Icy times and rays of hope in Germany

BERLIN — 2016 began here with an icy chill, not only with the weather but far worse, with human relations. It also offered some, like myself, at least a few warm rays of hope.

Germany split over asylum-seekers

The influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers–over a million in 2015–has split Germany, which is economically the strongest country in Europe, into two nearly equal halves. One half, motivated by empathy, generosity, a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood, went out of its way to help the new arrivals, contributing everything from teddy bears, warm clothing, and medical care to German lessons, and volunteering many unpaid hours, often to the point of exhaustion, to help and care for them.

This was sometimes accompanied by admirable endeavors of local public employees, many of whom stayed on their jobs far beyond daily and weekly working hours.

Countless immigrants in Berlin received food, warm clothes and at least a mattress, bedding and a narrow spot in a school gymnasium or empty airport building. But far too many waited long, cold, also rainy hours, often much of the night, to get the required registration documents, medical passes or a small allowance.

Callousness toward their plight was all too frequent; one official had to quit in disgrace, while his boss, a cabinet member, has had to bury any hopes of moving upward to the job of Berlin mayor. But some negative responseshad a worse motivation, reflecting the reaction of that other xenophobic half of the population. Hatred toward anyone who is different or “other” is all too common in the world. But a brief look in a book on German history adds an especially frightening aspect.

Such hatred grew fast in 2015, often connected with worries about jobs and housing, but also with malicious, unproven tales of immigrant crimes. The internet flooded with racist, fascistic remarks. There was an alarming increase in attacks– 850 were officially registered as having come from right-wing extremists – against buildings reserved or planned for the arrivals and nearly 400 violent attacks against presumed immigrants.

New Year’s Eve marred

And then came New Year’s Eve! In Hamburg and elsewhere, but most nastily in Cologne, the celebrations were horribly marred by attacks on several hundred women. Groups of young men surrounded and groped them and, while they resisted, stole handbags or cell phones. Much is still unclear about what actually took place.

According to news sources, a few of the suspected attackers are German citizens, one is an American, but many seem to be from Morocco and Algeria, which were not part of last year’s influx of mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. Some questions are still unanswered: were the attacks spontaneous, internet-connected or somehow organized – and if so by whom and why?

On New Year’s Eve, German cities often offer organized fireworks. But many also buy fireworks privately (their sale is permitted two days in advance) and fire rockets, often ten, twenty or fifty from one box, from sidewalks, balconies or in city squares, resulting in several hours of pandemonium. This must have been new to many immigrants, possibly frightening to children from war-torn regions. There were many young husbands who left families behind until, as they hoped, they could find a job and a home, but also many single men. A large number came from backgrounds where women are more “covered-up”, rarely alone without a male relative and far less respected. An all too common oversupply of untamed testosterone in a loud, wild, crowded night may also help explain (but in no way excuse or rationalize) the criminal conduct.

The generalizing results of the attacks were all too predictable, especially coming so soon after the aroused, also bigot-based reaction to the tragic murders in Paris. Messengers of hatred against undesirable nationalities, wherever they are from and whoever they are, if not “German”,have had a hey-day, resulting in more violent attacks and almost certainly upsetting the balance of political views in 2015.

The Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union), the only such separate state unit, is named the Christian Social Union, an egregious misnomer. Though closely tied to the CDU in the Bundestag, it has been growing increasingly independent. It would strongly reject being called “racist” but Bavaria, where all immigrants from the southwest must enter, is the most rightwing of Germany’s 16 states and has led the way in pressuring Merkel to abandon her welcome to all refugees, whatever her motives. Faced by growing signs of mutiny, includingin her own party, she has retreated, step by step, followed by her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party. Immigration rulings are to be tougher, numbers cut, far more denied entry or sent home, most especially after any trouble with the law. Speculation that usurpers might use the question to replace this clever, powerful tactician has become far-fetched.

Entire political scene has been pushed to the right

But the entire political scene has been pushed to the right. The racist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is sure to get seats in three state elections in March, and most likely in the Bundestag in 2017.Pegida (an Islamophobic group that has staged anti-immigrant demonstrations in recent weeks) marchers still hoist “Save our western world from the Islamists” signs, most recently in Leipzig and again with violence. A vigilante posse descended on Cologne calling for “vengeance” and the rescue of endangered German womanhood – while waving thinly disguised pro-Nazi signs and openly giving the Hitler salute.

Rays of hope

One ray of hope is that there has rarely been a parade of the Pegidas or similar rightist groups without an active opposition group, often outnumbering them. In Leipzig their march was opposed by a ring of people holding candles in protest, while others, more militant, tried to block their path, with the usual giant police contingent keeping them apart.

Jan. 2 in Cologne, at least a thousand women (and a few men) met at the site of the New Year’s Eve attacks and demanded respect and protection for women. It was loud and jolly, but it was also very determined! Many signs made clear; the women were not joining in the hatred scene; their protest was not aimed at immigrants or Arabs but against the sexist atmosphere everywhere, including harassment or violence at drunken Bavarian Oktoberfests, in many a private home and in too many police stations which ignored women’s rights.

Remembering peace activists

The following weekend was a special one. Jan. 10was the annual memorial day for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, courageous, still dearly-loved left-wing Social Democrats who opposed World War One, founded the German Communist Party and were murdered two weeks later, in January 1919. Several thousand faithful old rebels and many young people went by subway and walked the final six or seven blocks to lay red carnations on the monuments to Karl, Rosa, and the urns of leftwing leaders, writers and fighters from 1900 to 1990.

Others, starting at Karl Marx Allee, took a far longer route, with flags, banners and loud music. Again there were disputes, even a partial boycott, by some who objected not only to the usual groups of ultra-left admirers of Mao or Stalin but also to the presence of Palestinians and others who called for a boycott of Israel. As for me, though I certainly don’t love all the strategies and tactics advocated here by some, I am still ready to walk in the same march with anyone who opposes exploitation and the war-loving One Percent.

Die Linke rally

After the visit to the memorial site, tired from the long walk, my hopes were again rekindled and my heart moved by a Die Linke (meaning “the left,” a progressive political party in Germany)rally in a beautiful auditorium, formerly a film theater. There were many songs: by an Andalusian guitarist, a Turkish band, and by Esther Bejarano, now 91, who survived Auschwitz as an accordion player in the girls’ orchestra, lived for many years in Israel and moved to Hamburg in 1960, where she became a singer and activist. In recent years she was persuaded to join young rap musicians in an attempt to offer progressive songs in German, Yiddish and Hebrew in a novel, blendedmanner that has made a hit with all audiences, old and young. We heard three of them here – with long, standing ovations for her voice, vigor and musicality. Then Bejaranospoke about her life-long fight against Nazis, old and new, and those who learned nothing from the past and are making war again.

There were many short speeches as well, by visiting leaders from Spain, Portugal, from Turkey on Erdogan’s extremism and by a Jewish Knesset member who champions equal rights for Palestinians. It was a truly international occasion.

Most important were speeches by top leaders of Die Linke. Both co-presidents spoke, Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch,who also chair the Left caucus in the Bundestag.Their past quarrels were forgotten; both were in friendly accord, near each other on the stage and in their speeches, in enthusiastic calls for a fighting program.

In the final speech the one-time national party leader Oskar Lafontaine made a stirring speech: for action against German military involvement in Afghanistan, Mali or anywhere;against armament shipments worth billions to bellicose oppressors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Such actions give a sharp smell of hypocrisy to wordy welcomes to refugees, as Germany joins the USA, France and Britain in supporting these culprits of conflict while worsening poverty in southern continents with cheap exports, suffocating local agriculture and industry and forcing people to emigrate.

“The Linkewill fight such policies and such hypocrisy,” he said,”demanding resources for integrating refugees but also opposing attacks against working people here, the higher medical care fees, soaring rent costs and fewer permanent jobs. It will join progressives around Europe in fighting austerity policies dictated by German politicians and banks to Greece and others. Nor will it forget its ultimate aim – replacing a system which must always breed poverty and war.”

There were many valiant words and songs; it remains to be seen how well they are transformed into action in the streets, factories, colleges and job offices. Only insofar as this program reaches wider circles can it invigorate the disillusioned, filling a political vacuum where extreme rightists have been winning ground so alarmingly. Many, I think, went out into the icy, slippery night with new hope.

Photo: Women and men protest in front of the train station in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 6. The poster reads: “No to Racism, No to Sexism.” Women have come forward alleging they were sexually assaulted and robbed during New Year’s celebrations in Cologne, as police faced mounting criticism for their handling of the incident. Hermann J. Knippertz  |  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.