The Problem is not the Nazis
Reflections on the blockade of the February 19th 2011 Nazi demonstration in Dresden.
“An antifascist who is only an antifascist is not an antifascist.”
On the 19th February 2011, for the second consecutive year, Europe's largest Nazi demonstration, organised on the occasion of Dresden's bombing at the end of WW2, was successfully blocked by leftist protesters. Walking through downtown Dresden in the evening, amidst the celebrations after the Nazis had given up and gone home, you had the impression the entire German left was gathered in Dresden.
While the successful blockade undoubtedly represents an uplifting, unifying and significant victory for the left, there are two questions I would like to raise that bear on the matter of making sense of this victory in a larger context.
First, the Nazis are a very convenient enemy to mobilise against, especially in Germany. This is not to downplay the very real threat they represent to foreigners and leftists. But it is not at all clear to what extent successfully rallying against the Nazis can consolidate the left in the struggle against the advances of neo-liberalism or Western foreign policy.
Secondly, while ostensibly protesting against the Nazis, the vast majority of the anti-Nazi protesters were actually engaged in clashes and cat-and-mouse games with the riot-police. That is to say, for the majority of the protesters, it was clear that no confrontation with Nazis would take place, and that, in this sense, they were actually taking part in an anti-police or anti-state protest. So the question arises whether this Nazi-Police-State hydra was just created by a conflation of circumstances on that day, or whether it corresponds to something more visceral, throbbing deep down in the entrails of German society.
QUICK REVIEW OF THE MAIN EVENTS
The main actors were:
the (riot-)police, 4500 strong, and equipped with water cannon, teargas and truncheons
the Nazi demonstrators, numbering between 3000 and 4000 (fewer than anticipated, perhaps as a result of the successful blockade last year). After twelve months of remobilising, the Nazis were determined that nothing in heaven or earth would prevent them from marching this time round.
the anti-Nazi protesters, between 15 000 and 20 000, consisting of locals and leftists from all over Germany mobilised and brought to Dresden in bus convoys (around 300 buses) by the organisation Dresden-Nazifrei. Among the protesters were also around 3000 members of organisations such as Antifa which dedicate themselves to disrupting Nazi events nationwide and are ready to use violence to achieve their goals.
The function of (1) was to defend (2) against (3).
The main difficulty in blocking the Nazi demo was that, as late as the very morning of February 19th , it still wasn't clear where it would take place. Three or four possible locations south of the river Elbe were considered likely Nazi rallying points. The main meeting point for the anti-Nazi protesters was the south side of one of the bridges (Marienbruecke). As events unfolded, it became clear that the most important Nazi route would lead southwards down Fritz-Loeffler Strasse from the main train station. Unfortunately, most of the anti-Nazi protesters, marching in the course of the morning from the bridge meeting-point towards the main train station, ended up stuck on the wrong (north) side of the railway tracks, all ways across which were blocked by police barriers. The police had also blocked all side streets leading to the Nazi route. The decisive factor, however, was that the police were very thinly spread, due in main part to the very considerable mayhem wreaked by the Antifa groups going around erecting barricades of burning rubbish to obstruct the path of Nazi buses, trying to push through police barriers, smashing windows of police stations, etc... It was thus possible for around 500 protesters to make it through somehow or other to the Nazi route and block it. The riot-police, though outnumbered, could easily have dispersed this blockade by deploying the sophisticated technology they'd been using all day long against other protesters and Antifa groups. However, the protesters at this blockade all looked like proper citizens, there were even a few members of the Saxon parliament and at least one member of the Bundestag (Hans-Christian Stroebele). In my opinion, if Antifa groups had made it there, or if the crowd had been less middle-class in appearance, the stormtroopers would have moved in on them. In any case, the blockade was successful, and the Nazis eventually went home (via Dresden Plauen and Leipzig, I don't want to go into too many details here). As they were about to mosey off to celebrate or to go home, the Fritz-Loeffler-Strasse protesters were encircled by extra platoons of riot-police and prevented from leaving. Though many did manage to break through the barrier, about 50 were not able or willing to escape and now face criminal charges. The day was brought to a conclusion by a violent police raid on the Dresden-Nazifrei offices.
I would like to emphasise what seems to me a crucial point. Without the chaos created by the Antifa groups, the police would have been able to protect the Nazi route, and the Nazi demo would have successfully proceeded. The peaceful anti-Nazi protesters, often in groups numbering several hundred, were all helplessly stuck in side streets in front of police barriers, 15 to 20 men strong. It's the Antifa groups that had the resolve to push through or to create the havoc leading to the possibility of a breakthrough. This fact has not been mentioned by a single mainstream media article, as far as I'm aware. The Antifa groups have been portrayed basically as delinquents availing themselves of any opportunity to have a bit of fun destroying private property or assaulting defenseless riot-police (headline: 82 police injured!).
(A lot of video footage from the demo has been posted on Youtube. Just search for Dresden 19 Februar 2011.)
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE NAZIS AND THE ESTABLISHMENT
Ted Grant, one of the founders of the Militant Tendency in the 1960s in England, writes as follows:
“To combat the working class it is not possible for the capitalists to rely only on the old forces of repression embodied in the state machine. In modern conditions no state can last very long which does not, at least in its initial stages, possess a mass basis. A military police dictatorship does not serve the purpose. The capitalists find a way out in fascism which finds its mass support in the middle class on the basis of anti-capitalist demagogy. It is important to understand that fascism represents a mass movement: that of the disillusioned middle class.” (The Menace of Fascism, 1948)
This constitutes an understanding of the nature of fascism that many Antifa members would agree with. Certainly, it is very useful when looking at Europe in the 1920s and '30s. In order to analyse what is happening in modern-day Germany, I would like to adopt Grant's definition. Accordingly, in this article the term 'fascism' will be used to denote a last resort in the class war of capitalists against a powerful left, that consists in mobilising a disillusioned middle-class by appealing to nationalist sentiment and scapegoating minorities.
Of course, the left is not powerful in Germany today (or in Europe). It does not threaten the existing political and economic structures. Nor have the business and political elites adopted a racist discourse. They do however entertain an ambiguous relationship to racist groups and racist ideology, as I hope to make clear in the following two sections. And I believe it is useful to keep in mind the above definition of fascism to understand the manifestations of this ambiguous relationship.
The left always has the potential to grow strong, mirroring as it does the natural tendency in each of us to care about others, to belong to a community, to shatter the culture of polite indifference which thrives on structures of economic inequality. As long as leftist ideas circulate, the working and middle classes together represent, as the saying goes, a sleeping giant that will always pose a latent threat to the existing structures.
The current geopolitical background is surely not reassuring to the right. I do not believe that the left in Germany (or in Europe) has gathered strength from the political momentum generated by the developments over the last decade in Latin America. Still, those developments could conceivably inspire and provide a framework for a leftist mobilisation in Europe, and recent events in North Africa no less so. (Tahrir square was very much on people's minds in Dresden on Feb 19th, as I assume it has been in Madison, Wisconsin, these past four weeks.)
The neo-liberal project of deregulation, privatisation, and cutting social spending has recently expanded in Western Europe, especially since the last financial crisis; and it is not at all clear how much the middle-class will be willing to forfeit. Certainly, the left could develop a discourse that could resonate deeply with a disillusioned middle-class, unless pre-emptive fascism is successfully deployed beforehand.
With this backdrop, consider the meaning of a Nazi-demo in Dresden. What attitude would you expect the establishment/business parties to adopt? On the one hand, the Nazis' ideology is alienating, and any open support for them would carry considerable political liabilities. On the other hand, forbidding the Nazi demo would send a clear, and hence unhelpful, message to the middle-class, making it more difficult to subsequently mobilise them against the left, should the need arise. You would thus expect class-conscious decision-makers, navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, to hem and haw and spin a web of equivocation until all issues are intractable and no-one knows right from left. Specifically, in Dresden, the tactics were on the one hand to allow the Nazi-demo on the 19th (more on this in the next section) and then, on the other, to organise a human chain against the Nazis and schedule it, considerately, on a different day (the 13th), so as not to interfere.
I propose now to look at two manifestations of pre-emptive fascism in a little more detail. The first is the decision to allow the Nazi demo, a revealing example of the contortions the establishment instinctively performs. The second is the reception of Thilo Sarrazin's book by the German mainstream. These two examples illustrate the ambiguous relationship of the establishment to racist groups and to racist ideology, respectively.
WHY WAS THE NAZI DEMO ALLOWED?
According to the law (Versammlungsgesetz), all German citizens have a right to organise and take part in a demonstration, though they must have it registered with the appropriate authorities at least two days before it takes place. It is this law, anchored in the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly (Versammlungsfreiheit), that supposedly compels the city of Dresden to allow a Nazi demonstration and, if necessary, to defend it against possible disruptions.
You will have noticed that I deviously snuck a 'supposedly' into the last sentence. It seems to me that, given the circumstances, the highest administrative court of law in Saxony (Oberverwaltungsgericht in Bautzen), to which the case was referred after the usual tortuous process of appeals up the judicial ladder, could have justified denying the Nazis the right to demonstrate in Dresden. It seems very significant to me that they didn't do so. Indeed, according to the very same article of German law, the responsible authorities may forbid the demonstration if there are concrete indications that its taking place could lead to serious disturbances. This was obviously the case for the Feb 19th demo.
There are other issues involved here. One obvious question is whether constitutional rights also extend to groups whose ideology is declared to be unconstitutional. At this point, the whole debate becomes kind of surreal. The Nazi party is, of course, forbidden in Germany. Nazi paraphernalia are also forbidden, as is reading or owning 'Mein Kampf', no matter how high Churchill's esteem for it. Indeed, in 2009, of the 19,468 right-wing criminal offences registered by the police, 13,295 were “propaganda crimes”, that is, fooling around with swastikas, or giving the Nazi salute, distributing pro-Nazi literature, etc... In fact, I am using the word 'Nazi' in this article, but, strictly speaking, the Nazi demo was not a Nazi demo, because there is no Nazi party in Germany. The (not-)Nazi demo was organised mainly by the NPD, which stands not for Narcissistic Personality Disorder but for Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, a political party which is, uh, let us say 'associated' with the Nazi scene, but whose official discourse avoids unequivocal rhetoric.
By the way, the NPD's position regarding foreigners in Germany is, in all essentials, indistinguishable from that of establishment business political parties such as the CDU or FDP. Their discourse basically draws the outlines of a world where hardworking Germans don't want their taxes to go towards social benefits for jobless foreigners who can't even speak German properly and who get up at noon (fuckers!) and sit on their arse all day getting drunk while their delinquent children terrorise German kids in German schools.
Getting back to the NPD, in 2001, the German federal government, under Schroeder, instigated proceedings, approved by the German legislature and supported by all main political parties except the FDP, to have the Federal Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgericht) investigate the NPD with a view to forbidding it. In 2003, these proceedings were discontinued on account of procedural irregularities. It turns out the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) had so many undercover agents within the NPD that most of the evidence gathered was deemed unusable. So the situation is that there is a consensus that the NPD should be forbidden, but we have to wait before the case is presented before the Constitutional Court again until the procedural hurdles are removed. In the mean time, the NPD can organise demos in Dresden, and if the left successfully blocks the march, that's a criminal offence since such actions infringe the NPD's constitutionally enshrined right to demonstrate.
Meanwhile, the threat posed by the Nazis is not hypothetical. According to RAA-Sachsen, an organisation which offers counseling to victims of racist or right-wing-motivated violence, there were 239 instances of assaults leading to bodily harm in Saxony in 2010. RAA-Sachsen points out that, very likely, many victims do not seek assistance out of fear or shame, so 239 is a lower bound.
In fact, during the February 19th demo, a group of Nazis attacked an alternative leftist housing project (in the district Loebtau). The assault lasted about ten minutes and part of it was even posted on Youtube. You can see for yourself that there is a police patrol-car down the road, just looking on. Obviously, protecting people in their home against Nazis was not deemed as important as preventing protesters from reaching Fritz-Loeffler Strasse: no riot-police were sent to protect the house in question.
My point is that, given the circumstances, the highest administrative court of law in Saxony could have justified forbidding the Nazi demo. Not only did they choose to allow it, the final decision was taken on the morning of the 19th and, as already mentioned, the location of the demo kept secret thus stymieing the anti-Nazi protesters.
THE THILO SARRAZIN PHENOMENON
Thilo Sarrazin is a German politician (SPD) and former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank. His 2010 book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (something like “Germany is going to the dogs”) is the most popular German book on politics in a decade, and has sold over a million copies. In this book, Sarrazin makes the following points:
The social costs of Muslim immigration are much higher than the resulting economic gains.
Turks and Arabs make like effort to learn German. This is a manifestation of their lack of interest in German culture and in education in general, and of their unwillingness to integrate successfully in German society.
Intelligence is genetically inherited. It is well-known that the percentage of congenital disabilities among Turkish and Kurd immigrants is above average. Since Muslim immigrants have more children than Germans, there's a danger that the level of intelligence in Germany is going to sink.
Immigrants are disproportionately criminal.
What strikes me as particularly significant is that, in a book about immigrants in Germany, the theme of genetically inherited intelligence plays an important role. You would have expected this fact alone to condemn the book to ridicule. None of Sarrazin's claims stand up to serious examination. I refer here to a dossier called 'Sarrazins Thesen auf dem Prüfstand' written by Korinna Schaefer, Coskun Canan, Benjamin Schwarze, and edited by Naika Foroutan. There's also a little booklet called 'Linke Argumente gegen rechte Hetze' published by Die Linke that goes through many of Sarrazin's claims and shows how they are contradicted by the findings of major studies such as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009.
In the German edition of Lettre International, No. 86 (2009), Sarrazin explains that 'I don't owe any respect to someone who rejects the very state he lives off, who doesn't provide for his children's education, and regularly produces new little headscarf-girls (Kopftuchmaedchen). This is the case for 70% of the Turks and 90% of the Arab population in Berlin.' Rebuked for having invented these statistics, he said that 'when you don't have a number, you have to create one that points in the right direction, and when nobody can disprove your figure, then your estimate has asserted itself.' (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Heft 10, 2010)
So we've got this bitter old guy writing a racist book. Big deal! Well, it is a big deal, because of its reception in Germany. Commentary in the mainstream media has typically taken up one of the two following strategic positions:
Outright celebration of the fact that, finally, a politician has the guts to formulate what everybody was already thinking but no-one dared to say out loud. Sarrazin portrayed as nonconformist intellectual wrestling with the nation's taboos.
Some distance from all that genetics stuff in his book, but gratitude that, finally, such an important debate has been placed on center stage. Thank you Herr Sarrazin!
Outright rejection of his ravings, the only reasonable position, has featured only very marginally in the intensive debates. There was a scandal around something he said in an interview about Jews all sharing a certain gene, but in my opinion that whole media show, instead of constituting a sober challenge to his ideas, only served to further distract from the real issues at stake. For example, apart from ignoring the fact that all his 'hard science' is sheer invention and distortion, the debate never included a serious examination of the reasons why Turks and Kurds end up living in Germany, or of the role Western countries have played in enabling and supporting the repression of the Kurds in Turkey. Nonetheless, Sarrazin has managed to portray himself as the victim of a vicious media campaign. That's quite a feat when you consider that the Deutsche Verlagsanstalt (DVA), Sarrazin's publisher and subsidiary of Bertelsmann, was able to ensure that, in the weeks leading to the book's appearance, journalists were not allowed to report on it, with the notable exception of articles in Spiegel and Bild which whetted the public's appetite for Sarrazin's controversial theses, thus guaranteeing maximum positive pre-release publicity.
The result: according to an article in the Handelsblatt from September 2010, 56% of Germans believe Sarrazin is right, and 68% believe that immigrants do not show sufficient willingness to integrate.
It is a mere truism that, in a society characterised by economic and political inequality, and in times of social spending cuts, scapegoating immigrants is perceived as useful by certain sectors. The debate is shifted away from important questions whose exploration would very probably strengthen the left, and passions are inflamed by controversies whose only merit is to be compelling enough to perform this function. In the case of the Sarrazin book, the controversy was contrived by absorbing into public discourse a rhetoric rooted in racist ideology. A highly publicised engagement with such rhetoric on its own terms, no matter how critical, validates and legitimises the values and ideology this rhetoric incarnates, giving them official imprimatur and investing them with respectability and a priori plausibility.
When political parties such as the FDP and the CDU, many of whose prominent members have actively participated in the Sarrazin debate thus implicitly subscribing to its ideological framework, support the Nazis' right to demonstrate and then organise a human-chain on a different day from the Nazi-demo, one has the right to be suspicious about their intentions. It seems plausible that their main concern was to perform the balancing-act of opposing the efforts to block the Nazi-demo whilst giving the appearance of distancing themselves from it. After the demo had been successfully blocked by the left, they tried to instrumentalise the events as much as possible to discredit and vilify the left, with the vast majority of pundits in the mainstream media expressing outrage at the violent clashes between leftists and police. You got the impression everything was just fine until leftist hooligans descended on Dresden to wreak havoc.
The Nazi demos in Dresden started in the late 1990s, and reached a first landmark with around 5000 demonstrators in 2005, the year the NPD won their first seats in the Saxon parliament. The demos grew from year to year until 2009 when 7000 Nazis marched through Dresden. Thanks to the successful 2010 blockade they were down to fewer than 4000 this year. What will happen next year? Will the Nazi-demo be allowed again? Will the police turn up in sufficient numbers to defeat the left and the blockade?
Identifying the ambiguous relationship between the establishment and the Nazis represents an answer to the second question I asked at the outset. With respect to the first question, I hope my arguments can serve as a basis for widening the scope of the mobilisation against the Nazis to include issues that are immediately relevant to the struggle to transform the existing social structure. That is to say, by mobilising not only against the Nazis, but also against the ambiguous stance of the establishment towards them, against the reaction of the establishment to the 2011 blockade, and against other manifestations of what I have termed pre-emptive fascism, the anti-Nazi protests can be integrated within the broader agenda of the left, and they can galvanise the left by the focus and the passions they arouse, and by their success.