Like the rising sea level endangering the Maledives, Marshalls and other islands, the immigrant question is changing political geography in Germany. But it is not the refugees who are posing the threat, despite their number; it is instead those forces, never eliminated, whose goals and methods all too vividly recall events here 85 years ago. (May I compare: Not the Syrians but Trump or Cruz?)
An estimated one million will have arrived in Germany by the end of the year. The government is sending back those from Africa, Eastern Europe and other areas, no matter what the consequences in many cases. Those from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are generally accepted; it is ironic that the cause of chaos, desperation and flight in those three countries was military interference by the western powers and their hugely well-armed allies in Riadh, on the Gulf Coast or in Ankara. Hardly any outside the small left-wing press even mention this basic matter.
Deeply affected by pictures of drowned children, of vans with suffocated corpses, constant scenes of grandmothers, the handicapped, mothers and fathers with bewildered toddlers or tiny babies tramping through fields of mud, climbing through barbed wire barriers or being herded from one spot to the other, approximately half the German population said: These are human beings, they are our brothers and sisters and must be treated as such. Countless people held up “Welcome” signs, contributed what they could and helped care for the refugees often to the point of exhaustion. It was they who said “Our country can adjust to the new-comers. There is room for them. We must help those wishing temporary refuge and those hoping to integrate into our society. They must get the chance to learn German and a trade or gain permission to work at those they already know.
But the other half of the population reacted with scowls, sullen remarks and scorn for “do-gooders” – among whom, correctly or not, they included various parties, the whole German government, Angela Merkel or any other scapegoat they could add to the tired immigrants themselves. Their views on Muslims recalled those on Jews in the last century. They repeated, “The boat is full!”
Many switched allegiance to the rising Alternative for Germany party (AfD), whose poll results reached the five percent needed to enter state legislatures in 2016 and the Bundestag in 2017, then kept climbing to a current level of eight or ten percent, like that of the Greens and the Linke (Left) party. If the climb continues they could become the third strongest party.
Their main leader, the very attractive Frauke Petry, 40, originally from Dresden, is a skilled pharmacologist but an even more skilled spellbinder, on a soapbox or on TV talk shows, where she beats opponents, seemingly with the aid of moderators, in what could be called a suspiciously easy fashion. Despite all disavowals, media publicity has helped her greatly.
Some AfD leaders are openly racist, like Björn Höcke, top man in Thuringia, who rants about “too fertile” Africans who must be barred by “not fertile enough” Europeans. Petry is more subtle; some refugees should be welcome, others not. But nationalists and racists easily understand her coded messages and, despite the usual “socially conscious” demands she shows her colors by opposing homosexual marriage or adoption of children as well as abortions: good, “normal” German families should keep front with no less than three children !She attacks all other “establishment parties”.
Separate but allied to the AfD is the PEGIDA movement, marching every Monday in Dresden and other cities. Obvious Nazi types are often part of the crowd and the number of attacks on journalists and opponents of the marches is on the increase. So, alarmingly, is the number of scorched or wrecked buildings for immigrants and violent racist attacks on people of color or “other” clothing.
There is always opposition to such marches. Some involves pious condemnation by officials, with occasional speeches or rallies far away from the hate crowd, whose marches are officially allowed though usually barred from the city centers. Such protest is admirable – but nearly useless.
Then there are the largely youthful countermarches, which often attempt to block the path of the racists and keep their actions close to the rail stations where they arrive, thus trying to discourage them from showing up again. The police usually keep the two groups apart so there is not often much violence. The police often favor the disciplined marching right wingers.
But alongside or following the determined but peaceful opponents to the “anti-Islamist”, anti-immigrant marchers there is almost always a group of “militants”, dressed in black and often masked (despite legal taboos). It is they who throw cobblestones, bottles and firecrackers at the police, smash windows or cars, set tires and dumpsters on fire and wreck bus stop shelters. They gather in Berlin every year on May Day evening and went on a violent wrecking rampage during the “Blockupy” demonstration against the European Central Bank last March in Frankfurt, and now again on Saturday in Leipzig. After the peaceful demonstration against the racists, a mob of 1000-2500 went into action: their projectiles were soon met by the police with water cannon and pepper gas, there were mounted cops and helicopters in a small war which left 69 policemen injured, 50 police vehicles damaged and the arrest of 23 from the mob (a surprisingly small number in my estimate).
Who are these militants? They consist, in my view, of several related groups. Some in these “black blocs” are so-called puerile “anarchists” or “autonomes”, so violently anti-capitalist that they want, as one of their leaflets declared, “not to demonstrate but to destroy”. Then there are those who just want “action”, much like their opposite numbers, the hooligan mobs at football games, out to get cops or anybody else. But third of all – in the lead, I would bet, but rarely caught in the act – there are the agents provocateurs who provide headlines for the media and a rationale for proper, upstanding citizens to condemn and avoid any and all rallies against war or discrimination.
Meanwhile the Christian Democrats, whose leader Angela Merkel opened her arms – figuratively, of course – in such a surprisingly welcoming gesture to the refugees, stressing that Germany always offers asylum to those in need of it, were almost split by a threatened mutiny against her. But as popularity points for her and the party kept sinking, her leadership was threatened for the first time – and she backed down to a weak compromise position: Yes, you’re welcome, but no more of you, if you please, and we will pay off Turkey to keep the rest on their side of the troubled waters. The upward trend for immigrant-haters and xenophobes has pushed her party to the right. There were even whispers that it might consider a coalition with the hitherto ostracized AfD after the coming elections in the important state of Baden-Wurttemberg, currently headed by the first Green minister-president, a wobbly character who has also been two-faced on immigrants.
The Social Democrats, a part of the coalition government on a federal level, have also been moving rightward. Their leader Sigmar Gabriel, Vice-Chancellor under Merkel, is all too comfortable in this position (again meant figuratively) and has backed the military expedition to Syria and the TTIP trade treaty with the USA (like the TIP deal of the USA with Asians). This caused dissatisfaction in party ranks, even open opposition especially from younger members – on TTIP, on Syria, on a general cave-in on many issues. The result at the party congress was the lowest result Gabriel has ever gotten for reelection as party leader – just under 75 percent. It was a hard blow which turned him visibly sour but then defiant, and his success in pushing through approval of TTIP – with various weak caveats – squelched further active opposition – but did nothing to alter stagnant opinion poll figures of about 25 percent (as against the CDU’s 38-40).
Germany is not an island. Merkel had hopes for an ever stronger, ever broader European Union – with Germany its strongest member and its sentinel for austerity measures (in Germany’s favor). Such hopes are eroding. The member countries split on the number of immigrants they would take in, with Eastern European countries shutting their borders completely. There is a split about accepting Turkish membership. Britain is moving closer to a referendum which may spell secession from the union, and France, a co-founder, may be ruled by a woman who decidedly wants out. But the growing rejection against the EU in nearly every member country, a trend which might be viewed favorably by those who know the basically reactionary goal and role of this institution, has unfortunately been taken up by vicious parties rapidly gaining strength across the continent – except, we may hope, in Spain, Portugal, Britain – or at least its Labour opposition party – perhaps Russia. And in its German heart; who knows?
The main opposition to military measures in Syria, Mali or elsewhere has been the Left party. Though active in this and other fields, and bold in the brief Bundestag speeches allotted to it, it has looked sluggishly unable to make a breakthrough, demonstrate a fighting spirit and win more than a static 8-10 percent on the national level. Possible actions in 2016, with three state elections in the spring and a Berlin election in the fall, demand a far louder activity splash on the streets, at the workshops, the job centers and the universities, desperately needed to oppose the ongoing far-right trend!