Ukraine war divides German ruling class—and the left
Chancellor Olaf Scholz was initially hesitant about sending heavy weapons to Ukraine and getting deeply involved in what could become an open war—NATO vs. Russia. But media attacks grew fiercer, and Scholz bowed, siding with NATO and Washington. | Manu Fernandez / AP

For years, Germany, though officially unified, has been torn between two forces. Some economic groups, like gas importers and exporters of manufactured and agricultural goods, have wanted to get along with Russia (and even more with China), a policy symbolized by Angela Merkel and the Baltic pipelines.

This was angrily opposed by men along the Potomac River in Washington, in Charles Koch’s Wichita HQ, and similar locations, who wanted both to export fracked gas and to head off even limited German-Russian reconciliation. They were aiming at the eventual defeat of Russia, then China, as major barriers to their plans for world hegemony, prudently labeled “the rule of order,” democracy, liberty (and free markets!) as against “authoritarianism.”

Whether because of ideology, intertwining corporate and financial interests, or perhaps even personal career hopes, closely beholden to them are the German Atlanticists—those who desire the tighter integration of the country into the U.S./U.K.-led transatlantic alliance.

After Russia’s February 24th invasion of Ukraine, inside and outside the governing coalition, the Atlanticists won full victory, filling the media with angry denunciation of everything Russian, working to permanently break off all commercial ties with Moscow, starting with the Baltic oil pipelines, even though this may well cause industrial shutdowns and maybe very chilly room temperatures in Germany.

Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and first and foremost the Green Party joined the attack, with the young Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock demanding that as many and as heavy weapons as possible be sent to Kiev, with her cherished goal of the “ruin of Russia.”

The competition in denouncing Russia has grown strong enough to revive half-forgotten tones from the 1930s, like when Lars Klingbeil, a leading Social Democrat, claimed that ‘Germany’s allies have great expectations and Germany must fulfill them…. It is time for it to exit the end-of-history mode and become a leading power on the world stage after almost 80 years of holding back.’ Klingbeil, seen here at left, points towards Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, right, after a meeting at the Bundestag in Berlin in May. | Michael Kappeler / dpa via AP

The Social Democrats were not so clear, with Chancellor Scholz hesitant about sending heavy weapons to Ukraine and getting deeply involved in what could become an open war—NATO vs. Russia. But media attacks grew fiercer, and Scholz bowed, siding with NATO and Washington, stationing more German troops in Lithuania and demanding an unprecedented sum of €100 billion ($100 billion) for more armaments to “protect German security.”

The competition in denouncing Russia grew strong enough to revive half-forgotten tones from the 1930s, like when Lars Klingbeil, a leading Social Democrat, claimed that “Germany’s allies have great expectations and Germany must fulfill them…. It is time for it to exit the end-of-history mode and become a leading power on the world stage after almost 80 years of holding back.”

Frightening words! Even more frightening were those of top air corps General Ingo Gerhartz: “For a credible deterrent, we need both the means and the political will, if necessary, to implement nuclear deterrence.” The “old guard” in the established parties began summoning up past glories.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is all out for those past glories but, like some other far-righters in Europe, did not join the verbal attacks on Russia and even opposed armaments for Ukraine. Their main mission in nearly all matters is opposition—above all to the European Union. But as dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, they also support a big German military build-up, a renewed draft, and/or compulsory civil service for young men (as also recommended by President Steinmeier).

The Left Party (Die Linke) has always stood out as the one party of peace, opposing deployment in Serbia, Afghanistan, Mali, or anywhere outside German borders. Now it has split, with the main bone of contention being the Ukraine war. Actually, disagreement on related issues is by no means new, though rarely has it been so emotional as at the party congress session in late June.

It was a disastrous year for The Left. In the September elections, the party received only 4.9%, down from 6.9% four years earlier. Its caucus in the Bundestag was only just saved by a special rule; if three or more delegates were elected directly in their districts, the caucus was saved, even without meeting the mandated 5% overall vote total threshold. Exactly three scraped through, but proportional representation now gave it 39 deputies, not its previous 69. No longer the strongest opposition party, it has become the weakest.

The urgent party reassessment and changes called for by this disaster failed to materialize, and the party lost bitterly in three state elections: Saarland, from 12.8% to 2.6%; Schleswig-Holstein, 3.8 to 1.7%; and in the key industrial North Rhine-Westphalia, from 4.9 to 2.7%.

Few workers voted Left. Some prominent members quit. The magazine Der Spiegel falsified a sex-related event (some obscure member’s alleged assault) into a malicious “Me Too” attack on the more militant co-chair Janine Wissler for allegedly covering it up. Her “reformist” co-chair, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, quit her leadership position in a huff, and with new leadership elections now necessary, the party faced total defeat, perhaps a split, and even its demise.

In the main dispute, the so-called reformers weakened the party’s basic opposition to NATO in hopes of being accepted in a government coalition with the pro-NATO Greens and Social Democrats. Such dubious hopes were rendered fully impossible by the Left’s poor election results. But the reformers still tended to play down or absolve NATO’s current role, giving Russia and Putin the entire blame for the Ukrainian tragedy. The militant wing of the party viewed NATO, and especially the U.S., as provocateurs whose expansionist policy of deploying armaments and maneuvers along Russian borders, was clearly looking for trouble—and, sadly, got it.

Martin Schirdewan and Janine Wissler stand next to each other at the federal party congress of the Left Party (Die Linke) in Erfurt, June 25, 2022, after being elected as party co-chairs. Though Schirdewan and Wissler will lead together, they come from different wings of the Left Party. | Martin Schutt / dpa via AP

The quarrel reflected a deeper rift. On one side are those who call for improvements in child care, pensions, and minimum wages but see socialism only as a future goal in vague clichés while basically accepting a systemic status quo in which they strive to become accepted, despite the growing menace of the billionaires. On the other side are the “militants,” while not calling for revolution tomorrow (like some ultra-leftists), nevertheless see a rejection of the capitalist system as vital and basic opposition as a necessity.

One group accepted NATO, the other opposed it. Their differences colored often hot but very brief congress debates, which were dominated by the reformers, who won out in the end with about a 60-30 ratio and managed to slip some very ardent pro-NATO advocates into leading positions. Janine Wissler was re-elected as co-chair (thus rejecting the malicious media smear).

For co-chair, the usual male-female, East-West, leftish-reformist balance formula was maintained, and the militant, popular Sören Pellmann from Leipzig, one of the three delegates to save the Left caucus by winning a seat in his district, lost out to the rather moderate Martin Schirdewan, till then a delegate in the European Parliament, who promised to put far more stress on working-class struggles while opposing armament sales to Ukraine and organizing for peace. He seemed to seek Left reconciliation—and, at last, action.

Some on the left deplored the Congress results; others were glad there had been no split. Some political positions had been rescued, a threatened stress on “gender issues,” even in grammar and punctuation, had been averted, and a shaky compromise arrived at.

It remains to be seen whether The Left can regain its roots among working people in time to challenge the many hardships and big menaces now looming. And much may yet depend on its position regarding the war in Ukraine.


CONTRIBUTOR

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 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.

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