Germany’s Left Party splits, new party to launch in January
Dietmar Bartsch, a parliamentary group leader of Die Linke, Left Party, speaks during a press statement before the start of the parliamentary group meeting of Die Linke in the Bundestag in Berlin, GTuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. Germany's opposition Left Party said Tuesday that it will dissolve its parliamentary caucus next month after Sahra Wagenknecht, long one of its most prominent figures, broke away to found a new party. | Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP

BERLIN – Germany’s Left Party is splitting in two. Is it a tragedy or a new hope? After months, in fact years of inner-party squabbling in Germany’s LINKE party (The Left), the die has been cast, the Rubicon crossed, and Sahra Wagenknecht, with nine other Bundestag deputies, has quit the party and announced their decision to found a new party in January.

Until then, when it chooses a name, it is being called the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht – For Reason and Justice (BSW = Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht – für Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit).

Friction from the start

That was on October 23.. There was friction from the start. The ten, though no longer members of the LINKE fraction in the Bundestag, rejected demands by the 28 deputies still in the party to give up their franchises, their votes in the Bundestag. They insisted they can remain deputies until new elections, probably in 2025.

But alas! To maintain “fraction” status a party must hold at least 5% of the seats, currently that means 37. Till now die LINKE had squeezed through with 38. But with only 28, there can be no fraction – for the first time since 2005.

Both the 28 and the 10 who left can apply for and may receive a subordinate status as “groups,” but groups cannot propose new bills, have limited speaking time, less office space, worse seats, and far less money for staff. Up to a hundred research, legal and other assistants and secretaries may lose their jobs, with few of the revolving-door company possibilities enjoyed by other parties. And groups have far fewer rights to demand time to be heard and seen in the mass media.

Why did this damaging split develop? Was it necessary?

The party – seemingly like leftists eternally – has long been divided. On some issues common grounds were found, but those tectonic plates never ceased moving apart.

An early issue was and remains related to the (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR). Those often called the “Reformers,” the ones who have not quit the party, carefully distanced themselves from what media and politicians called an “Unrechtstaat” – “a country of injustice” – overlooked all GDR achievements and came close to equating “Stalinist repression” in the GDR with that earlier state – oh yes, Hitler called it “national socialism.”

By accepting this right-wing interpretation of the GDR and never sounding too radical, it became possible for dieLINKE to move up from nasty “bad boy” status and gain partial acceptance as a left-leaning but otherwise tolerably “respectable” piece on the ”free market democracy” chessboard. This made it possible to join governing coalitions off and on in a number of state governments in Berlin, East Germany (and down-and-out western Bremen), and even to head the governing coalition in Thuringia.

But over the years such participation resulted in slip-sliding downhill and losing feathers; more and more East Germans, disgruntled, dissatisfied, and worried, viewed die LINKE leaders as ineffective pawns in a rejected establishment. More and more turned to loud, rightist protest parties or stayed home on election day.

The hope of many “reformer” leaders to become junior partners in a national cabinet with Social Democrats and Greens proved to be not only an illusion but a catastrophe. The party, which boasted a proud 11.9% in 2009, making it the leading opposition party, had dropped nationally to a pitiful 5.5% in the European Union and a shameful 4.9% in the Bundestag vote in 2019.

In October, in state elections in Hessen, die LINKE lost its seats in a West German legislature – held for fifteen years – by badly missing that magic 5% number. And all omens pointed to more tears next year in three East German state elections, where the AfD, the right-wing neo-fascist party, now topped the polls, although with far short of a majority, now topped the polls.

The “reformers” blamed the Leftists for causing dissension around that very disturbing gadfly Sahra Wagenknecht who received so much media attention. As for the Leftists, they asserted that the party leadership had never properly analyzed the causes of their losses, opened up chances for free discussion by the members, and considered changing strategies which were proving wrong, where despite many good speeches by Bundestag deputies, they claimed there was too much stress on the rights of refugees and immigrants, on identity questions for minorities, – but neglect of so-called “direct working-class issues.” It was no longer a “truly working-class party,” many leftists maintained and, for some, it was too far gone to be salvaged.

The differences came to a head with the Ukraine war. Both sides condemned the Russian attack in February 2022; any variant on that position would mean being totally denounced as “Putin-lovers,” with resultant gagging. But Leftists in the party also accused NATO of defying pleas and warnings from U.S. experts and from Moscow against pushing NATO front lines and big weapons closer and closer toward total encirclement of Russia, against provocative threats in the form of sea and land maneuvers, and against arming and training Ukrainian troops while supporting openly pro-fascist “Azov” units against the Donbas breakaways.

Peace plans stymied

They contended that all attempts at settlement at Minsk, in Turkey, or with Naftali Bennett of Israel had been stymied and that the basic cause of the conflict was Washington’s goal of world hegemony, as proclaimed by Biden and his predecessors.

The “reformers,” on the other hand, while sometimes vaguely blaming all sides, tended to avoid any sharp rejection – or analysis – of NATO but joined in general attacks on “the imperialist Putin” and accepted the sanctions and economic break in relations with Russia, pushed through by Washington, regardless of the severe problems that meant for Germany’s economy, as a necessary sacrifice.

In an angry speech in the Bundestag in September 2022 Wagenknecht rejected this policy, calling it a kowtow to American interests especially in the oil and gas business, which would mean a permanent and perilous split in Europe and the world.

The speech angered many “reformers”; some called then for her expulsion from the party. But a major break came when Sahra (as many speak of her) joined a well-known feminist in jointly publishing a Peace Manifesto calling for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the Ukraine war.

It was soon signed, amazingly, by over 750,000 Germans and was followed in February by a call for a giant peace rally in Berlin. To the dismay of countless adherents, die LINKE party leaders not only failed to support the manifesto and the rally but called upon its members to stay clear of both, thus joining the mass media chorus in accusing Sahra of accepting support from AfD and other far-right leaders, who – for their own “oppose-everything” reasons – have been more-or-less supporting Putin.

This was indeed embarrassing but the rally organizers, led by Sahra, clearly rejected AfD support or participation, while welcoming anyone who genuinely favored peace – and pointing out that it was impossible to prevent anyone from signing a manifesto or checking everyone at an outdoor rally. But, they stated, controversial banners of any kind were not to be accepted.

The rally amazed everyone; an estimated 40-50,000 or more defied frost and snow, with a sea of peace dove logos and self-made signs. A tiny group of rightists were blocked off and isolated in one small corner, unnoticed by the huge crowd. But the rally boycott by doe LINKE leaders, or most of them, marked a point when many Leftists decided that a breakaway was unavoidable.

And that is what finally happened on October 23rd, when the ten Bundestag delegates, led by Sahra, announced their break.

Some Leftists, including those heading the Communist Platform group within die LINKE, opposed these and many policies of the leaders but also opposed a split. “We must fight it out,” they said, but within the party as the only meaningful opposition in Germany. Some wanted to wait at least three weeks for the national party congress – which was held last weekend in the Bavarian city of Augsburg.

Die LINKE made every effort to hold a successful congress. Except for one angry speech by Sahra’s fraction co-chair, Dietmar Bartsch, who scolded Sahra for the split, she was rarely mentioned. The well-organized agenda aimed at a chins-up “good riddance” posture, with a call for an active fight for peace and progress, against poverty and the billionaires.

Indeed, the opening speeches of its co-chairs, Janice Wissler and Martin Schirdevan, sounded more militantly anti-capitalist than in a long time. Wissler announced that several hundred new members had joined in recent weeks, far more than had left the party; all efforts must now be concentrated on regaining strength for the European Parliament election in June, vitally important elections next fall in East German Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and, in 2025, beating that menacing 5% hurdle and regaining a strong presence in the Bundestag.

But despite loud, militant demands for a new fighting spirit in defiance of the super-wealthy, little was changed, with no analysis of the basic motivation of the European Union or NATO, hardly a critical word about them, while criticism of death and destruction in Gaza was weakened so as not to trouble the no-questions-asked friends of Israel.

Any real criticism of past mistaken policies was limited to 2½ minute statements. Even a demand to nationalize the giant utility corporations was voted down (195 to 175) by the delegates, a large proportion of whom were long-time party officials. From Gaza to Ukraine, the EU in Strasbourg, or the German economy, the bold generalities contained little to alarm the mass media, the politicians, or those behind them.

Chances for a new party

And what are the chances for a new party featuring  Sahra Wagenknecht, 54, (who uses the uncommon spelling of her given name because of her student father, who had to return to his native Iran when she was only three and soon disappeared)

The initial statement of Sahra and her alliance also raised some questions, first of all regarding immigration. She has always stressed the fight for working-class rights and the working-class connections so often neglected or weak in past activities of Die LINKE. But, in doing so, she condemned the use of immigrants to depress the wages and rights of workers as a whole. Her position was that “genuine” refugees must be accepted but that the rules should be “clearer,” even tighter, with purely economic immigrants discouraged – and proven law-breakers deported.

German politician Sahra Wagenknecht, the best-known face of the Left Party, arrives for a news conference to announce the founding of a precursor to a new party in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. | Markus Schreiber/AP

She has stressed that the real fight must be to end and prevent wars and the imperialist exploitation of southern resources, unprocessed crops, and markets too open to cheap northern wares – and thus avoid migration waves. Her critics claim that she edges too close to rightist, AfD slogans in hopes of winning, or regaining, their voters. Nevertheless, three women in leadership joining her in building a new party have immigrant backgrounds One is Amira Mohamed Ali, 33, (whose Egyptian father is responsible for the surprising double family name). Sahra favors her as the possible main organizer of the new party – a role Sahra is not accustomed to. And no easy one!

The program of this left-wing, more radical breakaway from a tame LINKE similarly described  Germany’s current economic situation as a mess, with a failing education system, painful cutting of medical facilities and infrastructure. It then continued: “…as a result of the Russian sanctions and exaggerated climate improvement policy, making energy more expensive… our country is threatened with the loss of important industries.”

The program then calls for “a return of reason to politics:” Germany needs a strong, innovative economy and social justice, peace and fair trade, respect for the individual freedom of its citizens…Our country still has a solid industry and a successful small and middle-size enterprise sector …German industry is the backbone of our prosperity and must be preserved.”

Somehow this sounds even less radical or socialist-based than many pronouncements of Die LINKE party. Has it been toned down so as not to frighten off middle-class voters? What can then happen in 2024?

It is all too possible that both the new and old parties flop and miss that 5% mark, as many in the media gleefully predict. This would mean that leftwing views are voiced only by a scattering of small, weak groups and grouplets, no longer in the Bundestag or state legislatures, fully barred from mass media.

With extreme limits on leftist opposition (there are already all forms of censorship), people like Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and EU boss Ursula von der Leyen (and big biz behind them) could move full steam ahead in further building up Germany as a powerful military force aimed directly against Russia (and then China), with or without close partnership with the unpredictable U.S. of Biden, Trump or some other difficult leader.

The present “traffic light” coalition governing Germany is truly in disarray, with the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats quarreling more than they work together, all of them ready to jilt the other two and cuddle up with the right-wing Christian Democrats, who, from the opposition seats, play one against the other.  With the far-right AfD in second place nationally and first place in much of eastern Germany, the whole scene is lurching to the right! Now dangerously! A growing left is urgently needed, not only for Germany!

Can a new party, aided by Sahra’s ability and allure, engage in hard fights against militarism and war, against fossil-fuel-based destruction, against greater hardships for those least able to surmount them – can such a new party win a new and growing stature in Germany – and Europe?

A first preliminary test will be next Saturday when a hopefully giant peace rally is again planned at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, with dedicated speakers including Sahra and at least one state leader of Die LINKE. The rally will demand a ceasefire and negotiations in the Ukraine war and in Israel’s war.

The larger the crowd the better chance it will be heard – also by politicians worrying about polls and voter counts. It can be disappointing – but perhaps, like unexpected throngs in London, at Grand Central Station and Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and in towns and cities around the world, it might just be big enough to offer another rainbow hope for 2024 and thereafter!

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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.