Right-wing danger grows as crisis in German left continues
Maximilian Krah, the AfD's top candidate for the European elections, addresses the media during the European election meeting in Magdeburg, Germany, Sunday, August 6, 2023. The 10 year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, gathered in the eastern city of Magdeburg for a convention stretching over two weekends at which it plans to choose candidates and set its policy platform for next June's European Parliament election. | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa via AP

Pleasant, 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 neighboring 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 LINKE (Left) party won first place (28.2%) 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 LINKE minister-president.

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 LINKE came in first again (31.0%), 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 centers.

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 pantry lines lengthened. Worst hit were rural areas, with bank and post offices, even grocery supermarkets closing, doctors departing, bus or train service uneven or absent.

Some regions had enough jobs, permitting an increase in labor 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 trio coalition government was 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, foreign and domestic while expensive fracking gas from the USA 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 life-long project: “ruin Russia.”

Christian Lindner, Finance Minister and boss 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.

Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic chancellor, must try to herd three cat parties, all spitting at each other across his Cabinet table, while calming Zelensky and pleasing Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon boss Lloyd Austin. Ever more dangerous weapons are first denied, then OK’d, like the Leopard 2 tanks, and maybe fighter planes or Taurus missiles, all increasing the dangers of a fatal confrontation, while Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov boasts to his western armorers “that we are powerful partners who are de facto a NATO country.”

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 SPD, 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 in the international coordinate system… For Germany, strengthening the Bundeswehr is important… peace policy means seeing military force as a legitimate means of politics.”

The Christians, though in Opposition, joined the competition in bellicose eagerness with an almost audible clicking of heels and sharp “Jawohl” retorts. Johann Wadephul, vice-chair of their Bundestag caucus, seconded: “The Bundeswehr must become the strongest conventional army in Europe.”

Lt Gen Ingo Gerhartz, the German air force head, was more specific: “By 2030, Europeans will have 600 modern fighter jets in the Baltic region.” His plans for decades to come (if not employed earlier) became all too clear: “We need both the means and the political will to implement nuclear deterrence if necessary.”

Eighty years ago, in August 1943 near Kursk, Germans were defeated in the most immense 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.

But 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 of trade with China (and Taiwan or S. Korea) and maybe dampen undesirable big city disquiet.

But many of those not favored, 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, the AfD.

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

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

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

On June 26th Germany was shocked when an AfD candidate was elected as a county leader in southern Thuringia, beating (with 52.8%) 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-publicized 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% 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 in shaping policies for the town, the countryside, the county.” The media punctured this trial balloon and he backed down, but writing on the wall is becoming visible.

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 LINKE, the party of peace, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, socialism? It is in a crisis! xxxxx

“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 LINKE have been hemorrhaging 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 LINKE (and Greens) onto the cold opposition seats. In national polls the LINKE, which barely squeaked into the Bundestag seats in 2021, as the weakest party there, now stands at a very shaky 4-5%.

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% 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 symbolized by Sahra Wagenknecht, its universally known, strikingly controversial, abdicated co-chair of the caucus. The many differences (some of them personal in nature) really came to a head with the Ukrainian war.

In September 2022 Sahra (spelled that way because of her Iranian father, whom she never knew) made a brilliant speech in the Bundestag, not supporting or apologizing for Putin’s invasion but attacking NATO’s expansion and its provocative military and naval threats and maneuvers. 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 Linke leaders who were tolerant of NATO and of liquefied gas and regretted the hitherto firm LINKE policy opposing the export of armaments. Then, in February, Sahra 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 LINKE as “party of peace” was being abandoned and abdicated in favor of the quasi-fascist but cleverly pragmatic AfD. Many decided to quit the LINKE.

The pot boiled over again when Sahra raised the question of quitting and starting a new party, to be considered perhaps in October,  perhaps at the end of the year. This step, bold but hardly clearcut, offered party leaders the opportunity to demand that Sahra either leave the party or be expelled.

Her angered supporters called this the culmination of a long mobbing campaign against Sahra. Meanwhile some vague polls seemed to indicate that she was favored 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 Board, this step was seen as another provocation.

Quit her position

 In August the co-chair of the LINKE caucus in the Bundestag, Amira Mohammed Ali quit her position (she’s no boxer, her name derives from her Egyptian father; her mother and she are German) – in protest at the treatment of Sahra. The party was rapidly falling part.

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 LINKE, despite all its compromises, as the only visible opposition currently to war, an arms race and increasingly worsening conditions for working people. We must remain in the party and fight to change it as long as possible.

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 “coordination circle” basing its name on a key booklet by Lenin called “What Is to Be Done.” It listed leftist groups in nine German states as sponsors and made the following statement, criticizing the Linke 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 the election defeats and its own political responsibility. 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 USA for war against China, as well as by its involvement in the split in the peace protests, the Executive Board 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 center of left-wing politics.”

Is this a serious, organized attempt to change the leadership – or perhaps start up a new split-off party? The next scenes in this melodrama will be on September 1st, the anniversary of the first shots in World War Two, and on October 3rd, 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 Linke leadership 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 demoralized 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 LINKE 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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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.