The pandemic and the rise of the right in Germany

Luca Schaefer from the International Board of the Socialist German Workers’ Youth (SDAJ) speaks about the impact of COVID-19 in Germany and the state of the left

March 04, 2021 by Muhammed Shabeer
Interview-SDAJ Germany
A demonstration by the Socialist German Workers' Youth. (Photo: SDAJ)

While all countries have been hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact that it has taken on society socially, culturally, economically and politically has varied greatly due to the response of the government, the state of public infrastructure in each country, and of course its economy and capacity. In comparison to some other European countries, Germany was initially able to contain numbers of cases and deaths but today it stands 10th globally in terms of number of confirmed cases and 9th in terms of number of deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

To understand impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Germany and the rise of the far right, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Luca Schaefer from the International Board of the Socialist German Workers’ Youth (SDAJ).

Peoples Dispatch: What has been the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on German society, especially on the working class? How do you assess the government’s response to the crisis, including the ongoing vaccination campaign?

Luca Schaefer: First of all, it must be said that the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 coincides with a cyclical crisis of capitalism – the first signs of this crisis had become visible worldwide, but especially in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the last quarter of 2019. When the pandemic first broke out in Wuhan, China, it had an incendiary effect on the economy and the actions of the ruling class. Due to the economic stagnation, the representatives of German capital, together with the social-partnership-attuned trade union leaders, were already calling at the time for billions in state aid to “rescue” monopolies and banks, financed by the tax contributions of the German working class. As an effect, the pandemic revealed the character of the bourgeois state: while billions of euros were and are being spent to save large corporations (see the rescue of the airline Lufthansa AG), small German businesses, the self-employed and large sections of the German industrial proletariat have been hit with massive savings and cuts. Short-time allowances, lay-offs and a lockdown in the area (which affects gastronomy and small trade of leisure time) send millions of dispossessed people into poverty – the economic consequences of the pandemic and the crisis cannot yet be fully assessed.

The reaction of the political governors of the economic potentates of this country to the pandemic are characterized by fulfilling the task of the capitalist state – the protection of the profits of a small monopoly bourgeoisie. While education as well as the health system are underfunded, students freeze in cold rooms and the working population suffers from a strict lockdown in the private leisure sector – large-scale production and wage labor continue as normal. In comparison to other countries outside and inside Europe, it is noticeable that the vaccination campaign is starting late and slowly – after the German government supported the private company Biontech/Pfizer with 300 billion euros in development and secured millions of vaccine doses in competition, there is uncertainty as to when and how many doses can be delivered. The German government as well as the capitalist state have failed in the pandemic; current numbers of infected people of more than 20,000 and tens of thousands of dead are the result of an indisputable policy to protect the capitalist order of exploitation.    

PD: What effect did the pandemic have on German youth and students? What led you to organize student mobilizations across several cities in Germany?     

LS: The impact of the pandemic and the aimless and haphazard German policies hit the learning and working youth to the core – universities are closed, schools in poor home-schooling and private life reduced to a minimum. 

After schools were closed only at the beginning of the pandemic (April/June), it took until the Christian holidays around December 15 before there was another closure despite high infection figures – the reason is obvious: instead of solving school problems at home with their offspring, the parents of the schoolchildren would rather generate profits in the world of work. To make matters worse, the digital equipment of the schools and the low-income families did not allow for profitable distance learning – the pressure to carry it out as well as the additional workload was shifted onto the heads of the teachers. Sport, culture, nightlife and temporary job opportunities have been reduced to a minimum – millions of young people can neither earn extra money nor keep themselves busy in their free time. 

Many young people are now unable to find apprenticeships. Those who do have a training place face the challenge of having to cope with the training content despite closed vocational schools and are threatened by a lack of perspective as well as a shortage of money. Students, on the other hand, who in normal times also have to work on the side, are increasingly losing their livelihoods – state support is far too low. 

At our student demonstrations in Munich, Kassel, Berlin, Frankfurt and other cities, our main concern was to show that young people will not simply put up with crisis management at our expense. Especially while in Germany it is mainly right-wing forces that simply want to repeal all anti-epidemic measures that organize the biggest protests against the government’s actions, it is important to show that there is also a progressive response to the irresponsible policies of the German government. 

PD: Why have there been a series of anti-lockdown protests, hygiene demos, and conspiracy theories spreading in Germany? Who are these protesters and what is their real motive? 

LS: The hygiene demonstrations have their social basis mainly in the petty bourgeoisie, which is threatened by social decline due to the pandemic and the restrictions that mainly affect solo self-employed people and small and medium-sized enterprises. But there are also many people who are simply dissatisfied with the constant restrictions on their private lives. Emblematic of this is the “Querdenken” movement, which was started by the small businessman Michael Ballweg from southern Germany. This movement organized demos and quickly spread to other major cities in the country. It was directed against what were perceived as “dictatorship” measures by politicians to contain the necessary spread of the virus. Their motives, like the participants, are diverse and are characterized by a colorful mix of esoteric religionists, conservative right-wingers and those economically declassed by the pandemic. However, the demonstrations have always attracted fascist forces, who use the demonstration masses as an ideal environment for agitation and rallies, and in some cases have completely hijacked the marches. We have strongly criticized these demonstrations from the beginning and have in no way participated in them – despite all justified criticism of politics and the state – as scientifically-oriented Marxists we strictly reject the trivialization of Sars-Covid, a joint demonstration with fascist forces is unthinkable.

It should be said, however, that not all people at these rallies have a closed-right worldview – we analyzed the demonstrations as a welcome outlet of the ruling circles to discredit the appropriate criticism, also from the left, of the measures as a “conspiracy theory” and to steer it into system-conform channels, while the actions of the federal government in the face of the wild conspiracy theories of the “lateral thinking” spectrum again seemed much more reasonable to the majority of the population. The right-wing mass mobilization thus also acts as a cue for the German government, which can always refer to the right-wing mass protests in its inconsistent measures. Despite all verbal radicalism and the participation of fascist cadres, the anti-lockdown movement does not represent a danger to the capitalist system – consequently, we consider the goal of all anti-fascists to be to build a left counter-movement, to clearly isolate the fascist parts and to lead the crisis losers into the class struggle. The Corona demonstrations clearly died down by the end of 2020 – they will disappear completely with the victory over the virus. 

PD: How do you view the increase in right-wing extremist, racism, Islamophobic violence and hate crimes in Germany? What is the plan of the SDAJ and the Antifas to counter these far-right attacks?

LS: First of all, right-wing violence as well as fascist terrorism has always been and is part of the West German state, its beginning goes way back to the beginnings of this state. Denazification or a democratic turning away from war and fascism never took place in the Federal Republic – under the influence of system competition with Soviet socialism and the GDR. The ruling class retained and kept the fascist reserve for the purpose of terrorism against democratic structures such as communists as well as an instrument of division. The Oktoberfest attack of the 1980s, the arson attacks in Solingen or a pogrom-like outbreak of violence in Rostock-Lichtenhagen at the beginning of the 1990s bear impressive witness to this. This should not and cannot diminish the current dimensions – the attacks in Hanau, Halle or the riots in Chemnitz are an expression of a general shift to the right. Researchers and convinced democrats have been able to uncover a real network of fascist structures in the police, administration and army in the last few years – but it is up to the German secret service to fight them, and the secret service itself is up to its ears in fascist activities, both through financing and instructions.

For us, however, it is clear that fascist terror networks and right-wing mass mobilization on the streets are not the main aspect of the shift to the right that we are currently experiencing. The dismantling of civil rights (for example, through surveillance laws and extended powers for the police and secret services) and the undermining of parliamentary co-determination have been pushed forward for years by the parties of the so-called “bourgeois center”. The SDAJ relies on two core principles in its anti-fascist work: on the one hand, it should be clear that we seek to prevent any fascist demonstrations or their outbreaks of violence – however, it is not enough to block right-wing demonstrations or to protest against fascist movements. In order to deprive the fascists of their basis, we need a strong workers’ movement that defends itself against attacks on its rights – together and regardless of origin, religion or sexual orientation. Those who go on strike together with a migrant colleague against job cuts or for better working conditions are more likely to become aware of where the crucial division in our society runs: Between capital and labor and not between German and migrant or Christian and Muslim.

PD: How influential is the left among today’s German youth? Is there an increase in the support for the far-right among the youth? If so, why is this the case?   

LS: Thirty years after the first, epochal defeat of statist socialism on German soil, the political left continues to suffer from its long-distance blow to this day. The ruling, capitalist ideology as well as 30 years of discrediting socialist achievements, propaganda and illusion of carrot and stick have deeply penetrated the consciousness of the class. The bourgeois formation as well as the capitalist logic of competition sometimes successfully prevent the emergence of class consciousness. The influence of the social left in particular but also of its communist forces among the youth is sometimes limited. Although we have been able to achieve our goal – to stabilize the SDAJ and to increase its size through targeted work on the main issues in the lives of comrades – we do not yet have the relevance and size to independently initiate struggles on a mass and broad scale.

Nevertheless, in our opinion, there is no tendency for German youth to organize around political opponents. On the contrary, many young people intuitively reject racism and fascism. Intuitive anti-capitalism is also very common among German youth, as they morally reject competitive logic and see how capitalism destroys our environment. Fascist groups up to and including the AfD also reach young people, but so far they do not represent a magnet for young people who are politically in search.

PD: Please tell us about the recent interventions of the SDAJ in the struggle for climate justice and against imperialism.

LS: The SDAJ sees the struggle against climate change as a struggle against capitalism. It is a scientifically proven fact that the imperialist states of this earth, like the top one percent of every class society, are the main producers of emissions, added to which corporations and monopolies produce without regard for nature and the environment or exploit natural conditions without restraint in their greed for profit. Even the pioneers of Marxism – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – noted in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that the bourgeoisie, in its pursuit of profits, undermines the foundations of human life. As a counter-movement to this undermining of human livelihoods, hundreds of thousands of students, starting in Sweden, went on strike at school on Fridays. 

The “Fridays For Future” (FFF) movement was and is supported by our local groups. In terms of content, we have always focussed on an anti-capitalist direction of impact – in doing so, it is above all important to us to bring together such large movements as FFF with working class struggles. Students can strike as often as they like, but they lack the power to push through their demands. Only working people have this power. We are therefore working, for example, in the trade unions to ensure that there is coordination and mutual support with FFF and, for example, that strike activities are combined. At the same time, we work within FFF to ensure that no anti-working people demands (such as a Co2 tax without social compensation financed by a wealth tax) are made.  Although FFF has been mobilizing masses for longer than we initially expected, this movement is now beginning to flag, mainly because of its lack of assertiveness. Now it is important for us to make a political offer to as many of the young people politicized within FFF for the first time as possible and to organize longer-term forms of resistance together with them.

In the struggle against imperialism, we put our main focus on the struggle against “our, home-grown” imperialism – following Karl Liebknecht, the main enemy of the German labor movement is German imperialism. Any weakening of German imperialism at home reduces its possibilities to exploit the German working class and the working class of other countries. We want to deprive German imperialism of its “quiet home front”. We do this, for example, by campaigning to contrast the cost of military and rearmament with much-needed investment in health and education, to demand disarmament and to scandalize Germany’s numerous war operations in other countries. On an international level, we networked with anti-imperialist and peace-loving forces within the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY). In our analysis of the current world situation, we do not only look at German imperialism, but also at the growing tensions between the main imperialist power – the USA – and the People’s Republic of China. Here, we clearly state that the aggression in this conflict, just as in the conflict with Russia, comes from NATO, especially the USA and the EU. We always stand on the side of the oppressed and show solidarity with socialist Cuba, Bolivarian Venezuela, the people of Iran or the Palestinians suffering under Israeli apartheid.     

PD: What led to the police attack on the annual Rosa Luxemburg Karl Liebknecht memorial rally in Berlin? What was the popular reaction to the brutal police action against the rally?

LS: The attack on this year’s Luxemburg-Liebknecht demonstration in Berlin was officially motivated by the fact that a small group of participants were carrying flags as well as uniforms of the former youth organization of the GDR – Free German Youth (FDJ). Despite the unquestionable legal situation that the clothing and the flags were not forbidden and the advice of the demonstration leaders and members of parliament from the Left Party, the police in social democratic-governed Berlin reacted with brutal violence. Dozens of people were injured, including a wheelchair user and a young SDAJ comrade. For us it is undoubtedly clear: with this action, the police took advantage of the fact that the demonstration by Corona had a significantly lower number of participants to make an advance in the repression of progressive forces. The attack thus joins the preparations of the rulers for possible protests. 

This failed – the demonstration was able to re-form and march despite further police attacks as well as massive delays. For us as well as the German Communist Party it is clear that this attack was not only aimed at the FDJ, but at the whole demonstration – in this case – it was exactly right to defend the manifestation together and in solidarity, despite all differences in content and organization. The illegal use of police must have legal consequences. 

In the aftermath of the demonstration, the actions of the police were trivialized and openly justified by the bourgeois media – left-wing, critical reporting such as that of the daily newspaper “Junge Welt” was censored and deleted on social media. The photos of the clashes with the police were later used to discredit the demonstration in public: The demonstrators tried to protect themselves by forming chains, the media later stressed that the demo had not respected the hygiene protection measures. We had a protection concept from the beginning, but the attacks by the police made it impossible to comply with it at times. The Federal Republic of Germany, whose ideological binding agent is traditionally a strict anti-communism, concealed the incidents or demonized the demonstrators. A public outcry beyond left-wing structures therefore remained largely absent. However, in 2022 we will march to the graves – hopefully with international guests and nationwide participation – repression cannot and will not stop us.