Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?

If you found German politics monotonous or boring, look again! If you regretted (or rejoiced) that the left-wing German scene – rarely mentioned by US media – was an unimportant sideshow, be prepared for a surprising new hope, called Aufstehen:  Stand Up – or for its opposite, more fear.

A reason for fear is all too obvious. The German cousins of the thugs in Charlottesville or the Klan, though thoroughly defeated in 1945, never gave up their bloody plans and plots. And mighty forces in Germany, often the same old ones, may wrinkle elegant noses at muscle-naped toughs with swastika tattoos or barely-coded Nazi symbols on their jackets, but they tolerate them as a reserve force, to be used when they find it necessary, in Germany and currently all over Europe.

Germany’s leaders never tire of boasting that it is strong and rich, and this is all too true for forty billionaires worth more in money and property than 41 million other Germans. It is hardly true for single mothers struggling to raise deprived, discriminated children, pensioners who must cut down on meals and fear understaffed care homes, poor neighborhoods with over-large classes in crumbling schools, ever higher rent demands, with gentrification forcing young and old to hunt and hunt in ever more remote urban outskirts. Or for all those with precarious or short-term jobs provided by rip-off agencies, with no security for 2019, 2020 or any year.

In this atmosphere, far worse in East than West Germany, a new party flexed its muscles alarmingly.  Based on protest against “all established parties”, it misdirected people’s dismay, targeting “all those foreigners called in by Merkel” and now “cheating us real bio-Germans” and  getting all the advantages” despite their strange languages, head-clothed women and weird postures in Islamic prayer. Far, far too many listened to the words of this ”Alternative for Germany” (AfD),  now with 92 smart-talk delegates in the Bundestag and on frequent, often very friendly talk shows. Only now and again one of their more outspoken leaders forgets coded dog-whistles and reveals the brutal cudgels behind the suits and ties – and a nostalgic recall of years “when Germany was great”! The “rapists” and drug criminals castigated here are not Mexicans or Hondurans but Syrians, Afghans, North Africans or any Islamists or people of color fleeing war and hopeless poverty caused by northern economic barons, weapon-makers or other brigands. The hate messages are all too similar!

Who opposes them, who fights back? Courageous, mostly young people try to block fascist-tainted marches in the streets with often allied police. Respectable politicians in calmer legislative halls may denounce the AfD in words. But the slimy mudslide keeps pouring ahead. Now at about 15-17% in national polls, it is very close to the Social Democrats’ weakening second place among the seven parties in the Bundestag. Merkel’s CDU, attacked for opening the doors to the refugees, is moving ever further to the right to hold on to its conservative voters. Its Bavarian sister party, facing a state election on October 14th, is far from the 50% poll needed to continue its 70-year rule. Its feverish attempts to win back voters lost to the AfD are failing miserably and, who knows, it may even break taboos and hook up with it in a taboo-ignoring coalition to rule that big, rich southern state.

And the others?  The Greens, once seen as militant lefties, have been moving ever closer to big business – if only it claims to be ecological. The Social Democrats, historically close to labor, have joined in a weak, unpopular Big Coalition with Merkel’s “Christians” and lost a huge slice of their membership, with many of their working class voters switching to the AfD.

And the LINKE? Still the only peace party in the Bundestag, it opposes any deployment of Germany’s troops outside its borders, it continues to demand a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, better pensions and care for children and the aged. It is vigorous in its anti-fascist position. Without it the Bundestag – and the media – would hear few calls for peace and genuine people’s welfare.

But alas, its reach is to a static 9-11% of the voters, more those with white collars than blue ones – and far too few of the jobless, the disturbed and the disgruntled. Slight gains in the western states have been counteracted by losses in the East, due to aging and death of the “old faithful” from the one-time GDR. Too many now see it as “just another party” within “the establishment”, a view reinforced by its presence in two eastern state governments (and leading in one of them) and in the city-state Berlin. Its speeches and statements are too rarely matched by action “down below” in the streets and factories. Its weakness has been worsened by an ongoing conflict between its “wings”, with some hoping for inclusion in a national coalition with Greens and Social Democrats while the others reject the big compromises this would require, most clearly an OK for the military buildup and foreign deployment of the Bundeswehr forces.  It has clearly failed to stem the advances of the AfD.

But a new solution is being offered by Sahra Wagenknecht, 49, theoretician, skilled orator, debater and co-chair of the LINKE caucus in the Bundestag, where she makes fiery speeches. As the best-known leader of the party’s left-wing, Sahra, as most party members call her, has long been a favorite in the press and TV where, despite her views, her looks, telegenic appeal and sharp, clear-cut talk have attracted audiences and gained her an amazing popularity rarely permitted left-wingers.

Now, joined by her husband Oskar Lafontaine, a former top Social Democrat who broke with that party and helped found the LINKE in 2007, and by a little-known theater critic and author, Bernd Stegemann, she has announced the formation on September 4th of a new “movement” to be named Aufstehen (Stand up, pronounced Owf-shtayen). The names of forty prominent supporters are to be announced then while a new website almost immediately attracted 40,000 possible supporters.

The aim of Aufstehen, which is not and does not plan to become a party, is to reach out to all those disappointed by existing parties, to members of the Greens, especially to Social Democrat but also to LINKE members – to all those turned off by current German politics, and mobilize them in a movement opposing the rising tide of open fascists and the only slightly disguised AfD. It would fight militantly to change direction, to the advantage of working people, the young, the old, the jobless and those with precarious jobs. No-one wishing to join, it is stressed, need quit any party they belong to; Aufstehen would pressure all parties and government structures.

If this new movement succeeds it could truly lead to a new direction in political life, breaking with the monopoly-bribed positions of Merkel’s “Christians” and their Bavarian siblings, the betrayal by long-tamed leaders of the SPD and the Greens, but also with generally well-intentioned but often wishy-washy, conformist lack of militancy by many LINKE leaders. Aufstehen hopes to mobilize enough people to alter the disturbing and dangerous course of Europe’s most powerful economy.

Unfortunately some tough problems are involved. Sahra Wagenknecht’s amazing popularity, sometimes rated second only to that of Angela Merkel and certainly a major feature in the fate of Aufstehen, would quickly be slashed if she is seen as a genuine threat to the plans (and profits) of powerful millionaires and billionaires. They would soon do everything to crush her and Aufstehen – using any and every one of their multiple dirty tricks. Would they be invincible? Who knows?

A second major problem is that the leadership of the LINKE has stuck strictly to its position of keeping German doors open to all refugees, supporting Merkel’s early open door stand despite the widespread, media-fed “anti-Islamist”, anti-foreigner sentiments of large portions of the population, more strongly in the economically deprived East – and the basis of AfD and all fascist advances.

But Sahra rejects such an “open borders” position. She has said:

“The politically sensible dividing line is not between AfD resentments and the general morality of a border-free welcoming culture. A realistic left-wing policy equally rejects both of these maximum demands. It supports the many helpers in public life who voluntarily helped provide for the integration of the refugees. But at the same time it does not leave it up to gangs of criminal traffickers to dictate to us which human beings are to be brought illegally into Europe.“

Asked if this view did not mean abandoning left-wing commitment to internationalism, she replied:

“On the contrary, internationalism means fighting for a more just world economic order. It is those who plunder the natural resources of poorer countries, who supply weapons to conflict regions and dictate unfair trade treaties who are being nationalist. We reject that. Internationalism does not mean luring away the middle classes of poorer countries in order to push down wages here. In a world with no borders it is the ‘multis’ who have the power. At present, social leveling and democracy can function only within single countries, for there are no levers on a global level which can be used. The countries must of course protect their citizens from the competition of job dumping. “

It is perhaps very realistic in some ways to oppose drain brain policies which draw highly-educated and well-trained people away from poorer countries, while using some of those less trained and educated to push down wages. But can a left-wing party or movement express this without grazing too close to right-wing pastures? On the other hand, can it retain the label of being the main “Let them all come!” party – and then have any hopes of attracting many people away from AfD lures?

According to Oskar Lafontaine, Aufstehen wants “to appeal especially to those who have been disappointed for many years, who don’t see themselves represented any longer in the political scene” – including those “who sometimes voted for the AfD to express their protest. We want to win back these voters.”  Somehow this question recalls disputes in parts of the USA on how to, and whether one should even try to win over so-called “deplorables”.

Trying to reach those misled into racist bogs, not sharply abandoning them to their racist quagmires but not oneself stepping perilously close to the quicksands is a delicate, complex but urgent problem.

It is further complicated, not unexpectedly, by opposition to Aufstehen within Sahra’s own LINKE party, often weighted by personal animosities, or even envy related to Sahra’s widespread media popularity (which may last only until September 4th). At least one co-chair of the LINKE, Bernd Riexinger, sees no danger to the party from Aufstehen: “The initiative is directed at the disappointed supporters of the other parties.” Yet others do certainly fear that Aufstehen, though not competing in election struggles, may fail to strengthen progressive efforts of the LINKE and become a rival after all, despite its denial of any such intent.

Thus, Aufstehen may succeed in achieving a dramatic change for the better in a dangerously worsening political situation. But it could also fail to catch on and lead instead to further complications in the already divided LINKE, conceivably to its split and demise, a disaster which would leave the Bundestag, and to a great extent the media, with no audible, progressive protest in Europe’s most aggressive economy.  A possibly decisive factor; if not just manifestos or lengthy programs are offered but quick, genuine, highly visible actions for good, meaningful causes.

We can probably see more clearly after September 4th – and hope for the best.

Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: