Frederik Blauwhof looks at the rise of the far right in Germany and the trade union movement's response
IN THE town of Goerlitz, located right on Saxony’s Czech border, the dangers of the current political polarisation are perhaps are laid bare for all to see.
Workers in the Goerlitz district have suffered disproportionally from neoliberal onslaught following reunification, with wages at the lowest level of any county in Germany at barely two-thirds the national average and significantly more unemployment at 8.3 per cent.
Aside from Siemens and Bombardier, which have sizeable plants there and employ about 2,000 workers in unionised jobs, hardly any company pays significantly above minimum wage.
Swathes of people expressed their anger by voting for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the last federal election, with 33 per cent giving the extreme right party their vote.
When both Siemens and Bombardier announced plant closures in Goerlitz months after the election, many on the left in the labour movement held their breath for fear of a further shift to the right.
Crucially, the trades union federation DGB and the industrial union IG Metall were able to stave off closures in negotiations last May, following massive demonstrations in Goerlitz, Berlin and other cities where Siemens announced cutbacks or closures- and push back the AfD in the process.
At the demonstration of Siemens and Bombardier workers in Goerlitz this January, one in eight inhabitants or 7,000 people joined to fight the closures.
Representatives of all political parties except the AfD were invited to speak, provoking the extreme right to organise their own, smaller manifestation and viciously attacking the unions in the ensuing months, isolating themselves from the union that had just fended off what would have been an economic death blow to the region.
This polarisation is in full swing all over the Federal Republic. Nationally, the AfD has gained a shocking 12.6 per cent in the federal election last year, making the extreme right party the biggest opposition party in parliament.
Worryingly, the AfD won even more votes among manual workers. The share of the AfD vote here has been estimated at between 16 per cent to 20 per cent in various polls.
Fifteen per cent of trade union members gave the AfD their vote at the last election, significantly above the national average. In the former German Democratic Republic, regions where incomes tend to be lower and jobs scarcer, AfD had an even higher share of the vote at 20 per cent.
These results as well as examples like Goerlitz further support concerns that social deprivation following neoliberal austerity economics have fed the rise of the extreme right – a development which fascist elements, which by now are a real force in the AfD, are keen to exploit.
Though the AfD started in 2013 as a populist right party focusing on criticism of the Merkel's EU policy, the party has moved further to the right ever since.
The neoliberal economics professor and party founder Bernd Lucke was soon voted down as chairman in favour of the more extreme, and racist, Frauke Petry, who declared Islamophobia the new focus of the party.
She, in turn, was rejected in December 2017 to be replaced by the even more right-wing Alexander Gauland, who has employed several neonazis and caused scandals by praising the nazi-era Reichswehr or claiming that the Third Reich was just a bit of bird shit on an otherwise glorious German history.
In reaction to the success and radicalisation of the AfD, the establishment parties and media continuously shift to the right on migration, refugees and Islam — further legitimising their racism and allowing the AfD in turn to shift further to the right.
The growing fascist wing of the AfD have managed to gain ground in this atmosphere and has been able to win majorities in key questions. In March of this year, the fascists around figures like Bjoern Hoecke, Andre Poggenburg, Andreas Kalbitz and Jens Maier, succeeded in scrapping the party statute rejecting open co-operation with extreme right street movements like Pegida, opening the way towards building racist street movements.
The more “respectable” conservative racists in the AfD fear such open association might jeopardise a potential future government modelled on the Austrian OVP-FPO coalition.
The fascist wing is trying to gain influence with working-class voters by arguing for a “national-social” politics in opposition to the market radicalism of the national conservative wing.
Aiming to build mass right-wing movements, they address real social injustices and then offer their racism as an answer to them. The AfD has organised May Day events, often together with other organisations of the extreme right, and raise slogans like “social without becoming red” and “no attacks on the welfare state.” They have at least the potential to drive a wedge in between the left and the workers’ movement and especially unorganised, precarious workers.
AfD fascists also have set up “alternative workers’ organisations” like ALARM in central eastern Germany or “employees in the AfD” (AVA) and were deeply involved in the recent fascist drive to put up extreme right candidates at the works council elections in German companies last spring.
For the moment, they continue to fail to put up candidate lists in most key companies, including Siemens in Goerlitz. The exceptions are mainly at Daimler. At the plant in Unterturkheim, where Oliver Hilburger, former member of the nazi band Noie Werte, had already been elected and organised a list for years, his “Zentrum Automobil” got 13.2 per cent of the vote. At Daimler in Rastatt, the right list got four out of 45 seats. At BMW in Leipzig, the new “alternative” list got four seats.
The working-class movement in Germany is faced with an organised attempt of a growing fascist movement to divide workers with their racism and hatred of the left and unions.
They are well connected, have lost much of their social isolation and feel strengthened by a increasingly open racism of mainstream politics.
The recent strangulation attack of two AfD supporters on a shop steward on a demonstration in Hanau underlines the fact that they do not shy away from using crass violence against even well known union organisers.
Fortunately, the unions and the left in many places have started to take the threat seriously, clearly distance themselves from the AfD and take part in anti-fascist mobilisations on the streets.
Resistance to their hate also has massive potential and can count on mass support. There have been serious successes of the anti-fascist movements, like the tens of thousands that have protested against AfD party conferences, the 70,000-strong demonstration that dwarfed the AfDs national hate march last May in Berlin or the humiliation of Bjoern Hoecke who was kicked out when he tried to hijack a demonstration of Siemens workers in Eisenach last April.
It is victories like these that encourage the fighting left, inside and outside of the radical left party Die Linke, to step up building existing mass campaigns against the AfD and the wider extreme right. After all, our politics of class solidarity, regardless of borders, nationalities or religious lines, is the real alternative to the neoliberal onslaught of the German and European ruling classes.
Frederik Blauwhof works for the Die Linke fraction in the Bundestag.