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German democracy under attack, says SPD chief

November 23, 2020

Social Democrats in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government have renewed calls for a law to promote democracy inside Germany. Sixty civic groups have said their projects against the far-right need stable funding.

A protester in front of the German parliament building
Image: Reuters/C. Mang

Saskia Esken, Social Democratic Party co-leader, on Monday renewed calls from her SPD that the federal parliament adopt a law promoting democracy to help foil what she said was a far-right in Germany intent on eroding society.

SPD-Vorsitzende Saskia Esken
Esken co-chairs the SPD with Norbert Walter-Borjans. Image: Political-Moments/imago images

"We are currently experiencing how right-wing extremists openly attack our democracy," said Esken, accusing Merkel's conservatives of blocking a democracy bill long sought in the Cabinet by Family Affairs Minister Franziska Giffey and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht, both members of the SPD. 

That obstruction was "not only incomprehensible but dangerous," Esken told the Berlin-based newspaper TAZ, ahead of a Cabinet committee meeting on Wednesday. The committee, formed after last February's Hanau terror killingsaims to draft anti-racism measures for Germany. 

"We must confront the enemies of democracy with determination," said Esken.

Last Friday, Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Merkel's government comprising her Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian CSU party and the SPD, said the Cabinet committee would deliver its findingto federal parliament in the first quarter of 2021.

Its deliberations began in March and in recent months Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of Bavaria's CSU had been vocal in objecting to German police force personnel being surveyed on attitudes held toward racism.

'Vital' education by civic groups

Esken told TAZ that pro-democracy civic groups across Germany — largely funded on a project-by-project basis for limited periods of time — performed "vital work and therefore deserve continual funding."

Read more: As hate speech rages, so to resistance

In a recent letter to Merkel's grand coalition government, cited by TAZ, some 60 civic groups warned that their work — typically based at youth centers — to uphold a liberal, open, democratic culture was being "attacked like never in years before."

"The current form of support for civil society democracy work is demotivating," wrote the groups, including Action Reconciliation Service for Peace and the Amadeu Antonio Trust — named after the victim of a racist killing in 1990, shortly after Germany's reunification. 

Similar call from Greens 

In parliament in September, Germany's opposition Greens failed to prevail with a similar initiative that called for a democracy promotion law.

Their resolution had cited multiple grounds for Germany to boost preventive civic education, referring to a string of crimes, including the murder in 2019 of Walter Lübcke, a local CDU politician in Kassel.

In a plural society, long-term preventive work against hate and incitement and protection for potential victims was extremely important, said the Greens. 

At schools, civic education 'deficits' 

Civic education deficits "in all sectors" had been found inside Germany's schools, from primary to secondary, concluded an annual report on children and youth tabled earlier this month — despite the efforts of teachers and diverse civic education agencies run by Germany's federal and state governments.

Urging that pupils practice classroom democracy, the report's lead author, educational researcher Christian Palentian, said: "We have found that we have teachers especially assigned to the subject of politics who have not studied politics."

At least two hours per week should be devoted to civic education, the report recommended, to counter what Palentian said were risks including social media exposing children, early and un-reflected, to extremist content.

ipj/sms (epd, AFP, KNA)