• Will an eco-activist save Germany’s left? On 17 July, the leadership of “Die Linke” announced that Carola Rackete would be one of the party’s four top candidates for the 2024 European Parliament elections. This was nothing short of a coup.

    Rackete rose to international fame in 2019, when she captained the Mediterranean rescue boat “Sea Watch 3” into the port of Lampedusa, carrying 53 migrants, although Italy’s authorities had forbidden her to dock. Furthermore, Rackete is a climate researcher and activist.

    For years, “Die Linke” has been struggling, mainly because of internal conflicts. On the one hand, it includes young academic leftists from the cities, for whom climate change, LGBTIQ rights and the support of refugees are important. On the other hand, the party contains the older generation of leftists, who want to see more focus on workers’ rights.

    Many of the latter are attracted to the rather controversial former leader of the party’s faction, Sahra Wagenknecht, who has polemicised against the younger generation for being “lifestyle-leftists” and strongly criticised Angela Merkel for her 2015 decision to allow refugees into Germany. Wagenknecht’s public statements often openly contradict her party’s policy. These conflicts have caused a loss of voters and members. In recent months, Wagenknecht has openly flirted with the idea of forming her own party.

    For a long time it looked as if the party’s top brass wouldn’t be able to resolve these conflicts. However, on 10 June, the leadership asked Wagenknecht to resign from Bundestag. This marked a turning point.

    The nomination of Carola Rackete is another milestone in this new direction. With a focus on topics such as climate protection and open borders, Rackete stands for exactly the opposite of Sahra Wagenknecht.

    Two months ago, I attended a talk by former US president Barack Obama in Berlin. One sentence, which he said in parentheses, struck me: “Don’t give up. We may not succeed in achieving the limit of 1.5 degrees of global warming. But whether it will be 2.5 or three degrees does make a difference.”

    According to scientists, a rise of global temperatures of just 1.5 degrees would make vast areas of the planet uninhabitable. Obama was talking about three degrees. So are we already saying goodbye to the 1.5 target? But nobody reacted to Obama’s words, neither the audience nor the moderator. Have we become complacent about our failure to achieve this? Was I the only one worried about that?

    According to the renowned climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf, Germany might heat up by six degrees if the global average warms up by three degrees. This is a horror scenario. The Berlin air is already difficult for the lungs to digest due to the lack of rain.

    But there’s hardly a debate about this in Germany. Politicians tell us: “Well, we are aiming for 1.5 degrees”, but only very few are talking about the obvious: that by continuing in this way, we will certainly not make it.

    Instead, the public debate goes something like this: Isn’t it inconvenient to change our heating systems? Isn’t it annoying to be asked to drive less? Aren’t climate activists who hold up traffic counterproductive, because they stop us from talking about climate change, and change the conversation to one about blocked streets? As if more people would talk seriously about climate protection if there were no traffic jams…

    I long for a debate on these questions: Do we want to stick to the 1.5 degree limit? Do we realise what is at stake if we don’t? And if we do want to stick to it: What do we need to do to win this race? Today, insisting on these questions is often seen as ideological, not practical.

    Germany is still divided, at least when it comes to the country’s attitude towards the concept of a four-day week. According to a recent survey 62 percent of the inhabitants of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) oppose a four-day working week on full pay, but with reduced working hours. In the territory of the ex-West Germany, a majority is also against it, but to a lesser extent: only 54 %. 

    The most common reason for this scepticism is the fear that it will be too hard for companies to delegate the same duties in fewer hours. Apparently, the experience of the economic model of the GDR or the aftermath of its breakdown have made people more suspicious towards experiments with the organisation of work.

    “…this includes precisely the question of whether the Letzte Generation is a ‘criminal organisation.'”

    Since April, climate activists, calling themselves “Letzte Generation” (“Last Generation”) have been trying to bring car traffic in Berlin “to a halt” by glueing themselves to crossroads. This has led to heated debates, and provoked a lot of hatred from car drivers towards the environmental protest.

    A few weeks ago, Felor Badenberg, minister of justice of the federal state of Berlin, instructed her administration to examine whether these climate activists fulfil the criteria of forming a criminal organisation. Her announcement caused uproar in the German public, especially as the prosecutor of the federal state of Berlin had already declared that he didn’t consider “Letzte Generation” a criminal organisation.

    Does Berlin’s minister of justice want to impose political directives on the prosecutors? If she wanted, she probably could: In Germany, prosecutors are eventually bound by directives issued by the ministries of justice, although it is not very common to use this tool.

    In Berlin, we have four Soviet war memorials. The biggest includes a huge statue of a soldier and several stone coffins inscribed with gilded quotations by Joseph Stalin.

    According to the 1990s agreement on German unification, the German state must maintain these war memorials. In the early 2000s, even the Stalin quotes were regilded.

    Every year, people come here to commemorate the defeat of Nazism, including leftists and visitors bearing Russian nationalist iconography. Because of the Russian war against Ukraine, the police have tried to ban Soviet, Russian and Ukrainian flags from being flown on these Soviet memorials on 8 and 9 May.

    However, a court decision has exempted Ukrainian flags from the ban.

    My uncle has an apartment in Hamburg, overlooking wind turbines. Although there are strong currents in the city, the blades have often stood still in recent months. Why? Because there was too much electricity in the German grid and energy plants that could be shut down had to stand idle.

    Actually, the last German nuclear power plants were supposed to be shut down at the beginning of this year. But supporters of nuclear power seized the opportunity and the fear of power shortages due to the energy crisis to lobby for a period of grace, and their operating time was “stretched” by a further three-and-a-half months.

    Last Saturday, they were finally put to rest. These plants were not critical to the energy mix, as they covered only six percent of Germany’s electricity consumption.

    Would we have had power outages in winter without them? Probably not. Many days, Germany even exported electricity. It’s quite possible that those were exactly the periods of time when the wind turbines near my uncle’s apartment were standing still.
    I think it’s naive to play off the danger of the climate crisis against the danger of nuclear power plants. We saw in Chernobyl and Fukushima how devastating the consequences of accidents can be.

    It is possible to make power plants safe against accidents, natural disasters and sabotage, as has been the case in Germany (probably thanks to continuous criticism from the opponents of nuclear power), but the risk cannot be eliminated.

    Also, the waste from the plants will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Safe storage alone makes this form of energy production much more expensive than solar and wind.

    The energy that some have invested in recent months to polemicise for extended operating times would be better spent on expanding renewables, so that the turbines can use the wind that’s blowing freely….

    “Work is no pony farm,” Andrea Nahles, head of the Federal Employment Agency warned the younger generation recently in a statement that went viral on social media. The comment can be translated in English as “Work is no walk in the park” and the former Social Democratic Minister of Labour indicated that the young should prepare to work more.

    But they don’t want to. What they want is a better work-life balance. In a survey last year, 57 percent of young people between 16 and 29 said that their private life was more important to them than their professional career.

    With the retirement of the “boomer” generation, Germany will face a lack of seven million people from the workforce by 2035. This also poses a challenge to the financing of the pensions. The state is likely to fund large parts of the difference – and someone needs to pay taxes for this.

    Although German journalists are regularly insulted, mainly by right-wing activists, for being “state media”, most people here have no idea how a state media really functions.

    Three years ago, I spent two months working for a genuine example of such a press: Vaticannews – an online portal owned by the Vatican that disseminates information about the Pope’s activities, the Vatican, and Catholic teaching worldwide.

    As a journalism student looking for an internship, I thought Vaticannews would be an interesting place to learn my craft. It was certainly interesting. However, I didn’t learn so much about journalistic techniques, but more about the boundaries which journalists can face.

    Not surprisingly, my own report into the workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not get very far. This is the successor authority to the Inquisition, responsible for keeping Catholic doctrine pure. A background discussion with one priest working for the congregation did take place, but led to little actual information.

    When afterwards, I sent a question about a pending case concerning the verification of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, I received a rebuke, more or less indicating me that I — as an intern of a Vatican media — should have been instructed by my colleagues not to report on such controversial issues.

    What I found surprising was that there were tangible diplomatic interests of the Holy See that we had to take into account in our reporting. Human rights violations in China? Difficult.

    The Pope has been trying to negotiate with China for best protection for Catholics in China who are recognised as being members of a sort of “official” Church by the Chinese state.

    In order not to jeopardise these negotiations, the bosses at the press told us to avoid criticism of China. This seemed to me to be grounded in a rather worldly consideration.

    Back in Germany, I felt relieved that finally again, I was allowed to devote myself to the sacred goals of critical journalism.

    Germans do not see strikes as an option for political advancement. Strikes for political aims are de facto banned. Withdrawing one’s work is considered only a means within a labour struggle, but not for any other goal.

    But last year, I learned that a strike once had a major impact on the political landscape in Germany: In March 1920 a giant pro-democratic general strike prevented a right-wing regime from coming to power for 13 years.

    I came upon this event in an autobiographical account by my great-grandfather, who was a mayor in a small German municipality during the First World War. Apparently, he was one of the co-founders of the local group of the far-right Deutsche Vaterlandspartei (German Homeland Party).

    In March 1920, the Treaty of Versailles obliged Germany to reduce its troops immensely. But some anti-democratic forces in the military refused to dissolve their troops and challenged the newly elected government in an attempted coup. As an anti-democrat, my great-grandfather supported the coup openly. The putsch failed, and he lost his job.

    Why did the putsch fail? That’s where we come to the striking part: on the one hand, the putschists had no common plan.

    Most significantly, 12 million pro-democratic workers stopped their work for several days, and showed that the infrastructure and means of production was in the hands of the people and the people did not support the coup. Without buses, trains, newspapers, telephones or mail, and in Berlin without water and electricity, the regime couldn’t hold onto power.
    In his text, my great-grandfather wanted to convey some doctrines to his descendents which to me seem rather frightening.

    But what I learned was something different: although I tend to be suspicious of the collective will of the German people, there was one moment when it performed a powerful, pro-democracy action.

    Markus von Willert is the editor of waldhilfe.de, an advisory website for private forest owners. He has also worked as a forest & sustainability expert for the Federal Association of German sawmill and timber industry (DeSH).

    What are the challenges for forest management in the face of climate change?

    The transforming conditions are mainly noticeable in changed rainfall, drought and heat. All this leads to stress and the weakening of the trees, which then allows bugs to invade the trees more easily. An example of this is the European spruce bark beetle, which has attacked huge stands in Germany in recent years. As a result, the forests are collapsing. So far, the focus has only been on softwood. Where they grow in man-made monocultures and at higher altitudes, they are very unstable. We knew that already. But now we are also seeing a weakening of forests where we would never have expected. Even near-natural beech forests are suffering from climate change.

    How do we need to transform the forests so that we can continue to harvest wood in the future?

    We need to find a way to still gain wood from trees, because we will urgently need them in the next decades, for example in buildings. On the other hand, we need to think about how to make them more resilient: Less vulnerable to stress from drought, heat and bugs. This will not happen quickly, however, because the choices we make for forests today will have to last for up to two hundred years.

    What do you recommend?

    Risk diversification makes the most sense: it is recommended to mix different tree species and also to include foreign tree species in the mix. However, this often clashes with conservationists, who classically only want native tree species in the forest. But our climate will no longer be “natural” anyway. Mediterranean tree species or those from North America may have a much better potential to cope with the climate in a hundred or two hundred years’ time.