Protest Sorrow Anger Split

Photograph Source: Dirk Ingo Franke – CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking down from my window onto Berlin’s broad Karl-Marx Allee boulevard a week ago Friday, I saw hundreds and hundreds of green tractors moving in two disciplined lines towards central Brandenburg Gate. Similar lines all over Germany were angrily protesting government measures, based on budgetary or ecology concerns, but which cut farm income, especially for struggling farmers. Hostile placards on the tractors denounced government ministers; a few added makeshift gallows with their names. On Monday they converged for a giant national protest.

In an overlapping action, a three-day railroad engineers’ strike demanded a 35-hour week for shift workers, with no cut in pay. Freight traffic was hit hard, also New Year’s vacationers and urban commuters, with city transportation lines sharply curtailed. Small private lines settled, but unless the semi-independent state railroads and the powerful union can agree, a longer stoppage is due.

Last month 80,000 state employees – kindergarten teachers, office secretaries, garbage collectors – walked out briefly and won wage hikes. Even doctors closed down a few days to support medical assistants. And this Friday truckers drove together through Berlin with their demands.

Things have really been stirring after those rough, tough covid times, with signs of new militancy trying to keep pace with prices on meat, cheeses, fruit, vegetables.  Or the upward bubbling of gas rates at the pump! Bills for home heating and electricity were climbing frighteningly, and  before the usual  fireworks had died down on January 1st medical insurance rates had edged upwards. Spreading hospital privatization, now over a third, meant 34 hospitals going bankrupt last year, especially in rural area, while medical staff are still short despite the influx from Asia or Africa. (I felt this personally while awaiting diagnosis for my broken rib!) The minister of health, facing loud opposition to his plan to rate rural and urban hospitals according to service levels, fled debate on this flop with a minor sidetrack issue – on cutting health insurance support for homeopathy treatment.

In the schools, with PISA results sinking, overworked, over-bureaucratized teachers are quitting overfilled classrooms while college students, though public universities are tuition-free, must still shell out an average € 900-1000 a month for fees, food, books and, first of all, a room – if they can find one.

Worst of all, while gentrified housing blossoms alongside grand high-rise office buildings, nearly a million affordable new homes are desperately needed but only a pitiful fraction are being built. High taxes, interest problems, costly material, strict regulations and bureaucracy are blamed. Actually, affordable housing offers too little profit and thus lacks foxy, well-heeled lobbyists. Though not like in the USA, evictions are increasing; so are the ranks of those sleeping in the streets and the sad lines at free food pantries, often unable to meet demand. Somehow no-one dares mention the giant GDR housing programs, with no profit worries, and tenants paid less than 10% of their income and evictions were forbidden. No-one slept in the streets. And food pantries? Unknown.

But halt! I must avoid a one-sided picture of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Joblessness is not all too high, much of the population lives relatively well. But things are very patchy in the East and raggedy around all the edges for pensioners, kids in immigrant or single-parent families and millions, though not hungry and cold, are worried about the prices, predicted recession and their children’s future. A majority disapprove the disunited, seemingly helpless coalition on top and turn to tractor marches or, 22% of Germann voters, to a hungrily eager Alternative for Germany (AfD), now in second place nationally but leading in all five East German states, mostly at over 30%, and three, Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, face elections in September. AfD leaders avoid visible goose-steps or raised arm salutes, but old uniform colors often peek out from correct business suits. Their leadership in small-town soccer teams, fire and police departments and local festivities causes prosecutors or mayors to either go along – or set up cameras around their homes. Thus far all other parties kept to a seemingly irrevocable taboo against coalitions with the AfD. But since AfD shocker victories in a small town, two rural counties and then as mayor in oh-so-picturesque Pirna on the Elbe (pop. 40,000), some Christian Democrats are reconsidering.

The exposé of a secret hotel meeting of AfD men, neo-fascists, businessmen and two Christian Democrats devising plans, “after victory,” to expel millions of “foreigners” from Germany got huge media attention. Quasi-official anti-AfD rallies were quickly organized in many cities, also at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Their rejection of xenophobia was impressive, and inspired debate on whether to seek a court ban on the AfD or stick to the ballot boxes. But somehow, amidst genuine fears of AfD gains (and resulting damage to Germany’s reputation), some like me could not forget  decades  of German politics intertwining with war criminal corporations and banks. Or influential far-rightists like Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office to Protect the Constitution from 2012 until 2018, when he over-exposed himself as a too close friend of the AfD and had to be ousted, just one of multiple such scandals. Or the polite, even friendly TV opportunities for AfD spokespersons. In fact, there were even questions about that mysterious meeting, with little or no convincing evidence. Was it just possibly timed to deflect – perhaps like recent big rallies against anti-Semitism – to counteract a progressive wave ignited by the devastatingly frightful pictures of a wrecked  Gaza and a million present-day refugees?

The anti-AfD rallies edged out nearly all reports on the annual Luxemburg-Liebknecht memorial walk and march on January 14 and the international Luxemburg conference the day before. The former was troubled again this year by a nasty baton and pepper spray set-to with the police, evidently because some marchers dared to use the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which is semi-officially verboten.

The conference, again organized by the leftist daily “Junge Welt,” was bigger than ever, with participants from all over Germany (and elsewhere’) and as always a spoken message from the radio-journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, framed and imprisoned in Pennsylvania without a fair trial since 1982. But this year’s conference, though totally agreed on opposing the three-party “traffic-light-coalition” government (nicknamed for the party colors green-red-yellow) and the “Christian” opposition, displayed sharp disagreement on German leftist politics.

Hardly represented if at all were the “reformers,” the ruling element in the LINKE party, symbolized by Minister President Ramelow in Thuringia and those in coalitions governing Berlin until they and the Greens got kicked out. They are the ones who dreamed that by “getting along” with NATO just a little they might some day be able to join a national government. They rarely engage in militant fights “in the streets,” cultivating ties with a few union leaders but all too rarely with working people. They stress the rights of immigrants and refugees but then worry about gender punctuation and the history of patriarchy. It has been their compromising, denounced as “opportunist selling out” by some, which caused desperation, with many leaving the party, and some hoping for a new, truly leftist, socialist party, one which recalled the names and perhaps a few of the teachings of mentors like Marx (and even Lenin).

Many saw Sahra Wagenknecht’s decision to break with the LINKE and form a new party as a fulfilment of such hopes. A wonderful orator and unbeatable debater, she was remarkably popular even in wide circles of conservative West Germany; the media often invited her (with 2-3-4 opponents) because she attracted viewers. And she held her own! Most important, she wanted no compromises with NATO, and while condemning  Putin’s march into Ukraine (as required) she explained it as basically a defense against continuous, mounting USA-NATO advances. And she attacked the total economic break with Russia, which was causing Germany’s sharp downhill slide and largely represented a kowtow to US economic pressures, always aimed at preventing any German-Russian coexistence, seen in Washington (or Wall Street) as contrary to the goal of world hegemony. She also stressed the fight for German workers’ gains (while dismissing gender-debates as a distraction by professional or academic sectors of the LINKE). At last, said many; a party they could join with heart and soul!

On January 8 Sahra and nine other Bundestag members quit the LINKE caucus and founded a party temporarily named Sahra Wagenknecht Bündnis (Alliance). This left the LINKE one delegate short of the requisite number for a caucus, thus shortening its speaking time, cutting rights to question ministers, to committee memberships and, sadly, cutting finances, meaning firing up to 100 staff members – aides, researchers, advisers, secretaries who may well  become jobless. As for the ten who quit, including Sahra, they remain Bundestag members, an even smaller group.

The new party will hold its founding congress on January 26-27. With no state groups as yet, about 400 delegates will be chosen by the new leaders. Until then Sahra will provisionally share the chair with Amari Mohammed Ali, until now co-chair of the LINKE caucus in the Bundestag  (who, though with an Egyptian father, is very much a Hamburg German). The congress will decide on a new name and write a program, especially important since it wants to enter the European Union elections in June and the three state elections in September.

The new party, Sahra stated, should have four basic principles: peace, social justice, economic reason and freedom. All her adherents supported a “foreign policy that once again relies on diplomacy instead of arms deliveries,” with a call for peace negotiations to end the Ukraine war and pursue peace and renewed trade with Russia. On other points there were questions.  While she called for higher taxes on the wealthy and plans for government-regulated price ceilings to protect consumers, the idea of state “supervisory bodies” to oversee companies’ production activities and other proposals seemed to hint at a turn, or return, to old fair-and-square market economics like in West Germany’s post-war years. There seemed little mention of a militant working people’s struggle. As for freedom, she wanted greater tolerance for ideological diversity, with no marginalizing or ostracizing people because of their opinions. Good sentiments, no doubt, but here, too, not much about that old “class conflict,” or about replacing the world’s billionaire powers with some form of non-profit socialism.

Most controversial in Sahra’s program has been her position on refugees and immigrants, not completely shutting the doors to Germany but keeping them less ajar and beyond the ability to house, feed, school and integrate them, especially those coming not to escape repression but simply to find a decent living standard. What was widely considered Sahra’s hope to win over or win back non-fascist Germans who voted AfD because it rejected immigration seemed sometimes too close an approach to AfD words and thoughts, with too little loyalty to leftist internationalism. Yet many of the small group of founders have themselves “immigrant backgrounds,” including the temporary co-chair Amira Mohamed Ali and the distinguished foreign policy expert Sevim Dagdelen.

Some who are remaining in the LINKE have always opposed the “reformers” and further tilting toward Social Democrats and Greens with their big business ties and status quo positions, especially rejecting any “Ja” votes for bigger weaponry and foreign military involvement. But they also oppose Sahra’s breakaway and say: “We should instead remain in the LINKE, keep fighting it out with the reformers but not further dividing a leftist force which is already split so damagingly.” They believe in continuing efforts to put new energy into the party, to wake it up where it has been dozing or subsiding into Keynesian attempts to rescue a basically big-biz-controlled social system. The swords in such in-party battles can be very sharp! But, they insist, this strategy is correct and necessary. Which route is the better one? Is it possible that, in the end, rivalry between the LINKE and Sahra’s new party may recall that little A.A. Milne poem?

There were Two Little Bears who lived in a Wood, And one of them was Bad and the other was Good.

And then quite suddenly (just like Us), One got Better and the other got Wuss.

The first polls are still confusing, some showing high figures for Sahra’s new party, others with low ones. The LINKE results also vary. I see several possibilities in the coming elections. Sahra’s new  party may indeed flourish, winning dissatisfied East Germans who only chose the AfD (or stayed home) for lack of any convincing protest party. Or others dissatisfied LINKE and Social Democrats. Then, too, the LINKE may regain new life, with both parties gaining, may move upwards, perhaps in non-hostile rivalry. But the most worrisome possibility is that the LINKE and Sahra’s new starter may both fizzle, leaving Germany with no real visible, audible party opposition. The LINKE had once been a force and a model for many left-wing parties in other, smaller European countries! Could one or the other regain such a urgently needed role? As for me, I am still uncertain as to which strategy was wiser, and must recall Mark Twain’s response to a religious question: ”I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

Meanwhile, Germany, Europe and the world are facing giant, frightening menaces! One, ecological devastation and climate warming, are joining with increasing conflicts and on-going post-colonial exploitation and forcing more and more people to leave their homes and search elsewhere for survival, often in northern directions. Another menace, closely related, is the diabolic misuse of these refugees, fleeing drought, floods, joblessness, hopelessness and ugly slums, to rabble-rouse working people in the more favored northern countries and direct their anger about increasing exploitation against the refugees instead of against the true instigators woo, when it seems necessary, turn to violent suppression, with fascism cultivated as a possible last resort.

But the third giant menace has become most threatening of all. It is war – very dangerously so in connection with Ukraine. Despite the misleading media, this threat did not begin in 2022. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference: “Since 2014 NATO has implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense in a generation. With, for the first time in our history, combat ready troops in the eastern part of the Alliance, with higher readiness, with more exercises, and also with more defense spending. ..So when President Putin launched his full-fledged invasion last year, we were prepared.”

This kind of “defense” is currently being dramatically improved upon: “NATO is launching its largest exercise since the Cold War, rehearsing how U.S. troops could reinforce European allies in countries bordering Russia and on the alliance’s eastern flank if a conflict were to flare up with a ‘near-peer’ adversary. Some 90,000 troops are due to join the Steadfast Defender 2024 drills that will run through May, the alliance’s top commander Chris Cavoli said on Thursday. More than 50 ships, from aircraft carriers to destroyers, will take part, as well as more than 80 fighter jets, helicopters and drones and at least 1,100 combat vehicles including 133 tanks and 533 infantry fighting vehicles. Cavoli said the drills would rehearse NATO’s execution of its regional plans, the first defense plans the alliance has drawn up in decades, detailing how it would respond to a Russian attack.”

“Steadfast Defender 2024 will demonstrate NATO’s ability to rapidly deploy forces from North America and other parts of the alliance to reinforce the defense of Europe.” The reinforcement will occur during a “simulated emerging conflict scenario…During the second part of the Steadfast Defender exercise, a special focus will be on the deployment of NATO’s quick reaction force to Poland on the alliance’s eastern flank. Other major locations of the drills will be the Baltic states which are seen as most at risk from a potential Russian attack, Germany – a hub for incoming reinforcements – and countries on the fringes of the alliance such as Norway and Romania.”

In preparation for such events, Boris Pistorius, Minister of Defense (and a Social Democrat) told an audience: “We need a change of mentality.  It is already fully underway among the troops…when we speak about the Lithuania Brigade. But very importantly, the change of mentality in society is also the right thing to do. We have to get used to the idea that the danger of war in Europe could be imminent, and that means that we have to become fit for war, we have to be able to defend ourselves and prepare the Bundeswehr and society for it.“

Are these men right? Does Russia really threaten Germany? Has it taken one step in that direction since it moved all its troops out of East Germany in 1994, expecting the other side to follow suit, as promised. That assumption proved very false as NATO, with its weaponry, moved closer and closer to Russia – aiming to surround it in Georgia and Ukraine, but always using those key words “defense” – “Russian expansion” – “Putin imperialism.” I have never heard a clear answer to the question: If China and Russia sent about 90,000 troops to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean for “exercises” with “more than 50 ships from aircraft carriers to destroyers, more than 80 fighter jets, helicopters and drones and at least 1,100 combat vehicles including 133 tanks and 533 infantry fighting vehicles” would American counter-measures be described as “imperialist aggression”?

I have become convinced that the major threat in today’s world is not from Putin, or Russia, or China either but from a giant steamroller aiming at world rule and trying to eliminate any and all hindrances. Its main motor since 1945 has been in the USA, the list of its victims is long and bitter: Guatemala, Iran, Congo, Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are a sampling. It is steered by a mighty conglomerate of Brobdingnagian giants, above all in the fossil fuel, chemical, armaments and hedge fund/financial rulers, but including others: fast food and beverages, seeds for farmers, pharmaceutics, also mindbenders in media, publishing, films and more and more dangerously, Amazon and the offspring of Silicon Valley. Their numbers in each field are narrowing, the value of the estates often moves into the billion levels. There are billionaires in other countries as well, also in Russia and China, but Wall Street, the Pentagon and Langley predominate.

The strategy of the US-American dynasts includes close ties with brethren in three junior partner countries. One, now very wobbly, is Britain.  A second one is Germany, whose power is based on autos (VW, Daimler, Quandt), chemicals (Bayer, BASF), weapons (Rheinmetall, Heckler & Koch) and the Deutsche Bank. It too is threatened economically; that not too mysterious pipeline explosion in the Baltic was a hard blow (strangely forgotten by the media!). But the ambitions of its ill-reputed class live on to ensure dominance in Europea and continued eastward expansion.

Third of all, currently most tragically expanding, is Israel which, though small geographically, considers itself nobody’s junior partner. The pictures and reports are so appalling, the excuses and defense of its mass murder so terribly out of proportion to the event which unleased it, bloody as it was (though many relevant questions are as yet unanswered), that I can only wonder if those still upholding a Netanyahu, or generals who demand death for all Palestinian “human animals,” even have a heart. Or if they have ever grasped the full meaning of the words “Never again!” – which apply to all human beings, yes, also to Palestinians.

I cannot refrain from quoting Joe  Biden here. After the Uvalde tragedy in May 2022, when 19 children were killed, he said in moving tones: “There are parents who will never see their child again…To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away… It’s a feeling shared by the siblings, and the grandparents, and their family members, and the community that’s left behind…Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the lobbies?”

But after five weeks of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the director-general of the World Health Organization already reported that children were being killed at an average rate of six per hour…Nowhere and no one is safe.” In December you voiced worries about “indiscriminate bombing”. There are rumors you urge Netanyahu to avoid hurting civilians. But despite any misgivings or admonishments, the USA has been sending, among many other items, thousands of 2000-pound bombs to ‘Israel, described in the NYT as “one of the most destructive munitions in Western military arsenals…a weapon that unleashes a blast wave and metal fragments thousands of feet in every direction.” By mid-January an estimated 24,100 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, about 70% of them children. 60,834 Palestinians were listed as injured, with an uncounted number buried under rubble.” I wonder how many took part in the October 7 raid.

About a hundred courageous journalists have been killed in Gaza, mostly purposefully by well-aimed Israeli bullets or missiles.

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