East Germans protest cuts in welfare benefits at a Leipzig protestImage: AP
East Germans Stage Anti-Reform Protests
August 9, 2004
In the tradition of the Monday demonstrations that contributed to the fall of the communist state 15 years ago, east Germans are planning to hold weekly protests against Chancellor Schröder's reform package.
Some 10,000 eastern Germans are expected to take to the streets of Magdeburg Monday evening with a number of other eastern cities set to host smaller rallies. But the demonstrations organized by German leftists and trade unions are highly controversial and have drawn strong reactions not only from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic party (SPD).
Organizers of the rallies in Eastern German cities hope they can halt Schröder’s sweeping cuts in benefits for the long-time jobless here, by drawing inspiration from the peaceful Monday demonstrations that brought down communism in the region in 1989.
But leading Social Democrats, such as Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement (photo, below), have slammed the analogy as a shameless abuse of a shining moment in German history. Clement told a newspaper on Monday that the comparison was a provocation and an insult to the civil courage that many East Germans showed at the time.
Vera Lengsfeld, a former East German civil rights activists and a parliamentary deputy for the conservative Christian Democratic party, also said the comparison was untenable.
"The demonstrations in 1989 were directed against a repressive regime that prevented freedom," she said. "But those taking to the streets today are protesting against necessary reforms that ultimately aim to maintain the welfare system in face of the current crisis. With all due respect to those criticizing Chancellor Schröder, his government cannot be compared with that of communist leader Erich Honecker."
The anti-communist Monday demonstrations in autumn 1989 began with prayers for peace and candlelight marches in the city of Leipzig, and towards the end drew more than 100,000 protesters. Last Monday a few thousand people joined a rally in Magdeburg against the reforms, but turnout is expected to rise this Monday.
The demonstrations' organizers insist, however, that their actions are justified. "I don't understand all the excitement on the part of the political elites," said Christian Führer, a pastor who helped organize the Leipzig protests in 1989. It was unacceptable to suggest that "we accept that you took to the streets to oppose the communists, but now you should keep your mouths shut," Führer said. But Führer also criticized that some groups or parties were trying to use the demonstrations for their own purposes.
Saxon's Christian Democratic premier, Georg Milbradt, said Monday he would not rule out his party participating in the protests, "if we are invited."
The new reform law -- set to take effect next year -- will bring long-term unemployment benefits down to the amount of subsistence-level welfare payments. Eastern Germans are hit hardest by the reforms because long-term joblessness is especially rife here.
But the rallies in eastern Germany are part of more widespread public outrage over Schröder‘s Agenda 2010 welfare reforms. Internal dissent within the SPD over the chancellor’s course has also increased. Just last week an anonymous e-mail chain letter called for the chancellor to be toppled. And on Sunday, former SPD Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine threatened to help form a breakaway left-wing party if Schröder persists with his reforms.
Subsequently, Social Democratic party leader Franz Müntefering warned all SPD rebels against playing with fire:
"I accept that people are now taking to the streets, but I don’t think they are right," he said. "I think their fears are baseless because we actually want to preserve social welfare and not destroy it... And all those stoking public fears and resentment must know that they are going to be held responsible for their actions."
Lafontaine’s comments mark a bid to establish himself as a champion of the SPD's disenchanted left wing, but they have drawn a withering response from SPD leaders. The threats of a breakaway party and the in-fighting about the reforms have already caused the Social Democrats' popular support to plunge to a historic low. Sizable demonstrations on Mondays are sure to dent the SPD's chances for comeback at the polls even further.