How the left reacts in the wake of the Cologne attacks will be vital in the fight against racism and Islamophobia, writes VICTOR GROSSMAN
FOR Germans 2016 began with an icy chill — not only with the weather but with human relations. It also offered some at least a few warm rays of hope.
The huge influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers, over a million in 2015, had effectively split Germany in two.
One half, motivated by empathy and generosity, went out of its way to help the new arrivals, contributing everything from teddy bears, warm clothing, medical care to German lessons, and volunteering many unpaid hours to help and care for them.
Countless immigrants in Berlin received food, warm clothes and at least a mattress, bedding and a narrow spot in a school gymnasium or empty airport building.
But far too many waited long, cold, rainy hours, often much of the night, to get the required registration documents, medical passes or a small allowance.
Callousness was all too frequent. One official had to quit in disgrace, while his boss, a cabinet member, has had to bury any hopes of moving upward to the job of Berlin mayor.
Some negative responses from hired security guards had a worse motivation, reflecting the reaction of that other half of the population.
Hatred toward anyone who is different or “other” is all too common. Such hatred grew fast in 2015, often connected with worries about jobs and housing, but also with malicious tales of immigrant crimes and misdemeanours. The internet is flooded with racist, fascistic remarks.
There was an alarming increase in attacks — 850 were officially registered — against buildings reserved or planned for the arrivals and nearly 400 violent attacks against presumed immigrants. One man was hit at Christmas time by a bullet fired into his room, where children were also sleeping.
And then came New Year’s Eve. In Hamburg and elsewhere but most nastily in Cologne, the celebrations were horribly marred by attacks on several hundred women.
Groups of young men surrounded and groped them and, while they resisted, stole handbags or mobile phones.
Much is still unclear, including the role of the police and early muting of the story, possibly because most of the men have foreign backgrounds.
A few are German citizens, one is from the US, but many seem to be from Morocco and Algeria, so perhaps not part of last year’s influx of mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.
Some questions are still unanswered. Were the attacks spontaneous, internet-connected or somehow organised — and if so by whom and why?
The sweeping conclusions in response to the attacks were all too predictable, especially coming so soon after the tragic murders in Paris one year ago.
Messengers of hatred against undesirable nationalities — wherever they are from and whoever they are — have gone into overdrive, resulting in more violent attacks and almost certainly upsetting an approximately 50-50 balance of views in 2015.
The Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the only such separate state unit, is named the Christian Social Union — an egregious misnomer.
Though closely tied to the CDU in the Bundestag, it has been growing increasingly independent.
It would strongly reject being called “racist” but Bavaria, where all immigrants from the south-west must enter, is the most right wing of Germany’s 16 states and led the way in pressuring Merkel to abandon her seemingly humanitarian welcome to all refugees, whatever her motives.
Faced by growing signs of mutiny, also in her own party, she has retreated, step by step, followed by her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party.
Immigration rulings are to be tougher, numbers cut, far more are denied entry or sent home, most especially after any trouble with the law.
The entire political scene has been pushed to the right. The racist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is sure to get seats in three state elections in March, and most likely in the Bundestag in 2017.
Pegida marchers still hoist their “Save our Western world from the Islamists” signs, most recently in Leipzig, and again with violence.
A vigilante posse descended on Cologne calling for “vengeance” and the rescue of endangered German womanhood — while waving thinly disguised pro-nazi signs, openly giving the Hitler salute and attacking a few unlucky people of colour.
The decision in Bavarian Munich to publish the hitherto forbidden Mein Kampf again after 70 years could well be seen as a bad omen, even though every page has a marginal analysis rejecting Hitler’s fanatical phrases.
But its devotees are on the march, in France, where they may soon achieve top positions, in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Ukraine, where they already have some, in Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands where they are menacing, and sadly in Germany, in the vital middle.
In my first paragraph I spoke of rays of hope. There has rarely been a Pegida parade without an active opposition group, often outnumbering them.
In Leipzig its march was opposed by a ring of people holding candles in protest, while others tried to block their path, with the usual giant police contingent keeping them apart.
On January 2 in Cologne at least a thousand women (and a few men) met at the site of the New Year’s Eve attacks and demanded respect and, when necessary, protection for women.
The women were not joining in the hatred scene. Their protest was not aimed at immigrants or Arabs but against the sexist atmosphere everywhere, including harassment or violence at drunken Bavarian Oktoberfests, in many private homes and in too many police stations which ignore women’s rights.
For me the following weekend was a special one. Sunday was the annual memorial day for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, courageous, still dearly loved left-wing Social Democrats who opposed World War I, founded the German Communist Party and were murdered two weeks later, in January 1919.
Several thousand faithful old rebels and many young people marched with flags, banners and loud music to lay red carnations on the monuments to Karl, Rosa, and the urns of many left-wing leaders, writers and fighters from 1900 to 1990.
After the visit to the memorial site, tired from the long walk, my hopes were again rekindled and my heart moved by a wonderful Die Linke rally in a beautiful auditorium, once a wonderful film theater.
Most important were speeches by top leaders of Die Linke. Both co-presidents spoke, the West German union man, the woman from East German Dresden.
In the final speech the one-time national party leader Oskar Lafontaine made as stirring a speech as had been heard in a long time — for action against German military involvement in Afghanistan, Mali or anywhere, against arms shipments to oppressors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Die Linke will fight such policies and such hypocrisy, demanding resources for integrating refugees but also opposing attacks against working people, higher medical care fees, soaring rent costs and fewer permanent jobs.
It will join progressives around Europe in fighting “austerity” policies dictated by German politicians and banks to Greece and others.
Nor will it forget its ultimate aim — replacing a system which must always breed poverty and war.
There were many valiant words and songs but it remains to be seen how well they are transformed into action, not only as Bundestag speeches but in the streets, factories, colleges and job offices.
This programme needs to reach wider circles for it to invigorate the disillusioned, filling a political vacuum where extreme rightists have been winning ground so alarmingly. Many, I think, went out into the icy, slippery night with new hope.