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IN RECENT months the air in Germany has been overfull. But the fog, thick as in old London, was not humid but political.
The thickest was Covid fog. How many new cases? How many deaths? Who could go out, when, in what size groups and till what hour? Which state wanted tougher restrictions and which wanted easier ones?
Whether decisions should be by the federal cabinet, the Bundestag legislature or every state for itself, which vaccine was 100 per cent safe, which might not be and why? When house doctors could vaccinate and how soon they’d get enough vaccine for which age and patient group?
Two politicians fought like bull elk over which “Christian” (CDU) candidate should run to succeed Angela Merkel after the September 26 election. Armin Laschet, 60, top man in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westfalia and newly chosen head of the Christian Democratic Union, should have won out by default.
But then Markus Soeder, 54, jumped in, top man in Bavaria, Germany’s biggest state in area, with a “Christian” party of its own, the Christian Social Union, a unique local partner which usually agrees and votes with its big sister but occasionally it acts independently — even further to the right.
It’s as if the Lone Star State had its own Tea Party, usually but not always voting with the GOP in the other states.
The Bavarian Soeder wanted to be the joint candidate of both parties, since the polls showed him far ahead in popularity in all Germany. It didn’t quite come to a duel but words like “treachery” were mumbled.
When the fog finally lifted the sarcastic Soeder, who facially recalls Mephistopheles, lost out to the strong Laschet machine. After a tight-lipped smile and “congratulations,” he backed off into the sulking corner. As for differences on plans or policies, neither man seemed to have any.
The battle cost the not-so-united Christian Union heavily. When last I looked — one of millions who watch these polls every day — they had dropped from their usual top-of-the-pile mid-30 per cent average, not challenged since 1949, down to a measly 23 per cent.
But this time they will hardly be endangered by their traditional rival, the Social Democrats, or SPD, with whom they still share a wobbly, contradictory coalition.
Four years of such weak-kneed non-opposition has cost the SPD dearly among their union-based working-class voters; the polls give them only 14 per cent.
The SPD candidate in the race to become chancellor, facing luke-warm CDU-choice Laschet, is vice-chancellor/finance minister Olaf Scholz. He was caught napping at his ministerial oversight job when a fly-by-night finance firm with an imposing central building but only cubbyhole offices in South Asia suddenly disappeared, along with nearly €2 billion.
For the first time in Germany it is not the SPD which is hot on CDU heels but the Greens and now they too have chosen a candidate, a youthful-looking mother of two. She was chosen, it was whispered, less for political reasons than because of her freshness. Yet Annalena Baerbock’s views seem less refreshing than her podium presence.
The Green party was at first an iconoclastic bunch, leftish, even radical. Its deputies, often women, showed up in the Bundestag knitting or even wearing woollen sweaters, shocking the conservatives. While stressing environment it also spoke up vigorously for women’s rights, gay rights, disarmament.
But its radicals grew older. When it joined the SPD in a federal coalition in 1998, with “realist” Joschka Fischer as vice-chancellor and foreign minister it agreed to sharp cuts for the jobless, a later retirement age, lower taxes on the wealthy — and took full part in the Nato bombing of Serbia. Thus Germany, finally united and with no GDR impediments, felt free to make war again.
The Green retreat has continued ever since. In Hesse their cabinet ministers, in a coalition with CDU Christians, joined in defying all protests against felling part of a beloved forest to make way for an extra stretch of autobahn.
In Baden-Wurttemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, Germany’s one and only Green prime minister (and a Maoist in his student years), maintains his coalition with the CDU and his friendship with the Daimler-Benz bosses in Stuttgart, his capital.
Annalena Baerbock could become Germany’s next chancellor. What does she think about the most urgent issue facing the world? Does she want more or less confrontation? And military spending?
Like a majority of Germans, most of the Green membership oppose any steps leading towards war and Baerbock can’t ignore them. So no, maybe no armed drones, but yes, “steps in the direction … of a future European army.” And when President Emmanuel Macron in France calls for “robust” European military measures, she favours “an earnest response. And that means talking about foreign deployments. That won’t be simple. But we can’t duck away from it.”
What about ducking away from German participation in the Afghanistan war? In a recent vote to stay till the very end the Greens were split again: 17 in favour, 28 opposed, 12 abstained. And Baerbock?
“In all the years I have always abstained, just exactly because of this ambivalence and that’s politics, after all. Politics are highly complicated … Life is, after all, not only black or white.”
But she is hardly undecided on one theme: “Germany urgently needs a clear foreign policy position towards the Russian regime.” That includes tougher sanctions against the “Putin system” and no completion of the German-Russian gas pipeline through the Baltic. Not for any environmental reasons but because it would counteract “the geostrategical interests of the European Union.”
What are those interests? No, she does not like having A-bombs stored (illegally) in Germany, she says, ready at any moment to be flown eastward. But she adds: “We cannot simply say we will send the atomic weapons back to the US … Most important now is to increase pressure against Russia.”
Despite all old pacifist leanings, the leading Greens have become the loudest German advocates of such bellicose views, sharing them with leaders in other main parties on both sides of the Atlantic, eager co-passengers aboard the mighty Pentagon-Northrop-Raytheon-Rheinmetall bandwagon.
It has become an extremely dangerous vehicle. “Defender 21” is the misleading name for a wide range of military manoeuvres, lasting until June and involving 30,000 US soldiers with units from 25 other to rehearse war in 12 of them, but especially in Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria. Germany will act as central turntable, re-enforcing tracks and bridges to bear up under long trainloads of 60 to 80-ton tanks.
General Christopher G. Cavoli, commander of the US army in Europe, describing the exercise, stressed: “The factor of demonstrating power… of showing partners and allies that we are ready at all times” to “transfer varied troop sectors quickly and safely across long distances.”
Of course this is not directed against anyone, he assured possible critics. “It is no accident, however, that the troop movements are from West to East — and the individual manoeuvers are in regions close to Russia.”
Only one Die Linke party in the Bundestag has opposed such manoeuvres, votes against all military engagement and against weapons — whether for the Bundeswehr or for countries like Saudi Arabia. Attempts to water down this basic position have always been voted down and ruled out, once again at its recent national conference.
But Die Linke could face a very controversial choice after the September elections, with hopes for some and fears for others in the party. With the CDU sagging so markedly and the Greens, who despite all compromises and ambiguities are higher than ever before in the polls (now also at 23 per cent), it could become possible for a Green-Social Democratic-Linke coalition to attain a majority large enough to form a government, as in Berlin and Thuringia on a state level.
Die Linke, whose polls have sagged to 7-8 per cent, would be needed for this, but it would be the weakest of the trio. And on a federal level both Greens and Social Democrats would insist that it drops its opposition to foreign deployment and Nato.
Some would agree for a chance at recognition and two or three comfortable cabinet seats (and good staff jobs that go with them). But for others this would mean Die Linke losing its meaning, its raison d’etre as the one known party of peace.
The issue is truly complicated — and truly divisive — but experience has also shown that after such a presumed victory it would end up not just meaningless but weaker than before.
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