A key result of the German elections is not that Angela Merkel and her double party, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavarian CSU (Christian Social Union), managed to stay in the lead with the most votes, but that they got clobbered, with the biggest loss since their founding.
A second key result is that the Social Democrats (SPD) got clobbered too, also with the worst results since the war. And since these three had been wedded in a coalition government for the past four years, their clobbering showed that many voters were not the happy, satisfied citizens often pictured by You-never-had-it-so-good-Merkel,but are worried, disturbed and angry. So angry that they rejected the leading parties of the Establishment, those representing and defending the status quo.
A third key story, the truly alarming one, is that one eighth of the voters, almost 13 percent, vented their anger in an extremely dangerous direction – for the young Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose leaders are loosely divided between far right racists and extreme right racists. With about 80 loud deputies in the new Bundestag – their first breakthrough nationally – the media must now give them far more space than before to spout their poisonous message (and most media have been more than generous with them up till now).
This danger is worst in Saxony, the strongest East German state, ruled since unification by a conservative CDU. The AfD has pushed into first place with 27 %, narrowly beating the CDU by a tenth of a percentage point, their first such victory in any state (the Left got 16.1, the SPD only 10.5 % in Saxony). The picture was all too similar in much of down-at-the-heels, discriminated East Germany and also in the once Social Democratic stronghold, the Rhineland-Ruhr region of West Germany, where many working class and even more jobless looked for enemies of the status quo – and chose the AfD. Men everywhere more than women.
It is difficult to ignore the history books. In 1928 the Nazis got only 2.6%, in 1930 this grew to 18.3%. By 1932 – to a great degree because of the Depression – they had become strongest party with well over 30%. The world knows what happened in the year that followed. Events can move fast.
The Nazis built on dissatisfaction, anger and anti-Semitism, directing people’s anger against Jews instead of the really guilty Krupps or Deutsche Bank millionaires. All too similarly, the AfD is now directing people’s anger, this time only rarely against Jews, but rather against Muslims, “Islamists”, immigrants. They have been fixated upon these “other people” who are allegedly pampered at the expense of “good German” working people, and they blame Angela Merkel and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats – even though both have been hastily retreating on this question and moving toward ever more restrictions and deportations. But never quickly enough for the AfD, who use the same tactics as in past years, thus far with all too similar success. Over a million CDU voters and nearly half a million SPD voters switched allegiance on Sunday by voting for the AfD.
There are many parallels elsewhere in Europe, but also on almost every continent. The chosen culprits in the USA are traditionally African-Americans, but then Latinos and now – as in Europe – Muslims, “Islamists”, immigrants. Attempts to counter such tactics with counter-campaigns of alarm and hatred of Russians, North Koreans or Iranians only make the matter worse – and far more dangerous, when countries with giant military might and atomic weapons are concerned. But the similarities are frightening! And in Europe Germany, in all but atomic weapons, is the strongest country.
Were there no other, better alternatives than the AfD for opponents of “staying the course”? The Free Democrats, a polite bunch with ties almost exclusively to big business, were able to achieve a strong come-back from threatened collapse, with a satisfying 10.7 percent, but not because of their meaningless slogans and clever, unprincipled leader, but because they had not been a party to the governing establishment.
Neither were the Greens and DIE LINKE (the Left). Unlike the two main parties, they both improved their votes over those of 2013 – but by only 0.5% for the Greens and 0.6% for the Left, better than a loss, but both great disappointments. The Greens, with their increasingly prosperous, intellectual and professional trend, offered no great break with the Establishment.
The Left, despite unceasingly bad media treatment, should have had a big advantage. It opposed the unpopular national coalition and took fighting stands on many issues: withdrawal of German troops from conflicts, no weapons to conflict areas (or anywhere), higher minimum wages, earlier and humane pensions, genuine taxation of the millionaires and billionaires who rip off Germans and the world.
It fought some good fights and, doing so, pushed other parties toward some improvements, out of fear of Left gains. But it also joined coalition governments in two East German states and Berlin (even heading one of them, in Thuringia). It tried hard if vainly to join in two others. In all such cases it tamed its demands, avoided rocking the boat, at least too much, for that might hinder hopes for respectability and a step up from the “disobedient” corner usually assigned to it. It found too seldom a path away from verbal battles and into the street, loudly and aggressively supporting strikers and people threatened with big layoffs, or evictions by wealthy gentrifiers, in other words engaging in a genuine challenge to the whole ailing status quo, even breaking rules now and again, not with wild revolutionary slogans or shattered windows and burnt-out dumpsters but with growing popular resistance while offering credible perspectives for the future, near and far. Where this was lacking, especially in eastern Germany, angry or worried people viewed it, too, as part of the Establishment and defender of the status quo. Sometimes, on local, even state levels, this glove fit all too well. Its almost total lack of working-class candidates played a part. Such an action program would seem the only genuine answer to menacing racists and fascists. To its credit, it opposed hatred of immigrants even though this cost it many one-time protest voters; 400,000 switched from the Left to the AfD.
One consolation; in Berlin, where it belongs to the local coalition government, the Left did well, especially in East Berlin, re-electing four candidates directly and coming closer than ever in two other boroughs, while militant Left groups in West Berlin gained more than in older East Berlin strongholds.
On the national level dramatic developments may well be in the offing. Since the SPD refuses to renew its unhappy coalition with Merkel’s double party, she will be forced, to gain a majority of seats in the Bundestag, to join with both the big business FDP and the torn, vacillating Greens. Both dislike each other heartily, while many grass-roots Greens oppose a deal with either Merkel or the equally rightwing FDP. Can those three join together and form a so-called “Jamaica coalition”- based on the colors of that country’s flag, black (CDU-CSU), yellow(FDP) and Green? If not, what then? Since no-one will join with the far-right AfD – not yet, anyway – no solution is visible, or perhaps possible.
The major question, above all, is all too clear; will it be possible to push back the menace of a party replete with echoes of a horrifying past and full of its admirers, whoever more openly want to reincarnate it, and are ready to employ any and every method to achieve their nightmare dreams. And can, as part of the defeat of this menace, such looming dangers to world peace be repelled?
Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: “Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany” (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).