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Germany's sour summer pickles

Victor Grossman reports from Berlin on the SPD’s unpopularity and the prospects of the Left party

WHEN politicians take their holidays and little action is expected, the words German journalists use for such summer doldrums is saure-gurken-zeit or “sour pickle time.” 

Since German often squeezes things together into what Mark Twain called “not words but panoramas,” it’s usually written with no break — “sauregurkenzeit” — and may be derived from the time before the harvest when pickles were all that was left to eat. 

Whatever the origin, it seemed to apply soon after the World Cup victory evoked excited adjectives from “historical” to “hysterical,” with Berlin marking its euphoria with countless private rockets fired into the air and black, red and gold German flags waved in honour of the victory in Brazil.

But for Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel, times were strangely sour. His party, though firmly set in a ruling coalition with its love-hate partner and rival, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), just can’t seem to break out of the poll doldrums. 

Despite early achievements, including a long overdue minimum wage law and an earlier retirement age for some people, it is glued nationally at about 25 per cent while Merkel’s “mummy” image (“mutti” in German) helps keep her party steadily at over 40 per cent. 

Even those two proud achievements, it turned out, contain more holes and loopholes than Swiss cheese. 

But instead of trying to improve its faded image as a progressive force, Gabriel now calls on his party to pay more attention to “healthy business interests” and “encouraging the economy.”

However this route has not helped but only further soured and weakened the small left-leaning caucus within the SPD. 

The standing of the SPD will soon be tested in three state elections, all in the former East Germany. On September 14 in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, the SPD is quite safe to win and will almost certainly continue its coalition with Die Linke (the Left Party), which gives that party the only cabinet seats it currently holds anywhere. 

In Saxony, the first state to vote on August 31, the Christian Democrats are sure to keep the strong lead they have had there since joining up with West Germany. 

But they probably won’t reach the 50 per cent mark and will need a partner. Like Merkel on the national level, they may well offer junior partnership to the SPD (in a weak third place there) whose politicians, if invited, will surely bow their heads, mumble “Yes, sir” (the Saxon head of state is male) and settle gratefully into new cabinet seats in Dresden on the Elbe. 

The most suspense will be in Thuringia, Germany’s forest-rich “green lung.” A partnership between the CDU and SPD has held sway there for five years, but the latter, unhappy with the marriage, may seek a divorce after the September 24 election. 

Though here too probably strongest, the CDU may well be too far from the needed 50 percent, thus opening the door to a coalition between the Left and the SPD — here a real sensation. 

Since the poor SPD now polls only around 19 per  cent, this would mean having the Left — now at 27 per cent — lustily on top in any new coupling. And that means getting the job of minister-president (like a US state governor) and would make Thuringia, the land of Weimar and Jena and long the home of Goethe and Schiller, the very first Left-led state in all Germany. 

This is still up in the air. Five years ago the Social Democrats rejected just such a solution but later came to regret it. 

To no-one’s surprise, a leading CDU man stridently warned the SPD against the Left, describing the party as “a band of Stalinists, extremists, people from the ‘black bloc,’ leftist lovers of violence and former Stasi spies.” 

Actually, the Left leader who might wind up on top in Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, is Bodo Ramelow, 58, a devout Lutheran from West Germany, once a leader in the union of bank, insurance and retail employees, and never yet seen brandishing a Molotov cocktail. 

Indeed, surprisingly for a Left, socialist party, he chose a peculiar, tame election slogan: “Not everything needs to be changed but we can do many things better.” 

Gauck the Cheshire cat shows his militarist claws

ON the international stage the SPD has joined Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Greens in blaming Russia alone for the horrifying bloodshed in south-eastern Europe. 

According to party chief Gabriel, “The aggressor in the Ukraine is the Russian government,” and he added threateningly: “It cannot be possible for anyone to plunge another country into chaos and then go unpunished…  If we accept that then the European Union isn’t worth a penny.” 

Gabriel, who is also economics minister, has barred shipment of military training equipment to Russia by the giant Rheinmetall company. 

The Left, the only party consistently opposed to the export of any military hardware (at which Germany now ranks third in the world), would be happy if such an arms export ban were strictly applied to the less than democratic countries lining the Persian Gulf and other bellicose customers including Israel and the Ukrainian rulers in Kiev, who get more and more support despite their bloody battering of all opposition in Donetsk and its surroundings. 

But Kiev, successfully using the tried and true formula, loudly labels all its opponents “terrorists.”  

Not sour pickles but sour words had to be swallowed by Joachim Gauck, who is usually expected to stay above the political fray as non-partisan “president of all Germans.” 

He is usually described as “sweet” with a benevolent smile — attaining almost Cheshire dimensions — his outstanding feature. 

He occasionally tempers this with bitter tears when recollecting those awful days before 1989 when he battled communist repression. (But unfriendly witnesses recall that his battling was quite invisible until just before final victory was assured). 

One clerical colleague from those days, Rev Friedrich Schorlemmer from Wittenberg, says Gauck was never part of the GDR church’s peace movement. “For him the weapons of freedom — the weapons of the West in other words — have always been the good weapons.” 

Now this has issue landed on his plate again, and the sour herbs irritating his taste buds came not from old Left Party foes but again from the very group he once belonged to — East German pastors.

What got them angry? More and more sharply, President Gauck has been stressing how Germany must get more involved in the world — militarily. At the Munich Security Conference Gauck said that Germany “must be ready to do more to attain that security which others had guaranteed it for decades.” 

In a radio interview he made it even clearer: “In the struggle for human rights or the survival of innocent people it is sometimes necessary to take up weapons.” In other words, any reticence based on historical German military use had for him become passé.

Almost 70 East German ministers disagreed. In 1989, when Germany was unified, Gauck had also signed a “Letter to the Children” from Protestant pastors stating their gratitude that the fall of the wall, the end of the GDR and the unification of Germany had been achieved without bloodshed, adding: “We must all do everything we can so that never again any person shoots and kills another person in a war.” 

“This is still valid,” the pastors wrote him recently. “With your speech you have rejected the 1989 consensus and, as president, you recommend a different policy than the one we demanded at that time.” 

To his claim that good causes justify military involvement, they replied: “The Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan proves all too clearly how little the use of military forces is conducive to ending conflicts … We owe it to the many meaningless victims of that deployment not to increase our country’s military capacities but rather to make civilian peace service our popular German export.” 

Gauck’s bugle blasts for German military intervention was joined by captivating trumpet notes from Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen, who wants to send more troops to various parts of Africa, while SPD Foreign Minister Steinmeier stresses the need to keep German troops, tanks and planes in Afghanistan. 

Surprisingly only for those who have not followed the metamorphosis of the Greens to their current bellicose nature, its top leaders are among the loudest bugle-blowers. Their main foe remains Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 

Yet while popular opposition to keeping German troops in Afghanistan peaked recently at 69 per cent, in Bundestag votes this was reflected, with a few courageous exceptions, only by the Left Party.

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