Germany today: People challenging new right extremists

BERLIN — Recent events here in Germany remind me of a playground see-saw, with constant ups and downs of one side and the other.

All autumn we watched the upward swing of PEGIDA, “Patriotic Europeans against Islamization of the West,” most rapidly but not only in Saxony’s capital Dresden. Its main features were a fast-talking, shady leader with some eerie charisma, plus foggy dissatisfaction with just about everyone and everything: most politicians, the media, but especially poor job, rent and pension situations and fears for the future, plus, most dangerously, the channeling of such fears and worries into a dull hatred of anything and anyone “foreign,” especially the often arbitrary placement of newly-arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees into their hitherto close communities. PEGIDA’s Monday “walks,” though ambling and non-violent, recalled disturbingly the murderous stamp of booted, brown-shirted marchers of a previous generation. And some gimlet-eyed neo-Nazis reinforced such recollections.

But soon, all over Germany, the other end of the seesaw swung upward. More and more thousands demonstrated against the hatred crowd, welcoming asylum-seekers and reassuring peaceful Muslim families long resident in Germany. They greatly outnumbered and at times blocked the path of the PEGIDA people – everywhere but in Dresden. In Leipzig, Dresden’s rival in Saxony and with a very different heritage, never a royal court but open trade fairs since 1165 and book fairs since the 17th century, PEGIDA rallied 4,800 marchers in early January – but its opponents 30,000.

What is terrorism? Who are the terrorists?

Then came the “Charlie Hebdo” murders. Would narrow, blind distrust of “those Muslims,” dormant but present among about half the population, witness a new, upward PEGIDA thrust? It did – but, happily, only in Dresden. Five days after the murders in the rue Nicolas-Appert 25,000 marched in the city on the Elbe but everywhere else they were a small minority; at the far-off mouth of the Elbe, in Hamburg, only opponents of racism demonstrated. Leaders from almost all parties joined at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate with organizations of Turks in Germany to oppose both bloody violence and murder but also Muslimophobia. Even Angela Merkel spoke up, stating surprisingly that “Islam belongs to Germany” – almost a heresy only a few years earlier.

Not everyone sang so happily in this new choir. Surface unity about Charlie Hebdo began to unravel, with some approving, some objecting to the provocative nature of its caricatures. Others noted that many presidents who lined up in Paris sinned against press freedom in their own countries, and that Netanyahu’s triumphant waving was aimed not at mourners or freedom lovers but at voters back home. Some in Merkel’s party broke ranks and voiced well-worn reservations: “Yes, maybe Muslims are okay, but certainly not Islam” and “Now we must tighten surveillance of just about everybody to save ourselves from all those fanatical terrorists.” These over-simplified old tunes caused some early hopes to sink again. It was back to Bush again – terrorists were the big enemy.

Though my optimism was reduced, I was inspired once again by Oskar Lafontaine, a key founder of the Die Linke (Left) party, largely in the background now, but as good a speaker as ever. At the annual Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin, attended by leftists from all Germany and beyond (and always featuring Mumia Abu-Jamal in a taped message), old Oskar hit out again:

“Unless we ask whether our allegedly so good West also bears responsibility for terrorist attacks… then we cannot conduct a meaningful debate or achieve any results. For years I asked the chancellor in the Bundestag what terrorism was. ‘Unless you tell us what it is how can we really fight it?’ She never answered, for good reason. But some official framed a so-called ‘Anti-Terror Law’ which stated – now listen carefully – ‘Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence to achieve political goals.’ …I read that aloud in the Bundestag and said, ‘Do you know what you have just agreed on? You have just decided… that Bush, Blair and all the others who supported the Iraq War are terrorists.’ …Until we grasp that, in the Arab world at least, Bush is viewed as a major terrorist because hundreds of thousands were killed due to his wrong decision, we in the West will never be able to conduct a genuine discussion on how to fight terrorism in the world.”

The murder of Khaled Idris Bahray

On Jan. 13, terror did hit again. Not the kind loudly denounced in Paris, Brussels, Berlin or Washington, but in Dresden. Khaled Idris Bahray, only 20, was found dead near the door to the building where he and other Eritrean asylum-seekers had been given a few rooms. For thirty long hours, crucial in finding clues and a murderer, the police called it “an accident,” somehow failing to notice the bloody gashes in his chest and neck. Nor had they been worried about swastikas painted on the building, even on the victim’s door, nor the fears of his dark-skinned group to even go outdoors. It seems that some policemen can suffer under disturbing eye-sight problems (not only in Dresden). Khaled had simply gone shopping; on a PEGIDA Monday that was evidently a fatal mistake!

That day the marchers reached a strength of 25,000, while 8,000 courageous opponents used big brooms to “clear their streets of racist garbage.” Elsewhere the reaction to the murder was very strong; tensions heightened. Then on Monday, Jan. 19, the Dresden authorities reported a mysterious, very peculiar Jihadist threat to kill PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann and decided to forbid not only his “walk” but all demonstrations in that city for a day, unleashing hefty debates across party lines on whether this might lead to more limitations on the constitutional right to demonstrate. Debates also multiplied on whether to talk with the reticent PEGIDA marchers or with their hardly reticent leaders. A coy flirtation developed between them and the new, “respectable” right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and grew cozier. Some right-wing “Christian” leaders called for a “dialogue” and a talk-show host invited a PEGIDA leader to voice her carefully-tailored “moderate” views on prime time TV. She and top boss Bachmann interrupted their shrill attacks on the “liar press” to hold an equally moderate-sounding, eagerly attended press conference.

Such PR opportunities seemed to pay off. For Wednesday, Jan. 21, PEGIDA called for 60,000 supporters to gather in hitherto unfriendly Leipzig (there to be called LEGIDA). They later scaled that down to 40,000 but a police force of visored 4000 police still moved in from all over Germany.

Lutz Bachmann’s “joke”

A day before the big event a Facebook “selfie” of Bachman was unearthed showing him mustached, combed and leering uncannily like Hitler. “Only a joke,” he explained. Even less a joke were his Facebook references to refugees as “a dirty mob,” “trash,” and “animals.” Due in part to these discoveries, but also because his numbers were an empty boast, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 bigots and unhappy fools showed up in Leipzig. Though protected by the police they were met at every turn by at least 20,000 counter-demonstrators. Then, in the evening of the eventful day, Bachmann found it necessary to quit his leadership job. The problems and the poison were not gone, but the future of PEGIDA, LEGIDA and its offshoots (even some in Denmark) remained very uncertain.

Thus 2015 began in Germany with many protests and counter-protests, often centering on the fates of a flow of war-weary refugees, few of whom could understand the language, nasty or friendly, which circled over their heads and the provisional housing where they were lodged.

“Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” or TTIP

A very different protest, this time larger than expected, moved through central Berlin on Jan. 17. Organized by over 120 environmental, consumer and political groups, it denounced the planned giant trade agreements European Union, CETA with Canada and, with the USA, the “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” or TTIP. The police counted 25,000, the organizers 50,000, but either way it was impressive, and 80 farm tractors rolling through town were loud and more easily counted. Scheduled during the annual Food and Agriculture Week, the protesters rejected everything from cruel stock-farm practices to American-style genetic modification, frequent antibiotic injections for animals, and chemical meat treatment. A main organizer, Jochen Fritz, said: “The TTIP serves only the global concerns and will take away the means of existence from many farms here and across the world.” Countless signs and big puppets said, “We are sick of agribusiness,” others lambasted Monsanto or demanded a global right to food and bans on genetic engineering.

U.S. and European politicians and big-business big shots have been secretly negotiating for over two years but as more facts leaked out, growing pressure from an angry public was finally forcing Sigmar Gabriel, Economics Minister and Social Democratic Party head, to waver a bit in his all-out pro-TTIP stance, at least in public. Even Merkel became slightly defensive. An online petition against TTIP in the European Union now has over a million signatures, a large number from Germany. “This is especially embarrassing for the European Commission,” said John Hilary, a member of the anti-TTIP coalition,” since it has repeatedly tried to block any citizen’s involvement.”

Both PEDIGA and TTIP are very important. But the most basic question is war or peace. Sending first weapons, then military advisers to “aid Iraq,” billed as humanitarian aid, reminded older critics of a similar escalation in Vietnam. Even more worrisome is the escalation in the Ukraine and support for the unsavory government in Kiev, with the incessant media beating of Germany’s belligerent anti-Russian drums containing as many echoes of past tragedy as the marching racists. While Foreign Minister Steinmeier vainly bargains about a cease-fire, Merkel and her crew, disregarding both the profit interests of companies dealing with Russia and widespread, majority hopes for peace, slide ever more to the other side of this menacing see-saw, joining bellicose flag-wavers like President Gauck and Defense Minister von der Leyen. Last fall Germany sent Phantoms and other fighter planes with the traditional “iron cross” markings to Baltic countries adjacent to Russia – for the sixth time since 2004. A government bulletin proudly headlined its note on these incendiary actions with the all-too-true words: “Long-standing German experience.”

Frightening candidness, happier thoughts

Such experience was also recalled in naïve but frightening candidness by Ukrainian premier Yatsenyuk. During a warmly smiling visit to Merkel to beg money, weapons or both, he said, “All of us clearly remember the Soviet invasion of Ukraine and Germany. That has to be avoided. Nobody has the right to rewrite the results of the Second World War. And that is exactly what Russia’s President Putin is trying to do.” His words leave few doubts as to which side Yatsenyuk would have chosen in during that war – and still seems attached to. Neither Merkel nor the mass media took exception to his historic analysis and he will indeed receive more assistance from Berlin. The peace movement against the resulting menace is active but, sadly, still far from being united or powerful.

There were also some happier thoughts – or wishes at least. Despite great pressure, largely from German bankers and their elected friends, Sunday’s election in Greece could represent a badly-needed upward turn in Europe. If the long-suffering people of that noble but oppressed country vote in the left-wing Syriza party, and even though such a government would face giant odds against domestic and foreign foes, the victory for working people could respond to a threat already voiced in an old rhyme which, rarely noted, reflected fears and hopes of “the 99 percent” through the centuries.

“See-saw, Margery Daw, Jacky shall have a new master. Jacky shall earn but a penny a day because he can’t work any faster.” (No one knows today who Margery Daw was – but I can think of several modern candidates.)

One answer to many present problems – of Jacky, refugees, farmers and all of us – was offered by Oskar Lafontaine:

“I am deeply convinced that peace in the world can only be fully achieved when a truly democratic society is constructed. That would be a social order in which the interests of the majority of the people are realized… Democratic societies are inseparably connected with an economic order where human beings are in a central position, where the exploitation of the people is no more, where the wealth of the country, cooperatively achieved, is returned to the people who create it – and not with a social order where a minority becomes wealthy by making the vast majority work for it…”

Photo: People write messages on the AVAAZ “Wall of Love” reading “with you – wall of boundless friendship” in front of the Church of Our Lady, on Jan. 10, in Dresden, Saxony, eastern Germany. Thousands of people came together expressing hope and unity during a massive anti-PEGIDA gathering in the city center of Dresden.  |  Gero Breloer/AP Images for AVAAZ


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.