region would have a lasting influence on German security interests.”

This recalled the words of one Social Democratic Minister of Defense, who said in 2004 that Germany’s security needs to be defended “even at the Hindu Kush Mountains.” Similar views have been expressed when troops, warships or rocket launchers were sent not only to Afghanistan, but also to Serbia, Lebanon, Somalia and Turkey. Usually some benevolent motivation was invoked.

Three years ago, however, Horst Koehler, the president of Germany, was forced to resign after spilling the beans in a radio interview. He said the largely pacifist German public was finally coming to terms with the concept that their country could no longer avoid involvement in military missions, that help “protect our interests, for example, free trade routes, or to prevent regional instability, which might certainly have a negative effect on our trade, jobs and income.”

Jürgen Trittin, a leader of the Greens, warned at the time that Koehler’s comments were inconsistent with Germany’s constitution,  accusing the president of being a “loose rhetorical cannon.” But now the same Green Trittin said, “Germany should constructively consider requests for support from its partner or from the European Union – for example in the sphere of logistics or military training.”

What it boils down to is four traditional parties all cooking up the same stew. They try to sound different but are basically the same. It would really be like a one party system – except that the Left is still around, at least until September.

The Left’s representative in the Bundestag, Christine Buchholz, used the short time granted her to say: “Mali has many problems, but none of them can be solved militarily…Afghanistan proves that terror can’t be fought by means of war. War is itself terror.”

She warned against supporting French bombing when the German government has no knowledge of how many civilians are victims of these air raids. She questioned the motivation of France for intervening in Mali, where it seemed less a matter of fighting terror than securing its own economic interests, such as Mali’s uranium. “What we really need is a major debate about the economic and social problems caused in the world by dealing in weapons.” Germany has gained third place in the export of planes, warships, tanks, firearms and other military “goods” – large amounts going constantly to North Africa and the Near East. Perhaps her remarks provoked some people to do some thinking.

It is ironic that on the same evening the Bundestag voted for German troops in Africa, the Left Party in Berlin marked the 80th anniversary of the Reichstag Fire, a giant conflagration that destroyed the very building in which the Bundestag meets today.

The Nazis tried to blame that 1933 fire on the Communists, despite the fact that Nazi storm troopers had entered and left the building via a tunnel connecting it with the government palace of Hermann Goering, the number two Nazi leader. Even before it could be extinguished the Nazis blamed the Communists for the fire and had, within hours, arrested 10,000 party members and leaders, as well as Social Democrats and other anti-fascist intellectuals. The fire provided a cover to seize full power, end all constitutional guarantees and institute the death penalty for anyone opposing the Nazi rule.

In the world-famous Reichstag Fire trial the following September, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitroff, one of those accused of lighting the fire, led his own brilliant defense so skillfully that he was not only acquitted but caused Goering, exposed as a liar, to lose self-control and shout threats to kill Dimitroff after the trial. This plan was thwarted when the Soviet Union granted Dimitroff and two other accused Bulgarians Soviet citizenship and was able to get them out of the country quickly. It was a great but unfortunately a short-lived victory.

The evening anniversary ceremony began with a recording of the moving song “Es brennt” (“It’s burning”) by the Yiddish singer Lin Jaldati (1912 -1988), who survived Auschwitz and moved to the GDR in 1952. An actress read from the once-famous book “Our Street” by the writer Jan Petersen (1906-1969), probably the first book to reach the outside world and tell of the Nazis’ violence, torture and murder.

Hans Modrow, the last prime minister of the GDR before it was absorbed into West Germany, was among the speakers at the memorial. The highlight of the evening came, however, as Elfriede Bruening, now 102 years old, spoke movingly about her own experiences as a young Communist writer trying to survive in Nazi-Germany.

The evening was redolent with historical allusions. The room, filled to the last seat, was in the building which was once headquarters of the Communist Party; outside was the square where 130,000 participants made a last, dramatic but vain protest against the Nazi take-over.

On the other side of the square is the long broad street named Dimitroff Strasse by the GDR in 1950. The name was changed back to Danziger Strasse in 1995 by the all-Berlin city authorities, contrary to the wishes of the elected borough council where it is located.

More than one speaker referred to the danger of fascists today: in nearby Hungary, in Greece, in the Netherlands and much closer, in towns of Germany and neighborhoods of Berlin where the Nazis have declared their “liberated zones” — threatening foreigners and leftists. the speakers described how some in power downplay Nazi violence. They described how some in power, despite oh so many words about democracy, ignore or protect fascists while attacking leftists.

One speaker recalled the words of Bertolt Brecht (in his play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI”) “The womb from which that crawled is fertile still” – also translated, referring to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Shadows from the past, sadly evoked by events of the present, from Afghanistan and Gaza to Syria and Mali, led less to thoughts of horse meat in beef than to those terrible Apocalyptic horsemen in the Bible: Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

Photo: In Munich, southern Germany, protesters hold banner reading “Peace for Afghanistan.”  Uwe Lein/AP



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.