Monday, August 23, 2004

Montagsdemo: The Next Generation

As I write this, thousands of people are sauntering on a nice warmish early evening down Torstr., the large street a few feet from my house. For a protest march, they're pretty quiet, although what drew me out of the house (after hearing the "clear the road" signal from police sirens) was a soundtruck with a strident man and a strident woman trading what sounded like slogans in that old, time-honored political tradition. Haranguing, in other words. Worse, they were followed by a burst of hideous jazz-rock.

But they passed, and the people kept on coming. Grim police walked along the sidewalk, pamphleteers darted out of the march to hand out sheets of paper covered with thick slabs of prose in tiny type to unsuspecting bystanders like myself. There are helicopters darting around over the march.

I was out there for ten minutes, came back in and started writing at 17 past the hour, and it's five minutes later. Given that the sound is coming both from the front and the back of the march, it's still passing (I can't see it from my house, but I can hear it). I wonder how many people this makes.

What is this all about?

Truth: I don't know. Well, I do, a bit. It's about something called Hartz IV, and this is something having to do with unemployment benefits, which are much on the mind of people in the eastern part of this city and this country. Overall, the eastern states have 20% unemployment, but there are districts that are much higher than that. There's a fairly bland essay with a much better slide show in the New York Times today about this, and if you're curious what the surrounding countryside here looks like in high summer, you couldn't do better.

They're calling this a Montagsdemo, that much I know, and I do know something about the Montagsdemo, although it's not a Berlin thing. No, it came from Leipzig.

This is a sermon I give people when I give them my walking tour of Berlin. It's about why I never say "when the Berlin Wall came down" unltess I'm referring to a specific physical event. Because the events of Nov. 9, 1989, weren't about Berlin. Berliners were terrified to protest a government based in their own city. They were about Leipzig. You can -- and should -- look the full story up, or, better, go to Leipzig, and, after paying homage to Bach at the Thomaskirche, go immediately to an unprepossessing building halfway between the two main downtown churches and enter the virtually unpronounceable Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig, which bears a more forgiving name in English, the Forum of Contemporary History. There, you'll see an exhibit I first saw in 1994 at the now-demolished tourist center, which details the growth of the Swords Into Plowshares movement, the growing use of the church, most notably the Nicolaikirche, as a site for protest, and, finally, on September 4, 1989, the first Monday demonstration -- Montagsdemo -- there. From the 1200 who attended that first one, the crowd grew to 120,000 on October 16, when they occupied the secret police (Stasi) headquarters, an act of astonishing bravery that was probably the tipping point for the fall of the East German government.

Even if your German stinks, that exhibit is moving, and I do wish more captions were in English; the last time I was there, I found a couple of bewildered young Americans with their German hosts, whose English wasn't quite up to explaining it. I sort of mediated between them and was incredibly moved by the growing comprehension of the Americans and the growing happiness on the face of the young Leipzigers as they saw them get it. (It could have gotten very emotional, but it was closing time and we got tossed out.)

The story, though, is more than the simplifed Commie-bad, Freedom-good tripe the Reaganites and the Bush crowd tried to pass off, because the central cry was "Wir sind das Volk," "We are the people," and that's what, ultimately, is at the heart of the parade which has only now, 45 minutes since I first went out there to look, stopped filing down Torstr. Because das Volk felt that they owned something they'd be allowed to keep, a society that was also, after 50 years, a culture, and a political system that had, before the Nazis interrupted it, been a vital part of the political dialogue in Germany. Kohl and his bunch (not to mention the Republicans in power in the U.S.) were gung-ho to stifle that, and the "shock treatment" economic policies that were imposed on the entire east bloc after communism fell didn't succeed uniformly. For instance, they have brought us to the point where it's almost routine that on the average once a month I have a parade of unemployed people marching down the big street by my house shouting slogans and blasting bad jazz-rock from soundtrucks. (Ska, too, but that came later.)

But there's another issue bothering me at the moment, and I'm not particularly proud of it.

Because, as much as I've just told you -- and as much more as I could tell you -- about the context in which this event that's probably still snaking its way to the Brandenburg Gate is taking place, I can't tell you what, exactly, Hartz IV is. I almost got to learn yesterday, when a German friend and I were walking around town looking for buildings where she was going to be taking some classes, but after yelling at me for being ignorant, she began to talk about the previous Montagsdemo, and how she had been sort of offended when I talked to her about Berlin's fatal love of negativity, only to stand there and listen to a speaker say "no to Europe, no to West Germany, no to the Euro, no to Hartz IV," and realize that there was something to that.

But dammit, I should know what this is. Unfortunately, my subscription to the International Herald Tribune fell by the wayside when things got really bad, and there's a truly horribly written English-language weekly supplement on Fridays from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that's usually got some sort of summary of the German news I can use to figure out what's going on around me.

This Montagsdemo, then, woke me up to the fact that in a way I've become so indifferent to this place, so angry at it, that I've put myself too far outside the loop. So I'm going to yell at a couple of friends and see if I can't find some explanation for Hartz IV (and maybe Hartz I-III, who knows?), and see if I can either post it or a link to a more fully-informed English-language explanation elsewhere, Real Soon Now.

I don't mean to be a dummy, but poverty and anger can do that to you. Something that, from what I can tell, some of those people in the street, too, might be well advised to consider.

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