Laughing at The Left party is a sport for the mainstream German politically interested; although they continue in recent regional elections to get more seats than the Free Democrats, the party still officially governing as part of the national coalition, when The Left does make the papers it is to be portrayed as a group of silly, unprofessional, incurable eccentrics. Left-bashing must be one of the last politically correct forms of scapegoating, othering, marginalising. Go on, put the boot into the Loony Left so that it never really makes it off the floor; we certainly wouldn’t want to be meeting any one of their most reasonable demands.
To be fair to the mainstream, The Left does provide a ceaseless flow of what seem to be ridiculous poses and gestures. Your first impression is that they don’t need anyone in the establishment to marginalise them, that they insist on self-marginalisation. That might also have been your first impression if you were lucky enough to have been present at their regional meeting in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern on August 13th this year, which just happened to fall on the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. In certain German institutions – town council committees, fishermen’s trade unions, political parties – it has become established practice that citizens of the former East Germany, who were murdered by state forces when fleeing through the border zone – or others killed while assisting those trying to escape – are remembered through a one minute silence observed on this date. In German, this group of individuals are simply referred to as the Mauertoten – the dead of the wall. The exact number of people killed in this way remains a controversial question – anything between 130 and 250 individuals, depending on whose figures you trust.
Sensibly, Meck-Pomm’s Left leader, Steffen Bockhahn, was following suit and had organised the one minute silence for his party meeting on that day. Why sensibly? Attempting to explain the wall in a larger historical context is an activity that members of the Left like to indulge in; the Left’s leadership were taking their chance to counterbalance these explanations, vulnerable as they are to misinterpretation when Germany’s media gets hold of them.
Only that three members present refused to stand up for the minute’s silence; one of them, Marianne Linke, will possibly get thrown out the party for not having done so. Defending her action, Linke acknowledged that, “every death is one death too many ... [but that] ... we live in a democracy, in which it should be up to each and every individual, where and with whom – and at which time – she / he chooses to remember which victims. I stayed sitting because I was thinking about the people – including people in my own family – who lost their lives fighting in the class struggle of the last century.” (Translated from: Die Freitheitsliebe.)
For readers outside Germany, Marianne Linke’s words may require some interpretation - which “class struggle” will ancestors of a 66 year old German woman have died in? Mrs Linke may be referring for example to family members who were among the c. 1200 Berliners killed as part of the government clampdown on the revolution of March 1919, or to left-wing individuals killed during the Nazi era.
Her refusal to stand and her defence of it appear obscure and petty – does that make them wrong? Of course the dead of the wall shouldn’t be forgotten – does that make it right for us to act as if we had strong feelings about them just when it is convenient for our bosses and for state technocrats that we do so? How many of us have spent one minute silences not remembering, worrying about our straining overdrafts or thinking of those we would like to have an affair with, but won’t?
And should we support the privileging of some groups of people murdered by states over other groups of murdered individuals – the separation into the deserving and undeserving dead? Do we also need an annual minute’s silence to remember the 500 000 kids in Iraq in the 1990s, who, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture report of 1995 died as a direct result of western sanctions, sanctions supported by Germany through the instance of the EU?
Are those who refuse to stand up the truly dangerous ones? Can you, in those moments when you’re refusing to comply, kill with state authority? Aren’t the non-standers, non-sitters, non-speakers, non-eaters, non-glass raisers committing acts of radical pacificism, diminishing the always violent potential of the collective?
I don’t know anyone here in Germany who had a family member or good friend who became, in death, one of the Mauertoten; if I did I might judge Marianne Linke’s actions differently. The group of Germany’s dead who I feel most responsible for are the c.275,000 individuals with mental and / or physical disabilities murdered on order of the Nazi state in the 1930s and 1940s; because my daughter has a mental disability, I feel a duty to take ownership of this issue. Yet I do not even know whether a special date has been allocated to remember the fate of this group of individuals; if it has, public awareness of it is minimal.
If remembering these people with disabilities who were killed by Nazi-ism does establish itself on a particular date of the calendar of rememberance, should I feel anger towards the non-observers which there will inevitably be? Let us for a minute take a wedding party as an analogy for a political party: what do you do with the wine-soaked grandfather-in-law, who’s spouting off with his usual bigotry against blacks / arabs / the French, who refuses the conventions that contemporary polite discourse has constructed for him? Do you physically put him out into the rain – or do you tell the old man to shut up, & then divert him by getting him to tell his old dirty jokes, at which he excels?
Marianne Linke misbehaved; not standing, she refused a convention of contemporary polite German discourse; she refused a political agenda which she considered imposed upon her by the mainstream and with which she couldn’t identify. Will it make a better world to go on marginalising the large numbers of people who will always act like that, by putting them out into the rain? Ah, you say, but a political party is not a wedding party, politicians have to be disciplined and Get Things Done. Yes, Get Things Done, like building walls and fences to keep some in and others out, walls they know that humans will try to cross without authority, humans that they will then kill with their state authority. For killing by the state is the most complete possible form of marginalisation; fleeing the East German state was the strongest form of criticism possible against that state; killing these political refugees was the strongest possible form of silencing that critique.
Allowing more mild misbehaviour into daily politics would allow more humanity in there, more daily subversion of those individuals hell bent on Getting Things Done, while lacking compassion for those they are doing the things to. Marianne Linke’s reasons for not standing may have been obtuse; but how do we know when we might next need not to stand, in the presence of authorities we wish to neither honour nor support.