How the Refugee Crisis, Israel and Trump Tore Germany's Radical Left Apart

New political issues have unhinged the worldview of the German radical left, which has become complex-ridden and divided

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An anti-AfD demonstration in Berlin last May.
An anti-AfD demonstration in Berlin last May. Credit: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

LEIPZIG – The Conne Island Club in Leipzig’s Connewitz neighborhood is one of the places most identified with the intellectual-left ideological movement known as Antideutsche (“Anti-German”). A sweet smell of marijuana hanging in the air, beautiful people, tattoos, graffiti, dreadlocks, a deejay, a skateboarding area. Nothing in the lightheartedness and joie de vivre suggests the ideological crisis and disagreements that are jolting the club.

Sitting in the yard is a scholar, a student of history and political science, who wants to preserve his privacy. We will refer to him as “Andreas.” He amuses himself in his spare time by participating in political discourse with a small group of other intellectuals, but his eyes light up when he recalls how he took part in street fights with neo-Nazis in Leipzig both in the 1980s and ‘90s. Back then everything looked simpler, clearer.

“There was a big fight with firebombs and people on both sides were wounded,” Andreas relates. “We wrecked all their [the neo-Nazis’] cars so they wouldn’t be able to get close to our projects. We set off [car] alarms across the city.”

Antideutsche, a school of thought spurred by neo-Marxist theory that emerged against the background of German unification, never coalesced into a full-blown political movement, but, rife with critical journals and fashionable clubs, it has been going strong for three decades. The Anti-Germans are against nationalism – all nationalism, as such – with one exception: Jewish nationalism. The Germans and the world had that coming to them, they maintain.

But the wave of refugees and migrants entering Germany over the past few years changed the country, boosted the extreme right and along the way derailed the left. Similarly, the ascension of Donald Trump to power in the United States and the growing strength of the BDS movement in Europe undermined the outlook that had characterized the left, particularly the pro-Israel left, in the years after the wall fell. If the Israeli left sometimes appears to be a complex-ridden, divided, self-conflicted lot, the situation among the German radical left is no less acute.

A demonstration in Leipzig, 1989.Credit: Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via

Advent of the partisans

In the autumn of 1989, the residents of Leipzig, then part of the German Democratic Republic, took to the streets to protest against the communist regime. To the international community, the demonstrations, which spread to other cities and anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall, were a breath of fresh air. But a small group of punks, to which Andreas belonged, wasn’t happy with the direction they took. “The neo-Nazis participated in those demonstrations, and at a certain point they started to lead them,” Andreas recalls. “We saw that the slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk’ [We are the people] had morphed into ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ [We are one people].”

For most Germans, that cry symbolized the demand for German unification. But for Andreas and his friends, its implications were far more acute: It was a sign of a resurgent German nationalism. “We thought we were heading into the Fourth Reich,” he says.

Their fears were realized, in part. In the early 1990s, a wave of post-unification nationalism swept Germany, in both its eastern and western parts. The homes of migrants and refugees from Mozambique, Vietnam and elsewhere were surrounded by angry mobs and became targets for firebombs. In the aftermath of attacks in Saxony, the state where Leipzig is situated, local authorities evacuated refugees from the town of Hoyerswerda. In another incident, five girls from a Turkish family were killed when skinheads torched their home in the city of Solingen in North-Rhine Westphalia.

“We thought we needed to be partisans,” Andreas recalls. “We talked about buying weapons to defend ourselves against the rising Nazism.”

But by the end of the tempestuous 1990s, the wave of nationalist violence receded – due in part, according to Andreas, to the uncompromising policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The danger of a Fourth Reich no longer loomed on the horizon, and the left turned its attention to other struggles. Some activists took aim at American imperialism in the Middle East, others – Antideutsche – defended Israel and bourgeois society as a whole in the face of Islamic radicalization as manifested in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

According to Andreas, Germany’s political situation is better today than it was in the 1990s, despite the rise of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party. “From my perspective, we have moved leftward, not rightward,” he avers. “If there are leftists who claim the opposite, that’s only part of the truth.”

Coinciding with the transformations that have occurred in Germany and globally in the past few decades, Andreas’ worldview has also undergone a sea change. His take on things today is far more complex and less unequivocal. In the past it was clear that he was against the concept of the nation-state as such (apart from Israel, of course). Today he says that “the role of the nation-state is to defend, on the one hand, bourgeois society – with its built-in social inequality – but also, on the other, civil rights.”

In a somewhat similar manner, the Conne Island Club, once a bastion of relentless battle against the right, has more recently been at the heart of serious internal ideological disputes, and now finds itself under attack from the left.

No names, please

Three of the people who run the club (which includes a library, a pub and a space for meetings of different groups) agreed to meet with me and talk about the problems and dilemmas they’re facing. None of them was willing to be named or have their photograph taken for the article. We’ll call them Richard, who is 36 and is in charge of the club’s concerts, Julia, 30, and Robin (a male), 29.

The Conne Island clubhouse in Leipzig, Germany. “Our plan to integrate young refugees by way of joint celebrations alone proved naive.”Credit: Conne Island Facebook page

I ask them about the principles of Conne Island, which is run by a nonhierarchical group that makes the important decisions at weekly “plenum” meetings. Julia answers simply: “Anti-sexism, anti-homophobia and anti-racism, equality, universalism, solidarity with Israel.” Of late, the club has found itself dealing with the mutual conflict between at least some of those principles, a situation that has subjected it to attacks from within the left-wing camp.

It started in 2015 or 2016, Julia relates, when Germany began taking in large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Like many German citizens, the Conne Island management decided to welcome them, and set a special ticket price of just a half-euro for refugees and immigrants to all the club’s concerts. The club also offered German lessons and other activities. The initiative was successful – the newcomers were happy to attend the concerts and parties – until the problems began.

“At that point we didn’t have professional security guards,” Robin says. “Suddenly, things changed. Suddenly, there were knives in the club, people who were drunk were banging their heads against the wall. We realized we didn’t know how to deal with it.” Julia adds: “There was a lot of sexual harassment – men touching women at parties.”

“For me, as the person responsible for bookings, those were nightmare months,” Richard recalls. “One time we were six people against two or three guys who made trouble the whole night. We dealt with it for a few hours, but in the end we had to call the police – something we’d never done before.”

The club toughened its entry policy for events, beefed up security and decided that only refugees who ordered tickets in advance would benefit from the subsidy, otherwise they would pay the full price. When that, too, failed to solve the problem, the club’s management decided to publish a text that was part manifesto, part confession.

The Anti-Germans are against all nationalism with one exception: Jewish nationalism. The Germans and the world owe it to them, they maintain.

“Our plan to integrate young refugees by way of joint celebrations alone proved naive,” the Conne Island document asserted. The authors added, “The authoritarian and patriarchal socialization of some of the refugees in some of the countries of origin, on the one hand, and the Western-liberal culture of parties, on the other hand, has created a volatile mix and led to an increase in sexist comments and sexual harassment in Conne Island and in other clubs. As a result, women have chosen not to attend our parties in order to avoid attacks and confrontations. Against the background of these incidents, we must ask ourselves very clearly whether we expressed sufficient solidarity with the injured women, or whether we rested on the laurels of our earlier struggles against sexism.”

The goal of the document, Conne Island’s people explain in retrospect, was to stimulate a frank and honest discussion within the left, particularly in the clubs identified with the left. But the experiment blew up in their faces. “It backfired really badly,” says Robin. AfD shared the text on Facebook and Twitter, as if to say, “Now even the lefties understand what the problem with the foreigners is.”

“People told us we shouldn’t have published it – it gave the AfD tools [against us],” Robin says. Still, he notes, despite the backlash, the document also produced good results, such as a meeting between representatives of all the big left-wing clubs in Germany, held at Potsdam. “But we still missed the goal,” he admits. “The bad publicity lingered and all the rest was forgotten.”

Now, more than two years after the document’s publication, refugees and immigrants still come to the club, but in lower numbers, as my three interlocutors explain. The reason, they say, is that in south Leipzig, where the club is located, there are simply fewer refugees than before.

“We live in a very high-rent bubble,” Richard says, “and all those people live now in small towns where there are plenty of free apartments and where it’s much cheaper for the government to house them. I think that if many of them were still living in this area, we would still be having problems.”

Voice of reason

But the next storm was not long in coming – and this time it ended with calls for a boycott. In May, a group of activists, many of them with ties to Conne Island, organized a conference to honor Israel’s 70th birthday, in cooperation with Leipzig University. The speakers included the commentator and theater person Thomas Maul, whose scheduled topic was “Criticism of Islamic Anti-Semitism and its Trivialization.” Shortly before the event, Maul, in a Facebook post praised a speech by AfD leader Alexander Gauland in the Bundestag. Gauland called for “fighting and dying alongside Israel, in the event of a serious danger to its existence.” Gauland also imputed to the government responsibility for Germany’s growing anti-Semitism, calling it “collateral damage from the failed immigration and immigrant absorption policy.”

Commentator and theater person Thomas Maul.Credit: / Marlene Gawrisch

Maul wrote that “AfD remained objectively the only voice of reason in the Bundestag” – and the gates of hell opened.

“A shit-storm erupted,” recalls Robin, who says that over the next two weeks, left-wing activists circulated a demand online that, “Conne Island must not allow AfD supporters to take part in the [Israel anniversary] events.”

Leipzig University cancelled Maul’s speech, but Conne Island decided to allow the wayward columnist to speak at the club.

In an email interview, Maul reiterated the main points of his lecture. He said he doubted whether the pro-Zionist left should be part of the antifascist front created by the big parties against AfD. “That would mean a battle against right-wing solidarity with Israel alongside left-wing anti-Semites,” he wrote. Maul also maintained that when the big parties “declare as taboo statements about the real problems of mass Islamic immigration, and accordingly do not propose logical and humane solutions, they actually strengthen AfD.” The far-right party, he averred, “owes its popularity exclusively to the silence of the other parties and major media outlets about the worsening social problems.”

Two weeks after Maul spoke, a call to boycott Conne Island appeared on the web, signed by something called the “Initiative for a Left Counterculture.” Conne Island, said the statement is “systematically pushing left-wing positions to the margins. They invite right-wing populists, whereas many left-wing speakers and artists never make it to their stage.” The statement called on artists not to appear at Conne Island and demanded that the city of Leipzig stop all its funding of Conne Island.

The document also noted that Conne Island had banned the wearing of kaffiyehs on its premises – a prohibition that has been in place for years, as the head-covering is perceived as a statement of pro-Palestinian support. “Conne Island interprets every critique of the oppression of the Palestinian people as a form of anti-Semitism,” the text stated in this connection. “They display unconditional solidarity with Israel. That means, solidarity with half a century of military occupation and defense of an extreme right-wing government and its political agenda.”

Issues related to Israel are indeed hampering management of the concerts and parties at Conne Island, particularly in the past few years, in light of the growing strength of the BDS movement in Europe. Last summer, the problem was aggravated by an internet campaign waged under the aegis of “#djsforpalestine,” in which musicians and deejays expressed support for the boycotting of Israel because of its oppression of the Palestinians. “Lots and lots of musicians who performed here and in other clubs joined the campaign,” Richard relates.

Conne Island is committed to unconditional support of Israel, and is thus not inclined to give a platform to people who endorse a boycott. On the other hand, the club is proud to be home to diverse musical subcultures – from punk, hard-core and hip hop to house and techno. Forgoing prominent musicians for ideological reasons is liable to exact a formidable artistic – and reputational – price.

The Conne Island club.Credit: Marlene Gawrisch

“It’s not like we say that if you shared [the pro-boycott meme], you won’t perform,” Richard notes. “We ask why you shared it. And if the answer is bad, or if there is no answer, then maybe you won’t play here.”

“I love Israel,” he adds. “I’m a little bit obsessed with it, but in a good way. Because of my own history, anti-Semitism is a subject that I’m very concerned about. I see a big problem with left-wing anti-Semitism – which no one seems to care about – and not only with right-wing anti-Semitism.”

When I ask him if his family history ties him to the subject, he answers that this grandfather fought on the Eastern Front during World War II, but that in his family – as in the majority of families in Germany, certainly when he was growing up – the subject was not talked about.

Gauging the threat

The disagreements among the various left-wing camps, which has only intensified in recent years, has created new categories. These include “left Anti-Germans” and “right Anti-Germans” – a new division within a group that above all has defined itself as radical, neo-Marxist left. Does this division represent a wedge that the populist right has managed to drive into the ranks of the left? Or is it just another disagreement within a very narrow intra-left niche? I put this question to Sebastian Voigt, a historian and a longtime activist in the left pro-Israeli scene in Germany.

In his view, there is no contradiction between the two. “There’s a tendency toward the strengthening of the right wing nowadays in Germany, and the radical left has been marginalized for a long time,” he says in a telephone interview. “These discussions take place among a very small group of people. But they reflect something bigger. The left, and Conne Island as a leftist cultural alternative center, need to find ways to speak about the new situation.”

Historian Sebastian Voigt.

Still, according to Voigt, the difference between the “right Anti-Germans” (represented by Thomas Maul and the Bahamas journal, which emerged from the Marxist left, but now tends to be critical of many traditional left-wing positions), and the left-wing Anti-Germans boils down to exactly one controversy: “Which is the greater political threat – the Islamization of European society or the rise of rightist reactionary powers in Germany, in Europe and all over the world. I maintain that the right is the threat.”

On the question of Israel, Voigt says that his concern is that anti-Zionism often serves as a cover for anti-Semitism: “ And that is what I fight against. I don’t support Netanyahu or the current Israeli government. But domestic politics in Israel are none of my business.”

When I point out that most of the world doesn’t view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a domestic Israeli issue alone, he says he believes it’s been politicized in a non-constructive way. He adds: “One problem of the left has been that it has always wanted to solve all of the world’s problems, particularly the Middle Eastern conflict. But I think the German left should leave the Middle Eastern conflict alone.”

Voigt also argues that, even if the refugee question served as the trigger for the rise of the right, “the reasons go much deeper and are related to socioeconomic developments of recent decades.” The refugee crisis, he says, should be seen in a wider historical perspective. “Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a step back, and then the situation doesn’t look so unsolvable. After 1945, millions of Germans were expelled from eastern regions – which had belonged to Germany in the past and were now annexed to Poland – and were successfully integrated into German society. One can claim of course that they were white and not all that different. But the discussions that were held in Catholic Bavaria when Protestant Germans from West Pomerania and Eastern Prussia wanted to build their church in a Catholic village, can be compared to those now being held about the mosques.”

Voigt adds that “Maul, like Germany’s minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer, claims that immigration is the mother of all problems. This is not true. The truth is that Germany never wanted to be a country of immigrants, but it actually has been one for decades.”

In the meantime, it looks as though the German left, too, hasn’t completely come to terms with that insight, nor has it decided what it thinks about a host of other issues. Until that happens, the left will continue to lose to the right in national struggles and continue to be at loggerheads with itself over localized issues.

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