The man is a member of Berlin's left-wing radical autonomist movement, and he's engaged in a struggle against the system. If a few things have to go up in flames as part of that struggle, it doesn't usually bother him too much. But there are limits -- and the deaths of three people recently in Greece, employees at a bank where someone threw a firebomb, have left him contemplating them.
"I never imagined something like this," the man says. He's come to a cafe at Kottbusser Tor in Berlin's diverse Kreuzberg district to talk about left-wing militancy in Germany. In his mid-twenties, he's wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt bearing the logo of the Zapatistas, Mexico's left-wing guerrilla movement. He gives no name, revealing only that he was involved in organizing the May 1 protest in Berlin and that he belongs to an anti-fascist group.
He begins to talk about Greece. The revolutionary resistance there seemed to have entered a promising phase, with unions and autonomists united on the streets. It was going so well, he says. And now this.
'Militancy on the Streets Is Increasing'
Violence, he says, must be used constructively and "responsibly," not against people -- especially now that things in Germany are also gaining momentum again. "There's been a rise in the number of night-time actions," he says, "and militancy on the street is increasing."
The opposition in this struggle -- Germany's federal government -- has observed the same trend and is worried about this renaissance of left-wing violence in the country. German Interior Ministry crime statistics for 2009 show a 53 percent jump in the number of left-wing attacks, the largest increase seen in many years. Police recorded a total of 1,822 left-wing acts of violence in all of Germany, considerably more than those committed by right-wing extremists.
Those statistics include, among other things, the burning of several hundred cars in Berlin, a large-scale attack carried out by masked individuals on a police station in Hamburg in December and an attack on vehicles belonging to the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, in Dresden in April 2009, which saw equipment worth €3 million ($3.7 million) go up in flames. Such escalation hadn't been seen in a long time.
Under orders from Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Germany's security agencies have been working for months on a new government strategy for dealing with the phenomenon. National and state-level interior ministers will take up the topic at their next biannual conference at the end of next week, and the various branches of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence agency, met at a special conference in Cologne in April to discuss the issue. German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder, a member of the CDU, has announced programs to combat left-wing extremists that are similar to those used for years against right-wing extremists.
After an Absence, Movement Gains Ground after German G-8
For a long time, the left-wing radical scene seemed to be aimlessly adrift. There were still some members of the autonomist movement active in cities such as Berlin and Hamburg, but their activities happened largely below the radar. Following the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the battle between socialism and capitalism seemed to have been won decisively. The autonomists of the 1980s and 1990s, children of earlier squatter and anti-nuclear protest movements, lost their way. The Red Army Faction (RAF), a left-wing terrorist group active in Germany for nearly 30 years, disbanded in 1998. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the West became engaged in a battle against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that overshadowed everything else. Other struggles seemed to pale in comparison to the War on Terror.
Yet ever since the 2007 protests against the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm on Germany's Baltic Sea coast, where more than 30,000 demonstrators forced world leaders to stay behind insurmountable fences, the movement has been gaining support again. The number of potential militant activists rose from 5,500 to 6,600 from 2005 to 2009, according to a confidential analysis carried out by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). The report further enumerated that one in four activists in the left-wing scene lives in Berlin or Hamburg, while the rest are divided among the Rhine-Main region around Frankfurt, the region of eastern Germany that includes Dresden and Leipzig and the university towns of Göttingen and Freiburg.
The autonomist from Kreuzberg in Berlin and the federal government both agree that the movement has seen a strong influx of new members since the protests at Heiligendamm. Shortly before the G-8 summit, the government itself mobilized on a large scale against potential protestors, carrying out raids on members of the left-wing scene that led to a solidarity demonstration spearheaded by Green Party member Claudia Roth. The operation was later quietly discontinued.
'Everything Is Subject to Economic Law'
Meanwhile, "Agenda 2010" social welfare reforms introduced under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) sowed discord in German society because of their steep cuts in welfare payments to the longterm unemployed. Then came the financial and economic crisis. Critics of capitalism can now be seen everywhere, from the Left Party to the CDU. The ones who could be seen as radicals today, in fact, are those who still defend the present system -- and autonomists are eagerly fanning the flames of the conflict.
The left-wing scene addresses issues "that are also of concern among the peace-loving population," in the words of an Interior Ministry analysis. "In light of economic and social problems, we should have already reckoned with greater extremist violence five years ago, a time when unemployment was at 5 million," says Manfred Murck, the deputy chief of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the city-state of Hamburg. He describes it as a "time-delayed phenomenon." Politically motivated violence, Murck adds, also mixes with riots whose motives are harder to read.
"Everything is subject to economic law," says the autonomist in the Kreuzberg café, calling this the fundamental problem with the system. It's a statement that would surely gain him entry to any talk show. Criticism of capitalism is one of the biggest issues "relevant for mobilization," he says. But that list also includes issues like university protests, the struggle against gentification and the shift in urban neighborhoods toward more attractive buildings, higher rent prices and wealthier residents.
'People Are Fighting Back'
The autonomist himself grew up in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district in the 1990s, a child of the area's turn-of-the-century tenement apartment buildings. He describes how he watched one building after another get a fresh coat of paint and then get rented out to a completely new set of residents. Now he lives in Kreuzberg, but here, too, gentrification is encroaching from all sides. "Here, though," he says, "people are fighting back."
They're fighting back, for example, against a new development called the "CarLoft," an condominium complex under construction that will include an elevator to hoist residents' cars up to private parking spots on each floor. Apartments in the building start at €450,000. Throwing paint bombs at the facade is one example of a targeted use of violence, says the autonomist. It's highly symbolic, gets a sympathetic response in the neighborhood and doesn't put people in danger.
He cites similar examples of nighttime attacks on unemployment centers and Bundeswehr vehicles. "What burns in Germany can't perpetrate any more damage in Afghanistan," he states, though he says he's only quoting the motto of one such campaign. Supposedly he doesn't know who is actually behind the acts.
Police have gotten to the bottom of only a fraction of last year's 1,822 violent acts. It would be difficult to find another part of society where authorities know so little as the left-wing extremist scene. Shortly after taking office last October, Interior Minister de Maiziere requested an overview of the situation, but what the BKA and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution reported back to him amounted to little more than an admission of failure. Of 6,600 militant activists who had supposedly been identified, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution actually knows the names of only 1,055. They have no idea about the rest.
The BKA complained that "hardly any scientific research" had been carried out on militant autonomists' backgrounds, motives and structures. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution reported that the number of its staff focusing on left-wing cases had been cut by nearly half -- from 130 to 71 -- since 2006, with the rest concentrating on Islamic fundamentalists. Investigators are keeping a list of acts carried out, but they are not resolving the cases.
Antimilitarism Is a 'Guiding Principle'
Arson was committed on vehicles belonging to the German Bundeswehr 12 times in 2009, as well as 20 times on vehicles belonging to Germany's postal service Deutsche Post, and its subsidiary DHL, which the left-wingers like to call "Deutsche Heeres Logistik," German for "armed forces logisitcs." The company is a contractor for the Bundeswehr. The campaign had been developed "as an idea within the Berlin (left-wing extremist) scene in October 2008," a BKA report states. The assumed perpetrators are "action-oriented members of the scene." Burning vehicles is easy and antimilitarism is one of the left's guiding principles -- the BKA has made it that far, at least, in its analyses.
The BKA has evaluated hundreds of attacks and analyzed letters claiming responsibility for certain acts, as well as flyers from within the movement. There are many copycat criminals and radical splinter groups, says an investigator. Two members of the Free German Youth (FDJ) -- a group that has taken its name from the East German socialist youth organization -- were temporarily arrested recently in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. In the past, the only radical thing about the FDJ had been its degree of nostalgia for the former socialist state, but now the two members were found equipped with radios, apparently planning to set construction vehicles on fire. The vehicles were parked in front of an old memorial honoring Ernst Thälmann, a former German Communist Party leader who was shot on Hitler's orders at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, that was slated to be demolished. Investigators were surprised to discover that potential arsonists could also include devoted supporters of the former German Democratic Republic.
Police say they do know the locations where violent acts are planned -- formerly squatted buildings in Berlin and Hamburg. Again and again, clues lead back to individual residents of these houses. Those residents who are willing to talk to the press speak of repression, saying they have nothing to do with militant acts.
'You Can't Make an Omelet without Breaking Eggs'
A man who calls himself "Johannes," but won't provide his real name, lives in one such house, located on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg. A few days before May 1 -- International Workers' Day, which is known in Berlin as a day for labor movement protests and also often enough for violent left-wing riots -- the police showed up at the house and carried out a raid. Johannes came to East Berlin from West Germany in the 1990s -- boom years not just for capitalists, but also for anti-capitalists like him. Now the former squatters all have rental agreements and they live a bit more of a middle-class life than they once did, but the general attitude hasn't changed. The building's facade bears the words "capitalism kills."
Johannes is sitting in the sun in the building's courtyard, talking about Greece. He's just seen pictures from Athens. "What's that saying?" he asks, then answers himself: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
And then there's the topic of militancy -- Johannes leans back in his seat. "Oh, the violence question," he says. He quotes Livy, an ancient Roman historian: "War is just which is necessary and righteous are their arms to whom, save only in arms, no hope is left."
Johannes can draw connections from the Zapatistas to the right to resist dictatorships, from "Ulrike" -- meaning Ulrike Meinhof, an RAF leader -- to the burning cars of Berlin. He explains it this way: The more cars that burn, the more investors will be scared off. The idea is bearing fruit, he says, and there are buildings for which no investor can be found anymore.
A New Generation of Protestors
The problem for the police is that the last couple of years since Heiligendamm have seen a new generation of protesters spring up, one that values theory less and practice more. In the past, the autonomists' world was clearly defined. A tough core of activists operated in Berlin and Hamburg, with acts of arson being prepared fastidiously and accompanied by statements. When a fire started, suspicion focused on the usual suspects. "There were fewer surprises in all of it," an investigator says.
But the situation is different today. Those involved are younger, and they're people the police are unfamiliar with. They no longer build firebombs out of empty plastic bottles and yogurt cups, following instructions from radical brochures with names like "Killing a Luxury Car" the way the generation before them did. This is the generation of the fire lighter, and just a lighter and nerves of steel are enough to keep cars burning every night.
The battle they wage is a mix of traditional riot rituals, left-wing propaganda and a type of modern warfare. Young sympathizers are trained in martial arts techniques at antifascist camps, activists retain lawyers, investors in alternative city districts are monitored in commercial registries and potential buyers scared off with home visits.
Is Movement Losing or Gaining Influence?
Dieter Rucht, a sociologist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, has been researching political protests and social movements for years. He says the increasing militancy of the left wing could also be a sign of weakness -- not strength, as some autonomists themselves claim and the authorities fear. It's something researchers observe often, Rucht says: "When movements lose followers, the inner core radicalizes." He adds that flow of new members to Germany's autonomist movement has declined considerably since the 1990s.
On the other hand, Rucht says, there are indications that the situation is currently shifting. "The financial and economic crisis is creating a sounding board for the radical left's issues," he says, and left-wing activists feel legitimated in taking things into their own hands.
Interior Minister de Maiziere had members of his ministry draw up a "plan for combating left-wing violent acts," meant to help cast light on the left-wing radical scene. They want to identify so-called leading figures and place "close observers" within the scene, to report on activists' meeting places. These grand-scale plans include recruiting informants, observing suspects and wire-tapping phones. One of the most controversial ideas is the use of "virtual agents" online. The idea behind this plan is to infiltrate agents onto the scene, who can then "create blogs in order to approach certain groups of people and encourage participation in discussions, as well as making contacts."
As a first step, the authorities want to overhaul their lists of activists' names, filling in the gaps. Actually knowing who it is they're dealing with would be a success in its own right.
STEFAN BERG, WIEBKE HOLLERSEN, HOLGER STARK AND ANDREAS ULRICH
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