Fighting the far right in Germany

June 14, 2019
Anti fascist rally in Germany.

Sibylle Kaczorek, a member of Germany’s main left party Die Linke and an activist with Aufstehengegen Rassismus! (Stand Up Against Racism!) was interviewed in May by Dick Nichols, Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent.


Polls are showing that the racist, xenophobic and anti-Islamic Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) could be the leading party in elections later this year in the East German states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. How did things get this bad?

The trigger for their ascendency was the 2015–2016 mass refugee influx into Germany. The far right was able to exploit this opportunity to manoeuvre themselves on the basis of outright racist, anti-refugee demagogy (“Close the Borders!”) into the AfD leadership and the high-profile parliamentary positions, following the 2017 federal elections. That development, of course, also strengthened the AfD’s anti-EU and anti-euro sentiment.

However, the background to all of this, particularly when it comes to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) is the very uneven development between East Germany and West Germany since reunification … [and] the complete takeover by the West of the East German economy.

Outrageous things happened during that time. Companies were sold for one German mark. West German enterprises taking over East German assets may have had to … retain the workforce for 12 or 24 months, but mass unemployment followed and even today unemployment rates in the East are still significantly higher than in the West [and] wages are 15% lower on average. This is a major issue.

The GDR didn’t have a high migrant population. There were Vietnamese “contract workers”, who were segregated from the bulk of the population. So the GDR was never a multicultural society, unlike the West since the Second World War … So this is another reason as to why East Germany has been more vulnerable to racist populism than West Germany.

In West Germany there has always been a latent residue of fascist sentiment and thinking … The figure that is always thrown around is that 10% of the West German population has always had fascistic tendencies and remains racist and anti-Semitic.

How was the AfD able to mobilise and organise this sentiment? What structural presence has it managed to build?

There have always been neo-fascist organisations in Germany, ever since World War II, but they never managed to gain as much of a footing in the electoral system, even though they had party-political structures. For example, the National Democratic Party (NPD) … since its founding in 1964 has only managed to win a few seats in state parliaments for short periods of time.

There has also been a campaign to declare these organisations unconstitutional. Whether we agree with this approach or not, these attempts at declaring them unconstitutional have failed because … the German equivalent of the [Australian] High Court … had no choice but to rule that, given the high level of official [security] agency involvement in them [for the purpose of undertaking surveillance operations], they could not be ruled unconstitutional … [This raised the question as to] whether the NPD, for instance, wasn’t government agency run.

After reunification, the extra-parliamentary far right groups, which had always had their little networks, saw an opportunity to get membership in the East.They targeted the East, moved there, and made a big push on recruiting youth. [Through] networks and funds, they set up … or involved [themselves] in youth clubs in which they pushed right-wing ideology in a big way.

The recent case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the terrorist group that killed non-German people over six years, clearly illustrates how these small fascist organisations moved into the East to recruit.

They have managed over the years to create a stronghold in the martial arts scene — there are a lot of networks being developed there [and] in the area of security work.

There are also other groupings that have come onto the scene in recent years … in line with what has been happening in Austria and some other European countries. These groupings present themselves in a very different way, much more educated, much more articulate in the presentation of their racist and anti-Semitic views. These ideological networks are getting bigger and bigger.

The Otto Brenner Foundation of the metal workers’ union (IG Metall) recently did a study that was released in taz [Die Tageszeitung], one of the more left-wing newspapers here. It found that since the [2017] federal election, in which the AfD won 92 seats, it has been able to build up a workforce of fascists. At least 26 of the 300-plus Bundestag (Parliamentary) staffers who feed information to the AfD MPs are members of these far-right ideological groupings. So their networks are getting stronger, more consolidated and institutionalised.

From what I have gathered it would seem that the voting base of the AfD in the East is older workers who have no future. Is that true?

I have the impression — I can’t quantify this — that this increased vote for the AfD among older workers and unemployed is a more recent phenomenon and that these would have [previously] been Die Linke voters, and [supporters] of other parties also, who have now switched to the AfD.

With reunification now coming up to its 30th year, a lot of workers lost their jobs and were never re-employed. So a lot of middle-aged people either had to move away from where they were living in the East or just remained unemployed or underemployed.

Wages, working hours and other conditions in the East are still not the same as they are in the West. Some people have gotten by … on petty casual jobs here and there, but with no future, no career path and no idea of where they are going. So these people have just become utterly disillusioned.

While Die Linke — originally the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) — always had sizeable support in the East, with around 20% to 30% depending on the state and often being the largest party.

People had hopes then for what Die Linke stands for in terms of social justice and economic development, [but] they have seen few positive, concrete results coming through over the years. Given this experience, people who have been worn down over decades find the AfD’s answers as to why they’ve been left behind — its scapegoating of migrants and refugees — credible as an explanation of their plight.

The AfD is trying to set up its own union?

I think that this push is associated with the AfD trying to present itself as the true party of German workers, with the message that the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which still has the organised labour movement as its stronghold, hasn’t delivered for German working people. So it’s more this anti-establishment, anti-bureaucratic message: “They’re not the ones representing you any more, we are.”

That’s very contradictory, because despite this rhetoric, neoliberal ideology is very strongly present in the AfD program, but it’s the way they present themselves and want to be seen. Nonetheless, they weren’t very successful at the last round of enterprise delegate elections. It’s a bit too early to tell how this intervention will develop as there is not a clear AfD line here yet, but I suspect that they will have another crack at it.

All of which presents the anti-fascist movement with a huge challenge. Could you explain its present state?

The anti-fascist movement in the West has always existed and always been active and mobilising. Ever since the 1970s,80s and 90s, antifascism — what is called antifa here — has pretty much become identified with the anarchist milieu, often referred to as the Black Block when it comes to demonstrations. It is youth-based and often associated with militant action and confrontation with the police. It has always been around, with a stable number of activists, almost forming a sub-culture. There have also always been a lot of anti-fascist individuals, unorganised people willing to come to demonstrations and mobilisations.

Well, that’s the West, but none of that existed in the GDR. Of course, anti-fascism was part of official ideology and there were always a lot of people with strong anti-fascist views in the East, but that didn’t mean that they were activists or organised in any activist way.

When the AfD initially started to win seats in some of the state parliaments, there was a group of left-wingers from across the political spectrum — some from the Greens, some from the Social Democrats, some from Die Linke — who saw the need to develop coalitions to start organising against the growth of the AfD together with NGOs and individuals.

The organisation I am involved in, Stand Up Against Racism! — which is just one of a number of these formations— is based more in the western states of Germany. But, as there’ll be these three state elections in the East in September and October, opportunities are beginning to open up to start building antifascist organisational structures there as well.

And this is something that has arisen spontaneously out of East German society, given that there was no equivalent to the movement in the West?

Even though the movement in the West is trying to help … it is clearly been motivated by events in the East itself.

For example, there have been numerous incidents involving refugees and migrants — harassing women, altercations with local youths, street fights — that have been exploited by the far right to stage anti-migrant, anti-refugee protests. And the far right has been very good at that, because they already had the structures and the networks in place.

These triggering events, the impending elections, created this reaction of people in the East: “We actually have to do something now. We actually have to develop the organisational structures to develop a force against the far right.” They then started working together with the existing structures in the West to try to set up these networks in the East. And that’s where we are at the moment.

What gains has the anti-fascist movement made to date?

Over the last few years the number of people involved has grown significantly — that is a major gain. And because of the development of numerous coalitions, national but also state-based and local, there have been a lot of rallies and demonstrations with high public visibility due to an increase in street presence. The anti-fascist message is more present — more than it has been for a long time: before it was more limited to the antifa sort of propaganda. A lot more organisations who previously weren’t involved are now active.

The key example is the trade unions. They are part of the coalitions now, and when there are large mobilisations they provide infrastructure, encourage their members to come along and are visible at the mobilisations as unions. There’s a lot more that could be said about their involvement — some would say that they could do more — but the trade unions certainly feel that they are a key player, especially in the East, and they want to be seen as that.

Next, let’s look at the number of people involved in activism, taking Stand Up Against Racism! as an example. It started developing a workshop-type training program, using a very traditional term to refer to this training, to make it attractive to ordinary people. It’s called training for the regulars (Stammtischkämpfer*innen Ausbildung), with “Stammtisch” meaning the table for regulars at the local cafe, inn or club, for having a drink or playing cards. The implication [is] of being among your own kind.

The intention was to attract ordinary folk who may never had anything to do with activism, and to encourage people to come along and find out how to respond to far right and fascist sloganeering. The goal was to help people who, in the family or at work, feel uncomfortable with some of the stuff that is being said around the lunch or dinner table, but don’t really have the confidence to interject or don’t know exactly how to respond — perhaps from wanting to avoid conflict — in any case just sitting there uncomfortably. The goal was to equip these people to respond in such situations.

With these workshops there was a central development program and people were then trained in “train-the-trainer” style to deliver these workshops and then they were rolled out on a local level. For example, the group I’m involved with is just around the corner, four minutes’ walk away. The attempt was always to bring people together in your own neighbourhood, your own local area.

Has this spread to the whole of Germany?

No, but it’s spreading. If you go on the web site there is a little graphic which shows where all these local groups exist across Germany. And it is across Germany, going into Bavaria, and is now starting to get a presence in the East.

The last figure I heard was that around 10,000 people have participated in these workshops. These are not people who would identify as activists, but it’s the first step to bringing them closer, to encouraging them to become activists. I think this is really starting to show in the big mobilisations that have been happening.

What other work does Stand Up Against Racism! do?

The community stalls we do in areas where there is a stronger AfD vote are important. We distribute leaflets that explain our work but also let people know how the AfD members of local councils, whom they may have voted for, behave: how they vote, what they actually do as elected representatives.

The AfD has won numerous positions on local councils and their focus is to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt: to stop the work of the council by endlessly asking for information that can be used against migrant people and find reasons to have a go at migrants no matter what the issue is — supposed “privileged access” to childcare, for example.

Take as an example a stall I was involved in two weeks ago. We went into an area with a “low socio-economic profile” in Berlin, with a sizeable non-German, migrant population … There are a lot of marginalised and disillusioned people living there.

We had a leaflet explaining the behaviour of the AfD local councillors and a specific leaflet on women’s issues and what the AfD actually says about women’s issues. [AfD] only want to have mother-father-child accepted as a family, they are against terminations and for making divorce harder. We also had a nationally produced broadsheet about the European Union elections.

We had our stall and the AfD also had a stall, surrounded by a lot of mostly older people, while our people were mostly younger. It was very confrontational and some of the AfD people were … thuggish in their way of trying to physically intimidate us. They rode around and around us on a motor scooter, trying to invade our space.

People who are clearly opposed to the AfD were very encouraged to see us there and were saying, when handed the AfD leaflet: “No, thank you. I wouldn’t vote for you.” So, our being there gave these people the confidence to do that.

At the same time, people who maybe aren’t so sure whether they would be willing to vote for the AfD got the propaganda of both sides, and therefore now have an opportunity to go home and have a think about the issues.

I think that having a presence in these neighbourhoods is utterly important. The danger is that we are just leaving this sort of space to the AfD. If they are the only ones seen publicly there, then they are seen as the only people who are “doing something”.

What was behind the rise of Indivisible?

Last October, there was a mobilisation of a quarter of a million people in Berlin, which was the largest one of its kind for a while.

How this came about was quite remarkable, because it was actually the work of a group of lawyers (so-called “revolutionary lawyers”). They started sending out letters to all sorts of organisations, saying “we really need to have a mass mobilisation”, not so much against the AfD — it wasn’t quite so targeted — but a mobilisation to present what sort of society we want … a sign that this is what organisations and people at large are fighting for.

The name of the mobilisation became — it didn’t have a name at the beginning — Indivisible (Unteilbar).

The number of organisations that signed up to its founding statement was enormous.

October 13 was an anti-racist mobilisation. But it also involved activists against climate change, the LGBTI community and others. It involved all kinds of people expressing aspirations for a decent future for all.

It was such a success that it was decided to keep the organisation together as a coalition. There is regular organising happening with, again, a focus on East Germany, with a mass demonstration set down for August 24 in Dresden, prior to the [state] elections in the East.

Other initiatives are planned by this broader coalition, and by a lot of other organisations. This is the first time since reunification that there has been such mobilisation in Germany… The amount of people mobilised at the moment is enormous.

[The full interview will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal].

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