To the Barricades

How Germany copes with a rising radical left

Over 400 protesters were arrested during the G20 protests. Hamburg’s interior ministry also initiated 152 lawsuits against the police on behalf of 186 injured civilians. maciej luczniewski / nurphoto / getty images
11 October, 2018

Two weeks before the Group of 20 summit was held in July last year, rail-signalling equipment was set on fire at 12 locations across Germany, including its capital, Berlin, and Hamburg, the summit’s host city. A group called Shut Down G20 claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it said were meant as an “assault on capitalism’s central nervous system.”

G20 summits have a history of civil resistance. At every summit, protesters gather in large numbers outside the meeting venues to draw attention to various causes—climate change, human rights, anti-war movements—or disrupt proceedings. Protesters are known to clash with the police and vandalise public infrastructure.

For the German police union, the nationwide wave of arson was not just a reaction to the summit—it represented “a new level of escalation in left-wing extremist terror.” Ralf Martin Meyer, the police chief of Hamburg, announced that nearly five thousand anarchists from Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia were making their way to the city for “not just sit-in protests but massive assaults” during the summit. Over twenty thousand police personnel were assembled from across the country and equipped with riot gear. Water cannons and helicopters were put on standby. Hamburg’s mayor, Olaf Scholz, who is now the nation’s finance minister, called it the largest police operation in post-war Germany.

In Hamburg, residents were starting to grumble about the city turning into a “war zone.” But for the authorities, the city’s history as a hub of left-wing activism and extremism necessitated the heightened deployment. Hamburg is known for Rote Flora, a derelict former theatre that has served as a meeting point for leftists and autonomists since it was occupied in 1989.

Located among a row of tony cafes, restaurants and retail stores, only half a kilometre away from the Reeperbahn—Germany’s biggest red-light district—Rote Flora’s shabby house-front stands as a last bastion against gentrification. The complex consists of a large, airy room divided into two levels and a kitchen by the side, decorated with banners, graffiti and hundreds of anti-fascist stickers. It hosts daily events, including lectures, film screenings and communal dinners. Everyone is welcome as long as they heed the rules pasted up at the entrance: “We will not tolerate any kind of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, lookism or any kind of boundary-crossing behaviour here.” For months before the summit, hundreds of activists met at Rote Flora to prepare for demonstrations.

On the night of 7 July, nearly fifteen hundred demonstrators, believed to be from Welcome to Hell, a group set up to disrupt the G20 summit, and the Black Bloc—who get their name from their protest tactic of covering their faces and bodies with black clothes—torched cars and smashed shop windows. As police charged into the protesters, swinging batons and backed up by water cannons, the demonstrators attacked them with beer bottles, pavement blocks and Molotov cocktails. The mayhem went on for five hours, and resumed the next evening.

Four hundred and seventy-six police personnel were injured, announced Hartmut Dudde, who headed the police operation, while over four hundred protesters were arrested. The estimated property damage ran into millions of euros. Many decried the excesses of the police, but Meyer said that the protest groups had been preparing to wreak violence for over a year. “Nothing was left to chance with these groups.”

It was not the first time Germany had seen protests spiral out of control at an international summit. The G8 conference in 2007, held at the remote seaside resort town of Heiligendamm, had seen thousands of anti-globalisation protesters blocking the entrance of the summit venue. The attendees were eventually flown in on helicopters. According to a classified report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which was leaked to the news magazine Der Spiegel, this marked a “turning point in the development of left-wing extremism” in the country.

Post-war Germany has nurtured a strong sense of civic consciousness alongside free-market capitalism. But the financial crash of 2008 drove many left- and right-wing activists in Europe to the extremes. The number of “action-oriented” extremists in Germany, according to the domestic intelligence agency, is 9,000 on the left and 12,700 on the right.

Incidents of right-wing extremism have increased since Germany welcomed over a million asylum seekers in 2015. This August, a protest in Chemnitz against the stabbing of a local carpenter, allegedly by refugees from Syria and Iraq, saw members of the far right using bottles to attack people who did not “look German.” The violence of the radical left, in such a context, represents a curious paradox. Its members seek social legitimacy—often claiming the moral and intellectual highground—by tapping into an existing political and economic discontent. But to critics, when their protests turn violent, they seldom attract the kind of international media scrutiny as the rising incidents of neo-Nazis rampaging against refugees. The resulting impression, the conservative columnist Hugo Müller-Vogg writes in the Huffington Post, is that left-wing extremism is “tolerable, due to its generally more noble motives.”

After the G20 protests in Hamburg, several ministers and politicians renewed calls for a database of left-wing extremists in Europe and a total shutdown of autonomous spaces like Rote Flora and Rigaer Strasse, an anarchist squatter complex in Berlin. “Years of looking the other way and a mistaken liberality towards criminality has come back to strike us in Hamburg,” said Thomas Strobl, the interior minister of the southwestern province of Baden-Württemberg.

However, experts claimed that the G20 riots were ideological only in part. At a hearing of a special committee appointed by the Hamburg parliament, Dirk Enzmann, a criminologist and professor at the University of Hamburg, attributed the scale of the riot to escalation dynamics. A majority of the protesters, he said, were non-political. “This was attractive for young people, for partygoers and those who like to take part in a fight.” The live coverage, he added, reinforced this effect.

A former member of Rote Flora, who was drawn to activism after hearing of an arson attack by neo-Nazis on an asylum home, told me when we met this June that she had noticed this tendency among many of her activist friends. “I remember this one time my boyfriend witnessed a few activists clashing with the police on the evening of 1 May. I could see he was itching to join them. I sighed and said, ‘Go, play.’” She said this was one of the reasons she drifted away from the movement. “Sometimes, it is only a group of boys looking for trouble. They know they can get it here, so they come from all over Germany.”

The spokespersons for both Rote Flora and Welcome to Hell distanced their organisations from the violent protesters. Neither responded to my repeated requests for an interview. In the months following the protests, the focus on Rote Flora wore off as investigators blamed “riot tourists” from across Europe for the violence. In May this year, police in Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland raided several properties linked to left-wing activists as part of the investigation.

Ulf Treger, a member of FCMC, which calls itself “a collective effort to change the perception of the G20 summit in Hamburg,” told me that the focus on left-wing extremism following the summit was disproportionate.“In Germany, journalists are taught that they have to believe what the police are saying. The police are well-organised, good at naming numbers and are the so-called ‘qualified source.’” An investigation by Buzzfeed found that the figure cited by Dudde of 476 police personnel being injured during the protests was a gross overstatement—the real number, it found, was 231.

“They massively inflated the numbers of injured personnel to discredit the protesters,” Treger said. This deflected public attention from the victims of police brutality, even as Hamburg’s interior ministry initiated 152 lawsuits against the police on behalf of 186 injured civilians.

Germany has a history of violent left-wing extremism beyond G-summits. In the 1970s, the Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shootouts with police—it was tied to at least 34 deaths. The rioting of the radical left today is hardly as destabilising a force. “I wouldn’t say it’s a threat at all,” Simon Teune, a researcher at the Institute of Protest and Movement Research in Berlin, told me. “We used to have terrorist groups that said it was legitimate if you shoot people who are part of the system. But now, the consensus among the radical left is that harming people is not legitimate, with the exception of neo-Nazis and if the police charge into a demonstration.”

If they do pose a threat, Teune added, it is to the extreme right. “In some ways, the radical left is also trying to defend basic values of the constitution when it comes to racism and violence, something that’s risen over the last year.”

On the evening of 6 July, I attended a rally in Hamburg organised by the leftist squat Roter Aufbau to mark the first anniversary of the G20 riots. Nearly a hundred and fifty people were present, many with their political leanings scrawled across their black clothing—“Fuck Nazis,” or “Good Night White Pride.” Noticing that the organisers were handing out free beer, some bystanders also joined in.

Around 8.30 pm, we set off to retrace the route taken by the protesters last year, occasionally encountering the police, who looked on warily. The slogans boomed across the streets: “Never again Germany!” and “All cops are bastards!” A couple of flares went up.

I introduced myself to one of the attendees. He said he had been part of the protests last year, and did not want his name published. “When people rioted, it wasn’t always for political reasons,” he said. But the cops sent out press releases and everyone took their word for the truth.”

Around us, the effects of the beer were kicking in. Cigarettes were making way for joints. It seemed more like a carnival than a solidarity march. Someone smashed his beer bottle on the street, laughed and walked on. We resumed our conversation.

“It’s a few people who make a mess,” he said. “But all of us get blamed for it.”