Blunders, Splits and War
Berlin has still seen no real snow – but instead - lots of “mist.” In German “Mist” means manure, BS, or, to quote Google: “crap, sh-t, dammit!”). Some suggest it derives originally from visiting American basketballers a century ago who, when a shot failed, said “Missed” - and were misunderstood.
True or not, dammit, we were hit by it. In September 2021, in a complicated election, the Berlin minister in charge screwed up; ballots were wrongly delivered, polling stations lacked ballots, voters waited in long lines (like certain areas in US cities) to elect each district’s national Bundestag delegate, its city council delegate and its borough council delegate, each on a separate ballot requiring two X’s each (for person and for party), then dropped into three boxes (no machines). And also a Yes or No vote on a referendum to “Confiscate Deutsche Wohnen,” Berlin’s biggest owner (and exploiter) of Berlin apartment houses. The courts finally ruled that (except for the referendum) the vote must be completely repeated, so thousands of new posters with smiling faces and empty words now decorate lamp poles all over town - until the repeated election day on February 16th.
The Christian Democrats (CDU), Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, at about 20% each, are vying for first place. But the CDU, now slightly in the lead, can find no partners in Berlin; no party dares to team up with the fascistic Alternative for Germany, and it would never ever join hands with the LINKE (Left)! It seems inevitable that the SPD and Greens will again tie up with the LINKE, whose votes (currently polling at 12%) would add enough seats to top the half-way mark and renew the present triumvirate.
But these three have no real love for each other; it’s a compulsory ménage à trois, with the Greens hoping for first place so they can replace Franziska Giffey (SPD) as mayor. Her pleasant manner and good looks may help her win some voters, but with Berlin politics shakier than ever, not enough.
New Year’s Eve in Germany, above all Berlin, is marked for hours before and after a midnight climax by millions of private fireworks. Groups near almost every building set them off with loud explosions, often from boxes with 6, 9, up to 36 linked rockets, shooting up and ending in sparkling, many-colored showers. Many enthusiasts save up for them for months, often smuggling in products made in Poland but forbidden here. There are always injuries and fires; a common defense is: “… but far less deadly than in the USA – here with fireworks not firearms!” Every year churches, environmentalists and animal lovers denounce them, always in vain, except that the official fireworks at Brandenburg Gate have been replaced by a fancy light display.
But perhaps because of a two-year covid hiatus, the display got out of hand this time, especially in a low-income neighborhood where Mayor Giffey was once borough mayor. Instead of firing in the air, groups of young men aimed fireworks at the police and even at firemen trying to put out some of the blazes. 41 policemen and 14 firemen were listed as injured and over 140 people arrested.
As always, the usual “law and order” voices grabbed the mics to denounce “weak-kneed politicians on the left” (for them the SPD and Greens were still “left”) who were going easy on “youth crime and violence,” with more than a hint that “those foreigners” and their “different cultures” were again to blame, joined of course by “antifa terrorists”. Social reasons for young people’s anger: “stop and frisk” discrimination and police strong-arm tactics, lack of decent schools and jobs were dismissed, while rightist hopes to use racism to win votes in Berlin and three more state elections were obvious.
Other young people in Berlin (and Munich) were making trouble in very different ways, like gluing their hands to the street, blocking traffic to protest official foot-dragging in saving the environment.
In a far more popular effort in the same cause, protesters in the tiny village of Lützerath near the Dutch border held out for weeks, often in empty buildings (the villagers had to leave long ago), in little makeshift tree huts, and most recently sitting on the tops of tall tripods or in deep tunnels. Their aim was to prevent monstrous excavators from extending mile-wide open pit mines for lignite coal.
Last week they were countered by a giant police force from all around Germany, and after an ultimatum expired the men in uniform moved in, with cranes, tear gas, dogs, even on horseback, tearing down the huts, ordering all protesters to leave and arresting those who refused. At first there was little violence except for a few fireworks recalling Berlin on New Year’s Eve - and allegedly a Molotov cocktail tossed into a street in angry retribution. Then, on Sunday, up to perhaps 35,000 gathered in a mass protest, defying rain showers in a peaceful demonstration (also with Greta Thunberg). But when one group also defied police orders and gathered in protest at the edge of the excavation the police again resorted to violence and there were many injuries, including dog bites.
Behind the battalions of finally triumphant cops the protesters faced two other foes. One consisted of politicians. It may still surprise a few that they include not only loud-mouth right-wing “Christian Democrats” but also soft-spoken Green cabinet ministers who rule with them in a joint coalition in that state, North Rhine-Westphalia. And also on the national level, the man largely responsible for continuing such excavations is none other than Robert Habeck, a leading minister in another coalition government at the top as well as co-chair of the Green party, which was once so active in joining and leading just such protests. That was decades ago, however; it is still embarrassing if only because of the party name. That was audible in Habeck’s excuse about two giant power plants; supposed to be shut down by January 1st they will now emit smoke and fumes from the mined lignite at least until April. “It was not my personal plan nor the plan of our coalition to return the plants back into the network,“ he said, “but there's a war on in the Ukraine, and thus half of German gas imports are missing.” The same reasoning is offered for huge new docks now unloading liquidized gas from the USA, and endangering famed extensive mud flats used – and needed - by migratory shore birds.
Behind the Green-CDU coalition in the state where Lützerath is – or was - located, there is a third adversary: the mine-owner. RWE once helped finance Hitler’s rise, raked in millions by using slave labor during Word War Two and since then has become alternately first or second among Germany’s four giant energy providers. It decidedly does not want to lose the many-digit profits it wins from atomic and lignite power; its CEO alone pockets personally over €5 million a year. Who would want to lose any of that? So - damn the environment or anyone trying to save it! And as many have found; ten thousand or so euros donated in the right places can be greatly appreciated and well worth it.
Here’s an interesting footnote; the largest single shareholder of RWE stocks in 2021 was the US asset management company BlackRock. Together with its sibling in Pennsylvania, Vanguard, BlackRock will soon control world investments worth 20 trillion dollars. According to a Bloomberg report, that will make it “the fourth branch of government”.
And another footnote; the referendum in Berlin in September 2021 - “Confiscate Deutsche Wohnen” - got over a million “Ja” votes (56.4%) and affected all companies owning more than 3,000 Berlin apartments. Deutsche Wohnen owns 155,000. It has since been taken over by a far bigger real estate raptor, Vonrovia, which owns 11,000 apartments in Berlin but 550,000 in all Germany. And strange to say, BlackRock has been financially connected with both of them. It’s a small world!
One more biggy footnote; Elon Musk built his first European Gigafactory for electric Teslas southeast of Berlin, after chopping down half a forest. There are already rumors of dissatisfaction and a union start-up. BlackRock may also have a finger or two in there - but no talk yet of confiscating Tesla.
That demand for confiscation, despite its million supporters, is seen differently within the trio governing Berlin. Franzisca Giffey, the Social Democrat mayor (at least until the February 16th vote and a possible change in ranking), has never hidden her opposition to such a radical move, which means more public ownership, smells too much of old GDR low rent public housing, and displeases those real estate raptors with whom she gets along so cosily. The Greens, though also getting along better and better with big business, not only in Lützerath, could not ignore voters and young rebels in their ranks in Berlin and verbally approved (compensated) confiscation but refrained from any active support.
That left only the Linke within the ruling coalition trio. And even that is misty, for Berlin’s “reformer” Linke leaders had agreed to submit confiscation questions to a special commission for a year, which some feared meant letting it die of dehydration. But now, possibly motivated by the election re-run, Berlin’s Left leaders have revived it as an issue. Berlin suffers fearfully from a lack of apartments and, like so many other items, rents are soaring – and are doubtless for many the most crucial issue.
The lack of homes for working class and also for middle-class seekers is a nation-wide emergency. Somehow, allegedly due to rising costs, there is never enough money to build affordable homes, repair schools, open needed kindergartens and reverse damaging reductions in public health care.
What there is aways enough for, somehow, is rearmament and ever bigger weapons for the Ukraine, which is also called “National Security” – in a powerful land surrounded by allies and threatened by no-one. In the government coalition the Greens blow the loudest military bugles; the Free Democrats are always enthusiastic if more big money is to be made and it is taxed less. Some Social Democrats (SPD) have been reluctant to rush full steam down the military track, and some industrial groups preferred trade (and peace) to moving toward conflict with Russia and China; but they have been almost fully intimidated by a media offensive stamping any questioning of official policy as “Putin-friendship”. In line with this massive increase in Mist (the German definition), Chancellor Scholz called for € 100 billion for the armed forces, a demand happily welcomed by arms manufacturers, German or American, who always rejoice at escalation of USA-Russian confrontation. Though paired with sympathy for the Ukrainians, of course, the aggressive tones regarding Russia, reverberating almost everywhere, remind some historians of the atmosphere in Germany during most of the past century, as in 1914, with all the ”Hurrah” shouting against “our enemies,” but rejected almost alone at first by a courageous Karl Liebknecht, who dared to openly oppose war credits for the army which nearly all Social Democratic leaders had approved – and for which he was first drafted, then jailed and, since he remained rebellious, finally beaten to death, 109 years ago.
His memory, and that of the great Rosa Luxemburg, also murdered on the same day, was again remembered in Berlin on Sunday. But what about his political heritage? And his legendary anti-war words: “The main enemy is in one’s own home country”?
Today the Linke is tragically split, on both political approaches and personalities. Some demand less concentration on parliamentary chambers and more aggressive activity in the streets, factories, shops, colleges and job centers, aimed at building resistance to forces like RWE, Aldi, Vonova, Deutsche Wohnen, or ThyssenKrupp, Daimler-Benz and Rheinmetall, which want to rule the nation and Europe – or more. Some argue about the question of ending their rule entirely, the goal for which Karl and Rosa lived and died. Others stress gender questions or positions on immigration.
But most worrisome is the split about the present war. Some in the Left downplay the role of NATO, call for total condemnation of Russian imperialism and total military support for the Ukraine, in agreement with most media positions. Such views are strong in the Linke, at least on its upper levels.
Sharply opposed are those who fully support Putin and see his policies and actions, and the war, as basically self-defense. They describe the long history of US policy as already viewing a socialist Russia as a threat to its ”free market” system since 1918, when it invaded it, and until 1993 when it could defeat it. With Boris Yeltsin as its lackey, socialism was no longer an issue, but after Putin took over in 2000 the huge country again became a barrier to world hegemony – after lesser barriers had mostly been eliminated (as either leftist in Chile or simply too independent as in Libya and Iraq).
According to this analysis, Ukraine and Georgia were to be used, via EU and NATO, to overcome this giant barrier while also moving on against the even bigger one to the East. They see Putin as trying to prevent increasingly suffocating encirclement, with an annihilating arsenal moving closer and closer to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the sole warm water base of Sevastopol. To achieve this US policy a freely elected, largely neutral Ukrainian government was overthrown in Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2014, followed by an arms build-up, repression of undesirable opposition, attacks on Russian speakers while pro-fascist Bandera admirers were promoted. That, it is believed, was the basic situation until last February, when Putin decided to forestall a fatal provocation or major military move against Donbas and Crimea and by making the first move and, as he probably saw it, preclude a repeat of June 1941, when Russia was not fully prepared - and 27 million people were killed!
We cannot know the facts on secret plans or strategies, but I too am convinced that the USA leaders, with NATO, laid a clever trap, as in Afghanistan four decades earlier, with no easy exit of any kind. And the trap worked. It seems possible that Putin believed his forces could win out very quickly and not too painfully. What a misjudgment! And alas, in one year how many efforts to achieve a world of peace have been split and weakened! And how happy that makes generals and armaments makers!
In all my own tortured inner debate, I must always oppose attempts at US world hegemony and all their bloody attacks, and neither forget nor minimize the terrible killing and destruction in Vietnam, Korea, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Libya and Serbia, and the murder and torture which accompanied them. Yet somehow I recall no Iraqi or Libyan flags nor calls to sentence or jail Bush or Obama.
I know too of the years of attacks by Zelensky’s Azov troops against the Donbas people – and the estimated 14,000 deaths in those years. And yet, regardless of a very possible strategic necessity for crossing into the Ukraine, with a fear of possibly far worse events as the alternative, I cannot approve endless death and destruction, even in defense of the Donbas people. When I see the damage done at Christmas in Kharkiv I cannot help but recall Hanoi at Christmas 1972. But then US bombers destroyed 2,000 buildings and killed 287 people in one night – mostly women, children and elderly. Olof Palme of Sweden drew comparisons to Guernica, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, even Treblinka with the words, "Now another name can be added to this list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972." No, Kharkiv is not the same, the difference is immense (but forgotten), and yet – all the same – my heart is heavy at the sight of destruction in the Ukraine, at the thought of the misery there, in east and west.
These tortuous issues have created a deep split within the Linke. The party’s best-known theoretician and most popular YouTube speaker, Sahra Wagenknecht, gave a short, passionate speech in the Bundestag, demanding an end to the promotion of war enthusiasm with its almost gleeful increase in German martiality, with its demands for heavier, tougher weapons for the Ukraine and a permanent, sanctions-based break in commercial relations with Russia, a policy which might be good for some American producers but is immensely harmful for the people of Germany. She was furiously attacked by the “reformer” wing of the Linke, with some calls to expel her. Her opponents, at present the stronger wing of the party, largely omit any blame on the belligerent eastward expansion of NATO and the USA and extend blanket support to Zelensky; in other words they climb on the bandwagon. Many hope in this way to win more votes in this year’s state elections – after Berlin in Hesse, Bavaria and Bremen. But the opposite outcome is very possible.
There is talk among some who support Sahra (as she is mostly known) and some who oppose her -about a break away to form a new more militant party, favoring peace negotiations above all as well as outspoken, adversarial support for working-class rights, with some of the spirit shown at Lützerath (where Linke co-chair Janine Wissler was also present).
I have friends with very differing views on the war. I debate them willingly, often less gladly than sadly. My views also change, but I feel strongest on one main issue; no matter how difficult for both sides and regardless of our own deep differences, we must join in demanding a cease-fire and negotiations. This goal is not furthered by spending €100 billion more here or $ 857.9 billion in the USA for more and speedier, bigger and further-reaching weapons.
The threats are great, in Germany – in most of the world, almost everywhere. One must again resort to that word, “Mist” – both German and English meanings. In February, after the Berlin election, we may see more clearly. But every week before and after should see demonstrations demanding a ceasefire and negotiations! With the Left in the vanguard!
Sent from my iphone, Victor Grossman
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