A week ago I walked over to Berlin’s central square, Alexanderplatz (nick-named “Alex”) to join in observing International Women’s Day. Berlin, alone among Germany’s 16 states, has declared it a paid holiday, compensating for the fact that the city-state has fewer religious holidays than all the others. A third of the city was once part of the (East) German Democratic Republic, which always marked the day; that may also have contributed to the decision. This was its first year.
There have already been attempts to commercialize it, á la Mother’s and Father’s Day. But maybe not here at Alex, I reflected: perhaps more would now hear of the German Socialist (and later Communist) Clara Zetkin, a champion of women’s rights (and for all working people), who played a major role in getting a special day of militancy designated in Copenhagen in 1910. A few might even learn of its inspiration – a strike by ten thousands of brutally exploited needle-trades workers in New York in 1908, mostly Jewish immigrant women, who defied weeks of hunger and police violence.
Frankly, I expected a rally like so many I had joined: for Mumia Abu Jamal, the Easter Peace Marches against war and weapon shipments, against a Trump-Bolton-Adams putsch against Venezuela – with many recognizable friends and fellow fighters, the dedicated “old faithful”, often well-on in years – a courageous bunch but far too few!
Then – what a surprise! The wide square was jammed with thousands and thousands, mostly young women, maybe 20 % young males, and only a light seasoning of grayheads and graybeards. During an hour’s wait before marching off with sound trucks and big banners I squeezed through the crowd, hunting for a familiar face. I finally found another old-timer, a refugee from Pinochet’s Chile who settled here. Always active, she was currently busy fighting right-wing attempts to seize Berlin’s Venezuelan Embassy. But she took part today, and we were glad to meet.
But how good it was to see so many young people on the move, with an amazing variety of placards, signs, flags and posters, mostly hand-made, with countless clever slogans, aggressive against patriarchy, against wage and salary levels 20 percent under those of men, for women’s power in so many ways, against femicide abroad, violence here, against menacing “right to life” fanatics. A wonderful variety, some with a fresh vocabulary the news cameras carefully avoided so as not to get bleeped off TV screens.
There were a few women I failed to find in that cheeky crowd, aside from tight-mouthed right-to-lifers.
One of course was Theresa May, talking herself hoarse in harried attempts to save her party, her country and her job as prime minister. Visits to this town would be to seek ways of slipping less painfully out of a European Union dominated by its strongest member, Germany, which is not overly eager to help her out of the schlimazel – and perhaps become a pacemaker for other EU deserters.
Nor could I expect to find Angela Merkel. Though certainly familiar with a date always marked in the East German republic she grew up in, she too has other worries. Her job as chancellor officially lasts until 2021 but terms can be shortened here without USA-type impeachment. Though seemingly an invulnerable conservative symbol, she is now threatened not from the left but from a stiff, nasty German right whose roots go back to Konrad Adenauer – and much further. For such types, Merkel has leaned too far to what for them is “leftward”, in order to preserve a shaky coalition with the Social Democrats. Her call in 2015 that Germany could manage hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq or elsewhere lost many votes to “anti-foreigner” racists, and though many measures have been watered down or reversed, many still hate her. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, replacing Merkel in her second position as party chair, now seems to want the top job as well and to tilt back to the right to get there. There are rumors about not waiting until 2021 to ease Merkel out, politely, to be sure, and she is fighting back. (Her rival’s long double name is often shortened to AKK, but aside from gender she bears no similarity at all to the name-shortened US-Congresswoman AOC!)
Nor did I glimpse Andrea Nahles in the crowd, chair of the Social Democratic Party. She too has problems. The SPD, once a close rival of the Christian “Union” parties and still a member of the ruling coalition, has been sinking like a rammed oil tanker. Its main supporters for over a century were workers and their labor unions, but fewer and fewer in that category see the SPD as their champion. Nahles, less popular than ever (but forever smiling), is trying, with her party, to win them back by voicing progressive ideas and plans to overcome its tame reputation. Thus far it seems stuck at about 15-16 %, behind the Greens and half the rating of Merkel’s dual party.
I don’t know whether Annalena Baerbock, co-chair of the Greens (with Robert Habeck) was anywhere in the crowd. The Green youth section was very visible. This party is unlike its USA namesake. It is the only party which has been growing, despite dubious local coalitions with Merkel’s rightist party, its general disinterest in working class problems and its harshly bellicose position toward Russia. But its stand on women’s, LGBT and immigrant rights, its stress on environment and just not being in the central government have given it a lead with many dissatisfied people who have no sympathy for the neo-fascists.
As for that bunch, their leaders, male or female, were the last ones to be expected on Women’s Day even though Alice Weidel, head of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) caucus in the Bundestag, lives and raises two sons with a woman partner from Sri Lanka. But her party denounces same-gender marriage and abortion rights (and higher taxes for the wealthy). Its speeches drip with hatred toward the “take-over” of Europe by nasty Muslims but praise Germany’s past greatness before losing the War. But Weidel and two male party leaders are now busy fighting charges of fraud – accepting illegal donations from shady donors in Switzerland and elsewhere. Nobody missed them at Alex. But they still get 12-14% in the polls and threaten to gain new strength in the May and September elections.
But what about Die Linke (The Left)? I saw groups with signs of its youth partner organization “solid” and its student branch and, as the march started up, I met Ellen Brombacher, spokesperson of the Communist Platform, one of the largest of a few dozen special interest groupings within the party.
Sadly, I did not see the party’s best-known, very brainy female member, its best orator, Sahra Wagenknecht.
Deploring the stagnation of the Left in the polls at 8-10% and its losses in eastern Germany, last September she and other prominent left-leaning people founded a new movement – “Aufstehen” (Stand Up). It sought to reach dissatisfied voters from different parties, even some who voiced their protest by choosing the alt-right AfD. Many party leaders, especially the so-called “moderates”, condemned the move and found that her words somehow seemed to echo the AfD stress on working people already in Germany, opposing the waves of refugees and immigrants. The arguments were heated; would this move succeed in gaining ground for the left or only further split its ranks?
By March it was quite clear: Aufstehen, hoping to benefit from Sahra’s media popularity, with virtually no down-to-earth system, had not caught on! Indeed, it had barely caused a few small ripples. This past weekend, claiming ill health, Sahra gave up, retiring from its leadership and very soon her position as co-chair of the Left caucus in the Bundestag. Without her, Aufstehen could no longer stand up; most of its early adherents charged, though more discreetly, that maybe it had basically been an ill-prepared ego-trip. A pity; I have rarely heard a more wonderful speaker!
But the Linke is needed more than ever in the fight in fighting giant armament spending despite a housing shortage, rising rent costs, a stagnating job scene, hospitals, schools, child care and care for the aged and infrastructure all begging for help, with a constant danger of escalation and an atomic conflagration. Can the Left now get past the inner quarreling which has so weakened it? Can it break with its frequently failing initiative in organizing struggles outside the Bundestag? Can it take a lead in fighting the fascist menace hanging over our heads in Germany and nearly all Europe?
There have since been more rallies, at Alex and elsewhere in Berlin and Germany. School children skip classes on Fridays to demand immediate environmental action, another rally, defying miserable weather, opposed the racists in the shadow of the Christchurch killing. A strike by civil servants, from kindergarten teachers to garbage collectors, won a partial victory, a one-day warning strike stopped Berlin’s bus system. There’s plenty to fight about and people can be moved to action – hopefully with active participation of the Linke. The fight goes on – La lucha continua!