The only connection between two real-life dramas over the weekend was the Elbe River which cuts through the big port city of Hamburg in the north and Dresden, the rococo capital of Saxony in the south. Both cities were divided by more than the river.
In Hamburg the Christian Democrats (CDU), Angela Merkel's party, took their worst beating in sixteen years. The mayor and his party, after ruling in an uneasy coalition with the once leftish Greens, dropped to 21.9 percent, causing barely hidden frowns for the national leaders, who quickly claimed this was only a local matter, irrelevant to six more state elections this year. The Greens, who had hoped to switch to a coalition with the Social Democrats, were also disappointed. With their poll numbers high on a national level, their Hamburg result, 11.2 %, was only a small gain, and they will not be needed in the new government of Germany's second largest urban center.
They reason was that the Social Democrats (SPD) won an amazing victory, with 48.3 %. This gives them 64 seats in the legislature; only 61 are needed to govern alone. The new mayor will be Olaf Scholz, 58, a lawyer, like so many a left-winger in his youth, but who later became a supporter of Merkel's predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder and held many leadership positions in the SPD. His only claim to fame goes back to 2001 when, in charge of police in Hamburg, he insisted on the forced use of emetics against suspected drug dealers, even after this caused the death of one prisoner and was condemned by doctors and even the European court in Strasbourg. But all that was mostly forgotten as he and his party joyfully celebrated an even larger than expected victory.
The two smaller parties could smile at least. The Free Democrats, nationally in a popularity crisis, mostly because people seem sick of their head, Foreign Minister Westerwelle, got 6.6 % and thus succeeded in getting back into the legislature. That was comforting.
As for the Left Party, it had been a cliff-hanger. In 2008 they won 6.4 %, giving them seats in the city- state legislature. But 2010 was a rough year, with both internal quarrels and a mass attack by all other parties after co-president Gesine Loetzsch dared utter the word Communism as a possible goal for a future society. Failing to get the required 5 % in Hamburg would be a heavy blow, politically and psychologically. Supporters everywhere held their collective breath!
And breathed a sigh of relief! The result, exactly like 2008, was 6.4 %! No gain, but no loss either, and both Dora Heyenn, who heads the party in Hamburg, and national leader Gesine Loetzsch looked very happy. They pledged to fight harder than ever for decently-priced homes, free kindergartens, no college tuition fees, public projects, not only for the wealthy, and environmental gains.
Keeping their eight seats in the legislature may help in the fight to get into the legislatures of Rhineland- Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany and possibly win first place in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. All three states vote on March 20th.
By sailing up the Elbe past a dozen famous castles and cathedrals, the traveler reaches Dresden, capital of Saxony in Germany's southeastern corner, bordering Poland and the Czech Republic. Saxony has a glorious history – if one ignores the fact that in every war it chose the losing side. More recently, it gained notoriety when the neo-Nazi NPD party got the biggest pro-Nazi vote in all Germany, 5.6 % in 2009, and eight deputies in the state legislature. On their best behavior, in suit and tie, their presence gives them a propaganda platform and a source of government euros dealt out on the basis of election returns.
Behind these eight are local leaders who join citizens' groups and organize festivals and are now represented in over 70 Saxon town and village councils. Behind them, a third level consists of semi-underground gangs of thugs, indirectly tied to the NPD, who intimidate people with immigrant backgrounds or anti-Nazi views. In all Germany their actions have resulted in at least 149 murders since 1990 and average five brutal attacks a week.
They try to show strength and win recruits with marches in nearly every town or city in Germany. The thugs and young recruits are on their best behavior, their loud demands often stress social questions but are always marked by hatred of foreigners. Most such marches are protected legally and by police since the legal NPD or some front group registers them in advance.
They almost always face resistance by anti-fascists, who usually out-number them. Several major events had to be abandoned. In Wunsdorf in Bavaria, where Hitler's deputy Hess is buried, the town welcomed them by and large until 2005 when 4500 Nazis from all over Germany and Europe jammed the little town of 9500 inhabitants too arrogantly and they were banned at last. A burial site south of Berlin for German soldiers who died in one of the final wartime battles was given up after counterdemonstrators regularly outnumbered Nazis. In Leipzig, attempts to march from the main station to a huge monument marking Napoleon's defeat here in 1813 were dropped when, year after year, anti-Nazis blocked their route.
But in more conservative Dresden they held annual "memorial marches" on the anniversary of the huge wartime bombing of Dresden which killed 25,000 people. Playing on the strong feelings in the city, they misused the commemoration by claiming that this had been Dresden's Holocaust which had balanced out "that other one".
Last year anti-fascists found this intolerable. Fascism is not an opinion but a crime, they said, and 10,000 people, an alliance of left-wing groups, sat down for a long day in icy weather, blocking off all streets around the station where the Nazis inside choked with helpless anger at the dramatic defeat. They vowed to make up for it this year.
Once again a right-wing court, in a final decision, gave the Nazis the permission they needed. Under public pressure nationally, the mayor of Dresden, a woman from the Christian Democrats, organized a human chain around the whole downtown area, 14,000 strong last year, 17,000 strong this year, joining hands for two minutes while bells tolled to commemorate the dead of 1945 and oppose misuse of their memory. It was a good measure in its way, but stopped no Nazis, who planned, after a preliminary gathering on that day, February 13th, to set their big event for February 19th, last Saturday. 7000 or more of their number would be in Dresden for a rally and marches in various areas.
This court ruling meant the anti-fascist actions to block them were only semi-legal, and were decried by the right-wing parties (the CDU and Free Democrats) who rule Dresden and Saxony and always condemn "both right and left wing extremists" as equally harmful, though mostly stressing the latter.
Just the same, over 250 anti-Nazi buses rolled toward the city from all over Germany, with some from neighboring countries as well. Many came by car or train. The final number was estimated at well over 15,000, mostly but not only young people. I, surely one of the oldest, was in a bus which left Berlin at 5.30 AM and reached Dresden after 9.00. My young partners in this exercise in civil disobedience were all friendly, helpful and full of respect that an 82-year- old joined them. But for the police, none of us were respected! At the city limits sign we had to leave the buses and walk, walk and walk, well over five miles, with cordons of heavily armed and visored police at every turn, blocking us off and splitting the group into smaller and smaller units, with helicopters circling overhead and snarling, barking dogs on the ground. Some groups were met with tear gas and water cannon. We were luckier.
About a thousand of us, sometimes using side streets and paths through backyards, reached a spot within sight of Dresden's main station where most Nazis were due to arrive. A police barricade prevented us from getting closer, and we saw nothing of them. So we simply stayed put all day, sitting or standing in the blocked-off street. It was a damp, freezing day, but people kept their good mood the whole day. They came from the youth and student sections of the Left party, from youth sections of the Greens and Social Democrats, from a few union groups, some direct antifascist organizations, at least one atheist group, some with a sign "Queers bash the Nazis" and a smaller group of anti-fascist transvestites. I saw Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian and Chilean immigrants or exiles and quite a few anarchists with red-black or black flags.
We learned per mobile telephone that similar groups, some much larger, had assembled, despite police chicanery, at other spots around the main station.
How many Nazis showed up? Estimates ranged from 800 to 3000. No one really knows since the police, to prevent pitched battles, kept them in the station just like 2010. One possible exit point was suddenly blocked by 200 young people shouting a new slogan: "Alerta! Alerta! Antifascista!" There were simply too many of us! The police saw no way of letting the Nazis go to their meeting site, where about 40 locals waited disconsolately. Finally, totally frustrated, they gave up; about 500 took the train to Leipzig, Saxony's second city, but were not allowed to demonstrate there. Late that night the media reported briefly that there had been violence when a group of so-called autonomists broke windows, set trash on fire and threw stones or bottles at the police. The organizers of the action in the buses had stressed our non-violent methods, with all such actions taboo, but some always seem happy to provide the desired nasty headlines for the mass media. Many suspected that provocateurs had again been at work. This gave the police, who had been sent in from the most distant regions of Germany, to attack the press center of the anti-fascist demonstration in the building of the Left party, kicking in doors, hurting one person and seizing computers. They suspected plans for violence, they claimed.
But as our thousands made our way through town to get to our buses (I was back in Berlin at 10.30), we were certain that we had once again used a form of civil disobedience, in the spirit of Thoreau and Martin Luther King (but also in the fighting spirit of the Lincoln Battalion and other volunteers in Spain 75 years earlier, and still using the slogan Non pasaran!) and been able to prevent at least one fascist march. They remained a hateful menace, but had suffered one more real defeat and would perhaps give up on Dresden in future. It was a hard day, especially for elder participants like me, but more than satisfying.
I will close with a non-Elbe note about that glamorous Defense Minister, Baron von und zu Guttenberg. After it was found that his long doctorate thesis about constitutional law in the USA and Europe contained almost a hundred text sections from other sources without quotation marks or footnotes, this go-getter type was again in a corner. He insisted that he had not committed plagiarism, but would drop his title of doctor until the university made its decision. But the suspicion arose, as yet unproven, that he actually did not plagiarize, but that the whole lengthy thesis was written by one or more ghost-writers, possibly research aides in the Bundestag and paid for with taxpayer money. Meanwhile more German soldiers he had sent to Afghanistan were killed and wounded, shot by an Afghan soldier in uniform, trained by NATO to take over. Such training was the rationale for sending foreign armies there.
It was indeed a weekend full of news.