Germany: Drones and new tones

BERLIN – Military drones, like drone bees, do no legitimate work. But unlike drone bees, they can sting – terribly and brutally. Allegedly only “terrorists,” in at least six countries, are targeted. But those executed so bloodily are neither tried nor judged. By the way, who are “terrorists?” They may be seen as patriots by their neighbors and, far too often, they are village civilians; women and children traumatized by the circling, buzzing menace in the air above them. 

The men doing the targeting are far off and safe, mostly in the U.S., and due to the earth’s curvature, their commands to circle and fire must be relayed to a location across the Atlantic. The main relay point is Ramstein Air Base, tucked away in an isolated corner of Germany near the French border. Many legal experts maintain that its presence defies German law. 

On June 11, 5,000 people came by bus, train, car, a few by bicycle, defying nasty weather to circle the base and demand it’s closing. This year the protesters, with their signs, rainbow flags, a few drums and umbrellas, had made serious preparations. They explained to local inhabitants that they were not wild hippies on a joy ride, but seriously concerned about world peace and Germany’s role in either saving it – or endangering it. Many listened and agreed; some offered assistance.

A variety of peace groups organized the event that, in a church in nearby Saarland, heard speeches by LINKE (Left) party leader Oskar Lafontaine, an expert on military-civilian conversion from the Greens, even a well-known maverick Christian Democrat. Speakers from the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the French Mouvement de la Paix, CODEPINK, and Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years now active in the peace movement also addressed the crowd. With the rain keeping some away, the “human chain” did not entirely encircle the big base, but this three-day protest against drones was perhaps the largest yet, anywhere, and a pledge was made to keep getting bigger and louder.

Some German peace advocates disagree on whether to lambaste U.S. military expansion primarily or to concentrate on “blood and iron” warriors in Germany. Logically, it would seem, the two cannot be separated; the U.S. is certainly the brawniest world power, with almost 800 military bases in over 70 countries and a military budget outweighing most other nations combined, including Russia and China. With rare exceptions Germany has been a loyal, closely aligned junior partner, with President Joachim Gauck (soon to retire) and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (perhaps thinking of promotion) both just as eager for military strength as some leading U.S. politicians.

Indeed, U.S. and German troops, plus a bundle from 22 other countries, 31,000 in all, rehearsed together very closely- and very close to Russia – in Poland. The maneuvers involved mass parachute jumps and tank-led river-crossings. They have been followed by another exercise, Saber Strike, now underway in the Baltic countries. Saber Strike is an annual event, though it is much larger this year having activated 10,000 troops from 13 countries.

Despite occasional pious disavowals, Polish president Andrzej Duda declared icily: “The aim of the exercise is clear, we are preparing for an attack.” He must have meant this to be taken to mean a defense against an attack by Russia. Since Russia has made no threats or claims of any kind on Poland or the Baltic states, and while the Polish government does little else than vilify Russia (when it is not abridging press rights, clipping judicial autonomy or forbidding abortions), such close military cooperation among NATO members, to be increased at their July summit – in Poland – can cause more than a shudder in today’s tense world.

But hold on! There has been a surprising new twist! Is the iron staple binding German and American foreign policy showing signs of rusting?

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier startled almost everyone by saying, in an interview: “The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation with loud saber-rattling and warmongering.” Did one of his words purposely recall Operation Saber Strike?

“Anyone who thinks a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is wrong,” he warned. “We would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.” 

Although in other sentences, printed a few days later, Steinmeier qualified his statement a bit, mentioning fears of Poland and the Baltic countries supposedly aroused by Putin’s actions in Crimea and the Ukraine. The vocabulary he used broke previous No-No taboos in NATO and official German circles. Sure enough, some righteous warriors in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, though linked in a coalition with Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, mounted an attack. Much of the media did the same. The bitterly aggressive anti-Russian wing of the Greens also climbed aboard to slam Steinmeier and his call for “exchange and dialogue” instead of military activity. A common line of attack was: “What? Is he calling us warmongers? How dare he?”

The ever eager NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, also evoking fears of a threat which was never made, huffily tossed in more tinder: “Let me be clear: there will be more NATO troops in Poland after the Warsaw Summit, to send a clear signal that an attack on Poland will be considered an attack on the whole Alliance.”

Why did Steinmeier dare to defy this official line? Has he seen the hopeful light of détente and disarmament? Vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, his fellow Social Democrat, now plans a Moscow visit, certain to discuss European Union sanctions which hurt Russia but harshly shrink the earnings of countless German farmers and the auto makers, who want to sell and invest there. Was this a new pattern?

Maybe. The Social Democrats have watched their poll results drop to about 20 percent , a low point, and are desperately seeking ways to climb out of the slough. Other polls show that, despite the media, over 70 percent of the Germans favor a better approach to Russia. Putting two and two together is not hard even for Social Democrats still enjoying Cabinet armchairs with all the perks, but seeing elections looming in 2017.

Their Christian Democratic coalition partners are already hunting for new buddies. And, still well versed in arithmetic, SPD leaders can see that only with the Greens, now at 14 percent, and the LINKE (Left) party, at 9 percent, can they hope to forge a majority and keep those comfortable armchairs. They have a long tradition of turning the wheel toward portside before elections. Is this part of that old mold?

Regardless of their motives, everyone yearning for peaceful solutions can welcome this unexpected turn. But how should the LINKE party respond to moves that may end up resembling flirtation, despite all previous taboos? Should it consider joining with Social Democrats and Greens in a sort of “united front”- also aimed against the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), now registering about 11 percent in the polls? How wary must it remain, knowing how smoothly both Social Democrats and Greens forget election promises on peaceful foreign policies and economic issues? How many principles would the LINKE have to dilute or abandon to win those treasured cabinet armchairs in a federal government? Attempts on a state basis have never once gone well! The approaching city-state elections in Berlin in September may raise this question even sooner.

Certainly a requirement for a truly wise policy is to get people marching out on the streets, building strength and confidence. For issues close to their hearts they do just that: in five cities tens of thousands joined hands in a human chain to oppose racism and welcome the new refugees. Over 100,000 Berliners rode bicycles in a star-formation to the Brandenburg Gate to demand more and better bike paths. Far more showed up last year against the TTIP trade deal. Similar numbers, and more, are needed against drones and maneuvers like Saber Strike (better Saber-toothed?) and for decent jobs and pensions. In a few hours we shall learn the results of mass pressure in Britain (for better or worse), in a few weeks those of French workers and Spanish voters. More than a few Germans are watching with great interest and enthusiasm – maybe even taking ideas – from the courageous campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

Photo: Peace activists form a human chain on the street leading towards the U.S. air base during the “Stopp-Ramstein” stop lethal drone strikes campaign in Ramstein, Germany, June 11. Ramstein Air Base is used to relay flight control data. Oliver Dietze | dpa via AP


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.