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The German Left or how my uncle taught me to be mean to the police

Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl
Welcome to the first issue of my newsletter. I hope to give you some insights into the particularities and the historical background of German politics and culture.
Krautsource it not supposed to be a newsletter focused on elections, but there can not be any other subject this week. The German election on Sunday is very likely going to bring a change of government.
My first post will be dealing with the German Left - and why the most obvious coalition is not necessarily the most likely to form after the votes have been counted.

One of the stories being retold in my family again and again is how my uncle showed me, then a little kid, how to give the finger to a policeman on a playground in the 80s. The policeman must not have been looking as there are no mentions of further confrontation between the state and the rebel family. This was the normality i grew up with on the political left in Germany.
With the election only a few days away I am thinking about a seeming contradiction: A political and personal stance against “the” system has been engrained into big parts of German society for decades. At the same time “Die Linke” - the Left Party - is polling lowest among the six party groups represented in the German parliament, at around 6 percent. The party plays a complex role in German politics. Even though lots of left-leaning Germans might identify with its central goals - better wages, lower rents - the Left is the party that shall never govern. Or shall it?
The last of the debates between the leading candidates Olaf Scholz (Social Democrats/SPD), Armin Laschet (Conservative Christian Democrats/CDU) and Annalena Baerbock (Greens) on Sunday showed that Red (SPD) and Green have basically agreed on forming the next government, planning to end the long rule of conservatives with Angela Merkels retirement. The two parties have grand plans for Germany - plans in the spirit of the Left. But they will need a third party for a majority. Their vision of bringing Europes biggest economy towards climate neutrality - or at least towards less destruction of the planet - is one of high level political steering. Fossil energy will be made more expensive, and there will be restrictions felt by average citizens: on the type of cars they can buy or the speed they will be allowed to drive in those cars.
At first glance, the natural partner for such plans might be the Left Party, which is socialist and will therefore see the state as the tool to solve basically any problem. But for historical reasons, forming a red-green-red coalition is not that simple. The Left was formed from two parts: PDS, the post-unification remnant of the SED, the communist state party of the East German dictatorship; and the left-wing of the Social Democrats that split off the big party in 2004/05 over new, harsh social security laws.
Side note: The evolution of the German party system must be understood in terms of new parties being birthed out of the two major ones that dominated the post-war era (CDU and SPD). Imagine it like icebergs splitting: The Greens grew out of left discontent over SPD positions on Nato and environmental protection (the SPD being traditionally pro-heavy industry). The nationalist AfD became relevant because of conservatives’ frustration with the CDU becoming less conservative under Angela Merkel, first on economic matters, then on migration. Iceberg is, by the way, a word the English borrowed from German. (don’t say you didn’t learn anything from this newsletter!)
At first glance, a red-green-red coalition of SPD, Greens and Left Party might fit into the time. The language of class struggle - shunned in the so-called neoliberal era of the last 35 years - has been reintroduced into German discourse, with talk about classism as a barrier in a notoriously upwardly immobile country. Millenials and Zoomers have realized that without a significant inheritance, they might effectively be kept from raising a family in a German metropolis. But the Left Party could not profit from this shift. Olaf Scholz has.
Scholz, who surely used to be one of the career-before-ideology center guys in the SPD, seems to have understood that former centrist SPD leaders like Gerhard Schröder (dubbed “comrade of the bosses”) and Wolfgang Clement were always under suspicion of bootlicking big business leaders; a suspicion they did not dispel after leaving office by being hired by energy consortiums and real estate conglomerates.
Scholz is keen to avoid such bad optics. One of his often repeated lines is: “People who earn as much as i do should pay more taxes.” (Scholz has many of these often repeated lines, but only the naive call him robot-like because of that. He has understood how to make his messages stick - and pulled ahead of Laschet and Baerbock in the polls).
With all this talk about more equality, the question of the Left Party might become the decisive subject in forming a new government in Germany. Scholz has kept his options for a coalition including the Left open, but only reluctantly. Climate and social politics of SPD, Greens and “Die Linke” mostly overlap. But the three left-of-center parties already had a majority in parliament in 2013 and did not get together. That is because two mantras of the Left Party are ostracized within German mainstream politics: “no capitalism”, and “no Nato”. This is where the complications start.
Taboos play a big role in the German political landscape. So far, all major parties have stood together in a phalanx to not work together with the right-wing AfD. Conservatives (CDU) and market liberals (FDP) try to force SPD and Greens into a similar phalanx against the Left Party to keep it out of the mainstream. So far, it has not worked in the German states, but on the national level.
The centrist drift on all parties - including the formerly radical Greens - has opened up space for the chauvinistic AfD on the right. On the other side of the spectrum, the Left Party did not profit from this centripetal movement. It remains too much of a remnant of the old left from both capitalist and communist Germany, keeping a stubborn stance on capitalism and the military.
Welcome to the semi-woke Left
What about the progressive issues of the day, diversity and inclusiveness? The Left Party can claim to have the fight for the marginalized in its DNA. But it remains mostly focused on tensions between classes, a fact that is probably determined by the party’s demography: The Left Party is on average older than the Greens, Germanys dare i say wokest major party, and the Liberals.
Of course the Left is feminist, and headed by two women, Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (Wissler is also one of its two - chanceless - candidates for chancellorship). But the Greens seem to have done a much better job at attracting the new new social movements, be they feminist or anti-racist (if they are actual movements and not simply Twitter phenomena). Which shows those to be mostly urban and West German phenomena, where the Greens are strongest.
The Left could not attach itself wholeheartedly to these ideas. There have even been attempts within the party to actively oppose activism on gender and diversity. Many saw this as a move to turn the party into a nationalistic left chimera. Infighting like this makes it unclear whom one would vote for with the party: People with a heart for racists? Undogmatic leftists? Die-hard-communists? Israel-haters that see Palestinian terrorism as just another “anticolonial” struggle? Many people are aware that the splintering within the Left is a stable in German history. The battles about bizarre ideological details between 1970s “K-Gruppen” - communist groups, each with their own take on Mao or Stalin - are real-life examples of what Monty Python parodied with its People’s Front of Judea.
However, it is neither the Lefts support for badly paid cashiers and nurses nor their stance on how to talk gender inclusive, that made headlines just before the elections. It was their stance on the German military.
For background: Germans are not war-prone (anymore). In 2002, then chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s instinct for the uncompromising pacifism of many Germans (and the latent or open anti-americanism many of them harbor) won him an election for the Social Democrats when he opposed sending German troops to Iraq with the United States. Over the decades, this particular new German pacifism has been rerouted from the Greens - the original German peace party that started supporting German soldiers fighting abroad only during the Kosovo war in 1999 - into the Left Party. But, and that is the difference to Schröder, it hasn’t won the Left any elections.
Even worse, the Left makes even its pacifism look horrible. This was on display in August, when the Western military mission in Afghanistan collapsed and most Left parliamentarians did not vote for the Bundeswehr flying civilians out of Kabul. Conservatives love to bring this up when portraying Scholz as someone flirting with the crazy lefties who do not even support non-violent army actions that save lives.
The liberal option
And what about the economy, stupid?
If anything, the fact that Germany’s economy is coming out of the Covid crisis almost unscathed has shown that the German state is back in the game after decades of privatization and a feeling that globalization takes politics out of the hands of the elected in Berlin. From the beginning of the crisis, the government - visible in the person of finance minister and now candidate Olaf Scholz - has taken on a very active role: supporting industry and small businesses, spending money in heaps that would make Keynes proud. I see this as the final rehearsal for a more active role of the state that will be key to the climate challenge that has been obscured by Covid for a while. This sounds like a job the statist Left Party could help with - but the mentioned taboos make it more likely that Scholz and Baerbock will choose the liberal FDP (market liberal, that is) as the third partner.
This won’t be less tricky, though. Nobody really knows how a red-green big government game is supposed to go together with the trickle-down economics and low tax politics of the FDP whose slogans sometimes border on paranoid libertarianism. Despite this unsolved riddle, the “yellow” FDP (we Germans need color codes for every possible coalition) has kept the door open for a red-green-yellow coalition. They could quickly forget their slogans portraying the Greens as a party of making basically everything that’s fun verboten (especially the good old German cars that have made us all so proud). There is also the possibility that Lindner and the CDU could somehow strong-arm the Greens into Black-Yellow-Green, also called Jamaica after that country’s flag colors.
Scholz between the devil and the deep yellow sea
So it looks like an election winner Scholz might end up with two options: An unnerving coalition in which he and the Greens have to fight with the FDP for every cent and every regulation, be it support for poor people or new rules for emissions (Greens and Liberals most notorious overlap is on the legalization of cannabis, where supposedly progressive Germany has fallen behind the curve compared to the United States and others).
Scholz second option: a left-wing alliance with the Greens and the Left Party which might agree on more domestic issues, but only on those. Chances that the ministries of Defense and State could fall to the Left are virtually zero due to the foreign policy issues mentioned. This coalition would be confronted with constant external criticism. Expect to read a lot about radical or straight out stupid utterances about capitalism, Israel or Russia that some Left politician has made at some point in his career. The conservative German press would have a four year long field day, for sure. And Scholz a four-year long headache.
German communism may be dead, but it still haunts my book shelf. This opening page reads: "Institute for Marxism-Leninism at the Central Committee of the Social Unity Party" (the State Party SED in socialist East Germany). My stepdad gave this copy to me. Then he asked: "Do you also want the collected works of Kim Il-Sung?" I declined. Fiddling with this picture, i found out something that does for all political ideology, i guess: If you turn up the contrast, you can see through it.
German communism may be dead, but it still haunts my book shelf. This opening page reads: "Institute for Marxism-Leninism at the Central Committee of the Social Unity Party" (the State Party SED in socialist East Germany). My stepdad gave this copy to me. Then he asked: "Do you also want the collected works of Kim Il-Sung?" I declined. Fiddling with this picture, i found out something that does for all political ideology, i guess: If you turn up the contrast, you can see through it.
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Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl @jbruehl

This is my newsletter about German politics and history for an international audience. Why stay national and not take journalism to the global stage? Expect a lot of Realpolitik, plenty of Zeitgeist and maybe even some Schadenfreude.

I have been a journalist for more than a decade, working in New York City, Berlin and Cologne, and now head the technology news team at a major German media house in Munich. I hold a Masters degree in Political Science and American Cultural Studies. And I like rap music.

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