Three all-German congresses were held this past weekend, all important but very different.
The bad news first: The beautiful old city of Bamberg hosted the national congress of the National Party (NPD) -- the main neo-Nazi party. All attempts to bar it from the city's Congress Hall foundered on a Bavarian court decision, since the party is legal. The 500 or so delegates, ranging from ancient Nazi SS-veterans to the plug-ugly toughs who beat up foreigners, the homeless, and the handicapped, were dominated by well-dressed "new Neo-Nazis," now striving with some success to enter the local and state political scene and perhaps even the federal Bundestag in 2009. They are launching more and more popular activities like town fairs and stealing progressive slogans on jobs, pensions, wages, and even the rejection of military adventures, but always betray their true nature by attacks on "non-Germans." Three counterdemonstrations involved some 3-4,000 people, even the mayor and the bishop. The most militant group had the usual run-in with the police, who as usual protected the neo-Nazis and arrested twenty anti-Nazi militants.
Balancing this in Berlin was a congress of the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime/Union of Antifascist Men and Women (VVN-BDA), an amalgamation of former East and West German organizations. About 200 delegates met under the slogan "Joining together against attacks on human rights, fascism, and war." Survivors of the Hitler years -- in exile, concentration camps, or armed struggle in Spain, in the underground or in allied armies -- are rapidly thinning out, so a main aim is to win young members, like those demonstrating against neo-Nazis in Bamberg.
One key campaign is to get the NPD forbidden as a legal party; the petition to achieve this states that "Fascism is no political position, it is a crime." Forbidding the party would hardly end its growing menace but would prevent neo-Nazis from using the large sums of the government money offered all political parties to spread hate propaganda and would end the legal protection the NPD receives for its weekly marches and rallies all over Germany.
Another congress aim was to oppose growing attempts to equate Nazi rule with the GDR as "two dictatorships," thus downgrading in people's minds the degree of torture and murder of millions by the Nazis while squelching increasing dissatisfaction with the prevailing capitalist system.
Finally, in the East German city Cottbus, the party called The Left (Die Linke) had its first regular congress since its founding a year ago. Also an amalgamation -- of the former Party of Democratic Socialism in East Germany (a child of the old ruling party of the GDR) and a young West German organization of militant trade unionists and disgruntled Social Democrats -- it has amazingly altered the entire political scene in Germany. Formerly there were four main parties, two right-wing and two vaguely left of center (Social Democrats and Greens) who had however abandoned virtually all former positions on social and international issues. The emergence of the Left, which has already overcome the five percent barrier and won seats in four West German states (in Eastern Germany and Berlin it is already the first, second, or occasionally third party), has changed the entire constellation. With poll and election figures varying from 6 to 13 percent, it has forced the old parties to alter their programs if they are not to lose even more votes and elections. Almost suddenly they picked up the call of the Left for a minimum wage -- hitherto a taboo theme. They suddenly discovered how unjust the pension schemes were -- for which all four old parties were responsible -- and which the Left had attacked. Affordable child care --available to all families in the GDR and now championed by the Left -- was now championed even by the right-wing Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel, though goals were set for many years in the future.
Even in foreign policy: the Left demanded withdrawal from all military ventures outside Germany. This was unattainable but Germany has been far more cautious in the past year.
The next big test will be the state elections in September in Bavaria, the most rightwing state. If the Left can overcome the 5 percent hurdle there, and help break the power of the so-called Christian ruling party, the whole German situation will be further changed, even before the national elections in 2009.
This was the upbeat message at the Cottbus congress. To answer accusations by the almost entirely hostile media that the Left made "populist" demands for social improvements which were financially unrealizable, the party offered a long list of areas where the growing number of millionaires and billionaires could finally be forced to pay taxes.
Almost inevitably, a main media focus was on possible disagreements and splits. Undeniably, two general tendencies have developed in the party. One group, largely in support of Lafontaine (ironically a former Social Democratic leader), stressed militancy: no more privatization of public utilities, support of union actions, even the possibility of a general strike, no departures from basic principles to reach compromises with the old parties. This policy finds support with many in West German sections of the party as well as with more "leftist" groups in the East, like those in the "Communist Platform" within the party.
The other main group stresses reforms and seems more inclined to form coalitions with the Social Democrats, as in the present Berlin government, even on the national level. The Social Democrats would have to alter their policies to some degree, it is maintained, but the question remains as to what degree -- and whether this trend is aimed too much at participation in government (with all its perks) rather than in a fighting opposition.
Gregor Gysi, a leading figure in the party and head of the large Left caucus in the Bundestag, added new issues recently by calling for a clear rejection of "anti-Zionism" and clear support for Israel. He went further by claiming that issues like imperialism and anti-imperialism were hardly relevant today, when no country is seeking colonies, and he indicated support for a sort of German consensus on such issues. A small youth group, going further, called for an end (all in one breath) to anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism, and "regressive anti-capitalism." In the historic context of Germany's past, there is an unquestioned need for a rejection of all anti-Semitism (increasingly used by right-wingers, aided by the widespread unpopularity of Israel's policy in Palestine). But labeling all criticism of Israeli military and occupation policies as anti-Semitism can represent another extreme.
This issue was hardly mentioned at the congress, but contains real perils to future unity. Indeed, there were only two hours for discussion; much time was taken for elections of party officials. The East German Lothar Bisky (81.3%) and the West German Oskar Lafontaine (78.5%) were reelected as co-chairmen, though with lower percentages than last year, partly reflecting the disapproval of some East German leaders for Lafontaine's militant positions. Four vice-presidents were elected, two from the East, two from the West, three women and a man. This ratio was reflected in the new Executive Committee, with sixteen men and nineteen women. The highest votes went to Sahra Wagenknecht, the brilliant leader of the Communist Platform (70.5 %) and Bodo Ramelow (73.6 %), the leader of the strong Left party in Thuringia and one of the top "reformers." The membership has grown since the founding convention and stands at 73,455, making it the fourth largest party in Germany.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).