You were a founder member of Die Linke, sitting as a Member of the Bundestag since 2009 and representing the party on the parliamentary defence committee, as well as playing an active role in anti-racist campaigns. We’d like to talk to you about the current political conjuncture in Germany, the irruption of the new right and the situation of the left. But first, could you tell us a little about your formation, how you came to join Die Linke?
I turned eighteen in 1989 and my political education was strongly shaped by the events of that year in Germany, and then by the movement against the 1991 Gulf War. I come from Hamburg and I studied at the University there. I was active in student politics from the early 1990s, especially anti-war and international solidarity work. I got involved with a small socialist group called Linksruck which was working inside the youth section of the spd. The early 1990s also saw the rise of far-right racism in Germany, and not just in the East. There were arson attacks on Turkish migrants’ houses in Mölln and Solingen in the West, in which women were burnt to death. For my generation, there was a feeling that this was a form of neo-Nazism—that we had to take a stand. There was a huge movement, with candlelit vigils. Even my parents came—this was the first time they’d been on a demonstration—to show their solidarity with the immigrants. So I was active in anti-racist struggles and in the fight to protect the liberal asylum law, which the right was trying to restrict.
The victory of the spd and the Greens in the 1998 election was a moment of high hopes for us. It was a shock for left-wingers in both parties when the Red–Green government plunged the country into the 1999 war on Yugoslavia. I don’t remember exactly when I sent back my membership book to the spd, but I started to get involved with attac, the alter-globalization movement and the European Social Forums. Then, in 2003, came Schröder’s attack on labour rights and the welfare state known as Agenda 2010, including the Hartz laws. This was the watershed—in a way, it was a liberation for many in the trade unions and the spd, who now broke from the influence of the spd leadership. There were enormous workers’ demonstrations: first tens of thousands, then 100,000 took to the streets in November 2003 in Berlin, and in April 2004 half a million demonstrated in different cities throughout the country.
How important was that movement for the formation of Die Linke?
It was crucial. Those of us involved—there were trade unionists from ig Metall and ver.di, the clerical workers’ union, along with left-wingers from the spd, intellectuals, supporters of attac and other movements—began talking about creating a new electoral formation to run as an alternative to the spd. We launched the wasg within a couple of months, to run in the 2005 North Rhine–Westphalia regional elections.footnote1 The pds was also standing in the elections.footnote2 The successor to the sed, governing party of the gdr, it had broken with Stalinism to adopt a left-reformist agenda. Neither party managed to surpass the 5 per cent threshold for representation, and it was clear that the two groups should work together, rather than dividing the left vote. The pds had only a few groups in West German cities, though they were deeply rooted in the East. We started talks on drafting a common programme and on different aspects of party work—I was on the working group for international affairs, as well as the programme group. When Schröder called a snap Bundestag election in 2005 after losing the North Rhine–Westphalia election, we ran joint electoral lists and won 54 seats, with 8.7 per cent of the vote.
Die Linke was formally founded at a conference in Erfurt in June 2007. The Erfurt Programme set out the party’s red lines when it came to forming coalitions: we won’t take part in a government which is privatizing, cutting jobs or social services, or taking part in wars. This was vital, because there had already been a conflict about the role the pds was playing in the Berlin regional parliament: it was in a governing coalition with the spd and pushing through a series of privatizations and austerity measures, very similar to those of the Red–Green government against which Die Linke was formed. A section of the Berlin wasg refused to merge with the local pds because of that. My view was that we should join forces in Berlin as well, because this was a national project, but I was firmly against Die Linke participating in the regional government. That experience made it all the more important to have this clause in the programme—which Oskar Lafontaine was very helpful in drafting at the time. But in any case, we would have needed to have this debate, as a party with an electoral orientation.
Within the new party, the infrastructural weight of the ex-pds—officials, party staff—must have far exceeded that of the wasg?