Increasing polarisation in Germany

A year ago, on 24 September 2017, a right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), was elected to the German Bundestag (national parliament) for the first time. The AfD’s achievement in becoming the Bundestag’s third biggest party was a huge blow against the traditional parties and a rejection of many of their policies. Now some polls show it is overtaking the declining Social Democrats (SPD) to become the second most popular party.


A big part of the AfD’s electoral success was the result of years and decades of nationalist, racist, anti-Muslim propaganda by the ruling class, by their parties and media. In autumn 2015, when there was a large influx of refugees, Chancellor Merkel (Christian Democratic Union, CDU) proclaimed: “We can do this”. One consequence was that in recent years the public debate was marked by disputes between the allegedly refugee-friendly Chancellor Merkel and the openly racist forces within the government (above all the CSU, the Bavarian counterpart to the CDU, and its chairman Seehofer) and outside the government (above all the AfD), while in reality the government in recent years unanimously continued to worsen the situation of refugees.

Instigation against refugees

In Autumn 2015, there had been a huge wave of solidarity and help for the refugees. But after some months, capitalist parties and media started to whip up prejudices against refugees. This propaganda was a systematic distraction. Partly, refugees were blamed for real social problems, which are in reality the result of neo-liberalism and austerity policies. Partly, completely irrational fears were stirred up, especially against Muslims. But unfortunately, there was no effective campaign to counter this. Many on the Left simply used moral arguments against this wave of hostility and there was no serious fight both to deal with the real social issues and offer an alternative.

Against this background, the AfD was able to enter the Bundestag with 12.6%. This was followed by the most difficult formation of a government in post-war history. In the end, the outgoing coalition continued in office. But this coalition is made up of the parties which lost the election. All three, the CDU, CSU and SPD, have one thing in common, they all lost massive numbers of votes in the 2017 general elections. Now, according to all opinion polls, the ruling parties would lose even more in new elections. It can be said that it is, above all, the fear of new elections that holds this government together.

But although the government can temporarily avoid new elections by stumbling on, it cannot avoid the regular elections to the state parliaments. In particular, the whole of the past year was overshadowed by the upcoming state elections in Bavaria in October, a state which the CSU has ruled with an absolute majority for over 50 years (with the brief interruption of 2008-2013). The results of the Bundestag elections and all polls since then indicate that the CSU will lose the absolute majority by a wide margin this time. The CSU has, therefore, tried to get voters back from the AfD by competing with it in right-wing populism. But here, too, it is being confirmed that voters vote for the original, not the copy. According to the latest Bavarian polls the CSU is at about 36%, and the AfD about 13%, while in 2013 the CSU won 47.7% while the AfD did not even stand.

At the same time, the CSU right-wing’s attempts to raise its profile has led the federal government to stagger from crisis to crisis and there have been two serious possibilities of its collapse. The first occasion was in June over the issue of the proposals by the Federal Minister of the Interior and CSU Chairman, Seehofer, for a further tightening of refugee policy. In reality, this dispute was not about pro and anti tightening, but about whether a tightening should be agreed in the EU or enforced by a national solo effort.

The second time was in September on the issue of the President of the Verfassungsschutz (domestic secret service), Maassen, who had been appointed in 2012 by the then CSU Minister of the Interior. He was always highly controversial, but in September his trivialisation of the right-wing extremist riots in Chemnitz (see below) was the final straw. The coalition agreed to dismiss him … and at the same time to promote him to Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior – a higher paid job. Secretaries of State are the highest officials, directly under the minister. There are five of them in the Ministry of the Interior. This decision led to a wave of indignation that spread deep into the government parties. They put together a new compromise according to which Maassen will now become Seehofer’s special advisor instead (but on his old salary). We will see whether the government crisis will end for now, until the Bavarian state elections.

In addition to the instigation against refugees, the CSU whipped a new, more repressive police law through the Bavarian state parliament. However, this met with great rejection, too. On 11 May, 40,000 people demonstrated against it in the Bavarian state capital, Munich. On 15 May, the day of passage of this law, there was a 2,000 strong school student strike, in which members of Socialist Alternative (SAV – CWI in Germany) also played a role. In view of the extremely short preparation time and the lack of established structures, this was a success, but given the mood of the students, much more would have been possible with a stronger organised force.

The Nazis raise their heads

The right-wing propaganda by government parties and the media and the successes of the AfD have encouraged the fascists – both the fascist wing within the AfD and fascist forces outside. The topic they are trying to use in particular are cases of violence by refugees against Germans. In December 2017, a girl from the small southwest German town of Kandel was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend. Because the young man is a refugee from Afghanistan, fascists and other right-wingers took up the issue. On 3 March, 4,500 Nazis, hooligans, AfD supporters and others marched through Kandel. Further marches followed in the following months, but they were much smaller and were accompanied by larger counter-demonstrations.

On 27 August, the threat from the right reached a new level. This time the occasion was the manslaughter of a 35-year-old man at a city festival in Chemnitz. The victim had Cuban roots and on his Facebook page he had liked left and antifascist pages. So he was certainly not a person who fits into the Nazi world view. But since a Syrian and an Afghan were accused of the crime, Nazis and right-wing populists tried to exploit and use this crime. More than five thousand people marched through the city (again AfD members together with open Nazis), threw bottles and stones at counter-demonstrators, attacked journalists, chased foreigners through the streets, and attacked a Jewish restaurant with stones and bottles while shouting anti-semitic insults and injuring its owner. Both the Prime Minister of Saxony, Kretschmer (CDU) and the aforementioned Maassen played down the right-wing violence.

Counter protests

Already in Spring and Summer, there had been protests against AfD and the increasingly restrictive refugee policy. On 27 May, the AfD attempted a nationwide march in Berlin. Instead of the announced 10,000, only 5,000 AfD supporters came, but there were over 70,000 counter-demonstrators.

In recent years, a number of activists have been involved in civil sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Especially since the formation of the new Italian government with the right-wing Interior Minister Salvini, the work of more and more of these ships has become impossible. Activists used this forced “free time” from rescue work to organize “Seebrücke” (maritime bridge) events and rallies in Germany. Amongst the many people who, from 2015 onwards, were involved in predominantly humanitarian, charitable, largely non-political aid for the integration of refugees, some have been “burned out” though this work. Others, however, have directly witnessed the government’s increasingly racist policies and have thus become politicised. On 7 July, there was a nationwide day of action. 12,000 demonstrated in Berlin, thousands in other cities, then on 13 July, 8,000 demonstrated in Cologne. A highlight was the “end to the incitement of hate” demonstration in Munich on 23 July, with about 50,000 participants.

The shock of seeing the right-wing marches and the associated ‘foreigner hunting’ in Chemnitz led to a new wave of counter protests. The SAV also played a role in this. A demonstration we initiated, at two days’ notice, in Berlin-Neukölln on 30 August attracted 10,000 people, which exceeded our expectations many times over. Further highlights were a Seebrücke demonstration on 2 September with 16,000, and a demonstration against the Nazis with over 10,000 only three days later in Hamburg, a demonstration with 10,000 in Cologne on 16 September, a demonstration with 8,000 against a (then cancelled) visit of Seehofer in Frankfurt, and of course a solidarity concert in Chemnitz with 65,000 participants on 3 September. In the last few days, 29 September saw between 30,000 and 35,000 take part in a “United against Racism” demonstration in Hamburg.

There is no end in sight for the demonstrations. A major demonstration “against a policy of fear” is planned for 3 October in Munich, which is directed both against racist instigation and against the more repressive Bavarian police law. On 13 October, there will be a nationwide demonstration against the right under the motto “Solidarity instead of exclusion”.

The Left Party (DIE LINKE)

Unfortunately, the Left Party is not up to its tasks at the current time. For months, there has been a conflict in it over “Aufstehen” (‘standing up’), the ‘gathering movement’ initiated by one of the party’s two Bundestag leaders, Sahra Wagenknecht. Politically, it stands to the right of DIE LINKE, especially on the issue of migration where Wagenknecht calls for restrictions on migration and also in regard to economic policies, as “Aufstehen” is not explicitly anti-capitalist. It also offers fewer opportunities for democratic participation. The role models are supposed to be organisations like Podemos in the Spanish state or Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise in France. However, mass movements like those in the Spanish state in the years before the emergence of Podemos or the collapse of the French social democracy to 4.5% after Hollande’s presidency, have not yet happened in Germany.

As a result, the “Aufstehen” initiative is hanging in limbo. So far, it is in fact a seemingly hopeless attempt to pull the pro-capitalist parties SPD and Greens to the ‘left’, hoping to thus enable a coalition government with DIE LINKE. While it is one thing for DIE LINKE to try to win disappointed SPD and Green votes, it is another thing to want to form a coalition with some SPD and Green leaders, none of whom who are prepared to challenge capitalism even if they oppose the current “grand coalition”. While it is attempting to start local activities, up to now “Aufstehen” has mainly acted to deepen divisions within DIE LINKE. Although “Aufstehen” has gathered over 150,000 internet supporters, it is still not clear if it will really develop into a real movement. However, in the future if “Aufstehen” develops momentum on the basis of a general call for ‘unity’ against the right and far right, it could lead to a split off from DIE LINKE, which would weaken the left in Germany in general.

In the last years, there has been a certain amount of movement in and around DIE LINKE. On the one hand, it has been able to win young people, employees in the public sector (e.g. in hospitals) etc. as voters and members, especially in western Germany. On the other hand, it has lost some ‘protest voters’, and unemployed voters etc. in its former strongholds in east Germany, who have become non-voters. Some also went to the AfD. This is above all a consequence of the fact that DIE LINKE is seen as part of the establishment in East Germany, where it participates in the government of many municipalities and several states, while the AfD falsely claims to be an anti-establishment party.

Partly, it is also because of a contradictory consciousness which exists. A few years ago, when social issues were at the forefront, many voted left; today, when instigation against refugees dominates, they vote AfD. Sahra Wagenknecht tries to win back these voters and win former SPD supporters by (correctly) addressing the social questions and (wrongly) weakening the anti-racist stance of the party. This shows that Wagenknecht, originally on the left wing of the party, has shifted more to the right and, despite her rhetoric, is no longer seriously anti-capitalist. On the other hand, many of her internal party opponents concentrate on purely moral anti-racism, linking it insufficiently to the social questions while often defending participation in state governments, which themselves pursue racist policies, even including deportations of refugees and asylum seekers.

We, the SAV, inside DIE LINKE advocate taking up the social questions – with more radical and socialist demands than Wagenknecht advocates. For example, demanding that vacant houses used for speculative reasons be confiscated for use by homeless people, students seeking housing and refugees alike. We advocate a consistent anti-racism that not only deplores deportations, but refuses participation in state governments that carry out deportations. And we explain that we cannot rely on the capitalist state, on the police and the judiciary, but must organise and protect ourselves against Nazis.

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October 2018