Germany’s worst political crisis since World War II

Folko Mueller and Ron Lare

Posted April 2, 2020

Anti-Nazi rally in Berlin-Neukölln. The banner says, “Each of our tears is a sign of our rage and water for the flower of solidarity.”

The February 11 New York Times paralleled the current German situation with the rise of Hitler. Today’s neofascists were recently part of a coalition that elected a regional governor in a German state, Thuringia (Thüringen), where the Nazis first won power (also through a coalition). Wilhelm Frick was sworn in on January 23rd, 1930, as minister of the interior and education, and thus became the first National-Socialist minister in Germany. This was almost exactly three years before Hitler took power nationally. Thuringia quickly turned into a laboratory for fascist ideology and was the launch pad for the National Socialists’ meteoric rise. Germany’s very first concentration camp was also built in Thuringia, a mere five weeks after Hitler took over in 1933.

In more recent history, the far-right terrorist group Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (National Socialist Underground), better known by its acronym NSU, which rocked the nation in the early 2000s, came out of Thuringia. There are a lot of unknowns still surrounding this group. NSU was apparently founded by three people, two of whom committed suicide before they could be tried. The third founding member, Beate Zschäpe, was tried and sentenced to life for nine murders and arson in July 2018, together with four NSU supporters. However, it is estimated that NSU’s supporting network consisted of well over 100 people, providing anything from illegal weapons (firearms are highly restricted in Germany), to get-away cars, accommodation and everything else one may need when living underground.

A further complication is the involvement of the government in all this. One aspect that came to light during the trial is that the Bundesverfassungsschutz (Germany’s interior security agency, literally: “Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution”) provided a large degree of cooperation and support to its network of far-right informants. Furthermore, some of the security undercover agents themselves harbored Nazi beliefs and knew about murders to be executed beforehand, without informing authorities or otherwise trying to prevent them. At least one of these officers was present at the site of one of the murders as it happened.

It was also revealed that security agents shred files on informants, which had earlier led to the resignation of the president of the security office. The remaining files were ordered to be sealed for 120 years initially, but this was reduced to a still ludicrous 30 years after the murder of Walter Lübcke, a Christian-Democratic politician, in Kassel in 2019. Lübcke was an outspoken adversary of the far-right (more below). After further recent racist attacks in Germany, the demands for immediate release of the files have gotten louder.

What we do know for sure with regards to the NSU is that at least 10 murders, 3 bombings and 14 bank robberies have been attributed to them. If we want to prevent history from repeating itself, the New York Times comparison is valid.

The national parties in the state of Thuringia

These parties are players in the crisis in Thuringia:

The CDU, Christian Democratic Union, is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. It is conservative and the largest party in the national parliament, but losing support. The CSU, Christian Social Union, is the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, a status reflecting Bavaria’s size and other influence.

Die Linke is the socialist party of interest to Solidarity members. It sometimes sends comrades and contacts to Labor Notes Conferences. Its origin can be found in the “PDS” (Party of Democratic Socialism) which was the successor party to the old SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei or Socialist Unity Party) of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) after the Berlin W,all fell. In 2007 the PDS, which had about 60,000 members at that time, merged with a group of roughly 11,000 disgruntled Social Democrats and trade-union members who were assembled in a group known as WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit or The Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice in English). Shortly after the merger the name change to Die Linke or The Left (Party) followed. Within the party there are a number of caucuses or platforms, ranging from Marxist-Leninist GDR romanticizers to social-democratic reformists. Most of Germany’s Trotskyist groups are by now also affiliated with Die Linke.

Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) came originally out of the anti-nuclear (weapons and energy) movement of the 1970s in Western Germany and merged with an Eastern German civil rights group (Bündnis 90) shortly after reunification. While generally on the left side of Germany’s political spectrum, and progressive not only on the environment but also on health, social welfare and gender issues, the party has virtually no working-class support. Younger middle-class professionals are its main pillar of support. It has steadily drifted towards the “political center,“ since the Greens have been wanting to be at the helm, which they can only achieve via entering coalitions. Most notorious was their first participation in a federal government after the 1998 general election, since it also saw the first military action by Germany since WWII. Ironically, it was a Red-Green coalition headed up by the neoliberal SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the Green Vice-Chancellor and foreign minister Joschka Fischer who decided to participate in Nato’s “humanitarian war” and drop bombs on Kosovo.

The SPD are the social democrats — the oldest party in Germany.

The FDP are the “free democrats”, conservative but more consistently neoliberal than the CDU.

The AfD, Alternative for Germany, are the neofascists who have risen in elections to become the second largest fraction in the national parliament.

Angela Merkel’s party shaken from bottom to top

The current state and national crisis began with an election in Thuringia. Die Linke and the Greens gained more votes than before. But there were fewer votes for the SPD, who together with Die Linke and the Greens had been governing Thuringia. Because the SPD lost votes, Die Linke, the SPD and the Greens no longer had a majority and so could no longer form a state government. Instead, an FDP candidate was elected by the Thuringian state legislature via a coalition including votes from the FDP and CDU but also the neofascist AfD state legislators.

Accepting support of the AfD had been a taboo in Germany. Street protests and national political and media opposition brought down the new FDP governor, who had just been elected by the state legislature with support from the AfD.

The political fallout became national. The Times quotes a German professor, “The AfD has ousted the leader of the Christian Democrats.” That is, accepting support of the neofascist AfD created a crisis that has brought down leaders of Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU.

The crisis has further decreased Merkel’s already lame-duck political influence. It has jump-started the campaign within the CDU to replace her. It has even forced her chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to exit as both CDU national party leader and potential new chancellor of Germany. This has bolstered the most nakedly neoliberal and aggressive candidate for CDU leadership.

The national parties react

The scandal in Thuringia exposed the local complicity of the FDP’s national leader, Christian Lindner. It was his party whose Thuringian leader was elected with AfD support. The CDU’s support for the same candidate had brought down Merkel’s chosen national CDU successor. By this logic, the FDP’s even greater complicity in providing the winning candidate based on AfD support should have brought down the national FDP leader. However, he survives, perhaps because he is his party’s only nationally well-known leader. Or perhaps because it is easier to bring down a woman (Merkel’s chosen successor) than the male FDP leader.

The crisis has strengthened the left of the SPD and its youth in their long-standing opposition to further participation in the national government, the coalition of CDU-CSU and SPD. Now, because the CDU allied with the AfD in Thuringia, the youth have even more reason to say the SPD should no longer work with the CDU in national or state coalitions. Meanwhile, the SPD continues to bleed votes with each election, leading the youth to ask why even opportunists in the SPD leadership would continue with CDU partners. On the other hand, we suspect that the Covid-19 crisis will somewhat strengthen the defense of the coalition in the interests of “national unity.”

The Greens have for now been deprived of participation in the regional government of Thuringia. But perhaps the crisis has strengthened Greens’ claims on inclusion in a national coalition. given their rising vote counts and relatively clean hands by the standards of capitalist politics.

The AfD gloats over its ability to paralyze the system and over the perspective of gaining votes by characterizing capitalist democracy as a guarantee of chaos. Thuringia is the home of the city that gave its name to the national Weimar Republic, Germany’s attempt at a liberal government that was brought down by the Nazis. Today, an analogy between the Weimar Republic’s fall and the neofascist threat to the current neoliberal government is on German minds.

Political paralysis continues in Thuringia

Thueringen Die Linke leader Susanne Henning-Wellsow walking away from AfD-supported and just then newly-elected Thueringen Minister President Thomas Kemmerich after throwing the traditional bouquet at his feet rather than handing it to him, refusing to shake hands with him, and turning her back on him, unlike, in all these gestures, the leaders of other parties.

After the candidate supported by AfD, CDU and FDP was driven out by the protest movement, Die Linke’s leader proposed an interim government for Thuringia led by the former CDU governor there, pending a new election. That did not satisfy the CDU, leading the former leader to withdraw from consideration.

Thus, the crisis has brought down the regional CDU leader. It has boosted the AfD and its region’s Hitler-aping leader of the far-right wing of the already far-right AfD. A survey of AfD members had shown that they could not decide whether quotes on a list were from him or Hitler (all quotes had been from Hitler). This AfD leader has formally dissolved his national faction of the AfD in response to pressure, but he may form it again under a different name.

Die Linke demanded a new election in Thuringia. However, like choosing a new governor, setting up an election requires votes from the CDU.

Die Linke has strengthened its progressive political reputation both locally and nationally as the party most under attack by the neofascists. Susanne Henning-Wellsow, the woman who heads Die Linke’s parliamentary fraction, refused to shake the hand of Thomas Kemmerich, the FDP candidate briefly elected with AfD support. A widely circulated photo shows her insult to him.

The future of Die Linke and other parties

The paralysis over forming a government in one region made the national German political center look like a pack of bumbling fools. This feeds the AfD’s anti-democratic demagogy and aspirations for governing, since governments may not be formed without them. For now, the street and media opposition is too strong and the capitalist class too prosperous to make AfD acceptance generally imminent. However, this situation fits the classic revolutionary socialist proposition that the fascists are the reserve political army of the ruling class. Even after the disastrous decision to enter the coalition with the AfD locally, rather than apologizing to their base and the German people in general, the national leadership of both the CDU and the FDP insist that any collaboration with the Left is off-limits. In other words, the bourgeois-democratic masks are off.

On the positive side, the widely covered story about governmental paralysis in Thuringia reminds Germans daily that Die Linke continues to receive more votes than any other party in a historic region of the former East Germany and that it may yet again become the leading partner in the regional government. By contrast, SPD votes have fallen sharply, the CDU is in a downward, conceivably death spiral, and the FDP is extremely compromised by forming a government with AfD support. The national outcry has more clearly branded the AfD as fascist and Nazi. This increases the pressure for all to show in action which side they are on.

More fascist murders, this time in Hanau, and another temporary solution in Thuringia

At the height of the crisis in Thuringia a fascist-inspired man in the city of Hanau, in another state, shot to death eight Germans of Turkish heritage as well as his own mother elsewhere. Some in the Turkish heritage community go back to the 1950s. Victims’ friends and family mourned them in television interviews, speaking their perfect German and charging the police authorities with abandoning the community. This comes after recent violent fascist attacks on politicians including the murder of the district president of the Kassel region, Walter Lübcke, a CDU politician. A friend of Solidarity in Kassel commented that if the fascists assassinate even a center-right politician, that shows the attack is against the liberal system as a whole, not only the left.

There is national outrage over the murders and the AfD’s history of explaining away such attacks as isolated criminal acts. This outrage helped force the Thuringian CDU to promise the four votes necessary to form a majority with the Greens, SPD and Die Linke, and thus win a new state-parliamentary leadership vote without AfD support. This would reestablish Die Linke’s leader as the head of the state in a Red-Red-Green coalition leaning on a few votes from the CDU. New elections would be set for 2021.

But no.

After first signaling that it would not interfere in this compromise for stability, the national CDU leadership forced the Thuringian CDU to back out of the deal. Yet the latter still says it does not want to deny a solution to the crisis.

Neither the SPD nor the Greens liked Die Linke’s proposed reliance on CDU votes as a way out of the deadlock, but they went with it as a coalition of democrats to exclude the AfD.

Issues for revolutionary socialists

As of March 4, Die Linke leader Bodo Ramelow again heads a Red-Red-Green minority government. But an AfD leader has become Vice President, a first in post-war German politics.

This puts in stark relief a more general question: Should socialists share power with any capitalist parties in any level of government? Die Linke has in the past entered coalitions in states or cities with the SPD and Greens, but never with the FDP, CDU or AfD. The coalition-prone parliamentary systems may pose this question more sharply outside the US, but the question has some relevance here as well.

The issue posed in Thuringia is relevant nationally in Germany. A national coalition with the CDU is not likely for Die Linke, but Thuringia could point toward an eventual Red-Red-Green national coalition. This might follow further collapse of CDU vote totals.

With the SPD falling and given Die Linke’s poor national vote totals, the Greens would no doubt be the dominant force in such a national coalition. The Greens have long followed a neoliberal agenda, and have in several instances entered coalitions with the FDP and the CDU, partly to avoid having to rule with support from Die Linke. This constellation is in Germany known as a “Jamaica Coalition” due to the colors of the respective parties involved.

Another issue posed by events in Thuringia is how to develop a comprehensive political response to AfD demagogy. The AfD are cleverer than Trump. They say the way to reduce emissions is to follow Greta Thunberg’s Sweden in reversing the elimination of nuclear reactor construction — while also defending coal, supposedly for the sake of miners. Most of the AfD national leadership responded to the Hanau murders with a crude Trump-like claim that they are crimes having nothing to do with politics.

However, Alice Weidel, the AfD’s leading woman in the federal parliament, a lesbian single mother, responded in a more sophisticated and ominous way. She said that the AfD puts the working class first. She named several of the working-class jobs typical of much of the AfD’s base. We know that the AfD works for the complete oppression of the working class. But the neoliberal parties are vulnerable to the criticism.

Faced with the AfD threat, the center politicians sit back and just say fascism is evil. They ignore how the centrist parties’ own neoliberal policies have massively contributed to the expansion of the AfD’s working-class base, who suffer from income inequality, food bank lines and outright poverty, especially in the former East Germany, but in parts of the West as well. On the contrary, there are voices from within the bourgeois parties blaming Die Linke for having paved the way for the AfD by being critical of the government and capitalism in general.

The AfD, while having representatives in every State parliament, has far more support in the former East Germany (ranging from about 11% in Berlin to over 27% in Saxony) than in the West (ranging from about 5% in Hamburg to 13% in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg).

The roots for this support of AfD, as well as other neofascist movements like PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) and the Identitarian movement can be traced back to the collapse of the GDR. From the get-go there were winners and losers when the shock-doctrine of having to play by the new “market rules” was imposed. The winners in the nineties were by and large dubious “Wessi” (West German) businessmen who took the former GDR apart, often-times claiming government subsidies for investing in that region, while buying out competition for pennies on the dollar and a few years later closing down shops. While the national unemployment rate is at its lowest since reunification 30 years ago, about 5%, it still remains higher in the East (6.8%) than in the West (4.7%).

However, the outright economic dimension is only one part of the equation. Many people who continue to reside in the East have lost their sense of “Heimat”, which is a far more loaded word than just “home.” It has to do with cultural identity, but in the Eastern German context also with a certain stability. Nobody was rich or well-to-do, but you had a relatively comfortable life where your housing, schooling and job were always provided for. Migration, with the exception of some exchanges with “socialist” sister countries, was non-existent.

It is precisely this mourning for the “good old days” (romanticized in hindsight), which AfD is so good at exploiting from the right, which it then combines with racist scape-goating and a general critique of the political elites and status quo.

An anti-fascist political response that relies on social democracy will fail today as it did in the 1930s. There are lessons here for the US left as well.

Other elections

Local elections were held on February 23rd in the city-state of Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany. While the SPD was able to maintain a fairly large lead, at least in this part of Germany, the Left gained ever so slightly, while the Greens had major gains. The FDP barely missed the 5% hurdle, which could arguably have to do with their role in Thuringia. AfD, while getting slightly fewer votes than last time around cleared the 5% mark and will be represented again, winning 7 seats. It is an outrage that this is a new normal now across the nation.

Mass mobilizations crucial

In this context, what happens in the street is also crucial. We could recall here an old US left slogan, “Vote in the street. Vote with your feet.”

When far-right anti-immigrant rioters took over the streets of Chemnitz for a few days last year, even one police official said that without the anti-fascist mobilization, the police could not have handled the situation. Yet the exposure of fascists among police and military personnel is also a national scandal. Questions around mass movements and revolutionary parties are a test for us all.

Anti-AfD demonstration in Münster, February 7, 2020. (video: Bernhard Brämswig