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Kohl’s Germany: The Beginning of the End?

Not so the post-Communist PDS, which will have thirty members of the new parliament. Indeed, in a curious twist the proceedings of the thirteenth Bundestag will actually be opened by a speech from a PDS member. The foxy old East German writer Stefan Heym, elected on the PDS ticket, is automatically granted this right as the oldest member of the house.

To understand why the PDS is in parliament one must dwell for a moment on the peculiarity of Germany’s electoral law. According to this law, each citizen has two votes. The “first vote” goes to an individual candidate, the “second vote” goes to a party. It is the second vote that mainly determines the total number of seats each party has in the house. Incidentally, it is not only to foreign readers that this peculiarity needs explaining. Surveys and interviews regularly show that many German voters don’t understand it either. They think their “first vote” is as important as or even, as its name suggests, more important than the “second vote.”

The so-called “5 percent hurdle” provides that only the parties getting more than 5 percent of the second votes will enter the Bundestag. This provision was introduced to prevent a recurrence of the fragmented party politics of the Weimar Republic—the nightmare of “Bonn becoming Weimar.”

So how come the PDS has got into parliament with less than 5 percent of the second votes? Because the law also provides that if the party gets three or more direct candidates elected—by the “first votes,” that is—then it should have the full number of seats to which it would be entitled by its percentage of the second votes. And the PDS got not just three but four direct candidates elected—all of them in what used to be East Berlin.3

Through this super-scrupulous loop-hole in the election law, their Noah’s ark sails into parliament, disgorging, besides Stefan Heym, such diverse creatures as the lawyer, wit, and gifted demagogue Gregor Gysi; the former East German economics minister Christa Luft; a great-grandson of Bismarck, Count Heinrich von Einsiedel; a former East German Olympic champion, Ruth Fuchs; and, most repulsively, two people who were almost certainly regular Stasi informers, one Rolf Kutzmutz and the curiously named Kerstin Kaiser-Nicht. What a bunch!

The PDS is, without doubt, the most interesting phenomenon in these elections. It is overwhelmingly an east German party, picking up a little over 300,000 votes in the west, but more than 1.7 million in the east. In what used to be East Berlin, it got a good third of the vote and four of the five constituencies. Since most of the old West Berlin went to the CDU, the capital is now dramatically divided—almost, one is tempted to say, like the division between the white and black parts of Washington, DC.

The vote for the PDS is, in part, a familiar post-Communist phenomenon, as seen in Poland and Hungary: a diverse vote comprising old comrades and functionaries, the losers from the traumatic process of economic transformation, those who yearn for the good old days of social security when “we pretended to work and they pretended to pay us,” and some younger protest voters. In the East German case the familiar mix of post-Communist grievances has been ameliorated by the economic transfers from the west, in the order of $100 billion a year; but then it has been exacerbated again by two elements.

First, nowhere in post-Communist Europe has the change in every single aspect of life been so sudden and total as in east Germany. Not just the political, economic, and legal system but the street signs, the banks, the post offices, the health insurance, the cars, the products in the shops, why even the bread has changed. Small wonder there is much dislocation and even nostalgia. Second, nowhere else has one had the strange experience of colonialism in one country. Many west Germans have displayed monstrous condescension, and sheer incomprehension, to their poorer compatriots in the east. At the same time, the east Germans continue to be paid less and bureaucratically discriminated against in countless aspects of everyday life. This is felt most acutely in Berlin, where an easterner working on the next block from his western colleague is paid only 70 or 80 percent of his salary. And the PDS, not the heirs of the opposition in Alliance 90, has become the vehicle of this resentment: the party of eastern protest.

Moreover, the PDS is reveling in the luxury of dissidence, without the risk of persecution (whereas the true dissidents in the GDR were fiercely persecuted by the ruling Communist party—or SED—from which the PDS was born). It is the gamekeeper turned poacher. Its leaders gather all the available arguments against all the established parties, without worrying unduly about internal coherence or a serious program for government. The past master of this kind of left-wing populism is Gregor Gysi. The diminutive, fast-talking Jewish lawyer, son of a high-ranking official in the old SED, is a Mephistophelean figure. Evidence continues to emerge of how, as a lawyer in Communist East Germany, he cooperated closely with the Stasi. But as a speaker, this miniature Mephisto is terrific—and I would guess almost single-handedly responsible for attracting the party’s younger voters. (Almost a quarter of PDS voters are under thirty.)

I saw Gysi in action at the PDS’s last election rally in Berlin. As I arrived, a warm-up band was singing “Komm schlaf mit mir” (Come, sleep with me), which seemed appropriate. “Once a whore, always a whore,” as Orwell remarked in a similar context. A bookstall displayed, among other wares, some of Stalin’s works, at 10 DM a volume. I asked the booksellers whether he had many takers. “Oh yes, people buy them out of historical interest. You see, they weren’t available in East Germany for a long time.”

After speeches by Stefan Heym and two others, it was Gysi’s turn. Speaking like a rapid-fire machine gun, Gysi presented the PDS as the only real party of opposition in Germany. He protested against a “one-sided view” of the history of the GDR. Of course “real socialism” had failed because of its own deficiencies, he said, but the alternative was not Herr Kohl but a truly democratic socialism. The east, he said, was being used as a laboratory for the dismantling of the welfare state.

Then there was foreign policy. Of course the Federal Republic had greater responsibilities, but what hypocrisy to call for German participation in peace-making missions when Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world!

Then there was the growth of rightwing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism. How about changing the country’s völkisch electoral law? How absurd that a Turkish citizen living here for years (he was talking in Kreuzberg, where many Turks live) cannot vote, whereas a German from Argentina can come here for three months, vote for Helmut Kohl, and then go back to Argentina, leaving us with Kohl…

Then there was the dismantling of higher education. This must be stopped. Not that he was arguing for endless study. Helmut Kohl had taken sixteen semesters to get his doctorate. In the GDR, he, Gysi, was only allowed eight. “The difference is clearly visible, but I try to make up for it by life experience.” At this remark even the policemen standing next to me were laughing.

Then there was the environment. Why didn’t they keep up the GDR’s system of recycling basic raw materials? Of course the GDR had done it for economic rather than ecological reasons. But it was still sensible. (No mention of the huge environmental damage under the GDR regime.)

Then there was the bureaucracy. “I thought the GDR was the most bureaucratic country in the world. What a mistake!” The west German bureaucracy is much worse. (This is a complaint you hear from east Germans in every walk of life.)

And so on. A catalog of well-made individual points, appealing to the particular experience of particular groups, above all in the east. And the whole spiced with acid wit. It doesn’t add up to a policy. But in expressing radical populist opposition it is very effective.

Later I talk with one of the most distinguished of the former east German opposition leaders, the biochemist Jens Reich, about the PDS phenomenon. Like me, he finds it utterly repulsive that these former functionaries, hacks, and Stasi narks are rearing their heads again, even behaving with some of the old arrogance. On the other hand, looking at it coolly, he feels there is an argument that it is better to have these people integrated into the democratic system than to have them working outside and against it. Better to have them inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson once so elegantly observed.

After all, so the argument continues, that’s what the Federal Republic did with the old Nazis after 1949: integrate them. Ah yes, comes the answer, but at least the old Nazis were working in newly constituted democratic parties, not in a direct successor to the Nazi party, the NSDAP. Imagine, says a conservative politician, if the NSDAP had just renamed itself the PDSAN—and been voted back into parliament.

In practice, the PDS has so far only affected one major decision in national politics. It was the votes of the PDS members of the Bundestag that, in 1991, gave the narrow majority for the decision to move the capital to Berlin. Whether they can establish themselves as a more permanent feature of the political landscape will clearly depend above all on the progress of reconstruction and “internal unification” in the east in general, and the former East Berlin in particular. But for the period of the thirteenth Bundestag they will be a colorful, raucous, disturbing presence in Bonn, a presence indeed recalling—in a figure like Gysi—the radical left-wing politics of the Weimar Republic, but also seen by many as “the voice of the east.”

3.

So much for the small but interesting margins. What of the large but boring center? “He’s done it again” is, of course, the first thing to be said of Helmut Kohl, written off by many commentators at the beginning of the year, just as he was being written off by many, even in his own party, in early 1989. Five years ago, it was the way in which he seized the opportunity of unification that brought him back. This year it was three things.

First, it was his personal authority, conviction, and energy. The Christian Democrats fought a presidential election campaign around Helmut Kohl: the colossus of Oggersheim, the “chancellor of unity,” the “Bismarck in a cardigan.” His face alone stared down from the posters. For the first time ever, polls showed that he was more popular than his party. Indeed, some well-informed sources wonder what exactly will be left of his party when he is gone. By contrast, the Social Democrats had, rather late in the campaign, to bring in two other politicians—their last candidate for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, and the man who many think should be their next one, Gerhard schröder—to stand beside the lackluster Rudolf scharping in a so-called leadership “troika.”

  1. 3

    I say “what used to be East Berlin,” because East Berlin actually included the city center—Berlin-Mitte—which is now part of Stefan Heym’s constituency.

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