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19 September 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 6:52am

The German left is feeling blue, as a new Momentum-like movement polarises opinion

Aufstehen hopes to attract alienated voters to a struggling left, including those who have drifted to the right. 

By Noah Gordon

Aufstehen or “Stand Up” is the name of the movement and the rallying cry. The group’s website tells supporters that they need only stand up to change their country. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it says, have shown that the left can “take its fate into its own hands” and that while Germany’s left-wing parties have “failed in the last decade”, Aufstehen will provide the impulse for “new majorities in Germany and Europe”.

The feebleness of the German left is undeniable. Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has governed the country since 2005. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats (SPD) have struggled to maintain their identity as the junior partner in a grand coalition, despite securing progressive policies such as a federal minimum wage. The pragmatic Merkel has gravitated towards the centre during her 13 years in office. But some on the left aren’t sure who is more committed to austerity: new SPD finance minister Olaf Scholz or his CDU predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble.

The SPD’s poll numbers are in long-term decline – at the 2017 election the party won its lowest vote share since 1932 with 20.5 per cent – and at around 18 per cent it is now only a few points ahead of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Though support for the Greens has risen (to as much as 16 per cent), they are no match for the right. After the 2017 election, the SPD, the Greens, and the socialist Die Linke (Left Party) lacked enough combined seats to form a government – even if they wanted to. This is where Sahra Wagenknecht believes she can help.

Wagenknecht, 49, is the leader of Aufstehen and the co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group. But it is unsurprising that she is willing to launch a movement that could undermine her own party. Wagenknecht, who was born in the east German city of Jena, has seldom shied away from conflict or missed an opportunity to raise her profile. At Die Linke’s conference this summer, she started and lost a battle to restrict the party’s committed support for open borders – Wagenknecht feared that support for uncontrolled migration was driving away working-class voters. At Aufstehen’s launch in Berlin, she was in typical form: firm, articulate, warning of a “crisis of democracy” in which normal people were being “left behind”, and rejecting accusations that a movement which has attracted more than 100,000 online supporters was “led from the top”.

As polarising as she may be, Wagenknecht is a natural leader – the question is of what. Aufstehen is explicitly not a political party but rather a movement that “wants to exert pressure on parties”. It resembles a fusion of the Corbynite activist group Momentum and the socially conservative Blue Labour. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) is another inspiration (the left-winger is now the country’s most popular political leader).

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Aufstehen’s founding statement resembles a Die Linke document, invoking images of a morose Germany where schools are inadequate, banks are unfairly bailed out and wealth inequality is as severe as it was under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

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The movement duly pledges to transform the country by fighting for “justice and social togetherness, peace and disarmament”. Aufstehen does not currently plan to stand its own candidates, instead functioning as a digital hub to forge cross-party alliances.

The launch event featured former Green leader Ludger Volmer and the SPD’s Simone Lange, who ran unsuccessfully for the party’s leadership earlier this year. Of course, Wagenknecht’s husband, the former German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, was there too. The 75-year-old resigned from the SPD in 2005 in protest at Gerhard Schröder’s reforms and was Die Linke’s founding leader from 2007 to 2010.

With the German and European party systems in remarkable flux, it would be complacent to dismiss Aufstehen. The movement has the potential to attract alienated voters, including those who have drifted to the right. Professor Andreas Nölke of the Goethe University in Frankfurt believes there is no danger of it further dividing the left as “no one has to leave their party to take part in Aufstehen”.

But the movement has undisguisable limitations. Lafontaine and Volmer peaked 20 years ago, yet they are the two biggest names it could attract. An even greater problem – in view of Aufstehen’s aim of building a new progressive majority – is the negative response from other leading politicians on the left.

Die Linke issued a statement emphasising that Aufstehen was not its project and warning members not to use it to “shake up their own party”. “Stand up for what?” asked the Greens. Wagenknecht hoped that SPD members angered by their party’s decision once again to form a grand coalition with Merkel would be open to her movement. But Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the SPD’s youth wing the Young Socialists, argued that Aufstehen offered nothing new for the left. Meanwhile, SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil warned that Germany needed “serious debates about an [electoral] alliance, not internet sites without political consequence”.

Only last month Wagenknecht argued that such an alliance was unattractive because the SPD and the Greens were too centrist. But how does she expect to attract cosmopolitan, Europhile Green voters to a movement spearheaded by Die Linke’s most Eurosceptic and anti-Nato wing?

Professor Jürgen Falter of the Gutenberg University in Mainz said Aufstehen would struggle to bridge the gaps on the left: “The parties are too different.”

Wagenknecht is accused by critics of simply courting AfD voters with a tougher line on immigration – and Aufstehen was praised by the far-right party’s Bundestag leader Alexander Gauland. For Wagenknecht, then, all of the wrong people are clapping.

Noah Gordon is an editor at Berlin Policy Journal