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Votes and Voices on the Iraq War

An East-West German Perspective



Andreas Griewank

Professor of Mathematics, Technical University of Dresden

TFF Friend

October 11, 2002

Since NATO redefined its mission in April 1999 and the Western powers started projecting their military superiority on a global scale, most European countries must have had at least one parliamentary election. To me it was agonizing to watch that these dramatic and dangerous developments seemed barely an issue in the electoral campaigns. Even in Spain, Italy and other Southern European countries, where according to opinion polls large majorities had vigorously opposed the bombing of Yugoslavia, only small parties even raised the issue and were quickly relegated to the "lunatic fringe" by published opinion. Of course, this is exactly what the foreign policy establishment wants to achieve, namely to keep international policy out of the "populist" electoral debate, since there are supposedly no respectable alternatives to the European consensus anyhow. We are told that these complicated matters are best kept in the hands of the seasoned politicians and professional elites who know better than the common folks with their naive, parochial notions and prejudices.

In Germany the strictures against "nationalistic" deviations are particularly strong. If we don't tow the North-Atlantic line, so we are always told, the Americans and other European will rediscover our eternal Nazi-cravings and make us eat crow for a few more generations. It almost worked again in our last election, as for months the electoral opponents traded personal denigrations and debated the customary recipes for a better management of economy and society. The latter debate is very important, but it does not alleviate the need to discuss the precarious state of international relations, politically and culturally. Then in early September Schroeder found out that, while the flood emergency had given his government coalition a sorely needed boost in the polls, he still needed another issue to put him over the top. So why not acknowledge the well known fact that a sizable majority of the German population was unconvinced and rather appalled by the martial noises emanating from the White House. Amidst howls of disbelief by the Christian democratic opposition and dire predictions of imminent Western ostracism by the conservative press, chancellor Schroeder and his foreign minister Fischer categorically stated that they would not send German troops into a war on Iraq even with a security council mandate.

Only five years ago any other public position would have been unthinkable in German politics. Now the leading conservative daily, the Frankfurter Zeitung, branded it as "radical" and "fundamentalist pacifism". Moreover, we were told by opposition spokesmen that Schroeder's position was a populist exploitation of the Germans rampant "Kriegsangst", i.e. fear of war, apparently an irrational sentiment that our more mature American and European brethren with their well developed "culture of intervention" have risen above. It really makes one cry. While embracing this outrageous charge the opposition candidate Stoiber at first tried to dodge the issue by claiming the question of a German military involvement was premature. After all, we still have not officially been asked to "help", and war has not been declared after all, just discussed in public by Western media for months. Watching his slide in the polls Stoiber first discovered that there is such a thing as the United Nations Charta and Organisation, he then drew even with Schroeder in his promise not to send German troops, and finally, during a live debate on commercial TV, even vowed to prevent the US from using "their" military bases in Germany for a unilateral attack on Iraq. Of course on the last issue his handlers had to pull him back right afterwards and explain to the public how this consummate politician had been sadly but thoroughly misunderstood.

All the while, the official Germany was and still is terribly worried about how badly this debate was perceived by the relevant peers in Washington and the European capitals. Nobody showed any empathy for the population of Bagdad, Irak, and the neighboring countries, who must have been by now literally dead-scared for almost a year as the Western heavies discuss when and how to unleash their awesome fire power in their missionary zeal. If there is anything we Germans should learn from our past and tell our friends about I suggest the following short list: 1. War is hell and should be justifiably feared, even hated. 2. Defense against an actual attack is the only acceptable military action. 3. Beware of atrocities that are propagandistically blamed on the enemy. 4. Being bombed makes nobody overthrow their government, quite the opposite. 5. National hubris combined with the perception of technological and

military superiority can lead from initial successes into final disaster. Lesson 1 and 2 were largely uncontroversial in postwar Germany, except that a large part of the left including the student movement of the late sixties and early seventies even doubted the legitimacy of the West German defense posture within NATO. Schroeder and Fischer were some of the people who then vigorously denounced the West German state as repressive, militaristic, and neo-colonial in its dealings with the third world. When the Warsaw pact and hence the only serious military challenge to NATO had disappeared, they became faithful supporters of their brothers in arms and spirit Clinton and Blair. There is nothing specifically German about this, except for the ironic twist that some East Germans who professed almost word by word the same (neo-)Marxism views are still barred for life from public service in the (re)unified Germany. Lessons 3 and 4 might garner some support now but were not really discussed in Germany's public domain. The Third Reich was judged so singularly evil that no action taken against it was to be criticized and any attempt to analyze how it gained fairly widespread support in the beginning was seen as apology for history's largest genocide. However, I do fear that certain aspects, like the partisan world view and propagandistic bullying by a committed minority, and even more seriously, the intellectual denial and cowardice by the non-committed majority, have occurred similarly at many fateful crossroads in human history. Certainly, the disregard and disdain for people outside one's own cultural frame of reference seems as strong as ever. The condescending and patronizing tolerance with which European descendants currently treat 90% of the world population is probably not far removed from the explicitly colonial attitudes of earlier centuries. There is a little bit of that in the way many East-Germans view their former "socialist comrades" in the other ex-Warsaw pact countries, who pass the favor on to the Russians and so on down the pecking order of the globalized world. The most popular lesson drawn from history is obviously "join the winners", which should be the official motto of NATO by now. Ironically, one of the official East German slogans that was posted in towns and cities right after had been "Learning from the Soviet Unions means learning how to win!".

After experiencing the agony and collapse of the allegedly invincible socialist system, many East-Germans seem to have retained some healthy skepticism regarding official pronouncements of inevitable progress towards global happiness and peace as defined by the powers that be. At least this is my interpretation of why, during the last four years, all opinion polls have shown that opposition to Germany's supporting act in Washington's military campaigns has run much higher than in West Germany. Often it reached majorities as for example 65% in case of our token contribution to the initial Afghanistan invasion. Many of the official thought and speech patterns are eerily familiar to East Germans: - The never-ending friendship to and unquestioning solidarity with the benevolent protector state, who liberated us from fascism, - The mislabeling of one's own military activities as peacemaking. - The frequent recasting of international characters as democratic heros, autocratic baddies, or outright demons.

The powers that be diagnose the more widely spread opposition amongst East-Germans as symptom of "anti-Americanism". This mental disorder supposedly affects people who were immersed earlier on in a Marxist interpretation of international capitalism and did not possess the intellectual flexibility of the Fischers and Cohn-Bendits of this world, who just walk away from it when the red army seized to be a serious force. While there is some understandable animosity towards a big power throwing around its weight, I sense very little anti-American sentiment amongst East Germans. To an overwhelming majority the official ideological world view never meant anything and all things American, especially music, movies and fashions, have been wildly popular since long before the fall of the wall. Our new German neighbors were just as baffled as our previous American neighbors when, after living more than ten years in the miraculous US, my family and I moved to East-Germany in 1993. While the parallels noted above are to some degree a matter of perception, there is no doubting that on issues of foreign and military policy the current parliament appears no more representative than the former East-German rubber stamp assembly. Despite sizable public opposition in the polls, parliament voted in the last period 17 times nearly unanimously in favor of the initiation or continuation of non-defensive military engagements. When some members of Fischer's green party looked like opposing the Afghanistan venture Schroeder forced them to go along by turning the parliamentary decision into a vote of confidence for his coalition government. So much for the individual conscience of the peoples deputies.

The only opposing votes came from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which has just failed to reach the 5% hurdle imposed by the German electoral law. It will therefore only be represented with 2 of 612 seats in the next legislative period. The PDS is an outgrowth of the former Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ran East-Germany for 40 years as an ideological and economical dependency of the Soviet Union. Small wonder then that for many people the PDS remains an unnecessary and even dangerous relic of the past. Notwithstanding a new party platform and a leadership that includes nobody who held a high state or party position in the former GDR, many of the members are still driven by nostalgia for the old Stalinist system. On the other hand the party has so far only managed to poll a little more than one percent in the Western lander.

It is a sad testimony to the opportunism of the established parties that the ugly duckling PDS was the only parliamentary fraction who questioned the nation's slide into what looks more and more like neocolonialism. Like many international laws the provisions in the German constitution and criminal code against military aggression were thrown to the wind. The courts even refused to hear the cases brought on by the PDS and various other organizations. The constitutional court accepted the fait accompli that the government had simply approved of NATOs selfmandating redirection in April 1999 without even having the matter discussed in parliament. When a German TV documentary established beyond any reasonable doubt that the "horse shoe plan" and some other "reports" of the defense ministry concerning Yugoslavia were slanted or fabricated in the worst tradition of German war propaganda, only the PDS called for minister Scharping's resignation. He eventually stumbled over some minor financial affair. In any case the whole government and political establishment are responsible for covering up these crimes against international peace and understanding.

For their consistent efforts the PDS was regularly denounced by all "mature democratic" forces as irresponsible, hypocritically pacifist, and certainly unfit for participating in any coalition on the federal level. Earlier in the election campaign Schroeder boasted that his coalition government had turned Germany into a "normal" international player by successfully removing the taboo on foreign military actions, which had stood for 50 years. To me this was one of the few traditions that we could be proud of, rather than feeling deficient for having missed the action in places like Suez, Malaysia, Algeria, Vietnam, Kuwait, and wherever else our partners allegedly carried the burden of spreading democracy by the sword. Since this "normalisation" went against the grain of what I always had understood to be the constitutional mission of the German armed forces, I tried to resign from my humble position as lieutenant of the reserves. Of course this was mainly a symbolic gestures and as such it apparently had to be rejected by the bureaucrats in charge of such matters.

Now after the election, published opinion is unanimous in its demand that the reconstituted government immediately repair the allegedly seriously damaged relations to the US. Everybody was thrilled that Rumsfeld eventually shook hands with our defense minister at the last NATO meeting and that Bush, while never con-gratulating Schroeder to his reelection, did send a friendly notice to our figure-head president on the occasion of the official German reunification date.

On the evening of that day, October 3rd, I soared quietly under a para-glider high above a huge airfield northwest of Dresden. Like many other former military installations in East Germany, it had been built up by the German army during the Third Reich and was later used for four decades by the Red Army. From above I could see a Mig fighter, still propped up on a pedestal as monument to the glory of the Soviet Airforce, and a seemingly misplaced Starfighter, the jet that formed the backbone of the West German airforce during the cold war confrontation. Now the enormous complex is largely deserted; just a few gliders and light aircraft take off and land on one end of the two long runways. It was tempting to consider the two fighter planes and numerous abandoned bomb shelters as relics of a distant past, a dark age where enormous resources were wasted on building up ever more sophisticated military machines, which really did not seem to matter much in the end. However, as we know, the historic opportunity to make this optimistic interpretation true was missed and now the future looks even darker. The military budgets grow to ever more obscene heights, the abyss between rich and poor becomes unsurmountable, and terrorist aggressions by informal groups and established governments alike make dogfights between jet-planes look like fair heraldic contests. I drifted in the gentle breeze that blew from the Southwest across the vacated base beneath me.

One day soon the air may be poisoned with radiation and chemicals, the neighboring towns and villages deserted or covered with corpses of people and animals. Am I just imagining the imminent danger of the new "world order", which does not deserve the name, turning into a new "world war", which definitely would?. Am I getting generally agitated and depressed? What happened to that deep down confidence and optimism, which allowed me to father children and to have myself pulled up 500 meters into the air under a sheet of plastic? I try to tell myself that there is hope. Many people from all walks of life whom I handed a petition against the attack on Iraq signed without hesitation and twenty thousand have done so in the whole country. During a brief visit to Madison in early August I dispatched a letter to the editor of the Wisconsin Journal stating the utter illegality of the war planning activities. As I found out later from an American colleague it had been printed together with seven other letters, which were all squarely opposed to the latest White House plans for global military action. Can the president and his hawkish minions really ignore the objections of most of their people, allies, and even more importantly the geographic neighbors of Iraq?. Unfortunately, their unfortunate populations count even less than we, and they cannot criticize or vote out their masters, some of whom have been placed there by European colonialism decades ago and kept in power ever since. So let us use our democratic freedoms and make our voices heard. There is no excuse for not even trying.


Andreas Griewank
Institute of Scientific Computing
Department of Mathematics
Technical University of Dresden
01062 Dresden, Germany




© TFF & the author 2002  


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