In 1990, on October 3rd, Germany could rejoice; unity at last, a single flag, a single anthem (“Deutschland über alles”), a single currency, a single foreign policy; in other words, freedom and democracy triumphant! And with it what Chancellor Ludwig Erhard had called a “social market economy, the foundation of our liberal, open and democratic society, with functioning competition, pricing freedom and a wide range of affordable goods, while absorbing its disadvantages, such as monopolization, price fixing, and protecting citizens against illness and unemployment … while at the same time fostering prosperity”. And that is just what so many East German “Ossies” expected, demonstrated and voted for in the polling booths.
Are they still rejoicing thirty-two years later? A question also valid for the so-called sister countries, who also metamorphosed in almost amazing marching order: in September 1989 a non-communist government was elected in Poland, in October the Communist regime in Hungary was shut down, in November (when the Berlin Wall was opened) Václav Havel took over in Prague. On Christmas Day, in the bloodiest take-over, Ceaușescu and his wife were killed by a Romanian firing squad. In February 1990 the Communist Party gave up its claim to power in Bulgaria. The decisive German vote was on March 18th. In October came the official German “I do” – just what those giant corporations, expelled from East Germany after the war, had never ceased conniving and pressuring for. They had won at last, the wedding ring was squeezed onto the Eastern finger. Was it a gold ring or more of a nose-ring?
The first years were great for Ossies’ travel possibilities and lovely commodity assortment, but otherwise – for millions – pretty ghastly! The over-hasty introduction of the “West-mark” into East Germany and the seizure, shuttering or penny-ante sellout of its entire, substantial industrial base caused havoc, misery and bitterness. Adding insult to injury, second or third string “Wessies” moved in and seized control and jobs – in the judiciary, police, education, journalism and economy. By and large, they still run them.
Before unification – or annexation – even the lop-sided East-West rivalry impelled both sides to keep some standards high. While the totally disadvantaged GDR had been unable to match assortments in retail shops, it had such good conditions in its workshops that West German bosses often felt it wiser to go easier with cuts or repressive policies. With western unions always able to hint: “You don’t want workers to look to the East, do you?” it was like having an invisible but helpful GDR ally sitting at the bargaining table. (Of course, it also kept GDR unions and lawmakers on their toes in terms of improvements.) But in October 1990 this rivalry – with that invisible ally – was buried.
In the following decades life settled down a bit but remained heavily west-dominated, with eastern wages lower, hours longer, and the job atmosphere worse. Many East Germans still feel they are looked upon and treated as second class citizens. While subsidiaries of West German industries improved the job situation in larger cities, many towns, based around one or two now defunct factories, are top-heavy with the elderly. Especially young women, better able to care for themselves, left to find jobs in the west. The young men who remained, with lessened hopes of decent jobs, lacking any new orientation or clear motivation but sharing eastern bitterness, were all too easy prey for right-wing and openly fascist parties, songs, gangs, or underground conspiracies.
But the Social Democrats still needed the votes of the workers and in the East both the LINKE party (renamed after joining with western leftists) and newly rebirthing unions in the truncated industry were beginning to threaten the establishment status quo. A cantankerous baby was the last thing the politicians wanted; for some years the pressure against unions and cuts in social benefits remained relatively moderate in the West and, to a degree, in the East.
Then came the financial crisis in 2007, pressures from US dollar domination increased, and with it globalization, digitalization, then economic growth in China, the covid crisis, and the inherent stress on every enterprise in “free market” capitalism to either keep growing or go under, with wealthier rivals waiting for their chances. That caused a growing pressure to keep profit levels safe and high, with the resulting pressures. The old Bertolt Brecht lines gained renewed validity:
“A rich man and a poor man, there they stood,
And judged each other as best they could.
The poor man said, his voice at low pitch,
If I were not poor you’d not be rich.” (transl. VG)
The problems grew, even when largely ignored by those not facing them, or causing them. An estimated 2.5 million children live below the German poverty line, and even more elderly people, while the retirement age edges annually toward 67. Nearly a thousand “pantry” centers offer free food to people in need, nearly a hundred in Berlin alone, with the churches adding another fifty. But increasingly, they cannot meet the needs of more and more “customers.” This was ironic for eastern “Ossies”; imported foods and delicacies had been hard to get in the GDR but staple foods were amply available at extremely low prices, unchanged from 1958; even the word for “food pantry” (“Tafel”) was unknown in the East.
While many problems increased, some statistics tumbled downward. A new poll found only 59% of the West Germans still satisfied with the way democracy was working – and only 39% of East Germans. As for social justice, with a huge income gap, only 33% in the West are now satisfied – and a paltry 23% in the East. Economists offered gloomy predictions of a worsening economic crisis – and there was a hollow note in the self-congratulatory speeches so common on the Day of German Unity.
As for that former sisterhood, all had hoped like the East Germans that the European Union, with a wealthy united Germany, and NATO, with an even wealthier USA, would soon make them healthy, wealthy and wise. The result was spotty at best. Poland, ruled by far-rightists, escaped domestic disaster by encouraging over 2 million citizens to seek jobs in Germany, France, Ireland and Britain (where their great number helped cause Brexit). In Czechia, which did best, its economy was overrun by foreign owners, like once-proud Skoda, founded in 1895, and now subject to the up or down whims of its distant owner, Volkswagen-Finance Luxemburg. Romania and Bulgaria suffer one political shake-up after the other, with constant economic crisis and corruption. Nor does Orban in Hungary offer an enviable model. People may have won many rights since 1990 but, like the East Germans, lost all security in their daily lives. And how long will the rights last? The question is popping up even in western Europe, with strong rightist parties now in France, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Italy, while in the UK a fighting Labour Party was almost completely re-tamed to lap-dog docility by the media-mastered ouster of Jeremy Corbyn.
In Germany, with so little optimism lying around, opposition was beginning to be worrisome for top-level movers and shakers; some proactive seeding and fertilizing was needed. A traditional prescription against opposition from below is nationalism, hyped-up jingo-patriotism ably furthered by skilled media-aces, flag-makers, and a wide range of politicians and their lobbyist pals, just what the doctor ordered for the ladies and gents heading Lockheed, Raytheon, Boeing on one side of the ocean, selling F35s, Javelins, and drones, and those over here like Rheinmetall (Leopard tanks), ThyssenKrupp (submarines), Heckler & Koch (assault rifles and machine guns) – plus other patriotic do-gooders wherever they are!
Somehow Ike’s old warnings about these folks were disregarded. When Bush senior presided over the unbloody demise of that fallen family between East Berlin and Vladivostok, he decided that the NATO war machine, though now unchallenged and fully superfluous, would not copy the rival Warsaw Pact by disbanding and calling all forces home. He promised Instead that it would not move an inch eastward. Every US president since, noting that this pledge was verbal, not in writing, moved NATO, not inches but hundreds of kilometers eastward, from Estonia in the north (now also Sweden and Finland) to Bulgaria, if possible to Georgia and the biggest plum, the Ukraine, closest to Moscow and completing a big geographic noose around Russia and its warm-water coastline. In 2014, with the tangible assistance in Kiev of Sen. John McCain (Rep) and State Department policy-maker Victoria Nuland (Dem), the plum was forcibly plucked; no longer a very corrupt but more or less neutral fruit, it became a very corrupt but not at all neutral one, while an (overheard) telephone call decided that a chosen US-favorite would take power the next day. Each such gain in yardage, meters and influence included a wide array of military hardware, some of it able to hit Russia’s deepest underground leadership bunkers with atomic bursts. Not a happy perspective.
Russia may indeed have yearned for the Ukraine, as we are daily instructed, or for some form of close alliance with it and Belarus. But – and I may be wrong or forgetful – while I do recall pleas by Lavrov for negotiations on Russian security guarantees, which were rejected by Secretary of State Blinken as “very obvious nonstarters” – I cannot recall Russian imperialist demands or expansive aggressivity toward Ukraine before the 2014 putsch. Nor can I escape the conviction that Putin’s primary motivation was self-defense against that increasingly tightening noose. And I still think the question valid: What would the USA do if China conducted military maneuvers with ultra-modern weapons in Acapulco or Oaxaca? We can guess the answer by recalling the bloody “defense of US security” in Cuba, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, even little Panama and Grenada.
Was the Ukraine conflict a carefully laid trap for Russia – as in Afghanistan? Twenty years after the event Zbigniew Brzeziński revealed that in July 1979 President Carter’s secret military aid to the Mujahidin, fighting against Soviet support for the Afghan government, had been such a trap. “We didn’t force the Russians to intervene but we consciously made it far more likely that they would… In the long run that led to the downfall of the Russian empire.” Does today’s Ukraine war contain parallels? Nor can Russia forget Nazi Germany’s sudden attack in June 1941 or the death of 27 million Soviet fathers, husbands, mothers and children which followed, far worse in number even than the Shoah. Were there genuine Russian fears of a recurrence – a third invasion this century?
But, trap or not, history or not, two – or even ten – wrongs do not make a right. Unless there was a huge, immediate military threat to Russia – which I cannot know of and Putin did not detail – I must view the invasion as a terrible, indefensible move the results of which are horrifying. They can all too easily prove fateful – for everybody on earth. Far too often I hear the word “nuclear.” From a Nobel Physics Prize winner it would be admissible – but absolutely not from Moscow. Or Kiev or elsewhere!
One recent event deserves mention. A Washington policy in Europe has long been to hinder or prevent closer business relations between Russia and Germany, a potential rival. So it railed against the cheaper, more easily available, ecologically less harmful pipelining of Russian gas through the Baltic in favor of shipping its own expensive fracking gas. Some Germans balked. But while the media dutifully puzzle over why that nefarious Putin exploded his own pipeline, very few recall Joe Biden’s words on February 7th: “If Russia invades Ukraine, there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” When a journalist asked how he could do that, with Germany in control of the project, Biden replied: “I promise you: We will be able to do it.” And in fact someone has done it!
But at Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street or such sites, far more damaging matters were getting thrown around than pipelines – or even hurricane Ian. While preaching the need for US leadership in causes like freedom, democracy, war on terror, anti-authoritarianism or unipolarity (and occasionally sneaking in ”a free market economy”), the goal of the generals and presidents, once centering on Central America, then expanded to South America, jumped after 1945 to Western Europe, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe, and always the “Indo-Pacific region” and South China Sea. But the unipolar end goal, the wish for world hegemony, is still blocked by two big powers; the need to control or remove one or both has been the crux of US policy for one hundred years, with only a four-year interlude – an alliance against a temporary common foe. And now there was a search for allies, primarily with that one-time common foe against that short one-time partner.
Only Germany’s oldest citizens experienced that fearsome “total war” in which their young years saved them from becoming accomplices. But bitter memories of war were passed on, and at least a slim majority or more opposed any German involvement in opposing Russians, descendants of victims of that murderous war. These anti-war sentiments seemed to be weakening under unceasing, almost unanimous pressure from on high, which enjoined a taboo on any questions about those brave friends in Kiev whose most honored national hero, Stepan Bandera, joined the Nazis in murdering Jewish and Catholic Poles by the thousand. (When an interviewer confronted the evil-mouthed Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, about a wartime Bandera leaflet saying “Muscovites, Poles, Hungarians and Jews are your enemies, destroy them!” he answered, “I am not going to tell you here today that I distance myself from it. And that’s final!”)
The German ruling trio in Berlin, happily labeled “Ampel” (traffic light) because of their green, red, yellow party colors, can not be so fully happy about the heavy burden its Zelensky solidarity requires and its difficult apportioning. In the face of expected electricity, coal and gas shortages how long and how many of the Greens’ celebrated anti-atom, anti-coal climate achievements should be put off? How cold must public and private rooms be kept? What about shut-down factories and soaring prices at the gas pump, the grocery store, with tax returns? While Green co-chair and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, whose mission to “ruin Russia” led to her words, “Next summer the Ukraine will still be needing new, heavy weapons from its friends,” she must now worry about the coming winter and growing opposition to what some call “cutting off our noses to save our faces”.
Not cutting noses but counting them became important on the Day of German Unity. This year’s ceremony was in ancient Erfurt, in East German Thuringia, because its minister-president Bodo Ramelow, now holds the rotating chair of the German Upper House, the Bundesrat. This first and only LINKE politician to hold that post, once denounced as a Bolshevik menace (because of his party), is now accepted by all the proper people. Once a West German trade union staffer who joined the move to the East in 1990, he is a leader of the moderate or “reformer” wing of the LINKE. He made headlines a year ago by urging a compromise on opposing NATO and military deployment outside Germany – so as to gain acceptance by the Greens and Social Democrats on a federal level, as he has achieved on a state level in Thuringia. His more recent media laurels were for angrily opposing the far more militant Sahra Wagenknecht and any LINKE who rejects such compromises.
Ramelow’s highly-publicized holiday speech decried the all-too slowly diminishing disadvantages for East Germans– his obvious duty as one of their rare representatives. He repeated the standard, dutiful calls to oppose anti-Semitism and racism and praised the goal of a close-bound folk which, despite historically-rooted divergences, was moving forward, united in friendship and in solidarity and zeal in opposing authoritarianism, above all criminal Putin-imperialism. Well-delivered – Ramelow is a good speaker – much of it could have been said by almost anyone in any party and state capital. No mention of strike actions, now growing in number, not a spoonful of militancy in the face of emerging conflicts, or fight-back against 200 billionaires who rule the economic roost and much of the political roost, increasingly menacing all our lives and all our lands. Not any response to the threat of nuclear conflict or the need to fight against it. Yes, Putin’s inhumanity was evil, but he said not a word about the bombing of Yemen, about Germany replacing “Putin-gas” with that of such gentle partners as Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. No word about Julian Assange. But then, such topics might have been out of place in Erfurt on the Day of German Unity.
But this time, a Monday – often a conflicted weekday because of the “We are the people” Monday marches in 1989 – there were defiant protest demonstrations in almost every city in Thuringia, and cities and towns up and down East Germany – and some in West German cities as well. They were not big marches, mostly counting between 1000 and 4000, but were bigger than on the previous Monday and in far more towns and cities. They rejected a planned extra 100 billion euro outlay for armaments, opposed the export of weapons and, some were against sanctions on Russian oil with their chilly or icy result in homes and factories, schools and museums, when the poorest would be hit worst and the richest would continue to rake in piles. The most common slogan was “Heating, bread and peace!”
There were problems; some marching groups were remnants of past anti-masking, covid=conspiracy demonstrations. Far right elements again tried to muscle in. And indeed, rightist AfD support for Putin while also demanding an even greater beefing-up of German armaments has caused confusion. Most protesting groups drew sharp lines, including physical ones: “No far-rightists!” But the media, eagerly denouncing the whole action, had found its main line of attack: “Pro-Putin joins with the far right against Ukraine.” Can a left-led campaign for peace grow strong enough to overcome such problems?
The government coalition, faced by an urgent need to prevent the worst misery and head off more and bigger protests with growing rebelliousness, was also torn by quarrels, with Greens “postponing” or forgetting nearly all ecological principles and the Free Democrats, unable to overtly prevent increased taxes on the very wealthy, weakened enough to OK deficit measures whose burden would be shouldered onto later governments – and working people. But the coalition was displaying conspicuous incompetence and widening cracks. Holding it together was the Ukraine policy. The weakest Social Democrat, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, tied up tightly in Corona confusion, could be bold on at least one point: “What good can it do us to kowtow to Putin? We are at war with Putin, we are not his psychotherapist. It’s necessary to keep fighting consistently and win victory by liberating the Ukraine.” Not a whisper about negotiating or peace – only about victory, “Sieg” – no matter what it costs ordinary people, most of all the Ukrainians. All are enthusiastically united under the pronged star flag of NATO. Or almost all. Anyone with doubts, or “whoever betrays the Ukraine…” – this in the words of Christian Democrat opposition leader Friedrich Merz – “is also betraying our freedom and our democracy”! And had better watch their step! A curious, very worrisome warning!
Some are daring to take such steps – in the streets of many towns and cities. But while this includes many members of the LINKE, not too many leaders are among them. The war fever now so quickly bubbling up in Germany has engulfed them too, like Bodo Ramelow, or LINKE Bundestag delegate Caren Lay who just spited China by visiting Taiwan with delegates from other parties, in the provocative footsteps of Nancy Pelosi and shortly after German Eurofighter planes paid a visit to Japan, a precedent and omen of expansion.
It’s so much easier to run with the crowd. But running or walking, in such footsteps, hand in hand with happy warriors like Baerbock or Lauterbach, will not win the votes either of the “Fight on to victory – ruin Russia!” crowd, who will choose the other colors anyway, nor of those who defy flag-wavers and censureship and demand a cease-fire and negotiations by all sides and who once saw the LINKE as an uncompromising “Party of Peace”. It can and must still be saved; there are so many good fighters in its ranks. This coming winter may be facing bitterly icy winds inside and out, and possibly winds of change – in the LINKE, in Germany and the world. Almost any direction is possible, militantly progressive or tragically acquiescent. Brave decisions are certainly necessary.