In Germany, the Pirates making waves

BERLIN — Germany’s energetic young party, the Pirates, held its party congress last weekend in the northern town of Neumünster. The media overflowed with reports, almost uniformly friendly, even enthusiastic, with only the rarest criticism even from Angela Merkel’s government party.

The rapid rise of the Pirate party

The Pirates have become major actors on the national stage due to a rapid climb in six years from zero to well over 25,000 members and a poll popularity of 13 percent, with seats in the legislatures of Berlin and Saarland and clear wins ahead with big votes in elections in Schleswig-Holstein on May 6 and the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia a week later.

They will play a role in deciding which parties rule all Germany after the 2013 election; among the six political parties, they have probably reached third place.

These Pirates sailed so far and so quickly for overlapping reasons:

  • Their base in the modern cyber world, with the latest tricks and terminology and an unorthodox style and appearance, with strange hairdos and a wild variety of clothing, appealed to countless young voters and many who would otherwise be non-voters.
  • Their un-eroded freshness also appealed to some older voters who are disgusted or simply bored with the existing parties, none of which they trust.
  • The Pirates appear new, original, uncontaminated! Such an appeal draws voters like a magnet (even my grandson voted for them)!

The Pirates’ demands

Some of their demands fit in with this spirit. Free use of the Internet, with no restrictions or expenses: that was their original creed, learned from the Swedish founders of a Pirates movement now active in at least twenty countries. They demanded political transparency: no manipulations in political backrooms, smoke-filled or not, but basis party democracy instead.

Nice as this was, more demands were required. They called for free city transportation. Also a college education with no tuition costs (already achieved years ago in many states). And they proposed some basic wage or pension for everybody as a means of overcoming poverty.

All this sounded liberal if not leftish. There were – and still are – hopes that they will join with the Left party in pushing for socially minded demands. In a few cities a sort of local united front – Left and Pirates – was indeed formed. But only locally and not often.

Questions and problems arise

Several unpleasant questions have arisen. Critics complain that their demands seem fine and win votes but they have never yet said where the huge sums required would come from or, more exactly, whom they would be taken away from. This makes the greatest slogans more than nebulous.

During the current state election campaign in a Ruhr Valley city hit by disastrous recession, where Karl Albrecht lives, head of the Aldi supermarket chain and the tenth richest man in the world, but where countless children are pushed ever further below the poverty level, the Left tried to enlist the Pirates in moves to reverse this worsening trend. The Pirate answer was: We are not out to take their wealth away from the wealthy.

Nor have they made progressive, concrete proposals in the six months since Pirates won nine seats in the Berlin legislature. Is this due only to their lack of experience? Perhaps.

Then too, like Pirate leadership in earlier centuries, they have an almost completely masculine leadership. Only one of the nine Berlin deputies is a woman. A top leader on the national level, also a lonely feminine voice, resigned and of the nine party leaders just elected, only two are women. (In the Left party, women delegates are in the majority.)

Even worse problems arose in recent months. A few leading Pirates said things which seemed to be – and in at least one case definitely were – far to the right. The party chairman in Berlin, Hartmut Senken, said: “Whoever spreads slogans like ‘we don’t talk with Nazis’ is in my eyes closer to Nazism than he himself believes or that is good for him.” At a time when these thugs in Berlin are increasingly violent and racist, and anti-fascists keep trying to block them, such willingness to talk with them seemed questionable. Senken, under pressure, apologized.

The head of the Pirate caucus in the Berlin legislature, Andreas Baum, compared the rapid rise of the Pirates with the rise of the Nazis from 1928 to 1933. He too apologized and decided not to run for national office. A Pirate candidate in Lübeck in next week’s state election nastily attacked government support for the Central Jewish Council: someone claimed he had also advertised a Nazi music group on Twitter. Worst of all, one candidate for the national presidency, Dietmar Moews, 60, attacked “world Jewry” in a radio interview and complained that it was not permissible to express doubt about the Holocaust mass murder.

It must immediately be added that such utterances are due in part to the newness and openness of the party, which has hitherto welcomed anyone wishing to join, possibly via Facebook, Twitter or other Internet exchange. And when Moews climbed onto the stage to speak on his candidacy he was immediately booed, countless red “Nein” [no] cards were raised and several hundred walked out of the hall. He received 13 votes out of nearly 1400: this was 0.9 percent. There was a similar rejection of a second such candidate. And the election process was interrupted to approve a resolution: “The Holocaust is an undeniable part of history. To deny this under the cover of freedom of opinion or to relativize it contradicts the party’s basic principles.”

What is the Pirate’s program?

The prevailing sentiment of the Pirates is undoubtedly anti-fascist. But many questions remain, most simply: What is their program? They still have no position on any of the problems facing Germany and the world.

A hot discussion currently is on whether to give financial support to women who raise their children at home, thus encouraging many not to send them to kindergartens. The Pirates have taken no stand on the matter. What about atomic energy? No position.

And the burning social issues: trying to get a minimum wage law enacted, canceling the rise in retirement age from 65 to 67, breaking with the discriminatory tracking system in split schools, fairer support for the jobless and the temps and others badly underpaid, higher taxes on the millionaires and billionaires, who get away – as elsewhere – with murder? No positions yet!

What about foreign policy? Does the party support Merkel’s demands for austerity among European parties, a strategy increasingly seen as catastrophic? No answer! The LEFT calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan and no military engagement outside the country. On all these questions there is silence from the Pirates.

In November, at their next party congress, they promise to work out program positions. Of course, they are young and their swift growth demanded urgent structural decisions. But as they are involved in two state elections in coming weeks, and next year in a national election, it would be good to know where they stand.

Some leaders say they are neither liberal nor conservative; what does that mean? The newly elected head of the party, Bernd Schlömer, 41, has taken a clear stand against “rightwing extremism”. But he is employed as a ministerial official in the German Defense Ministry, headed by a Christian Democrat aiming to make Germany’s armed forces a tough, modern army ready to be used in every corner of the world – a course all too reminiscent of Germany in the 20th century. And for whom or against whom this time? What does the new Pirate captain think of this?

The Pirate party and the Left party

The party cannot be squeezed into any pigeonhole; it is growing and changing. But there is growing suspicion among people on the left that unconsciously perhaps, or perhaps not purely unconsciously, this new party has already fulfilled one purpose; capturing a large share of those protest votes which chose the Left in earlier years. The Pirates also hooked votes from the Social Democrats and more from the Greens. Neither loves them particularly, both reject them (as yet, anyway) as coalition partners.

But it was certainly the Left party, which suffered most from their rise. In 2009 the Left got close to 12 percent of the vote; now it is down to six or seven percent in the national polls and will almost certainly fail to get the five percent needed in the two coming state elections; thus it will lose the seats it won there in past years. No small part of their losses were due to the Pirates. And many in all other parties are gloating!

It is sadly true that Left losses are also due in no small measure to unceasing inner quarrels, to a general lack of catchy PR methods and gimmicks. But the Left remains the only party in the Bundestag with a genuine socially conscious program and a strong anti-fascist and antimilitarist position.

German media, fair and balanced?

The media, except when they could dig up squabbles or scandals, have almost totally ignored the Left; except for a rare sound bite in the Bundestag it has largely disappeared from TV screens and the press. In its place we see happy reports on the Pirates – even without any program.

A powerful press, especially the mighty Bild [large circulation, influential German tabloid] rag (much like Fox), demonstrated recently how it can get one president ousted and another one elected. It has always been hostile to the Left for more than understandable reasons. Does its friendliness towards the Pirates represent an attempt to win them over?

What will happen to the Pirates? Will they perhaps wither as quickly as they developed? Will they behave as some old Pirates, those who were sometimes freebooters in good causes, or will they behave like privateers? As Jack Sparrow said to Hector Barbossa, “We be privateers, not pirates … and in the King’s name, will behave as such.” Like privateers for the king – or more modern rulers of our day?

Photo: Members of the Pirates party vote during convention in Neumuenster, April 28. The party started as a marginal club of computer nerds and hackers, but its appeal has lured many young voters to the ballot boxes. Slogans in the background read: “Get Ready for Something New.” Clemens Bilan /dapd/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.