In Germany, fascists are on the up and Die Linke is in a worsening crisis

VICTOR GROSSMAN assesses the impact of the Ukraine war on the German economy, the far-right and the Left party — and what may happen next

LEASANT, hilly Thuringia, the “green lung” of Germany, has not always had pleasant times. One hundred years ago, after a socialist revolution had been squelched following World War I, Social Democrats and Communists in Thuringia and neighbouring Saxony defiantly elected coalition governments.

This could not possibly be tolerated. So the Berlin government, run by reliable, “correct” Social Democrats, sent in troops to put things back in order. Which they did.

Seven years later, in 1930, Thuringia became the first state to include Nazi ministers in its cabinet. Only two at first. But in August 1932 the Nazis took over completely, four months before doing the same in all of Germany.

In 2014, when the Left party (Die Linke) won first place with 28.2 per cent in Thuringia, its leader Bodo Ramelow persuaded the smaller caucuses of Social Democrats and Greens to join him in a coalition, and he became the first and only Left minister-president of a German state.

Panic seized the media: “The reds are coming back in East Germany.” But Ramelow, no radical, was friendly, a good speaker, even had a sweet little pet dog.

Many Thuringians, out of work when East Germany was swallowed up, could commute to jobs in nearby West German states and thus get along. In 2019, the Left came in first again (31 per cent), and Ramelow rescued another shaky coalition.

Not so easy

But getting along is not so easy today. In the Covid years, many small cafes and restaurants bit the dust. Retail giants such as Amazon crushed down like a mudslide, emptying town centres.

The Ukraine war, with its sanctions against Russia (and that Baltic pipeline explosion, all too transparently dismissed, ignored, and forgotten), brought blistering inflation; heating fuel, rent, grocery costs soared, evictions increased, and food bank queues lengthened. Worst hit were rural areas, with bank and post offices, even grocery supermarkets closing, doctors departing, bus or train services uneven or absent.

Some regions had enough jobs, permitting an increase in union militancy, with wage gains deflecting some inflation hardships. But even in proverbially prosperous Germany, the crystal ball of the finance experts was dimming. Yasmin Fahimi, head of Germany’s union federation, warned gloomily: “Care for children and the elderly is facing an emergency. As for education, if we don’t invest more we will end up with a catastrophe. And if our medical system policies are not changed our hospitals will also collapse… Our social cohesion is tearing apart… more and more people are being pushed to the edge of poverty while a very few get richer and richer.”

The fragile three-party coalition government is in constant stress. Economy Minister Robert Habeck, a Green, was ridiculed or reviled for his fumbling attempts to end atomic power, show a modicum of progress in climate control, push for fuel switchovers in homes and factories, but stay in cahoots with the corporations while expensive fracking gas from the US replaced cheap Russian gas. He got little help from Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, also a Green, who was busy hunting for support in South America, South Asia or anywhere for her lifelong project: “ruin Russia.”

Christian Lindner, finance minister and head of the right-wing Free Democratic Party, also has a life goal: keeping taxes on the wealthy low and stymying any attempts by Greens or Social Democrats to offer traces of social consciousness and climb back up in the polls, with more elections in the offing.

Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz must try to herd three cat parties, all spitting at each other across his Cabinet table, while calming Zelensky and pleasing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon boss Lloyd Austin. Ever more dangerous weapons for Ukraine are first denied, then approved, like the Leopard 2 tanks, and maybe fighter planes or Taurus missiles, all increasing the dangers of a fatal confrontation.

Some Social Democrats are timidly fearful of a lengthily, escalating war and the extra “€100 billion” to be spent on it. Others, in control now, sound as belligerent as Kaiser Wilhelm — or as subservient as the Social Democrats who cheered and approved his war in 1914 — or some later German heroes.

Such as Lars Klingbeil, co-leader of the Social Democrats, who assured radio listeners that the turning point triggered by the Ukraine war will impact German politics “for the next 20 years… after almost 80 years of restraint, Germany now has a new role… for Germany, strengthening the Bundeswehr is important… peace policy means seeing military force as a legitimate means of politics.”

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The Christian Democrats (CDU), though in opposition, joined the competition in bellicose eagerness with an almost audible clicking of heels. Johann Wadephul, vice-chair of their Bundestag caucus, seconded: “The Bundeswehr must become the strongest conventional army in Europe.”

Air force chief Lt Gen Ingo Gerhartz was more specific: “By 2030, Europeans will have 600 modern fighter jets in the Baltic region.” His plans for decades to come: “We need both the means and the political will to implement nuclear deterrence if necessary.”

Eighty years ago, in August 1943 near Kursk, Germany was defeated in the biggest tank battle of all time. Hardly known in the wider world, it was a more crucial battle even than Stalingrad, and far, far more than Anzio or Normandy in defeating Nazi fascism. For certain Germans the present war, with Bundeswehr troops in combat readiness in Lithuania while its ships and planes circle near once-besieged St Petersburg (then Leningrad) smells of offering at last a chance at revenge.

By no means do all Germans have such an outlook. Neither the governing parties nor the Christian opposition are finding the hoped-for enthusiasm. Nor do the polls show them prospering.

Then who is prospering?

Financially speaking, it is clearly the weapon-makers, fantastically, from Raytheon to Rheinmetall. Higher prices, subsidies, increased productivity are also bountiful for other top dogs, from Amazon to Aldi, from Exxon Mobil to Koch.

Frackers see European dreams fulfilled. A few East German cities like Dresden and Magdeburg are promised jobs when huge microchip factories try to gain independence from trade with China and maybe dampen undesirable big city disquiet.

But many of those not favoured, with uncertain (or no) jobs, with growing trouble paying bills and uncertain futures for their children, distrustful of all established parties, want to register protest and do so by penciling their X next to Alternative for Germany (AfD)..

East Germans especially, regardless of their views on the old German Democratic Republic, feel they are still seen and treated as second-class citizens. And when racist orators lie to them that “immigrants,” “refugees,” ”Islamists” or simply “foreigners” — whom they hardly know, since these live mostly in big West German cities or Berlin — are getting advantages and privileges denied to them while “hybridising good German blood,” then the AfD marches on.

Back in 2014, in Thuringia, the young AfD started off with less than 11 per cent of the votes, while the Left led the field with 28 per cent. Nine years later, with Left Minister-President Bodo Ramelow, the LINKE has sunk to 23 per cent while the AfD, with 32.8, is the local king of the mountain.

An evil king; behind the throne in Thuringia is Bjoern Hoecke, a fascistic-type demagogue, loudly racist, almost openly anti-semitic, who sometimes betrays his hopes for a national takeover, even though all other parties have refused thus far to join with the AfD in any way.

On June 26 Germany was shocked when an AfD candidate was elected as a county leader in southern Thuringia, beating (with 52.8 per cent) the one opposing candidate who was supported by all other parties. The shock was compounded a week later when an AfD man was elected mayor in a small town in neighboring Saxony-Anhalt.

These victories provided a triumphant backdrop for a highly publicised week-long national congress of the AfD, at which the far-right forces in the party lost out to the far-far-right forces, now openly speculating about their hopes to take over some day. As yet they have found no partners except in local hotbeds, but with the AfD now leading the polls in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg and in second place in the two others, their likely hold on 20-28 per cent of the seats will make it very hard to form coalitions against them.

And some taboos are softening. Last month CDU leader Friedrich Merz hinted at possible collaboration. “We will have to accept such victories. Paths must naturally be found for working together locally.” The media punctured this trial balloon and he backed down, but writing on the wall is becoming visible.

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Again my thoughts turn to my faded history books, and to the uprisings — and then defeat — of divided leftists between 1919 and 1933. Where today is the Left, the party of peace, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, socialism? It is in a crisis.

“Reformer” wing leads

A reformer wing, typified by Bodo Ramelow in Thuringia, leads the party in nearly every state — but in nearly every state the Left have been haemorrhaging supporters. Local leaders in Berlin, also mostly reformers, lost out recently when Social Democrats pulled a switch, choosing to become junior partners of the Christian CDU and forcing the Left (and Greens) onto the cold opposition seats. In national polls the Left, which barely squeaked into the Bundestag in 2021 as the weakest party there, now stands at a very shaky 4-5 per cent.

In its early years, fiercely maligned in the media, the party had fought back. After leftists in East and West joined hands in 2007, they achieved 11-12 per cent support. But as it gained respectability and ambitious local leaders won cabinet seats, it was rarely seen protesting in the streets and factories, joining picket lines or fighting evictions.

Vainly dreaming of becoming partners with Social Democrats and Greens at the top national level, its candidates largely refrained from alienating or irritating them, most clearly with its weakening stand on Nato and foreign policy. For dissatisfied voters, especially in the former GDR, it had become part of the establishment; increasingly they registered their protest with the AfD or simply didn’t vote. And the party’s aging base, the “old faithful” from GDR days, was literally dying out.

The opposing left wing, correctly or not, was symbolised by Sahra Wagenknecht, its universally known, strikingly controversial, abdicated co-chair of the caucus. The many differences really came to a head with the Ukraine war.

In September 2022 Wagenknecht made a brilliant speech in the Bundestag, not supporting or apologising for Putin’s invasion but attacking Nato’s expansion and its provocative military and naval threats and manoeuvres. She also opposed the sanctions against Russia, seeing it as an amputation of the German nose to spite the Russian face, with new seaports built to land expensive liquefied gas from American frackers.

Her speech shocked those Left leaders who were tolerant of Nato and of liquefied gas and regretted the hitherto firm Left policy opposing arms exports. Then, in February, Wagenknecht and a top feminist leader circulated a manifesto demanding negotiations to end the Ukraine war. It quickly received over 700,000 signatures and was followed by a giant peace rally at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

But the top party leadership not only rejected both manifesto and rally, allegedly because the AfD slyly supported them (with a few signatures and a handful of uninvited participants among the 50,000 at the rally), but even called on party members to boycott it.

For many, the pot had boiled over: they said the traditional position of the Left as “party of peace” was being abandoned and abdicated in favour of the quasi-fascist but cleverly pragmatic AfD. Many decided to quit.

The pot boiled over again when Wagenknecht raised the question of quitting and starting a new party. This step offered party leaders the opportunity to demand that she either leave the party or be expelled.

Her angered supporters called this the culmination of a long mobbing campaign. Meanwhile some vague polls seemed to indicate that she was favoured by a majority within the party and at least liked by a surprisingly large number of non-leftist Germans.

Soon more spices were added to the boiling pot. In July the party’s executive board suddenly named four candidates for the European Parliament elections in 2024. Aside from two holdovers, they chose the “doctor for the homeless” Gerhard Trabert and Carola Rackete, a sea captain famed for rescuing endangered refugees in the Mediterranean.

Although undoubtedly very worthwhile citizens, neither are party members or have any political experience, and both seem quite comfortable with official German policy on the Ukraine war. Lime-lighted in the media before being discussed or voted upon by any but the executive, this step was another provocation.

Quit her position

In August the co-chair of the Left caucus in the Bundestag, Amira Mohammed Ali quit her position (she’s no boxer, her name derives from her Egyptian father) in protest at Wagenknecht’s treatment. The party was rapidly falling part.

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Some opponents of the present leadership want a quick break and a new party, not only because of current quarrels but because they party’s long drift towards seeking social improvements within the present monopoly-based social system instead of aiming toward replacing it with a non-profit society.

Others may agree, but oppose a quick break. They see even the current Left, despite all its compromises, as the only visible opposition currently to war, an arms race and worsening conditions for working people.

A third opinion was: “Let us wait for the party congress in November. If instead of demanding peace and negotiations, a policy wins out of even veiled support of Nato and sending armaments ‘until victory’ to Zelensky – or more likely until catastrophe – then, regardless of consequences, we must leave and start anew.”

Now another actor has taken the stage, calling itself the “Was-Tun-Netzwerk“ — a “co-ordination circle” basing its name on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done. It listed leftist groups in nine German states as sponsors and made the following statement, criticising the leadership: “There is no effective strategy to win voters for left-wing politics outside a few major cities in the east and west of the country. The board shies away from coming to terms with election defeats. Instead, Wagenknecht is blamed for everything: election defeats, the bad mood in the party, the inability to convince people inside and outside the party of left-wing politics.

“By effectively adopting the government’s stance on the escalation of the war and the preparation of the US for war against China, as well as by its involvement in the split in the peace protests, the executive indirectly supports Nato’s highly dangerous war policy. The lack of a convincing left-wing opposition to the war is driving more and more people into the arms of the AfD, which wants to present itself as a new peace party.

“The executive committee leads the party into the political sidelines. As a political leader, it has completely failed and must be replaced as soon as possible.

“We demand that the slogan ‘Heating, Bread and Peace’ put the elementary interests of the population at the centre of left-wing politics.”

Is this a serious, organised attempt to change the leadership — or perhaps start up a new split-off party? The next scenes in this melodrama will be on September 1, the anniversary of the first shots in World War II, and on October 3, the anniversary of German unification, when two peace demonstrations are planned.

Talks are beginning on a possible debate even sooner, electronically open to the public. Will the Leftleadership join in or again support boycotts — or weak, purist substitutes? What about the new group?

History pages can be as blurred as crystal balls. But it is clear that far more is at stake here than meets the eye — or the media. The left in most of Europe, fully demoralised after the downfall of the USSR, the GDR and the others, has yet to recover; it is mostly fragmented and weak.

But in Germany, which became Europe’s strongest “free market” pillar, the Left party, though unsteady, often offered a beacon of hope and support, a link with eastern European groups and a certain counterbalance to the growing far right and fascist threat in Italy, Greece, even France, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Finland — but especially in Germany itself.

Can it relight that little torch — or will it be doused, leaving an even shadier, troubled lane in the fight against repression, militarism and expansion all too reminiscent of a bitter past?

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