Marching on Monday
August 20, 2004 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Shakespeare has admirers in Germany. "Im Sommer des Unmuts," read the headline in the national weekly, Die Zeit "in the summer of discontent," a bilingual play on words on the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the future king talks of his "winter of discontent."
There is much discontent in Germany this summer. The article in question was about a revival of the so-called Monday marches. In the late 1980s, when Germany was still divided between East and West, between communist and capitalist, the marches first took place in Leipzig and other cities in East Germany.
Each Monday evening tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, walked through the streets of their cities, demanding civil rights and a relaxing of totalitarian rule. Their power was greater than they knew. Within months the East German regime had retreated into collapse, opening the Berlin Wall and promising to remake itself. It was too late. By 1990 East Germany was swallowed up by its bigger, richer and vastly more successful western brother.
This summer the new marches have also attracted tens of thousands. To an outsider their target is more mundane. It is something called "Hartz IV." This is shorthand for the reform of Germany's unemployment insurance system. It is, at present, very generous and comes in two stages. The first runs for a year and, if a person is still unemployed, he or she is eligible for further unemployment benefits, although not as much, in the second year.
Hartz IV proposes to end the second year's payments. An unemployed person would, instead, receive welfare benefits. These are much lower than unemployment payments. The goal, from the government's point of view, is to reduce its social security budget, which is now billions in the red, thanks to unemployment at more than 10 per cent.
The protesters see it quite differently, as the work of a left-of-centre government that has turned its back on its natural constituency. The result of the reform, they say, will be to reduce hundreds of thousands of unemployed Germans, most of them in the East where unemployment levels still climb to 20 per cent, to a misery level of poverty.
And so they march.
The government has done itself no favours by some of the provisions in the new rules. The most infamous one says that families in which children under 15 have more than $1,200 in savings will be means-tested and may see their unemployment benefits slashed. The government says the children's savings are frequently a dodge of welfare cheats. The German tabloids scream "Hands off the kids' piggy banks!" The ranks of the protesters swell with each headline.
Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, says his government will not cave in, that the welfare reform is necessary and overdue. Government supporters recall the mounting hysteria last year as the state prepared to slap a $16 user fee on patients each time they went to the doctor or the hospital. Critics said the move would destroy Germany's medicare system and create more health problems because ill people would hesitate before seeking medical help. It did neither. On the contrary, it boosted the system's finances and apparently cut down on frivolous consultations.
This confrontation is more serious and the government is more exposed. In elections for the European Parliament in June the principal party in the governing coalition, the Social Democrats led by Schroeder, got just 20 per cent of the votes. It was the party's worst performance in 50 years.
Somewhat desperately, a government spokesperson has attacked the form the protests have taken. Reviving the Monday marches is almost unethical, he implied. The original marches aimed to bring about "reforms of an authoritarian system." Protesters should think about that, said Hans Langguth, before they jump up to march. In other words, it's debasing the coinage of the marches to associate them with the protests against the East German system, and it reflects unfairly on the present-day government.
But the Leipzig pastor who played a leading role in the East German marches expressed his understanding for the protesters. "Now, after we have gotten the right to demonstrate, we are supposed to keep our mouths shut. That's not right," Christian Führer said.
And so they march.
Schroeder is a political fighter whose popularity, after six years in office, is perilously low. This summer was supposed to help reverse that slide with a carefully-calibrated series of gestures designed to humanize him. The chancellor is a man who never knew his father and, despite four marriages, has never had a child.
In August, in a trip that was both private and very public, he travelled to Romania to visit for the first time the grave of his father, who was killed at the end of the Second World War, just months before Schroeder was born. It was only recently that he had discovered the location of the grave.
A few days later it was announced that Schroeder and his wife had just adopted a three-year-old Russian orphan. Two heart-warming stories but probably not enough.
One indication of that is the announcement by a former Social Democratic finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, that he would be joining the Hartz IV protests. Lafontaine, long a rival of Schroeder, had quit his ministerial post five years ago in protest at what he saw as Schroeder's betrayal of left-wing principles. But he has remained relatively quiet since. His public support of the protests suggests he now believes his rival is vulnerable.
In this summer of German discontent, the political looms larger than the personal.
And so they march.