Germany: WASG Berlin election in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Berlin

A campaigner’s report

The following report, by Christian Bunke, gives his impression after spending weeks campaigning for the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice) in recent Berlin city elections (see last week’s reports on for full analysis of the election results). Christian was brought up in Germany, and now lives in England, where is an active member of the Socialist Party, the sister party of SAV (CWI Germany).

WASG Berlin election in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Berlin

Hellersdorf was originally a small village on the outskirts of Berlin. In the 1970s, the GDR government (the former Stalinist state) started a massive housing programme and a huge housing estate was built during the space of just a few years. These flats still stand today. I have seen some of them from the inside and they are actually very good flats to live in. The GDR tower blocks may not look very nice from the outside, but as part of the housing programme, a lot of trees were planted in the area. Marzahn is a very green area.

In the Stalinist GDR, housing was officially a human right. Eradicating homelessness was, therefore, a government priority. However, those higher up in the hierarchy got preferential treatment. The first ones to move into the new flats were those higher placed in the GDR state machinery and their families. If you were not married or had no children, you were very far down the list. This is one of the ways the contradictions of GDR society expressed itself. The planned economy, and some elements of official state ideology, was far more progressive then western capitalism. But the bureaucracy used the planned economy to ensure the loyalty of those working for it, by giving them certain privileges, like the swanky new homes in Marzahn Hellersdorf.

Before the 2006 Berlin elections, the post-Stalinist PDS (former ruling communist party in the GDR) could count on a 52% majority in Marzahn. The hardcore of this vote comes from that caste of people described above.

In the 1990s, Marzahn developed a reputation for being a neo-fascist stronghold in east Berlin. Even today people wearing openly fascist clothing walk around in Marzahn. This is part of life there. On the other hand, Marzahn does have a history of left wing struggle, which is sometimes forgotten by many on the left. Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE), which was initiated by the CWI in Europe, was active branch in Marzahn in the 1990s.

It is hard to believe today, but the PDS (now called the L.PDS), once was an opposition party in Marzahn. When it was in opposition in the 1990s, the PDS promised fundamental opposition to all cuts and a massive building programme of public services, especially for the youth. They gained a majority in the local Bezirksverordnetenversammlung (BVV) which is like a local borough council. At that time, the Berlin ‘red-red’ (social democrats and former communist party – SPD-L.PDS) coalition did not exist. The PDS was in opposition in Berlin. In Marzahn, the PDS started to fulfil their promises. They built many youth clubs and demanded the state authority of Berlin should come up with the money for the spending.

‘Budget consolidation’

Then, in 2001, the red-red coalition came into existence. So-called ‘Fundamentalism’ was thrown out of the window and ‘Budget consolidation’ became the new buzzword. In Marzahn, the PDS closed down almost 40% of the youth clubs they had just built. This was the beginning of the neo-liberal onslaught against which the Berlin WASG stood in these city elections. When campaigning in Marzahn, I often encountered very deep cynicism towards political parties that claim they “are different" to all the other parties. The sell-out by the PDS is one of the factors leading to this common attitude.

A comrade from Leipzig told me about the effect the Monday demonstrations during 2004 against the ‘Hartz 4 reforms’ had on people in the east. He said that the defeat of this movement, the experience that politicians just don’t care and won’t listen, has deepened widespread frustration and feelings of helplessness.

This is something I encountered repeatedly outside the job centre in Springpfuhl/Marzahn. People wishing us good luck, but said “you won’t achieve anything” and “the politicians and the rich will do anyway what they want.”

Yet, there is potential for struggle in Marzahn. The LPDS want to close down schools in the area. The local school students unions mobilised for school student walkouts on 13 September, which brought out, at least, 8,000 on a protest in central Berlin. There was a strong Marzahn contingent on this demonstration.

There is a strong regional identity amongst people from Marzahn, particularly amongst youth, who wear t-shirts with displaying "Eastside/Marzahn: Don’t mess with it." Marzahn officially has over 20% unemployment. Local WASG activists say the real figure is double that. "Everyday you can see young people leaving school and walking straight into the job centre. It is heartbreaking. It was not like this in the GDR. Having a job was a human right then." This is how one of the local WASG members described the situation.

During the election campaign, we had stalls outside the jobcentre almost daily. We would start at 8am and work through until around 4pm. For the four weeks I was there, it was very interesting to see the reactions of people and the development of the mood during the election campaign.

Older generation

The older generation grew up in the GDR and then witnessed over 15 years of capitalist restoration in the east. They believe they lived in a more progressive society, although they have very different analysis and opinions about the GDR regime. No-one says the GDR was perfect; everyone says a lot of mistakes where made. There is hatred for those who fled the GDR, especially the ‘celebrities’ who did so. "They should have helped us making the place better, rather then running away and becoming house pets of the west," one person commented to me. There is also hatred for the bureaucrats, especially those who were bureaucrats in the GDR and who are still privileged, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example. One person commented to me, “If the GDR still existed, she would be high up in the ruling party. Now she does the same job for the capitalists."

Many people who spoke like this come from the generation that moved into the Marzahn tower blocks in the 1970s and 1980s. They were loyal GDR citizens but also thinking ones. They were taught a Stalinist version of Marxism in school. “I never believed them when they told us about the horrors of capitalism. I always had to laugh at the official state propaganda. I thought it couldn’t be that bad, that they exaggerated the excesses of capital. But now I know they were right. Marx was right. Capitalism really is that bad,” said another person outside a job centre.

This generation thought a lot about what was wrong with the GDR, where it went wrong, what was good about it and so on. Some of these people are open to Trotskyist ideas. Some have read Trotsky’s book ‘Revolution Betrayed’, about the Stalinist Soviet Union, written in the 1930s. It was banned in the GDR but people there knew how to "organise" to get hold of banned goods. This is a minority. However, a public meeting about the GDR – was it a viable alternative and what does the experience of the GDR teach us about the struggle for a socialist society today? – which would bring a Trotskyist analysis to bear on Stalinism, would probably get a good response.

L.PDS intimidation and hatred

During our campaign, which also involved leafleting local tube stations, running stalls outside shopping centres, and participating at political meetings, we were faced with an orchestrated campaign of intimidation and hatred from the L.PDS. They had no political arguments to defend their stronghold of Marzahn and thus used old Stalinist methods against the WASG. This started months ago. When local WASG members collected signatures, so they could stand in the election, L.PDS members living in the local area told people that all signatures would be sent straight to the state secret services. They tried to shipwreck the local WASG branch by flooding L.PDS members into it. They tried every bureaucratic trick possible to stop the local WASG branch from contesting the election. During the elections, L.PDS members and sympathisers, denounced WASG members as “splitters, liars, traitors” and worse. WASG members were thrown out of an anti-fascist music festival, financed by the L.PDS. in Marzahn. They were ‘escorted’ from the premises by security guards.

But to no avail. The L.PDS vote in Marzahn collapsed. They lost about 30% of their vote. This was to be expected. During our campaign we met many people who felt finished politically. These are angry, frustrated people, filled with helpless rage. They either think that nothing can be done, or that in any case instead of voting, people should arm themselves and "shoot all the bloody politicians".

"We need a revolution, an uprising. We need riots in the streets. Stalls and handing out leaflets won’t help anymore." This is one typical comment from this group of disillusioned people, who are mainly unemployed, and between 20 and 40 years old. These are the non-voters, people who won’t vote L.PDS, anymore. If they have voted, they will have voted WASG or, such is their anger, frustration and disorientation, even for the far right.

The fascist NPD hoped to achieve a breakthrough in areas like Marzahn. They didn’t. Although there is an open fascist presence in the streets of Marzahn, the vast majority of people in the area are not attracted to the far right. "Out of frustration, people will vote for the far right. But they know it is wrong to vote for the fascists. Everyone here knows what fascism means. But it is the rage that drives people to do it." This sums up what many people told us about the far right. No doubt, the presence of the WASG prevented the NPD from achieving their political aims in Berlin during this election campaign. This alone justifies our election campaign.

When discussing on the streets, I always argued the profit driven system needs to be overthrown, if we want to build a socialist society. But it is necessary to organise to achieve that gaol; we need to build a socialist party that organises and unites workers, youth and the unemployed. Such a party is not just something to vote for, but rather a weapon to be used against the politicians and the bosses.

Fighting back

This did strike a chord. There is an openness to organise and fight in Marzahn, if a clear alternative is given and if consistent campaigning work is done. We have to be honest with people and tell them that just complaining about the situation won’t change their situation. We have to give them the confidence to believe they can organise. For that a consistent campaigning presence in the area, with regular stalls outside job centres, schools and shopping centres, for example, is needed. “Will you still be here with your stalls after the election?” was an often asked question. People who asked this may well not have voted WASG but they hope that an organisation emerges from our election campaign that is a campaigning presence in the area. There is potential, not only to build a broad left formation in Marzahn, but also an SAV (CWI in Germany) branch.

There is potential for resistance and for socialist ideas in Marzahn/Hellersdorf. The SAV already has members and branches in east Germany. Over 40 years of Stalinism created a very different way of looking at things in the east. Surveys show that the vast majority of people in the east think of socialism as a “good idea” that was carried out “badly”. With the correct approach politically, the SAV can, and will, grow in east Berlin.

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September 2006