Social Dems play a treacherous game in Berlin
Demonstrators gathered near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last February for what ended up as a massive rally of 50,000 for peace in Ukraine with demands that there be a cease fire and negotiations. Sahra Wagenknect, a long time leader of the Left Party, was a principle organizer of the event. | Photo by Ralph Pache/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

BERLIN –The featured game in Berlin these days is not who is King of the Mountain but rather who is King of City Hall.  In an unprecedented decision, the courts canceled the totally-mismanaged September 2021 elections to the Berlin parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus) and ordered new elections, which were held on February 12th.

Since 2016, the city was run by a coalition: Social Democrats (SPD), with their Franziska Giffey as mayor, the Greens, and the LINKE (Left).  Most of the media now expected only minor changes.

Then came Surprise No. 1. Those three parties, added together, again won a majority, but a far slimmer one, with the SPD suffering its worst loss in Berlin history, a measly 18.4%, far behind the CDU “Christians” at 28.2%. Too many Berliners were fed up, for both good reasons and bad ones.

New Year’s Eve fireworks, with angry attacks on the police and some firemen, were immediately blamed by the “Bild” and other rags (think “Fox” or “NY Post”) on “lazy, unruly and violent immigrants.” The coalition parties were accused of “spoiling” them instead of locking them away or deporting them. And the CDU, heavily racist-tainted, joined in.

Other heartstrings – in the tender breasts of car drivers – were struck by the Greens‘ efforts to slow auto velocity and limit car traffic, even barring four-wheelers from a downtown shopping street, to increase the number and width of bicycle lanes and stop the extension of a big highway further into the city. Blood pressure behind the steering wheels rose.

Thirdly, Berlin’s less prosperous majority was angry at the ruling trio’s failure, despite its promises, to keep rental costs from soaring, prevent evictions, and build anything near the necessary number of affordable apartments. A referendum demanding the confiscation of all apartment buildings owned by big housing giants (with adequate repayment) had been dramatically approved by over a million voters, 59%, but was sabotaged by SPD-mayor Giffey, given only lukewarm support by the Greens and really backed only by the LINKE – but even then pushed into “mañana“ status by that party’s accommodating, status-quo wing which is dominant in Berlin.

So people asked: Where is the promised genuine rent control? Who has really fought for affordable housing? Many, dismayed or disgusted, decided to sit out this repeat election!

But many did vote. And to complicate the messy situation, both SPD and Greens got 18.4% – about 280,000 each! The SPD was ahead – by only 105 votes! Then almost 500 uncounted mail-in votes were found; would they give the Greens first place and a “Green woman mayor”? The suspense was huge, but in the end, the SPD was ahead by just 53 votes, enough to save the status quo.

But the top vote-getter gets the first shot at forming a government. The CDU-“Christians” led the field with 28.2%, giving them 52 seats (out of 159), far from a majority. With neither the LINKE (22 seats) nor the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD – 17 seats) as possible allies, their right to a first chance seemed a useless formality. But the CDU kept up its usual loud-mouth bragging.

Surprise No. 2, it paid off! In an amazing switch, Franziska Giffey, whose unpopularity as Social Democratic mayor helped cause their losses, announced her decision to dismantle the leftish-sounding trio alliance, abdicate her position and take her party into a junior partnership, giving Berlin its first CDU boss since 2001. The probable new mayor, Kai Wegner, like his party, works hand in glove with the real estate lobby, and it’s a wide-open hand. He once assured these behemoths: “The exchange with you, our cooperation, has always offered me a great deal. As you know, I was often closer to your side than to the other side.”

Giffey had never angered that side either; Berlin seemed in for five years of right-wing government.  The SPD was trading any remaining left-over principles for a second prize, half the well-rewarded cabinet chairs. The Greens and the LINKE were suddenly relegated to cold opposition seats!

A call for rejection of the deal

But halt! In Berlin’s SPD, majority approval by the party’s 53,000 members is needed for such major decisions; there is a call for rejection in some boroughs and in the SPD’s Young Socialist organization (Jusos). Will party discipline and pressure prevail in the end? The curtain has not yet descended on this topsy-turvy puppet theater stage.

Similar confusion and controversy abound on the national level, where Social Democrats and Greens share coalition rule not with the LINKE but with the small, pushy pro-big-biz Free Democratic Party. This FDP, now threatened with political bankruptcy, is trying to win back hearts and votes by moving closer to the Christians, now in opposition but drooling at a chance to overturn apple carts as in Berlin.

So the FDP is bucking its Green coalition partner by preserving Germany’s “no speed limit” stretches on its Autobahns, which it tries to extend more than climate-friendlier rail traffic, and further hindering, as much as possible, postponed plans to cut down on carbon-spewing coal and gas heating and close down atomic energy plants. It alienates its SPD partners, now trying to regain lost working-class support, by resisting aid to the financially deprived while resisting taxes on the obscenely wealthy; the well-worn label is again “deficit-cutting.”

Chancellor Scholz is trying to please everyone but the cracks widen while the CDU aims at becoming King of the Mountain. Like in Berlin.

One theme unites German coalitions and that is total support for continuing the Ukraine war. Many citizens base their support on an abhorrence of killing and destruction, on sympathy for Ukrainian refugees, over a million mostly women and children who have arrived in Germany. And for those left behind.

But men like Armin Papperger, the CEO of Rheinmetall, Germany’s main producer of tanks and other big weapons, have hardly been affected by human sympathy alone. His annual pay last year stood at € 4,4 million while his company, happy since 1889 at all weapons orders, raked in $28.22 billion last year.

“The war in Europe has ushered in a new era for Rheinmetall,” Papperger said. Nor would a long war require more hankies for executives at Lockheed, Raytheon, Boeing, and the like, or U.S. coal and gas producers who, after years of pressure, finally succeeded in forcing western Europe to cancel imports from Russia and building new ports for far more expensive liquefied gas from fracking sites in the USA.

In the second and third quarters of 2022 alone, American oil producers made $200 billion in profits. Explosively capping off such successes, according to master journalist Seymour Hersh, was the blasting of the Russia-to-Germany pipelines on the Baltic sea bottom.

German politicians and media could hardly blame this convincingly on Russia, which constructed the pipelines. And they feared the political consequences of blaming either the obvious culprit or Zelensky, Washington’s man in Kiev, now the most-feted star in Europe, well ahead of King Charles (not to mention Macron).

So they tried to just keep quiet and hoped people would forget about it. Not enough did, so a Washington-CIA-Berlin legend was hatched about “non-governmental Ukrainians” in a boat so small it could never have carried the weight of explosives and devices. So they became mum again. Or are they now trying to hatch up some more credible alibi?

More than coalitions in the news

But not only the city-state Berlin, teetering coalitions or exploded pipes are making news, but their effects. Low-paid working people, single parents, and pensioners have been hit hard by soaring prices for foodstuffs, higher rent, and fears about increasing prices for heating, cooking, and commuting to jobs.

Many are now fighting back. On Monday, March 27th, a giant one-day warning strike is shutting down rail service, key airports, and much of urban public transportation. Kindergarten teachers, garbage collectors, civil servants, and university staff. Some well-paid pundits are weeping over this “rehearsal for a general strike!” while Britain and France seem closer – as models for action!

Some companies (and public institutions) are hoping for public animosity because of the resulting inconveniences but, often surprisingly, there is widespread public support for the strikers by all those who feel the same pains.

Such disputes, difficulties, and struggles should be of advantage to a party dedicated to better lives for all the people, with no lobby pressures or dependence on corporate donors. Sadly, however, the LINKE is also split, now mostly on questions involving Ukraine.

Its stronger group, called by some the “reformers,” stands largely in line with the main parties and media, unconditionally condemning Putin and Russia, approving weapons shipments to Zelensky, calling for victory against the aggressor, and condemning all doubters. Angrily opposed to them are those who voice (or demand) unconditional support for Russia.

But many – or most (?) “doubters” condemn the Russian invasion but point to the map and the constant, aggressive push by NATO, led by Washington, to surround Russia, strangle its approaches to the world’s oceans by blocking the Baltic and the Black Sea while stepping up dangerous military and naval maneuvers along its borders, coupled with open political interference in Ukraine and thinly-veiled calls to defeat “authoritarian governments”, meaning Russia (and Cuba, N. Korea, etc.), while snuggling up to or installing some of the world‘s worst tyrants.

These “doubters” ask what the USA would do if a hostile alliance conducted atomic-armed maneuvers near San Diego, Houston, and Detroit, and as an answer they recall the Cuban crisis of 1962– almost atomic war! They also recall the bombing of Belgrade “to defend the rights of oppressed Albanian speakers in Kosovo” and ask if there was no parallel to the very bloody repression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

The split on these questions threatens the existence of the LINKE. When its most prominent member and best orator (or Germany’s), Sahra Wagenknecht, spoke in the Bundestag against a break in trade relations with Russia and called for peace negotiations, some prominent ”reformers” called for her expulsion.

But In TV talk shows, usually attacked four against one, she always ends up a calm, polite, smiling victor. She was the main organizer of the great peace rally of 50,000 in Berlin on Feb. 25th, which outraged the media – and opponents in her own party.

But in their total rejection of a peace rally, they isolated themselves. Then, in early March, Sahra, 53, stated that she would not again run as a candidate for the Bundestag but “retire from politics and work as publicist and author – unless something new turns up politically.”

This hint at a possible new party, further to the left, possibly polling at 14% (and leaving the LINKE with 2%), was seen even by some of her enthusiasts as unfortunately vague, further splitting the party yet without offering any definite plan, thus with her strong voice muffled as if by a COVID face mask. Her message is not uncomplicated: she charges a neglect of working-class rights – and of German workers – with endless attention and bickering about divisive and academic identity and gender questions.

Most recently the two national chairpersons of the LINKE, both opposed to Sahra, though not as angrily as other leaders, formulated a new policy statement for debate which, at first reading, seems to be a move toward bringing together all but the most uncompromisingly opposed party members and leaders. It is perhaps a chance to rescue the party.

Urgency of now

It has become so urgent to rally all those who oppose the most bellicose elements now panting for more weapons, more billions, militarization, even the draft, and, basically, more war. Foreign Minister Baerbock, the new Defense Minister Pistorius, EU boss von der Leyen and NATO leader Stoltenberg all seem so close to Washington military policy they deserve a Stars-and-Stripes flag sewed on their pants or at least a USA lapel pin.

Others, full of talk of “east flank” and “south flank” and tactics for 2026 or 2067, dream once again of Prussian glory. They want regime change in Moscow, the opening of vast reaches of Eurasia, and a springboard toward China.

Till recently China was Germany’s peaceful trade partner, its biggest. Now, with one provocative visit to Taiwan after the other, with a German warship, fighter planes, and soldiers back in old German colonial areas, it is joining in with an encirclement of China like that against Russia.

Olaf Scholz just visited Japan to increase trade and cement common policies. “We are united by democratic principles,” the SPD politician made clear, as he does at virtually all state visits. A leading Japanese journalist noted that “in view of the current world situation, our coordination and cooperation with Germany in dealing with Russia and China are very important.” And Premier Kishida stressed that “Japanese-German relations are stronger and closer than ever before!”

He was not quite correct. They were once even closer. If, like the legendary American long-sleeper Rip van Winkel, I had fallen asleep in 1936, I might have read, before drowsing off:

“… the following November (1936) saw the ratification of the Anti-Comintern Pact, an anti-communist treaty between Germany and Japan; Italy joined the Pact in 1937… It aimed at “formally integrating the military aims of Germany, Italy, Japan, and later followed by other nations… to stand side by side and cooperate in their endeavors in the Greater East Asian region and the European territories, their primary aim being to establish and maintain a new order of affairs capable of promoting prosperity and welfare for the peoples there.”

On awakening today I would have been amazed at some similarities, such as the aspects on Russia and China! To quote Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

There was a major difference from 1936; today German-Japanese friendship is under the aegis of that other major power, which also likes to promote prosperity and welfare but is more blatant about its goals – and more frightening. It would have been a rude awakening!

“Twentynine Palms, Calif.: “…a half-dozen officers of the Hawaii-based Third Marine Littoral Regiment took a very short break from days of fighting … The war, they said, was going well.

“The unit, newly created and innovative in nature, was facing its toughest test yet — a 10-day mock battle across Southern California…developing new tactics to figure out one of the service’s highest priorities: how to fight a war against Chinese forces in their own backyard and win.

“Over the next two years, the new unit will have a relentless schedule, with about four or five times as many exercises as most infantry regiments. Its next big test will be in the Philippines in April.” (NY Times, 3.5.23).

The China-Russia-USA tension recalls a game known to kids in many countries: “Rock, scissors, paper.” Which one wins points? During a visit to a Russian children’s home ten years ago I watched two sweet little 9-year-olds playing it and asked if I could join in. They laughed and nodded. Under their rules, the winner touches the loser‘s forehead with a gentle finger. As I followed this rule they roared at a funny foreigner playing along. Of course, they could not know (or care) that I was an American.

I reflected later about another possible finger pushing a special button, not gently, and bringing an end to the girls, now adults, that happy home, all such games – and me if I am still around. People have marched to prevent such an ending in recent weeks, fine people, but far, far too few. Despite all differences, all quarrels, all coalitions: such protests and demands must quickly increase, everywhere, with countless worried humans, of all colors, preferences, and beliefs. My plea is: Join in!

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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.