G20 was three weeks ago now, but we still remember it as quite the spectacle. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping stood steadfast as the defenders of free trade, and our suspicions on Trump’s inward looking self, and that of a warm, suspect relationship with Putin were confirmed. Yet, the summit was most memorable for the host city, Hamburg, as a barrage of anti-capitalist violence festered on the sidelines of the so called ‘Welcome to Hell’ demonstrations. Though there were cases of police brutality, law enforcers overwhelmingly found themselves the targets of senseless violence, despite negotiations between police and demo leaders throughout the weekend aimed to keep the peace. Over 470 policemen were injured over the span of the event, according to Hamburg’s police commissioner, Hartmut Dudde. Meanwhile, Hafenstadt Hamburg and the German state are to foot the minimum estimated costs of €130 million on a fifty-fifty split.
What’s emerged in public discourse in Hamburg’s aftermath has been fractious. Calls from Merkel’s conservative CDU ministers and those of the CSU, its Bavarian sister party, to crush suspected extreme left-wing cells in swathes of alternative, youthful city spaces in Hamburg and Berlin in particular, but also further afield, have proven fractious to current social and political debate. This has not least been immediately apparent in Leipzig, where I’ve just finished studying for a semester.
Leipzig is a naturally left-wing stronghold in line with its history as a socialist state from 1949 to 1989. Many quarters at the extremities of the city consist of areas appearing radically left wing in comparison to British university towns, where the most controversial statements made are, in contrast, fashion-related. In the western districts of Lindenau and Plagwitz you can come across hip and youthful restaurants and bars – upon closer inspection non-profit projects, or communes to you and me.
Just south of the town you find the Connewitz area, and the renowned Conne Island. Now, this is the epitome of left-wing activism in Leipzig. The project doesn’t only put on free open airs – an essentially anti-capitalist phenomenon absent in the UK since the Public Order Bill of 1986 – but it sells itself as a hub for antifa; an Antifa Area which sprout up in other parts of town, too. These are spaces for antifa members to meet and galvanise. But this alone is nothing to be fearful towards, no matter what German secretary of state De Maizière will have you believe. Because what is often missing from the debate in Saxony, the Bundesland in which Leipzig is situated, is the rise of the extreme right, and namely Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against The Islamisation of Europe) in Dresden. By contrast, antifa (Antifascist Action) and the party die Linke (The Left) are ideological partners, with antifa acting as an extension of it somewhat – the social opposition group to fascist, neo-Nazi and nationalist forces in German society.
The left wing communities in Leipzig have reacted defiantly to mud-slinging accusations. While many Germans I’ve spoken to in the past fortnight have joked dismissively of the left wing threat, sardonically claiming ‘Die Linke greift an!’ (‘The left is attacking!’), some anti-capitalists and hard left citizens have made their presence better known. ‘ANTIFA’ and ‘ACAB’ (All Cops are Bastards) graffiti has appeared out the blue in the more finely preserved parts of town, for example on the side of the well-known Feinkosten building; a scruffy ‘ACAB’ etched above the gloriously bland combination of quintessentially East German colours and socialist puppet figures.
Come to Hamburg / Fight G20 – Taken 8th July 2017 at Bibliotheca Albertina, Leipzig
But not only have the common Leipzigers been making decisive statements, but also their mayor, Burkhard Jung. In the face of growing opposition to the continuation of such social projects in the Saxon state parliament, Jung has reasserted the centre-left voice of tolerance and reason by fully ruling out any closure of the projects. However, Leipzig’s CDU fraction’s chief, Frank Kupfer, warned that: “We must fundamentally inspect so-called alternative youth centres in Saxony, whether in Leipzig, Dresden or Chemnitz,” reitterating the CDU’s sharpened tone. Yet, Tom Mannewitz, a Chemnitz-based researcher of extremism, erred on the cautionary side of the debate, warning that in the worst case scenario many left-leaning activists suddenly deprived of their local projects may turn to radicalisation in reaction to local governments’ direct involvement.
Although there were Brits, French, Spanish, Italians, and Swiss amongst the 186 arrested, pointing to a greater European scope within the extreme left debate, can one say with confidence that left wing extremism is both solely to blame for Hamburg, and also as big a European problem as it’s being made out? Indeed, De Maizière even called for a European database on left-wing extremists. Let’s briefly consider the argument in the German context.
Rote Flora – Former Hamburg theatre-come-squat since 1989 (Photo credit)
In relation to the G20 event itself, the police deployment in Hamburg consisted of forces from across Germany. Although this wouldn’t prove a problem in the UK due to centralisation, Germany’s federal structure was decisive in the nature of the police deployment and the reception of the events that unfolded. In every state police behaviour varies considerably due to the federal and cultural nature of each Bundesland. A Bavarian policeman is expected to handle a left-wing demonstrator differently than one from Berlin, for example. As such, the different approaches and, arguably, greater tendencies by some policemen to act more violently was exacerbated from what one criminologist was the poor distribution of information, and consequent nervousness and primal behaviour of some policemen. The fractured structure, and the consequential poor planning of the German authorities with various police forces, is one factor that contributed to the loss of civil order. Hamburg’s police president, Ralf Meyer, this week conceded that ‘Policemen make mistakes, like all humans,’ demonstrating the extent to which the authorities hold themselves in part responsible.
On the other hand, politically motivated crime on the extreme left is a well-established phenomenon in Germany, whose former West German state experienced the Red Army Faction and ‘Autonomous’ terrorism since before German unification. There has even been investigations into the Die Linke political party due to a considerable number of sitting extremist parliament representatives. Indeed, political crime has been steadily rising for over a decade now. According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, extreme left violent crime has quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. In December 2013 alone, a total of 170 policemen were injured through far-left acts of violence surrounding Hamburg’s infamous Rote Flora squat; far-left violence against policemen rose by 28% between 2012 and 2013. However, though far left acts of violence are higher than those on the far right, politically motivated acts of crime recorded in 2013 are effectively twice as high amongst the far right (17,042) than the far left (8,673), with extreme right criminals committing a considerable amount of propagandist crimes – 12,219 in 2012, to be precise. Even more serious is the news of rising xenophobic violence committed by the far-right; 478 acts of violence against foreigners were committed in 2013, while hate crimes had risen 11% on the previous year to 3,248. It can’t be denied that politically motivated crimes are on the rise on both sides of the deep ideological divide, with neither side able to defend themselves on the topic.
Yet, cynically, some suggest that the failure of Hamburg conveniently comes less than two months before the federal elections. Criticism towards Hamburg’s SPD (Labour equivalent party) mayor / minister president is pointedly intended to undermine his authority to govern in a city state which delivered four SPD and one CDU Bundestag representatives on a tight vote share of 32.4% and 32.1%, respectively. The CDU already feels invincible following state election wins in the former SPD safe state North Rein Westphalia, with two other wins in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein so far this year. Although the anarchy of Hamburg is a convenient narrative for the CDU’s proven and popular mode of governance, Angela Merkel remains cautious as not to upset the SPD, her formal coalition partner.
So what can be said? Hamburg has definitely become a hot topic in Germany. The questions it raised are reverberating in every corner of the Berlin Republic and point to an uneasy truth about the rise of far-left extremism. The images of the German Mittelstand’s battered businesses, burnt out automobiles and masked brutes are now cemented in a German consciousness – simultaneously confronted by the xenophobic violence of the far-right. In both cases, however, it seems that the causes could be uprooted locally; state appropriation of Rote Flora in Hamburg to rid Hamburg and Germany of a far-left stronghold, in conjunction with a thorough rethink of how to resolve the problem of violent xenophobia, formerly perpetrated against Turkish ‘guest workers’, and now refugees. In any case, let’s hope neither phenomena are here to stay.