Libya and Japan grab Germany’s attention

BERLIN – This report was supposed to concentrate on results of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, the second in a long string of German state elections in 2011. But outside that East German state itself it got less attention than expected, which wasn’t much to begin with. It was largely overshadowed by the news from Japan and, far more, from Libya.

Despite weeks of propaganda and preparations, the final United Nations Security Council decision and the almost immediate attacks left many here almost breathless if not in shock.

Germany’s abstention in the UN decision was a great surprise to nearly everyone. It had the weird result of suddenly placing Germany’s Left party in the same boat with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle from the right-wing Free Democrats (FDP). But there was sharp controversy not only between the parties but inside nearly all of them.

In the Left, one wing of the party had always insisted that all military actions outside Germany must be rejected, even when the UN called for them. It felt that the UN rarely represented the true and peaceful interests of people everywhere but stood largely under the sway of the USA and its closest allies. This wing of the party stated that the decision on Libya defied the UN Charter forbidding any intervention in civil wars within a member country and charged that the Council ignored attempts by Venezuela and the African Union to find a peaceful, probably face-saving solution to the Libyan conflict, and must have prepared the attacks for many weeks. And while it neither praised nor supported Gaddafi, it asked why no such alleged attempt to rescue a popular uprising was considered or even mentioned when rulers in Bahrain or Yemen resorted to violent repression.

The Left hastily organized a protest demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate to support this position. Only about 200 showed up Sunday morning, among them co-president Gesine Loetzsch and other leaders; it was at least a symbol. But a few prominent party members, reflecting the split on the “no military actions ever” issue, did not join in, while former party president Lothar Bisky, now a member of the European Parliament, had already broken ranks and voted to support the intervention in Libya. Most attention within the party was focused on the state election, but possible disagreement on Libya may play a greater role in coming weeks.

The Greens, almost completely pacifist in their early years, supported the Libyan action, at least the more vocal leaders did. What the membership says on the question, if anything, remains to be seen.

Like the Greens, most Social Democrats (SPD) seemed to believe that being in opposition to the government meant opposing the decision by Merkel and Westerwelle. In the end, only the Left praised their abstention in the Security Council vote, a strange turn of events.

However, most of the media agreed that the abstention did not really mean disagreement with the USA, France and Britain, nor did it reflect previous links to Gaddafi and Libyan gas and oil wells which had been just as cozy as those of the other major powers before the current rupture.

The main motivation, it was felt, was rather the state election next Sunday (March 27) in the extremely important state of Baden-Wuertemberg, where the Christian Democrats have ruled the roost since 1953 and fear its very possible loss this time. Although the state is relatively prosperous (with the main Daimler-Benz works), Merkel’s party lost face after the Stuttgart railway station violence and is also aware that most people, regardless of their views on Gaddafi, do not want any more German soldiers fighting and dying in other continents. Merkel probably hoped that a cool response on Libya might win antiwar voters, even though the USA command is firmly welcomed on German soil.

And then there was the other main issue of the day: nuclear power. Events in Japan shook Germany even more than those in Libya. It was partly the shock and empathy with those suffering from the quake and tsunami, but also because people, watching the fearful battle with the Fukushima reactors, thought of the 17 nuclear reactors in Germany, many of them 30 years old or older and four of them in Baden-Wuertemberg.

Just last autumn it was the Merkel government which insisted on lengthening the active lives of these reactors, reversing even the relatively weak limitations by the Greens and Social Democrats in 2000. Her move was the embarrassingly transparent result of pressure from three or four giant energy companies and caused huge and growing concern in the country, with angry and dramatic demonstrations reaching the 100,000 level. But the government ignored them and extended the deadlines for as much as 20 years, claiming that the reactors were completely safe.

The events in Japan forced the government to shamefacedly climb down, and to do it fast, with those elections looming close. Merkel therefore shut down seven reactors from the 1970s (another one was shut down in 2007 because of leaks and other problems) and issued a “moratorium” of three months on any decisions about the other 10. But even the seven could be opened up again, nothing was really decided, the official in charge came from the nuclear industry, and it was crystal clear that the three months was based on getting past the remaining elections (except the one in Berlin in September).

Such shenanigans were expected to hurt the two parties running the national government, while helping the opposition Social Democrats and especially the Greens. The Left called for an immediate suspension of all nuclear reactors in light of the Japanese tragedy, but was given, as usual, little media attention.

And so back to the election in Saxony-Anhalt. The state’s name was born in 1945 but its traditions are ancient. It includes parts of old Saxony seized by Prussia after the Napoleonic wars and its two main centers are Halle, where George Frederick Handel was born, and the capital Magdeburg, once famous due to the scientist Otto von Guericke who joined two copper hemispheres, pumped the air out of them and showed that two eight-horse teams could not tear them apart, proving the power of air pressure. That was in 1650, but the Magdeburgers are still proud of him. Also in this state, aside from the Harz Mountains, are Dessau, where the Bauhaus school of architecture and design had its home before the Nazis forced it out, and Wittenberg, where Luther is supposed to have nailed his famous 95 theses against the pope on the Palace Church door.

Up to now the state has been ruled by a so-called “grand coalition” of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats as junior partners. As expected, the Merkel party did lose 3.5 percent of its former vote, but remained strongest all the same. The Social Democrats neither lost nor gained in strength and it seemed almost certain that this same friendly coalition of the two parties – who seemed such sharp opponents on the national scene – would continue its cozy existence in Saxony-Anhalt.

The Left, which a while ago had been first in the polls, was now back to the same position as in the elections four years earlier, somewhat ahead of the third-place place Social Democrats. A left-SPD coalition was possible, but the Social Democrats always refused to form a state government as junior partners with the Left holding the post of Minister President. So, once again, the SPD preferred to be junior partners with the right-wing Christian Democrats.

The only real winners in terms of votes were the Greens, who returned to the legislature after a 13-year absence with 7 percent, almost double their vote in the last election. The Free Democrats of Foreign Minister Westerwelle missed the required 5 percent, and get no deputies.

Luckily, in perhaps the most important result of all, this also applies to the neo-Nazis in the National Democratic Party (NPD). The unexpectedly large number of voters in a state election (52 percent) kept them down to 4.7 percent, close but not quite enough to get into the legislature.

In other words, there were no big changes. The Left held its own with 23.8 percent, making no gains but losing only 0.3 percent since the last election. Its big trial is next week in southwestern Germany in both Baden-Wuertemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, where it hopes against hope to get past the 5 percent hurdle. Aside from Bavaria, where it could not quite make it, these are the last two states where it is not yet represented. It will be no easy matter; the polls give it 4 percent in both states.

Perhaps I may end on a sad note, an item which probably gained the attention of more Berliners than events in all the other continents. Their beloved polar bear Knut, whose growth and amazingly close relationship with his extremely popular, handsome bearded “substitute mother” fascinated the city, was found dead in the water of his enclosure, only 4 years old. His human friend died just as suddenly two years ago, and countless Berliners mourned the two as if they were part of their own families. They were closer to home than other events and headline news for much of the media.

Photo: Activists from the environmental organization Greenpeace put up a banner reading “The lying continues” on one of the cooling towers of the Biblis nuclear power plant in central Germany, early Monday, March 21. (AP/DAPD, Timur Emek)



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.