Victor Grossman – Berlin Bulletin No. 104, December 14 2015

afd-pegidaLike 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 make a US comparison: It’s 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 from Riadh, the Gulf Coast or Ankara.  Hardly anyone outside the small left-wing press even mentions 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 only 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. They repeated, “The boat is full!” and their views on Muslims recalled those on Jews in the last century.

Many  switched allegiance to the rising Alternative for Germany party (AfD),  whose poll results first reached the five percent needed to enter state legislatures in 2016 and the Bundestag in 2017 and 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 attacking homosexual marriage or adoption of children as well as abortions: good, “normal” German families should stay on top with no less than three children!

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 wearing “other” clothing.

There is always opposition to such marches. Some involves pious condemnation by officials, with occasional speeches or rallies located far away from the hate crowd, whose marches are usually barred from the city centers but officially allowed. Such protest is admirable – but nearly useless.

Then there are the largely youthful countermarches, often attempting 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 usually not much violence, while the cops frequently favor those “disciplined” marching right wingers.

But alongside the determined but peaceful opponents to the “anti-Islamist”, anti-immigrant marchers or in the later evening hours there is almost always a group of “militants”, dressed in black  and often masked (despite legal taboos), 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 had ended a mob of 1000-2500 went into action: their projectiles were soon answered by water cannon and pepper gas, there were mounted cops and helicopters in a small war which left 69 policemen injured and 50 police vehicles damaged.

Who are these militants? In my view they consist of several related groups. Some of those in these “black blocs” are puerile “anarchists” or “autonomes”, so violently anti-capitalist that they want, as one of their leaflets declared, “not to demonstrate but to destroy”. With them are some, vaguer (or alcoholic) in their views, who simply 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 egg on the others, providing headlines for the media and a rationale for proper, upstanding citizens to condemn and avoid any and all rallies against war or discrimination.  And often to blame it all on the immigrants.

Some month ago Angela Merkel opened her arms – figuratively, of course – in a surprising welcome gesture to all refugees, stressing that Germany always  offers asylum to those in need of it. The high popularity points for her and her party dipped in a worrisome way, causing her party, the Christian Democrats, to almost split apart with a threatened mutiny against her leadership for the very first time. This weekend at their congress she cautiously backed down to a weaker compromise position: Yes, you’re welcome from Syria, but no more of you, if you please, and we will pay off Turkey to keep the rest on the other side of the troubled waters. She won a giant ovation from her reunited party as the growing threat from immigrant-haters and xenophobes pushed her party further to the right; there were even whispers that it might consider a coalition with the hitherto ostracized AfD after the spring elections in the important state of Baden-Wurttemberg, now headed by the first Green minister-president in Germany, a wobbly character who has been two-faced on immigrants. His party, in general, seems to enjoy wobbling in many directions all over the political scene.

The Social Democrats, a part of the coalition government on a federal level, have also upheld the wobbling trend – or rather kept to it by long tradition. Their leader, Sigmar Gabriel, Vice-Chancellor is all too comfortable in his position under Merkel (again meant figuratively) and has backed both the military intervention in Syria and the TTIP trade treaty with the USA (like its TIP clone for Asians). This has caused dissatisfaction in party ranks, especially from younger members, on these issues and the general cave-in as part of the government. There was even open opposition and a first result at last week’s party congress was the lowest result Gabriel has ever gotten for reelection as party leader – just under 75 percent. This hard blow turned him visibly sour but defiant as well, and his success in pushing through approval of TTIP – with various weak caveats – squelched all further active opposition. But it did nothing to alter stagnant opinion poll figures for his party at 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 a 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 after 2017 by a woman who decidedly wants out. There is a growing rejection of the EU in nearly every member country. For those who know the basically reactionary goal and role of this institution this trend might be viewed favorably – but the loudest opposition to the European Union is for the wrong reasons and has been taken up by vicious, mostly fascistic parties now rapidly gaining strength across the continent – indeed in every country except, we may still hope, in Spain, Portugal, Britain (at least in its Labour opposition) and perhaps Russia. As for its central bastion, Germany, who knows what successes may be ahead for the rightists?

The main opposition here to military forays to Syria, Mali or elsewhere has been and still is from the Left party. Though sometimes active in this or the other action, including demonstrations for peace, and always bold in the brief Bundestag speeches allotted to it, it has looked all too sluggish thus far in demonstrating a  clearly visible fighting spirit and achieving a breakthrough from its static 8-10 percent approval on the national level. Possible actions in 2016, with three state elections ahead in the spring and a Berlin election in the fall, demand a far louder activity splash – on the streets, at the workshops, job centers and universities, all desperately needed to oppose the ongoing far-right trend! Maybe next year!

And, in closing, I wish you all a good holiday season and a much better 2016!