Dark times have Germany, like the world, on a tightrope
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Trump's pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran increases the danger of war. | AP

BERLIN–In these weeks Germany, like the world, is on a tight rope where the walker seems to be teetering above Niagara Falls or, worse yet, the fiery crater of the Kilauea volcano.

Trump-Netanyahu and Iran

A Trump-Netanyahu drama is being staged; each is playing his part on cue. Only days after Netanyahu’s press conference attack on Iran, Trump tore up the U.S. copy of the Iran nuclear agreement. Only hours after that Israel launched its heaviest missile strike in Syria since 1973, with a reported 28 warplanes hitting Iranian sites south, north and east of Damascus, including a munitions warehouse at the capital’s international airport.

Netanyahu called this a reprisal for Iranian military attacks against Israeli positions on the Golan Heights a day earlier: “Four rockets were intercepted by the Israeli aerial defense system, while 16 others fell short of their targets. No injuries or damage reported.”

Some observers noted that Israel has frequently been firing away inside Syria in recent months, and that international law and UN decisions view the Golan Heights as part of Syria, though occupied by Israel since 1967. But regardless of any such niceties, Netanyahu warned, “I repeat: Whoever hits us, we will hit back sevenfold. And whoever prepares to strike at us, we will act to strike at them beforehand. This is what we have done, and this is what we will continue to do.”

The danger of direct confrontation between two major world powers in Syria intensified. Both control thousands of atomic weapons, mostly with very thin triggers. The Middle East expert of the International Crisis Group in Brussels, Heiko Wimmen, said: “We are getting closer to the brink.” With the Trump-Netanyahu love-knot holding tight, both are hunting for chances to hoist war banners, evoke patriotic unity and thus keep their very shaky thrones. And now the Gaza shootings –and the Jerusalem embassy provocation! My thoughts return involuntarily to Kilauea – and Hiroshima.

German business interests involved

What about Germany, the central pillar of an also shaky but still very important European Union? It can play a crucial role in this balancing act above the crater. Since its creation it has always been a faithful associate – some say a vassal – of U.S. big business interests; massive trading with entwined investment and military partnership have never been questioned.

Big German auto-makers established themselves in the U.S., most happily in right-to-work southern states with no union interference; the war criminal BASF firm continues to spread chemicals along the Gulf Coast, while Aldi and Lidl have spread their rivalry to the U.S. while Amazon is pushing out retailers and exploiting employees in Germany (and Poland) as energetically as McDonalds and Burger King have been doing for years. The Deutsche Bank is busy as ever on both sides of the Atlantic.

Powerful interests support lasting “trans-Atlantic ties” while Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen keeps plugging her campaign to meet Trump-NATO demands for soaring military spending. The German Bundeswehr is never modern enough for her, its firepower within Germany, Europe (at Russian borders) and in glory fields from Mali or Niger to Afghanistan and Syria never suffices for what she calls German “responsibility” as a world power. Barely hidden behind her snappy appeals for tanks, planes or drones are the grasping, gauntleted fists of Raytheon and Lockheed, Rheinmetall and Thyssen-Krupp.

Syria and Iraq are largely ruined but the plains, mountains and cities of Iran beckon more temptingly than ever after the breach of the Iran treaty and Sheldon Adelson, the multibillionaire casino mogul of the Vegas Strip, Singapore and Macao and a power behind both Trump and Netanyahu, has been opposing treaties with Iran for years. In October, 2013 he said “What are we gonna negotiate about?” and urged an atomic explosion on some desert in Iran: “Then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran… So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.”

But in Germany other forces have been re-investing in Iran and yearn to normalize trade with Russia. Airbus planes for Tehran airlines, chemicals, machines, fruits and vegetables for Russia – all kinds of products were sold there until the U.S.- commanded sanctions cut the stream to a brooklet. Will all of Trump’s tariff war measures, his scolding demands for more NATO rearmament, his climate control withdrawal and now, despite all pleas, the abrogation of the Iran Treaty, end up with European capitulation or with new, unprecedented resistance? Many mixed signals – including Merkel’s occasionally surprising criticism of Trump policy – signal a tug-of-war in the paneled skyscrapers of Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg where policies are cooked up.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s new secretary of state, warned all too clearly: “The sanctions regime that is in place now is very clear on what the requirements are.” Richard Grenell, the new far-right U.S. ambassador to Berlin, forgot any diplomacy he may have picked up and threatened in a tweet: “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” The same embargo screws used for decades against anyone trading with Cuba, though defended in the UN only by Israel, could be very painful. But at first Western European leaders criticized Trump’s decision to scrap the nuclear deal and pledged to uphold their side of the agreement.

U.S. trade a big stick

Trans-Atlantic glue is strong, however, and U.S. trade is a very big stick. Despite all talk about Trump-Putin ties, U.S. sanctions and hostility towards Russia and Iran have a good chance of prevailing. One German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had offered a few rays of hope for less one-sided obedience, was kicked upstairs to the largely ceremonial job of president. His successor, Sigmar Gabriel, after wavering hesitantly toward détente, was also ejected – not up but out altogether!

Heiko Maas, the new German foreign minister, also a Social Democrat, has thus far displayed, along with a total lack of charisma or any other notable virtue, an inclination to move further rightward than even see-sawing Angela Merkel. His Moscow meeting, arranged only after he had jumped aboard every available anti-Russian wagon, was unsurprisingly a flop. He must still see fearsome red flags over Russia; despite the atlas, Washington seems closer to his Berlin office than Moscow. But unless all signatories hold together, including the latter two, the Iran treaty is lost, regardless of the consequences. And Theresa May is already slithering westward.

Resistance has not been a strong point of the Social Democrat Party since well before Heiko Maas. As part of the ruling coalition it offers no echoes of a one-time defiant past which really ended in 1914 when it supported World War I – and kept going from there. But with its poll figures dipping to a shocking all-time low of 17 or 18 percent, its members are very restless. At its April Congress, chairperson (and caucus chair) Andrea Nahles from the conservative leadership was elected so scantily – a long-time record of only 66.4 percent – that she could not squeeze out the semblance of a “victory” smile. A year earlier her predecessor, Martin Schulz, had received a 100 percent support vote.

Her one opponent, Simone Lange, the widely-unknown mayor of northern Flensburg (who grew up in socialist East Germany), took positions well to the left of party officialdom. The treatment she got was much like that given Bernie Sanders. Totally ignored till the very end, denied the chance of a debate, permitted one short speech, she surprised everyone by getting one third of the votes (and overwhelming cheers from the non-voting audience). She warned of the consequences if the party kept to the right; once again one had to think of Washington, DC.

Not the only inner conflict

But the SPD was not the only party facing inner conflict. The LINKE (Left), heading toward a congress in Leipzig, is still torn, especially between those supporting co-chair Katja Kipping and those backing Sahra Wagenknecht, co-chair of the Left caucus in the Bundestag. While many attribute the conflict at least in part to personal rivalry between the two (but rarely to their two male partners), a maze of issues is at stake.

The refugee arrivals theme is a main tool of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its fascistic allies, and also for some in Merkel’s so-called Christian Union parties, especially in Bavaria. It has shoved the country alarmingly to the right. The usually more leftist Wagenknecht has unexpectedly implied that Germany should accept no more from abroad than the central government is willing to assist, without overburdening towns and cities at the expense of local working people. She has also accepted the expulsion of those found to be criminal. Kipping, and many more in the party, insist on no upper limits or cuts in the party’s established humanitarian ethic, despite media pressures.

Also being debated is a call by Sahra and her husband Oskar LaFontaine (now active only in his Saarland) for a broad movement, resembling that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, to reach beyond the LINKE and include members of other parties, or no party, in an attempt to stem the fascist tide. Correctly or not, this idea’s opponents suspect an attempt to somehow circumvent and thus weaken the LINKE with a possible rival. But the party, stuck at 9-10 percent in the polls, has thus far hardly reached disappointed or worried voters and non-voters who turn to the AfD as the only “anti-establishment” party. Can some new movement, joining LINKE supporters with rebellious members of the SPD and the rightward-drifting Greens, turn the tide? We will know more during the Leipzig congress.

The basic LINKE dispute is between those working to improve life for the citizenry in one way or another, if possible as members of state governments, perhaps in four years in the national government, and those further left who, without neglecting such actions, reject the capitalist social system with its giant, growing gap between rich and poor and its constant attempts at economic and military expansion including conflicts. Such rejection means opposition to the leadership of all other parties, with no compromises on major questions like foreign deployment of the Bundeswehr.

Is this old-fashioned, dogmatic, self-defeating? Or a necessity if the LINKE remains true to itself. Which path can best achieve the two main tasks; fighting the growing fascist threat and opposing any move towards war, away from that frightening tightrope act over craters in Syria, Iran, Ukraine or elsewhere. The Leipzig congress (June 8-10) may be a stormy one – and a crucial one.


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.