Helen Fessenden. Foreign Affairs. Volume 81, Issue 1. January/February 2002.
Germany’s New (Old) Left
When the two Germanys merged in 1990, one of the uncontested casualties was East Germany’s communist regime. Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood triumphant as voters on both sides overwhelmingly ratified his push for unification. Aside from a few unreconstructed Marxists, no one shed a tear for the Berlin Wall. A bright future in politics for the ex-communists seemed as unlikely as, say, German military involvement in conflicts beyond the country’s borders.
Little more than a decade later, Kohl himself is now on the political margins, disgraced by a campaign-finance scandal, and his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lies in the doldrums. His successor, Gerhard Schroder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has been given the authority to send 4,000 German troops to Afghanistan in support of the U.S. campaign there. But most remarkably, the chief electoral vehicle of the ex-communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), has become a powerful political actor—even in the city that its predecessors once divided by force. The PDS has evolved in many ways into a run-of-the-mill European leftist party, preoccupied with such matters as managing budget discipline, building child-care centers, and attracting investment. Now a catch-all regional party, it has become a third force in the country’s east, shaping a political landscape there that is wholly distinct from that in the west. Given that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was one of the most oppressive regimes in the Soviet bloc, spied on millions of its citizens, and drove its economy into stagnation and ruinous debt, the rise of the PDS is no mean feat.
The ambitions of the PDS were tested most dramatically last October in the state election for Berlin. In a critical development during the campaign, the PDS took issue with Schroder’s hawkish stance on the U.S. war in Afghanistan and expressed worries about the war’s humanitarian implications. Berlin’s status as Germany’s capital, the reports that al Qaeda may have had cells in the country, and widespread fear that more terrorist acts might occur on German soil all helped turn a local campaign into an emotional discussion of foreign policy. And the PDS antiwar platform worked: the party scored unprecedented gains in both the eastern and western halves of the city and came in a close third with almost 23 percent of the vote. Despite that strong showing, the election’s winner, the SPD, initially rejected the PDS as a coalition partner. Although many in the SPD grudgingly admitted that cooperation with the PDS in local matters could work, the Social Democrats also made clear that the latter’s opposition to Schoder on such a sensitive issue would make an alliance difficult. But by early December, the SPD turned to the PDS after talks with two smaller parties, including the Greens, collapsed. As of this writing, the outcome remains unclear. But even if the PDS does not join the government this time around, its growing clout is inescapable, especially among young and upwardly mobile voters. It not only has a distinct regional appeal that no western party can offer but is also well positioned to benefit from intellectuals’ and progressives’ disillusionment with the Greens, whose traditional monopoly of the antiwar vote continues to erode.
This last point became especially relevant during the Berlin campaign. Since the Greens decided to join Schroder’s SPD-led coalition government in 1998, divisions between the Greens’ pragmatic leadership (which also backed NATO’s Kosovo campaign in 1999) and their more pacifist base have been brought into the open. Although a recent Green Party conference opted to back Schroder’s proposal to send troops to Afghanistan, the party’s grass roots remain at odds with the pragmatists, exemplified by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. For these grass-roots voters, the PDS is poised to offer a new home. In both domestic and foreign policy spheres, in short, the PDS has carved out a niche that other parties cannot easily fill. As much as many Germans might bemoan the fact, the PDS is here to stay.
Getting Out the Vote
As the Berlin election campaign kicked off last summer, the key question for many Germans was whether the PDS would adopt a more critical approach toward the former East German regime and make the necessary amends for it. Some in the west felt the party could never do enough to remove the taint of its predecessor in the GDR. Others felt it had not successfully overcome its own divisions between a pragmatic leadership and a base composed largely of unrepentant former communists. But whatever reservations critics may have had, the Berlin SPD—which had been heading a provisional government coalition with the Greens and was leading in the polls—found the PDS respectable enough to state that it would not rule the ex- communists out as a potential coalition partner.
The previous Berlin government, a “grand coalition” between the SPD and the CDU, had collapsed in June when the Christian Democrats were forced out after one of their leaders was implicated in a bank scandal. The scandal was tied closely to Berlin’s long tradition of cronyism and fiscal profligacy, and the city’s budget was coming under ever-greater strain as subsidies from the federal government diminished year by year. By 2001, Berlin’s total debt exceeded its annual budget by 150 percent, and around 15 percent of that budget was slated for interest payments alone. No party wanted to be seen as fiscally irresponsible, and the PDS proved no exception. Rather than insisting on a major expansion of the welfare state, therefore, the PDS electoral platform called for “painful” budget cuts, especially in bureaucratic personnel, through early retirement and attrition—ideas that other parties, including the SPD, were considering as well. Although it drew the line at trimming day care and cultural subsidies, the PDS even called for downsizing certain infrastructure projects, such as an airport expansion and a subway extension. Nowhere did the party’s platform mention traditional socialist schemes such as nationalization of key industries. And on social issues—especially immigration, asylum, and civil liberties—the PDS’ progressive rhetoric could have been mistaken for a Green platform. The SPD candidate for mayor, Klaus Wowereit, went so far as to remark, “As a person, I have nothing to fear with the PDS. With some, I think it’s a pity they’re not with us.”
Then came September 11. Scholars will mull over the effects of the terrorist attacks for years, but the impact on the Berlin election was immediate and profound. Schroder pledged “unlimited solidarity” with the United States, and soon afterward the federal parliament (Bundestag) passed legislation approving NATO support for U.S. actions. Almost every party, including the Greens, backed the measure; the one exception was the PDS. Its leadership expressed sorrow for and sympathy with the United States and shied away from explicitly anti-American rhetoric or crass statements of moral equivalency. But it also insisted that U.N.-backed diplomacy and economic development, rather than military strikes, were the appropriate and sufficient tools to fight terrorism and its root causes. Military action, the PDS feared, would only provoke a “spiral of violence” directed at the West.
The PDS’ antiwar stance wound up dominating the late stages of the campaign in October, which coincided with growing concern among voters over reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and the possibility of famine exacerbated by war. On election night, October 21, the PDS discovered it had reaped unprecedented gains in both halves of the city. In the east, it led all other parties with 48 percent of the vote, and in the west, it raised its share to almost 7 percent. Those gains translated into a total of around 23 percent overall for the city (up from 17 percent in the last election), only 1 percent behind the once-mighty Christian Democrats and 8 percent behind the winning SPD. (The Greens, as expected, scored 9 percent.)
More impressively, the PDS beat all other parties among the best- educated and the youngest voters, winning around 30 percent of both groups. Among first-time voters, it led with a third of the total share. It even siphoned votes away from the Greens and the CDU. Holding the disparate groups together was the common glue of antiwar sentiment: 70 percent of all PDS voters said in exit polls that the party’s antiwar stance had been decisive. In fact, the “peace issue” seemed so decisive that some Green leaders tried to distance their party from Schroder’s stance in the campaign’s final days.
After the dust settled, the SPD first turned to the Greens and the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP) to cobble together a razor- thin majority. Eyeing the federal elections in autumn 2002 and feeling pressure from Schroder to shun the one party that opposed him on the war, the SPD feared that the risks of allying with the former communists could be too great. But after several weeks of talks, divisions between the Greens and the FDP (especially over taxes) shut down the negotiations—and the PDS eagerly announced it was ready to do business with the SPD. A coalition suddenly appeared possible.
All Politics Is Local
The rise of the PDS has puzzled (and maddened) many Germans in the west, who cannot grasp how such a party has managed to survive since unification, let alone grow. In national elections in 1990, it managed to win less than 12 percent of the vote in the eastern states; yet by the end of the 1990s, it was averaging 23 percent in state elections there. It is already the second-largest party in two state parliaments, and in a third state it joined with the SPD to form its first official coalition. The PDS now boasts around 190 mayors in small and mid-sized towns. The party’s growth has also coincided with a greater willingness to work with Social Democrats, whose cooperation it needs to be invited into coalitions. Many critics and supporters alike believe the PDS has morphed into a left- wing regional equivalent of the Christian Social Union, the conservative Bavarian party that often backs the CDU at the federal level.
This regional appeal is one factor that helps counterbalance the internal divisions in the PDS. The party’s leaders are largely reformist, socially progressive, and bent on expanding PDS power at all levels through cooperation with other parties. Some of them have also pushed for more openness in addressing the crimes of the East German dictatorship. But these efforts have not always gone over well with the party’s 70,000-strong membership, most of which once belonged to its predecessor, the Social Unity Party (known by its German acronym, SED), and which is generally less apologetic about the past. For their part, PDS voters are a motley crew that includes pensioners, urban intellectuals, progressive students, small- business owners, and bureaucrats. In this respect, the PDS could be called a Volkspartei—a broad-based “people’s party”—that represents diverse (and sometimes clashing) interest groups.
Almost no one expected the PDS to weather unification. With the old SED regime in disgrace and the economy in tatters, Germans in the east voted in droves for parties allied with Kohl’s Christian Democrats, who promised a speedy and painless unification. Although the SED had reconstituted itself in late 1989 as the PDS, purging itself of its gerontocrats and installing a silver-tongued, telegenic lawyer named Gregor Gysi as its leader, these moves seemed to do little good. The party got battered across the board in the 1990 elections.
But the circumstances surrounding unification turned out to provide some long-term advantages for the PDS. First, thanks to an exception in election law, the ex-communists were allowed to send a handful of deputies to the national parliament in 1990 despite their anemic showing. That gave the party a highly visible platform. Second, unification’s galloping pace gave the PDS a structural advantage that would become apparent only later. In the rushed months after the Berlin Wall’s collapse—East German elections in March 1990 were followed by economic unification in July and political unification in October, capped by federal elections in December—the western parties had little time to invest in the east, and so their local membership bases were weak. (This problem was particularly acute for the eastern Greens and FDP, who over time withered away, except in Berlin.) Potential new eastern regional parties also had little time and few resources to organize themselves. Once the euphoria of unification dissipated and Kohl’s rosy rhetoric proved hollow, the western parties had little to fall back on. But the PDS was better positioned for the long run, thanks to a large membership base and deep knowledge of local conditions.
Many East Germans also came to resent what they saw as highhanded treatment by West Germany. In 1990, their provisional leadership was largely sidelined while Kohl hammered out the terms of unification with the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom. No East Germans were appointed to prominent positions in Kohl’s cabinet. Post-unification policy was largely dictated by Bonn. And bitterness soon became even more widespread in the wake of growing economic dislocation and high unemployment.
At Kohl’s insistence, in July 1990 East German marks were exchanged for West German marks at the rate of one to one, or in some rare cases, two to one. (Most economists had urged a less generous exchange rate of four to one, especially for wages, to offset the lower productivity in the East.) Kohl’s rate meant that Germans in the east could indulge in a consumption spree and earn much higher wages. But what was generous for consumers turned out to be deadly for jobs, as the vast bulk of East German goods became too expensive to export to Eastern Europe. Making matters even worse, West German unions successfully pushed for higher East German wages without commensurate gains in productivity. In addition, East Germany’s industrial conglomerates were broken up and their supplier networks destroyed, leaving small firms dependent on western owners or gasping for capital. The resulting high unemployment and economic dislocation, combined with general post-unification disappointment, provided fertile ground on which the PDS gradually built its base.
Of course, some of these painful adjustments were eased by the hundreds of billions of deutsche marks flowing in. By the end of the 1990s, an estimated $1 trillion had been sunk into the east for everything from overhauling telecommunications to paving roads to subsidizing high-tech ventures. On a yearly basis, these transfers amounted to around 40 percent of East German GDP—20 times what the Marshall Plan had represented to West Germany half a century earlier. In the years since, eastern wages have been steadily converging toward western ones. Despite chronic unemployment, poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority of Germans in the east feel that their lot has improved with unification.
Had the PDS been solely a protest party, therefore, its appeal would likely have waned as the aftershocks of unification diminished. But its strength grew steadily throughout the 1990s, and it began to draw in younger Germans and white-collar professionals—unification’s “winners”—while retaining its older supporters and protest voters. Much of this success stemmed from the party’s claim to be the sole authentic voice for “eastern” interests. And as the PDS gained power in towns and state houses in the east, increasing numbers of SPD politicians found it easier to work with the former communists than with the CDU, and SPD and PDS voters often crossed party lines.
Meanwhile, the PDS squeaked back into the Bundestag in 1994 after winning three districts outright (all in eastern Berlin), thanks to another quirky electoral rule that worked in its favor. That same year, in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD bit the bullet and formed a government with the unofficial backing of the PDS. And four years later another eastern state, Mecklenburg-Upper Pomerania, produced the first official SPD-PDS coalition. In 1998 the PDS also cleared five percent in the nationwide parliamentary vote, thanks to its growth in the east, while Schroder’s SPD defeated Kohl’s CDU and formed a coalition with the Greens. Whereas Kohl had been aggressively antagonistic toward the PDS—even calling them “red- painted fascists”—the SPD leadership was coming to terms with the fact that the eastern SPD and the PDS were already working together in many cases. Over time, Schroder let the PDS join Bundestag talks on pension reform and other initiatives.
The SPD-PDS partnership in Mecklenburg-Upper Pomerania, a state long seen as an underdeveloped rural backwater, has proven one of the most intriguing experiments in cooperation. Despite initial fears of incompatibility, the parties have cooperated to halve the budget deficit, work out an education reform bill, and attract outside investment. The relationship was healthy enough that when Schroder visited the state capital last year, he allowed himself to be photographed with the regional PDS chief. And when the automaker BMW was considering the state as one of several potential eastern locations for a new plant, both the PDS and the SPD pulled out all stops to win over this quintessential symbol of West German capitalism. (BMW eventually opted for another state, highly industrialized Saxony, but for reasons having to do with infrastructure rather than politics.)
The End of History?
Critics of the PDS look at these recent developments with a jaundiced eye. For all its progress on policy issues, they contend, the PDS will never be truly democratic until it faces up to the abuses of the GDR regime. Indeed, the party has always had a complicated relationship with its communist past. Wildly contradictory statements from officials within the PDS have led many Germans to suspect that it has not fully exorcised the demons of the old dictatorship. And its well-meaning pragmatic elements continually clash with its tiny but notorious left-wing faction, the Communist Platform.
A good example of this tortured ambivalence was the party’s “Berlin Wall” declaration last July. Its leadership proposed an official statement “regretting” the construction of the wall, which it condemned as a symbol of the GDR’s illegitimacy, and the motion passed overwhelmingly. “A state that locks in its people is neither democratic nor socialist,” the statement read. “We are a socialist party that is based on democracy and pluralism.” But the timing was suspect. “The fact that the ‘Wall declaration’ passed so overwhelmingly [before the Berlin election] does strike me as opportunistic,” mused Sibyl Klotz, the Green candidate for Berlin mayor. “It if had happened two years ago, it would have been different.” The party also failed to satisfy its critics’ wishes by expressing a full apology, because such a declaration, the leaders said, would be tantamount to implying “full responsibility” (which is, of course, precisely what the party’s opponents wanted it to accept). It did not help matters when a PDS politician in Saxony, Peter Porsch, claimed around the same time that the Berlin Wall had “helped bring peace to Europe and the world.” He stepped down from his post as a result of this indiscretion, but he was not expelled from the party.
Politics in eastern Germany now seem to be conducted on two fronts. On the policy level, the PDS increasingly seems open to deal- making and coalition-building. But on another level, there remains the much more emotional and subjective debate over history. For the detractors of the PDS and for many western voters, no amount of political arbitration will wash away the sins of the East German regime and make the PDS “normal.” And because voters in the east and west have strikingly different personal biographies, finding common ground on such existential questions cannot simply be resolved through the usual compromise and bargaining that form the essence of politics.
History also plays a role for those trying to explain the durability of the PDS. Aside from political or economic reasons for the party’s existence, some observers offer another, perhaps darker, explanation: the party was necessary because it had to absorb a large but discredited elite that had nowhere to go after unification. One high-ranking PDS adviser put it bluntly: “No one really likes to talk about it, but the PDS played an important role in taking in people whose careers were tied up with the old regime,” he said. “You had police officers, party bureaucrats, even secret service types—hard- core law-and-order folks—who might have otherwise followed a more extreme course.” The party’s leader, Gysi, has advanced this point himself when arguing that the PDS has helped thwart the rise of other protest parties, particularly on the right, by providing a “good address” for protest.
Given that far-right parties have largely failed to establish a parliamentary presence, this argument may well be valid. The enduring problem of skinhead violence remains a tragic blot on post- unification Germany, especially in the east. But although xenophobia takes form in street-level violence against foreigners, it has yet to successfully infect a political host that might carry it to electoral respectability. And although the PDS has directed its protests against other parties and western institutions, its leaders have assiduously directed it away from scapegoating foreigners, even if its base may appear less convinced. Notably, the party backed Schroder’s reform of Germany’s hidebound citizenship law in 1999, which made naturalization easier for non-Germans.
The “absorption” theory is also useful for understanding a larger point about unification. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of East Germans bravely marched for democratization and reform, and thousands desperately sought to escape through the newly opened borders with Hungary and Czechoslovakia before the Berlin Wall collapsed. But as much as East Germans welcomed unification and their new freedom, the number of committed activists remained relatively small. Millions of East Germans had had a stake in the regime—and had in one way or another been co-opted by it. More than 100,000 had spied on their fellow citizens for the secret service, and two million had joined the party. That said, many took part in the system not out of ideological conviction but because of the privileges involved. Cooperation with the authorities could mean a car, an apartment, perhaps a chance to travel abroad. And as the SED regime became more ossified, it relied more and more on perks and cronyism instead of terror to maintain its grip.
This level of complicity and general moral ambiguity helps explain why the outrage directed at the PDS—whether from conservative Christian Democrats or citizen activists who opposed the GDR regime—has failed to prevent millions of Germans from voting for it. Many mainstream politicians, in fact, have warned that further condemnation will only drive voters into the party’s arms. And many eastern Germans feel that their western counterparts simply do not understand the “eastern” experience, whether the complexities of living under communist rule or the painful dislocation thereafter.
For its part, the CDU has to grapple with its own credibility problem, which stems not just from the embarrassing string of recent scandals but its own compromised history. Kohl normalized contacts with the GDR on becoming chancellor in 1983 and promptly offered it a generous loan; in 1987, he even officially received a visit from the former East German dictator, Erich Honecker. And slippery comparisons between the PDS and the Nazi Party—a favorite pastime of some conservatives in the CDU—do not sit well with many East Germans, if only because such pronouncements often seem to relativize the latter while inflating the crimes of the former.
Give Peace a Chance?
The one area where the PDS has been most radically different from other parties is foreign policy. The PDS unequivocally opposes war and militarism, especially German participation in peacekeeping missions, except in self-defense. Its opposition to the Kosovo war nearly scuttled its working relationship with the SPD. Gysi, the party’s most famous and media-friendly figure, even visited Belgrade at the height of NATO’s bombing. This stunt proved too much for many Germans, and the PDS later went on the record condemning Serbian human rights abuses. But it still maintained that the United Nations, rather than NATO, would have been the appropriate international institution to handle the crisis, and that the conflict should have been solved through diplomacy rather than force.
More generally, the PDS remains notionally opposed to NATO and continues to throw occasional darts at Washington, such as its declaration of “solidarity with the people of Cuba.” But in other respects, the party has positioned itself more carefully. Unlike leftists elsewhere, it does not spend much time disparaging globalization; when asked, its leaders claim rather benignly that the “excesses” of international capitalism must be tempered (e.g., through a tax on speculation). Nor is the PDS especially euroskeptical. It opposed Europe’s single currency, but primarily on grounds that member-states needed to harmonize their labor laws and fiscal policies first. And it favors a gradual expansion of the European Union that will not cause a “race to the bottom” in EU wages.
The PDS has found it increasingly easier to contrast its foreign policy agenda with those of the SPD and the Greens now that the latter parties have moved toward the center. Indeed, much of the current PDS foreign policy platform resembles the traditional antiwar stance favored by the West German left before the ascendancy of Joschka Fischer’s “realist” faction in the Greens. But regional differences also play a part. Almost two-thirds of all western Germans approved of NATO’s Kosovo campaign in spring 1999, for example, whereas only 40 percent of those in the east did. “Eastern Germans, even dissidents who opposed the old regime, had no emotional ties to NATO, which was generally seen as the enemy,” explained Ralf Wieland, an SPD operative active in the Berlin campaign. “It’s totally different from western Germans’ attachment to the United States.”
For all its radicalism, however, the PDS views on foreign policy did not draw much attention before September 11. After the terrorist attacks, Berlin’s local campaign suddenly took on international dimensions. “There was a tremendous fear among voters that attacks in Germany would follow if the war escalated, and this fear affected the campaign and brought the focus to foreign policy,” said Regina Michalik, a top Berlin Green official. By immediately opposing military retaliation following the terrorist attacks, the party drove a huge wedge between itself and its competitors and quickly began gaining support. The PDS nonetheless shied away from the crude “blame America” approach that some other European leftists favored. “It was important that [the Bundestag] unanimously took a stand against terror and expressed unanimous solidarity with the United States and the American people,” Gysi emphasized shortly before the election. Although urging the United States to sign the U.N. antiterrorism convention and turn over terror suspects to be tried by an international U.N.-run court, he even entertained the possibility of approving “commando raids” in Afghanistan, because they “target the guilty parties while minimizing collateral damage.”
Another PDS party leader, Gabi Zimmer, took a similar line before the Berlin election, arguing that “police and intelligence,” together with better control of weapons exports, would be the best way to combat terrorism. Tellingly, she also opted not to disparage NATO—a favorite bugbear of the left—but to fudge: “The idea that Germany can step out of NATO on short notice is far away from reality. But one shouldn’t give up the hope that military alliances can be made superfluous over time.” At a party conference in Dresden in early October, the moderates prevailed: the delegates overwhelmingly voted down motions to condemn the United States and abolish NATO, and Gysi reiterated his call for commando raids in cases when a state refuses to extradite a terrorist suspect.
If the Berlin campaign showed how far the PDS has come since unification, it also underscored the new dimensions that German foreign policy discourse has taken on. Under Schroder and Fischer, the federal republic has taken dramatic steps toward accepting more responsibility for contributing to security beyond its borders and embracing a post-Cold War military role. But the transition has been far messier than the two men and their fellow pragmatists would like. During the Kosovo war, the SPD-Green government almost fell apart over the bombing campaign and the prospect of sending in German ground troops. The Greens still face an internal crisis over what kind of military role Germany should play in Afghanistan and future conflicts. The PDS is likely to benefit from these divisions and become the preeminent “antiwar” party of Germany. If the party’s recent evolution away from its traditional ideological moorings is any guide, it may well adopt a constructively critical rather than overtly hostile stance toward Schroder’s crusade. Given how sensitive the question of international military deployment remains in Germany, the debate will at any rate need to be broached.
Foreign policy, regionalism, and history will all continue to play a defining role for the PDS as it tries to settle on a political identity. Its attempts at historical soul-searching reflect in part a pragmatic understanding that its attractiveness as a political partner will depend on how cleanly it breaks its association with the old regime. But the internal democratization of the party as a whole depends on whether it can come to a reckoning with an antidemocratic past—no matter how painful this may be given the personal histories involved. Political participation and accountability have so far helped push the PDS toward normalization. And although incomplete, this development bodes well for its attempts at working through the East German past as well. If the record of Germany’s other half is any guide, democracy will only grow stronger when history is laid bare.