In the summer of 1951 an 11-year-old East German boy returned home to find that his father had disappeared without a trace. Two years later it transpired that he had been taken to a Siberian Gulag, and it was only in 1955 after four years of torture and near-starvation that he was released.
The boy grew up deeply affected by his father’s experience. He became a Protestant pastor, an anti-communist activist and, once Germany had been reunified, he served for 10 years as the so-called ‘Stasi-Jäger’ – the ‘Stasi hunter’ who was in charge of studying and revealing the archives of the East German secret police. In 2012, at the second attempt, Joachim Gauck became president of Germany.
Today, as the 25th year since the fall of the Berlin Wall is marked around the world, Gauck is at the centre of a political storm which gives an insight into the state of modern leftwing politics in Germany.
Gauck has been lambasted for violating the neutrality of his office after he publicly decried the recent election success in Thuringia for Die Linke. On paper it looks fairly simple – together Germany’s three main leftwing parties have exactly the 46 seats they need for a majority. Die Linke, with six fewer seats than the conservative CDU but 16 more than the SPD, would be the largest party in a left coalition and secure the post of state premier for former trade unionist Bodo Ramelow.
The German president was echoing not only the misgivings of fellow East German Angela Merkel but also the objections often raised by centre-left politicians since the fall of the wall. Indeed, while Merkel was widely lauded last year for ‘winning’ the German federal elections, the same alliance that will probably run Thuringia could theoretically at least have removed her from office. The SPD ruled out such a move and instead subjected itself to another ‘Grand Coalition’ despite Merkel’s impressive record of destroying her coalition partners. The Social Democrats refused to work with Die Linke – although they have previously formed governments on a regional level including in Berlin itself – partly because of policy clashes, but also because of a deep-rooted personal antipathy of the kind that Gauck embodies.
Die Linke’s communist past does not, however, tell the whole story. The SPD has struggled to come to terms with the fact that Die Linke is not merely the successor to the party that oppressively ruled the GDR, but also includes many former SPD members and politicians – including its former chair Oskar Lafontaine – who defected following Gerhard Schroeder’s controversial ‘Hartz IV’ reforms to the benefits system. It was particularly galling for the SPD that the protests against the reforms, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, became known as ‘Montagsdemonstrationen’ after the Monday evening demonstrations in East Germany in 1989 and 1990 against the GDR.
In some ways it is the SPD and the Greens who have struggled to come to terms with the realities of modern Germany. Incredibly, top SPD politician Thilo Sarrazin was described as ‘brave’ by Gauck for claiming that Muslim immigrants are less intelligent than ‘native Germans’ and for suggesting that Germany would abandon the euro were it not still feeling the guilt of the Holocaust. The Greens, for their part, alienated swaths of their membership when they governed alongside the SPD from 1998 to 2005, as they experienced the realities of compromise that government brings, and have struggled to come to terms with the scandal of their past apologist standpoint on paedophilia.
There are those who seek a pragmatic approach to bringing Germany’s ‘post-wall’ left closer together. The hardheaded Realpolitik necessary is perhaps most likely to come from the supposed ‘rightwing’ of the SPD. Johannes Kahrs, spokesperson for the centrist ‘Seeheimer Circle,’ has repeatedly suggested that the party should not rule out a broad left coalition if each party can show itself to be ‘reliable and sensible.’ A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin wall, however, unless the German left can come to terms with its own past and establish a broad and progressive platform, the real winner will remain Angela Merkel.
Jack Tunmore is a member of Progress. He tweets @JackTunmore
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