Resistance to war and austerity in Germany
Two delegates of the German Left Party attended the recent protests and activities against the NATO summit in Chicago in May, including the People's Summit the week before. Die Linke was founded in 2007 as a merger of the former ruling communist party of ex-East Germany with a group of unionists and disaffected members of the center left Social Democratic Party in western Germany. Though it has suffered recent electoral setbacks, the party represents a left force in official politics, with several dozen members in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and nearly 200 members of regional parliaments.
Inge Hoger represents the state of North Rhine Westphalia in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Tobias Pflueger is a member of the executive committee of the Left Party and was elected to the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009. They spoke toabout the struggle for peace and equality in Germany and Europe.
WHAT ARE key issues we should be following out of this NATO summit?
Tobias: I think there are three main questions. The first one is what the future of Afghanistan will be. Barack Obama said the troops will be out in 2014, but he also said U.S. forces will be there in some form for another decade.
All parties in Germany say we should leave in 2014 but there is an agreement between the Afghan and German governments that they will support all the Afghan troops and police. We should be demanding the immediate withdrawal of all the troops.
The second question is this so-called missile defense program to destroy Russia's second- strike capacity. This is not really defense at all. It's actually offense--it enables the U.S. and Europe to have first-strike ability without fear of a response. Officially it's against Iran, but we know it's really against Russia.
The third one is a debate inside NATO about how to make decisions. So far, they have a consensus procedure. This enabled, for example, Turkey to block the European Union temporarily and Israel effectively from attending at the NATO summit as official participants. They want to destroy this principle of unanimity and replace it with new mechanism to overrule such objections. The big powers such as the U.S., France, Germany and Britain want to be able to set the agenda without facing effective dissent.
Inge: One key question is the future of the Afghan security force. Right now, NATO promised to contribute about $3 billion." Although this is not enough to pay the salaries of the forces already existing, NATO still continues to train new soldiers and paramilitary police forces. This is a sure recipe for a further civil war. What Afghanistan needs is not this dubious "security partnership," but instead a training initiative for civilian jobs.
A further issue is their plan for modernization of nuclear weapons in Europe. This is of grave concern, because instead of getting rid of them, they want to update and maintain them. We should be opposed to this modernization, not only because we are antiwar, but also because we should not be wasting money on weapons when Europe's governments are imposing austerity measures on our population.
WHAT ROLE did Germany play in the Afghan war, and what role did the Left Party play in opposing it?
Inge: Germany participated in this war since 2001 and is the third-biggest contributor of troops. Germany promises to reduce the personnel numbers, as the U.S. will as well, but it's unclear what the final numbers will be.
Last week, there was an agreement, a bilateral agreement between the Afghan and German governments for cooperation between both countries. Germany obliged itself to train Afghan security forces, police and military. The Afghan government also agreed to allow Germany to exploit natural resources in Afghanistan. So the agreement sets up the standard relationship between a First World country and a Third World country.
From the very beginning, the German Left Party was against this war, and when you look at opinion polls the majority of the country agrees with us. The polls says all the time that 70-80 percent say they are against this war and want to have our troops back from Afghanistan. But the government completely ignores the position of the population in Germany.
Tobias: The Left Party has taken a clear position against this war from the start. We are against all military interventions, and we've included this position in the program of the party. Nobody is able to win a leadership position inside the party who doesn't share this stance. This was a victory for the antiwar activists of the party.
WHAT ROLE has the Left Party played in the international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and in solidarity with Palestine?
Tobias: Inge is more involved than me in this and has been criticized for her position on Palestine and Israel. Unfortunately, some inside the party, together with the mainstream media, have attacked her terribly because of her principled position.
Inge: Regarding the Israel and Palestine conflict, the Left Party has adopted international law as the basis of our position on Palestine. Since Israel was established as a state, it has broken international law many times, as well as UN resolutions. But Israel is not willing to accept the resolutions. Our position is that Israel has to obey international law like any other state.
One example is the wall that Israel built a couple of years ago. This wall was officially built to protect against so-called acts of "terrorism." But it was not built on the 1967 borders; it was built in the West Bank, and separates Palestinians from each other, so people aren't able to work on their own fields. The International Court ruled that this wall is illegal. But Israel refuses to recognize that ruling.
Another example is the behavior of Israel against Gaza. Even before the war against Gaza in 2009, there was a blockade against the people in Gaza. This forced Palestinians to live in very poor conditions. This is not acceptable for us.
After the war, the situation was even worse for the people in Gaza. I took part in the Gaza flotilla to demonstrate solidarity with the people in the Gaza Strip to show that these people have a right to freedom of movement and to organize themselves. After the war, as I said, the situation was worse, and the protests were strong. But very quickly, the protests went down. Public sensibility declined, and in fact, nothing has really changed for the people in the Gaza Strip.
In Germany, it's difficult to criticize the Israeli government because of the history of the Holocaust and fascism. As soon as you express criticism, you are an object of criticism of yourself. This is even a problem about this inside the Left Party.
Tobias: Inge has acted with great courage in this situation. When she first participated in the Gaza flotilla, there was great support inside the Left Party. But then there was what you could call blowback, and she was subjected to a lot of criticism.
In the program of the Left Party, we made a compromise, which is not enough in my opinion, that we would criticize Israel from the standpoint of international law. We also accepted a line in the program that we "stand for the right of Israel to exist." At the same time, we stand for a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict within the framework of a two-state solution, and thus for the recognition under international law of an independent and viable Palestinian state on the basis of the resolutions of the United Nations.
This is the compromise at the moment, and in my opinion, it's not enough. Nevertheless, to call for the enforcement of all UN resolutions referring to this issue is a decent position. The politics of the Israeli government has nothing to do with the borders of 1967, and it is a long way away from accepting international law or the resolutions of the UN. This is a very sensitive debate inside the Left Party.
THE GERMAN economy is doing relatively well now, but led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is imposing vicious austerity measures on the weaker economies in Europe, especially Greece. What has been the Left Party approach to this situation?
Tobias: The economic situation in Germany is perverse. Inside Germany, there is a boom, but outside, in the many other European member states, there's a recession. Germany has pushed the EU to impose austerity programs that have killed off economic growth in Greece and Spain and Italy, among others. We in the Left Party say that this is the wrong program. It's necessary to stop this austerity program, and it's necessary to help the people with some kind of stimulus program.
The interesting situation in Germany is that Merkel is not really criticized for her policy on economic questions. The media and a large majority of people support this brutal economic policy. There are few hard criticisms.
This is terrible, because we need a strong movement against austerity program, but in Germany, which profits from all this, it's been very difficult to build that movement. We in the Left Party lost support in the last two elections. So we are in a weakened position to organize opposition to this austerity program.
WHAT HAS been the reaction to the movement against austerity in Greece and especially the large vote that SYRIZA in Greece won in the last election?
Tobias: Inside the Left Party, there's clear support for this struggle against austerity. We've organized a lot of solidarity actions. For example, Inge's colleague in the Bundestag, Heike Hänsel, went to Greece, joined anti-austerity demonstrations and supported SYRIZA in the election campaign.
We celebrated the big vote for SYRIZA. I personally know Alexis Tsipras very well, and I know that SYRIZA and Synapsismos have good positions on resisting the austerity measures. And I very much hope that they win the next elections. We in the Left Party should support them and do whatever is possible to help them. We have already made a declaration of left parliamentarians and politicians in support of SYRIZA.
Inge: It's quite important to show solidarity with the people in Greece. But it's quite difficult to build solidarity and awareness in Germany about the problems that people have in Greece. The parliamentary group of the Left Party is trying to draft a law to challenge this fiscal agreement and demand another solution for Greece.
Our situation in Germany and Europe may be changing for the better. With the new election in Greece, as well as in France, a new wind is coming that rejects austerity across the rest of Europe. So Merkel's austerity policy is not the majority position anymore.
Tobias: But it's difficult in Germany because there's a big media campaign against those "lazy, lazy Greeks." This is a terrible, almost a racist, campaign. The media paints the picture of Greeks sitting on the beach, drinking coffee and beer, and not working. In reality, it's not lazy people, but lazy banks that are the problem.
WHAT HAS been the response in Germany to your position in solidarity with Greek struggle against austerity?
Tobias: We have been attacked. All the other parties accept this fiscal agreement. So they and the media criticize us, saying that we have no solution. They go on and on about the Greeks and others having to pay their debts. This has so far found a popular audience. So our position against austerity has not found big support inside the population.
INGE TALKED about the new wind blowing in Europe as a result of the recent elections. What's been the impact of the French election on German politics?
Tobias: One fantastic result of the French election has been the end of "Merkozy"--the terrible combination of Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France. That's important! Now you have a somewhat more moderate position with François Hollande's new government in France. Hollande has so far maintained the positions he adopted in the presidential election during the Socialist Party's campaign for the parliamentary election. So for the moment, he's not on line with Merkel.
The Left Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign for president has put extreme pressure on Hollande from the left. So I think there's an impact, yes. Unfortunately, the election system in France is terrible--it's a majority system that prevents smaller parties from being adequately represented. Normally, you would have a strong left group in Parliament, but not with the French electoral system. What happens after the parliamentary election in France remains to be seen.
WHAT DO you think will happen in the upcoming Greek election, and what impact will it have on European politics?
Tobias: We in the Left Party hope that SYRIZA will win. I am very confident that Tsipras will stand firm against the austerity measures despite what others are saying--that he will back down and accept some deal. But I fear if Syriza wins and forms a government of the left, there might be a military coup d'état.
That's all the more reason for the Left Party to support SYRIZA. In building solidarity with SYRIZA, we also have to defend basic democratic rights, because the austerity program violates the rights of the Greek people to control their own society.
Right now, I'm a little bit frustrated that the Left Party is so weak because I know that SYRIZA hopes that the we will stand with them. We have to grow stronger. Because if SYRIZA wins and forms a government that says no to the austerity policies, it will be an enormous victory for the left and against austerity across the European Union.
AFTER THE large vote for Le Pen in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, how much of a danger is the far right in Europe?
Tobias: It's really necessary to take the far right seriously. They are trying to split society by blaming migrants, racial minorities and especially Muslims. We have to take them on in the streets as well as in elections.
One thing the left must do is to criticize the way the European Union has been set up as fortress Europe against migrants. We should be against this European Union in its current institutional framework, and call for a re-foundation of the European Union for the people, not the banks. That should include full rights for migrants. If we adopted this position, we could win people away from the right-wing nationalism that is against Europe to a left-wing position that is for a new social, peaceful and democratic European Union.
We have had a big debate inside the Left Party about this. There are Eastern German reformists who seem to be Europhiles. We should instead campaign with the rest of the left across Europe for a completely different European Union.
Inge: The capitalists scapegoat people--they blame immigrants, blame Muslims and blame foreigners for the poverty that the capitalists themselves have caused. We say no to this European Union, but yes to a new European Union for the people not for the capitalists.
YOU MENTIONED the poor showing by the Left Party in the most recent German elections. The new Pirate Party seemed to gain lots of votes. Who are the Pirates, and why have they done so well at the polls?
Tobias: The Pirates got a lot of support because of their style and their image of a skull and crossbones. They seem new, unconventional and so on. The problem is that there is nothing behind this image. They have no program. When they are asked real questions, like what about the Afghanistan war or the fiscal agreement, they say, "Oh, we haven't discussed this issue." And yet they got 8 percent of the vote in the last election.
But a party that has no clear positions is a problem. The Left Party has clear positions. So for the moment, it's easier for the people to support the Pirates who have no positions on anything. However, it is necessary to be far more serious; we need a movement and a Left Party that promotes the clear positions we have against the fiscal agreement and against the Afghanistan war. If you don't say anything against such issues, by your silence, you agree.
We should have a hearty debate with the Pirates and also expose some things about them. For example, my former colleague in the European parliament, Angelika Beer, is now a member of the Pirates and in a local parliament. She was a member of the Greens before and was responsible for their pro-war position on Afghanistan. Even worse, the chief of the Pirates holds a senior position in the Defense Ministry.
But some of the responsibility for the rise of the Pirates lies with us in the Left Party. For example, in Berlin, the Left Party government was responsible for damaging policies and alienated many of our former supporters, especially among the youth. Those people turned away from the Left Party to the Pirates looking for some kind of alternative.
Inge: The Left Party has also been perceived by the population, not as a rebellious party, but as a normal party, an established party--especially in Eastern Germany. This disappointed young people who then flocked to the Pirates. They have the name, the image and reputation of rebellion. And people say, "Oh my God, something new in Berlin. It's different from the normal parties." So they voted for this because it looks new--it looks like it's against the system, but it isn't.
So the Left Party must break with this image of being a normal mainstream party. We can't just be seen sitting in parliament. The Left Party has to help build movements around the issues that people care about and that we must lead on, especially against war and austerity. Then we can be effective. Just to be in Parliament is not enough.
Tobias: The left wing of the Left Party are now agitating for our party to become a movement-oriented party. This is a good idea. At this moment in Germany and throughout Europe, we need not just parliamentary parties, but parties that join the struggle against war and austerity.