Sunday, November 9, 2014

Die Linke triumphs on the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down?  I certainly do.  I was spending the evening with a Finnish journalist who had once interviewed me about a book I had written.  We turned on the TV and there were those deliriously joyous Germans dancing on the top of a wall where a day before, they would have been shot.  Soon, I was almost as happy as those dancing Germans and opened a bottle of champagne I was saving for some special occasion.

Like most that night, I saw that moment as one of those historically significant events that we would recount in our old age.  To say I hated the Cold War would be one of the more massive understatements I could muster.  I hated the waste.  I hated the constant fear-mongering.  I hated the pointless conflicts that had been fought in the name of useless ideological arguments—I especially hated the ever-increasing bloody body counts those conflicts caused.  Mostly, I hated the hate—the architects of the Cold War just assumed that anyone they hated, the rest of us should hate as well.  If the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end of that madness, one of my prime wishes in life would be granted.

My Finnish friend was not nearly as happy.  As someone who lived a few miles from the border with USSR, I just assumed that a reduction in international hostilities would make her life better—less stressful, if nothing else.  But as we worked our way through that bottle of champagne, she become positively morose.  She spoke fluent German and had spent time studying in Leipzig so her view of events was FAR more nuanced and sophisticated than my goofy "Yea! the Cold War is over!" enthusiasm.  It wasn't as though she was ignoring the police-state cruelties of the Honecker regime or was cheering on the Stasi, but as she reminded me, the DDR had accomplished significant social progress under extremely trying circumstances.  When I expressed doubt, she ticked off a bunch of things they had done to empower women, give them economic opportunity, and help with the real problems of child care.

This graduate-level conversation continued late into the night until she made a prediction "...many East Germans will soon discover how much they have lost.  Tonight's party will become tomorrow's throbbing hangover."  And then her eyes began to twinkle and she added, "I have almost forgotten the absolute worst tragedy that follows from tonight' events—with the Wall down, where are American presidents going to go to give their stupid and patronizing speeches about democracy?"  Good question!

I have recalled her predictions many times in the last 25 years.  The outbreak of Ostalgie in the former DDR was especially telling as was the utter hilarious and poignant movie Good Bye, Lenin, a story of a loving son who went to great lengths to keep the news of the Fall of the Wall from his sick mother because he was certain that news would kill her.  But nothing quite tops the recent news that in the former East German state of Thuringia, the voters have turned to a former member of the German left to govern their state.  And as neoliberalism creates ever more serious problems for Germany, we may expect to see more Ostalgie turned political reality.  Unfortunately, we have already seen the return of some of the worse features of the Cold War over Ukraine.

25 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Return of the German Reds?


The radical Die Linke looks set to take charge of a regional government in Germany for the first time, in alliance with the social democrats (SPD) and Greens.

This would likely see Bodo Ramelow, Die Linke’s leader in Thuringia, appointed as the federal state’s prime minister after his party consolidated its position as the second biggest group in the state diet behind chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU in September’s regional elections.

Local Social Democrat and Green leaders backed coalition talks last month and SPD and Green party members are expected to endorse the plan. SPD members have until November 3 to vote, while Green members will be consulted once the coalition programme is agreed. The government could be in place by December.

The party has been in coalition governments at a regional level before (Berlin and Brandenburg) but this would be the first time Die Linke would lead a federal state administration, marking a breakthrough for a party that has been seen as a political pariah by the CDU and many in the centre-left SPD.

These developments have led to plenty of scaremongering.

Die Linke is the heir of the communist-era Socialist Unity Party (SED) of East Germany (GDR), and also includes west German communists and dissent social democrats, including former Finance Minister and founding member Oskar Lafontaine.

Just before the September election in a region that is situated in the former GDR, Chancellor Merkel warned voters not to “let Karl Marx back into the state premier’s office”.

Criticism of Die Linke stems from plain old anti-communism, but also the alleged presence in its ranks of former members and informants of the Stasi, the GDR’s security police.

Moreover Die Linke is left out in the cold because its hasn’t bought into the neo-liberal consensus. It believes in a strong role for the state and public and welfare spending, it opposed a series of anti-democratic, pro-business EU treaties (including the Lisbon and Constitutional treaties) and rejects Nato membership in favour of a new security framework including Russia. Most recently it was ostracised for criticising Germany’s support what it termed as the ‘fascist’ government of the Ukraine.

Crucially, the leadership of the SPD has consistently spurned alliances at a national level with Die Linke, even though in the Federal elections in autumn last year the SPD, Greens and Die Linke together won enough seats together (320 seats in the 631-member Bundestag) to rule the country. Instead the SPD formed a ‘grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU, watering down its most progressive policies and assisting her in her disastrous austerity drive across the Eurozone.

So why the shift in position?

The 58-year-old Ramelow is a former trade union official from western Germany. He never belonged to the SED but before the fall of the Berlin Wall was spied on by West Germany’s Stasi over alleged contacts with the German Communist party (DKP), a party that was legalised after the Nazi period but only barely tolerated by the American-backed western German post-war regime.

However, Mr Ramelow ‘is not a romantic socialist in disguise, but a pragmatic professional, for which what matters is not so much the policies of Die Linke, but rather the principles of good governance,’ reports Die Tageszeitung newspaper. Also, as the experience elsewhere has shown, centrally set budget constraints on Germany’s Länder seriously constrain the opportunities for any radical political experiment.

Another explanation is more simple. The SPD was previously ruling the state as a junior partner of the CDU, but paid dearly for it, winning a meagre 12% of the vote in September. The fear is that any further association with the CDU and its record in Thuringia would be disastrous.

Why? First, the regional government – dominated for 25 years by the CDU – made a name for itself flogging Thuringia to employers as a centre for low wages. Second, Thuringia was also the HQ of the terrorist activities of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground (NSU). Between 2000 and 2010 NSU killed at least ten people and during the investigation into the murders indications emerged that the German secret services were aware of the terrorist cell. The NSU used its members as informants.

While the CDU still managed to win the most seats in the 91-member assembly in September, taking 34, the SPD won just 12. Die Linke, traditionally gaining the bulk of its support in the former communist East, won 28 seats.

So instead of playing second fiddle to Merkel, the SPD could forge a government, on a one-seat majority, with the Greens, which took six seats, and Die Linke.

This isn’t just about local politics. The left wing of the SPD see a red-red-green government in Thuringia as a model they have been fighting for across Germany: for the SPD to look left for political partners – not right. Not only because it is right, but because they fear being in bed with Merkel and Co is bad for their political health.

Certainly, for Germans and Europeans more generally, the dire state of the Eurozone and the economic problems starting to emerge in the bloc’s superpower too make a political shift to the left in the country essential. more

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