How the world changes! Last spring many Europeans, especially Greeks, were so angry at a tight-fisted, cruel Angela Merkel and her acceptance of people’s sufferings that they scribbled Hitler mustaches on her public portraits. Only weeks later she was celebrated around the continent, indeed the world, as a symbol of generosity and humanity. Which judgement is correct, that until July or that since late August? Is she a Frau Scrooge – or a reincarnated Mother Teresa?
What defies any clear appraisal is the on-going wavering of her government, her party and herself! The German political scene is in turmoil, with echoes all over Europe! Such turbulence has on occasion opened the way to healthy change. Now, in my view, it can lead to great dangers.
The remorseless driving element is the tidal wave of human beings, over 200,000 in October alone, risking their lives to reach Europe, especially the fabled Utopia, Germany. And didn’t Merkel say they are welcome, that Germany is open to refugees fleeing death and destruction?
It would be nice to believe that Merkel was guided by altruism and humanitarian impulses, perhaps thanks to her pastor father or (as some whisper) to a spirit of internationalism learned in her East German youth. Maybe she was. More cynical critics point to Germany’s demographic problems: more and more pensioners, far too few births; a flood of young people urgently hunting for any jobs could weaken pressure from the labor movement to maintain benefits and achieve higher wages.
But the numbers are exceeding all expectations. For a large proportion – from Iraq, Afghanistan, from Syria and soon Yemen – most blame for their flight must be directed at Washington, which openly started or indirectly supports the never-ending conflicts in all four. But Germany has also engaged in vicious bombing in Afghanistan, and while US weapon-makers have been raking in a giant share of the profits from the bombing, droning and destruction, German weapons, heavy and light, have also meant billions of euros, with sales to Gulf monarchies, large, small but always wealthy, of everything from small arms to howitzers and Leopard tanks, which often end up further demolishing towns and cities in Syria and Yemen. Two other conflict area states, Israel and Turkey, have never been exempted from such lucrative exports, and the latter was just rewarded with a highly-celebrated state visit to Ankara by Merkel, thus aiding Erdogan’s roughneck election campaign. The visit also raised questions about what they did aside from reviewing elite troops. Did they make or re-shuffle deals about refugees, about feeding and sheltering them in Turkey, perhaps even about finally dissuading – or preventing – them from the short, simple but very dangerous voyage from Turkish shores to nearby Greek islands and then on northwards. Have bribery or blackmailing been involved here? We can only speculate.
It is far clearer that the seemingly endless waves of immigrants are straining a German government coalition which had ruled thus far with almost unexpected coziness, considering that Social Democrats and Christian Democrats were once presumed to be principled opponents. Actually, the first big attacks against Merkel’s “welcome all refugees” policy came rather from her usually more placid sister party in Bavaria. Called the Christian Social Union (CSU), it is usually at one with its far bigger sibling in all the other states, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But it always stands a shade or two further to the right, like a majority of Bavarian voters in this biggest, most prosperous state in Germany, with its wealth of profitable industry, especially of the weapons variety. Its Alpine regions, known for lederhosen, dirndls, plumed hats and yodeling, are scenic but hard-bitten.
As the map shows, all immigrants who cross over from Turkey, then trek somehow through the states of one-time Yugoslavia and Austria, first reach a German border at Bavaria. Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian leader, relying on and encouraging resentment against them, pushed hard against Merkel in harshly challenging tones, insisting on more limitations and tougher policies. He was soon joined by further-right elements in Merkel’s own CDU in the first incipient rebellion to challenge her hitherto virtually total domination. And the poll figures for her party dipped disturbingly.
While this dispute simmered, Social Democratic vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel weighed in, challenging Merkel’s partial abandonment of her “welcoming” policies to meet the challenge from the right. Last Sunday the dispute came to a head. Merkel, bowing in many ways to Seehofer’s Bavarian CSU, approved a compromise between the two allied “Christian” parties, one which was not all too Christian in nature. All coalition leaders had previously agreed that refugees from Balkan areas, mostly miserably discriminated Roma (“Gypsies”), would be rejected and sent back to their shacks and hovels. They were not “refugees” – and few of them had the skills sought after by German industrial employers. Now, in line with Bavarian demands, it was agreed that “transit zones” should be set up on the Bavarian borders, weeding out “undesirable non-refugees” before they even arrived. As for the others, some were more privileged, some less so – and could stay conditionally but not fetch wives or children for two years. Vitally necessary lessons in German would not be free but must be paid for out of meagre allowances granted “asylum seekers”, if possible in rations not money.
But the stout Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel – stout in figure in any case – rejected fenced-in “transit zones” which evoked nasty recollections of Germany’s past. After two hours he left the planned conciliatory meeting in a huff. Immigrants should be sent to the sixteen German states before being separated and perhaps sent home. They could thus enjoy at least a little salubrious German air. All decisions are up in the air for several days at the least, here too a compromise will emerge, but the splits may not heal so easily, deepened as they are by early posturing for the elections of 2017 – and earlier ones on a state level.
The political scene is visibly changing, with many, many thousands of Arab, African and Afghani refugees being lodged in emergency quarters all over Germany. Whereas countless people went out of their way to welcome them and assist them, with everything from food aid and plush toys for the children to free medical assistance by doctors – often outdoing by far the slow-moving, even reluctant authorities – the almost inevitable backlash has been even nastier than in some areas in southwestern USA or other places around the world. Reports on violent actions are increasing, there are fires in buildings which were to house immigrants – or already did – and now we read horrible stories of gang attacks, often black-masked and armed with baseball bats and the like, against individual refugees. Such attacks, already in the hundreds, are scattered throughout the country but most frequent in eastern Saxony, in and around its capital of Dresden, where the insecure economic situation typical for most of East Germany, distrust of all current parties, the hitherto rarity of contact with non-German groups plus a provincial local patriotism are all cleverly cultivated by a particularly vicious group pf fascist-minded leaders. Their Monday PEGIDA marches, 5000-15,000 strong and based on Muslimophobia, are continuing, though countered, as with countless smaller racist marches and demonstrations all over Germany, by large groups of people who reject their racism and carry “Immigrants welcome” signs.
Polls in Dresden indicate that 40 % in Dresden sympathize with the refugees, 20 % are strongly against them, while the remaining 40 % are wavering, but perhaps tending toward the right, especially since some mass media have gradually altered earlier support for Merkel’s “Welcome”.
PEGIDA may run candidates in future but is as yet not a party. Most of its dumb and misled adherents will probably vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which after a split and a dip in strength, is now growing again, far too quickly. In the polls it averages 8 % (about 13 % in the eastern states), edging it closer to the two opposition parties in the Bundestag, the Greens, wavering between 10% and 11 % and the LINKE (Left) between 9 % and 10%. (The Social Democrats remain at a steady, dismaying 25 %, while the two “Christian Union” parties led by Merkel have dropped sharply from 43 % to 38 %. Thus an almost openly pro-fascist party may well make it into the Bundestag in 2017, giving it government financial support and a stronger media presence. And its curve seems to be moving upward.
The other European Union members, whose statesmen love grandiose statements about continental unity, lasting cooperation and friendship, have been almost totally unwilling to accept more than a token number of the nearly one million immigrants in or approaching Germany. Especially those great new democracies created on the ruins of the Eastern Bloc, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the three Baltic states, refuse to take any newcomers (Slovakia might accept a few hundred temporarily, but only if they are Christians. The others have echoed this wish). The fabric of the European Union is wearing very thin – and hungry harpies, far-right or fascistic parties from Austria to Sweden, from Greece and Italy to France and Flanders, are just waiting to pick its bones – and are truly awakening bitter memories of the past.
I temper such fears with hopes based on popular movements in Portugal, in Spain, on victories like that of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party – and on the once so glorious rise of the Syriza Party in Greece. But the stifling of the Greek movement and its enforced kowtow to giant forces led by Merkel’s Finance Minister Schäuble indicate the complexity and the difficulties involved in any gains for “common people” against attacks by powerful harpies, werewolves and vultures.