Police in Berlin recently enabled a neo-Nazi demonstration to march through the multicultural Friedrichshain district, on the anniversary of the death of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess, despite the march being opposed by a greater number of counter-protesters. This follows a pattern seen in many countries where the far right has become more confident in recent years. Phil Butland asks why the police act in this way.
Last week I had a friendly discussion on Facebook (yes it is possible to exchange different opinions online without denouncing each other as being the spawn of Satan).
The subject was the way in which antifascist demos are treated differently in the USA and Germany. I was replying to a post which argued that the German police was more reasonable
On one level there is no argument about this, as German policepeople do not kill young black men on a regular basis. However, I think we should set our expectations slightly higher than this. Also I don’t think that this was what the discussion was really about.
The person who made the comment said that he had never been badly treated on a demo in Germany. Now I know and respect him and have no reason to disbelieve him. But I think that his real experiences come from a specific strategy of the German police.
Now I’ve been on many peaceful demonstrations here. They’ve been broad and representative, and the police have generally treated us with respect. The occasional copper may even whisper to us that they actually agree with what we are saying. I’ve also been on a number of demos which have ‘kicked off’, more often than not following police provocation
The difference between the two types of demo is not the presence of hooligans, at least not on our side. It is the absence of ‘normal’ people, who the next day will go into their workplaces and churches and express outrage about how they have been treated. Of course autonomists and leftists can also complain about police violence but people believe we would say that wouldn’t we? That is why police treat demonstrations differently and is, incidentally, one of the best arguments for organising broad demos that don’t just include the usual suspects.
Yet if the police do deliberately attack leftist demos, this just begs the question of why they do this? Now in Germany the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is currently polling at 17 per cent and I’m sure this figure is much higher among policemen. I still don’t think this is the main reason. Much more important – and not for the first time in German history – is that they are only obeying orders.
Let’s take a recent example. Earlier this year the AfD organised a ‘women’s march’ (largely consisting of ageing men) through Berlin. Anyone who attempted to protest this march was savagely beaten by the thousands of police who had been deployed to accompany a couple of hundred marchers. Some of the police issued beatings gleefully, others with some reluctance but when push came to shove they all doled out their punishment.
It was obvious to anyone present that this strategy had been planned in advance – probably on the correct assumption that our side was not able to mobilise many people outside our ranks. It had also presumably been signed off either by the head of police or by the responsible minister in the Berlin government.
Why am I talking about this today? Well today Is the anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, an occasion that neo-Nazis use every year to march through Berlin. Now we’re not merely talking about the racist neo-liberals of the AfD here, but of people who want to celebrate the life of one of Hitler’s right-hand men. So you’d have thought the police would support us here, right?
Now here’s what actually happened. At the last minute the Nazis changed the location of their march from the Spandau prison to the middle of Berlin. In Spandau we had managed to get together a broad demo which included lots flags from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, but as soon as we heard that the Nazis were somewhere else the demo turned round and tried to get the next train back to Berlin.
But we had a problem. There was now a phalanx of police between us and the station, and they were refusing to let us pass. When we finally got through, police were deployed in every Berlin station on the route and refused to let people leave the station. Our group decided to go to a station further down the line, but police boarded our train, delaying it for some time.
By the time we got to the anti-Nazi blockades, the protest consisted mainly of just the radical left and the police could violently batter a way through, enabling the Nazis to march through Friedrichshain.
Why did this happen? We had plenty of time to discuss this on the blockades. One suggestion was that the police were doing everything they could to keep the opposing groups apart. This was unjust, but according to its own logic it was somehow fair.
To this I’ll just ask two questions. When did you ever EVER hear of the police using violence to ensure that a left wing demo reached its destination? And if the police were happy to use force to prevent anyone (shoppers and protesters alike) leaving Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz stations, why did they not apply similar force to prevent neo-Nazis assembling in Friedrichshain?
Two final questions:
1. Has the Berlin police force gone rogue or did someone in authority organise this operation?
2. if so, whose head must roll?
(Note to the unintiated – the Berlin government is run by a Red-Red-Green coalition and the Berlin minister responsible for the police is Andreas Geisel of the SPD).
Phil Butland is co-speaker of Die LINKE (the Left Party) Berlin Internationals. This article was first published here.
More images of the demonstration by Hossam el-Hamalaway can be seen here.