Upping the Antifa: Leftist riots feared for May Day

A recent surge in politically motivated violence by leftist radicals has German authorities holding their breath ahead of May 1, the traditional day of worker protest. David Wroe reports on the simmering anger on the far left.

Upping the Antifa: Leftist riots feared for May Day
Rioting in Berlin in 2005. Photo: DPA

In radical left-wing circles they’re known as “sport groups” – teams of young men whose game is beating up neo-Nazis.

“Maybe a punch in the face … then I’d say, ‘Okay, he’s lying on the ground, that’s enough.’ I don’t want to kill anybody,” explains Lukas, 25.

Lukas sits drinking a beer in a bar that’s a popular hangout for Berlin’s leftist scene. He wears a jacket of the popular white-bread Jack Wolfskin brand. Indeed there is nothing that readily identifies him as a radical anti-fascist – often shortened to Antifa in German.

Yet Lukas was in many such brawls in his younger days. Well-built and trained in martial arts, he survived them unscathed, though a friend once caught a broken bottle in the face and still has a thick scar to prove it.

Although he has retired from “sport” and moved into more organised political activity, Lukas says he’s still comfortable justifying violence against neo-Nazis – which is why he doesn’t want his full name used.

“A friend once told me, ‘You have to speak the language that people understand.’ Those guys, the neo-Nazis, they don’t understand any other language. Why should we be the only ones to refrain?”

Violence, it seems, is increasingly the language of Germany’s estimated 6,300 hardcore leftists. Last month, Germany’s Interior Ministry announced there were 9,375 left-wing crimes committed in 2009 – a 39.4 percent rise on the previous year.

Violent crime – which includes arson – rose even more sharply, jumping 53.4 percent to a total of 1,822 offences.

Flashpoint Berlin

In Berlin, which along with Hamburg is the main leftist flashpoint, the figures are more dramatic still: an 87 percent jump in crime and a 144 percent rise in violent crime, according to figures supplied to The Local by the capital city’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz.

For the first time since the current system of record-keeping began in 2001, assaults committed nationally by the left outnumbered those by the right – 849 against 800. Virtually all of the left-wing assaults were directed either at police during rallies or at neo-Nazis.

Meanwhile, hundreds of cars have been torched and attacks launched against big companies and property developments in gentrifying neighbourhoods. In the most brazen attack, about 10 masked attackers set upon a manned police station in Hamburg, setting a patrol car on fire and hurling stones through the windows.

With the traditional left-wing day of protest, May Day, coming up on Saturday, authorities are bracing themselves.

Not only are there more attacks and more people prepared to use violence, there is also a new daring to the militancy, said Heinz Fromm, director of the federal Verfassungsschutz agency.

“Violence on the street and attacks planned in secret are rising, and in some cases go beyond the kind of attacks commonly seen before, such as the use of gas cartridge incendiary devices,” he told The Local.

“The attack on a police station in Hamburg in December is indicative of a new standard. These demand the heightened attention of the security services.”

Gentrification a cause?

The causes of this surge are complex, but the gentrification of previously poor and working class neighbourhoods, which brings the wealth gap into stark relief, is clearly playing a role.

“Look around you,” says self-proclaimed leftist radical Florian Laumeyer, 32, eating ice cream in Lausitzerplatz in the heart of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. “Three or four years ago, it was only immigrants or poor people living here. Now there’s no one of an immigrant background. It’s all middle-class white people.”

Once a scruffy part of West Berlin butting up to the Iron Curtain, Kreuzberg has a tradition of May Day riots stretching back to the 1980s and is now one of the front lines in the city’s gentrification battle. Wealthier residents are moving into leftist and anarchist heartlands such as Kreuzberg and neighbouring Friedrichshain, pushing up rents and fuelling the clandestine attacks on cars, offices and upmarket property developments.

The tactic is working, according to Florian Herbs, 26, an unemployed graphic designer and member of the radical group Antifascist Revolutionary Action Berlin (ARAB). While he admits that car-burning has become a fashionable “cult,” he maintains that attacks on the upmarket property developments in Kreuzberg are a legitimate expression of anger – and are a real deterrent to gentrification.

“Now nobody wants to buy one of those apartments,” he says.

At the other end of the scale from such local battles, the banners for the radical left are broad, even nebulous concepts: anti-militarism, anti-repression, anti-fascism.

“The left-wing extremist scene is made up of a very heterogeneous group of people with different ideological views,” says Stefan Ruppert, an expert on extremism and an MP for the pro-business Free Democratic Party.

“Only the vague goal of overthrowing our existing social order serves as a unifying effect. This complexity … makes it all the more difficult to grasp the problem as a whole and work out solutions.”

Parsing violence

Leftists bristle at the suggestion that increasing violence is in danger of making them as bad as the neo-Nazis they hate. As Lukas the former “sportsman” puts it: “The difference is that we don’t go around beating immigrants. And I don’t see a problem with attacking people who do.”

Yet left-wing radicals’ defence that they only attack property, neo-Nazis or symbols of the state – including police during demonstrations – is fiercely rejected by authorities and by the police union.

“Last year on May 1 in Berlin, police were deliberately attacked to a degree that could have had fatal consequences,” police union head Rainer Wendt told The Local.

“In their expressions of violence, the extreme left and extreme right are barely distinguishable from one another.”

The number of left-wing attacks on Berlin security authorities such as police climbed from 156 in 2008 to 209 last year, according the city’s Verfassungsschutz officials.

And with incendiary gas cartridge assaults on government buildings, police stations or symbols of capitalism such Berlin’s Economy House, which was bombed in February, attackers “knowingly accepted endangerment of human life,” said a spokeswoman for the Verfassungsschutz.

No one is sure what to expect on Saturday, though both sides have been talking up the tension. The police union’s Wendt said he feared there would “serious rioting.”

Left-wing activists are celebrating their success in February for blockading a far-right march in Dresden commemorating the 1945 allied bombing of the city. They will try the same when neo-Nazis march on Saturday, forcing the police to intervene.

“Maybe there will be clashes,” says ARAB activist Florian Herbs. “Maybe some people will start throwing things. There is a dynamic to the moment that we can’t control.

“We hope it will stay peaceful, but with the capitalist crisis and gentrification, people are very angry. We’ll see what happens.”

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What we know so far about Berlin’s follow-up to the €9 ticket

After weeks of debate, Berlin has settled on a new budget ticket to replace the €9 ticket for a limited time. Here's what know about the travel deal so far.

What we know so far about Berlin's follow-up to the €9 ticket

So Berlin’s getting a new €9 ticket? Cool!

Kind of. Last Thursday, the Berlin Senate agreed to implement a €29 monthly ticket from October 1st until December 31st this year. 

It’s designed to bridge the gap between the end of the €9 ticket deal and the introduction of a new national transport deal that’s due to come into force by January 2023.

The Senate still hasn’t fleshed out the details in a written decision yet, so some aspects of the ticket aren’t clear, but we do know a few things about how it’ll work. For €29 a month, people can get unlimited travel on all modes of public transport in Berlin transport zones A and B. That means buses, trains and trams are all covered – but things like taxis aren’t. 

Wait – just zones A and B. Why’s that?

One of the sticking points in planning the new ticket was the fact that neighbouring state Brandenburg was reluctant to support the idea. Franziska Giffey (SPD), the governing mayor of Berlin, had annoyed her neighbours and surprised her own coalition partners by suddenly pitching the idea at the end of August – shortly before the €9 ticket was due to expire.

At the time, the disgruntled Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) complained about the lack of advance notice for a proper debate. He had previously ruled out a successor to the €9 ticket in the state. Meanwhile, the CDU – who are part of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – slammed the idea for a new cheap ticket as a “waste of money” and an attempt to “buy votes” for the SPD.

The blockade meant that plans for a Berlin-Brandenburg ticket run by transport operator VBB had to be scrapped, and the monthly ticket has instead been restricted to the two transport zones solely operated by Berlin’s BVG. Since zone C stretches into Brandenburg, Berlin couldn’t include this zone in the ticket unilaterally. 

Berlin transport zones explained

Source: S-Bahn Berlin

The good news is that zones A and B cover everything within the city’s borders, taking you as far as Spandau in the west and Grunau in the southeast. So unless you plan regular trips out to the Brandenburg, you should be fine.

However, keep in mind that the Berlin-Brandenburg BER airport is in zone C, so you’ll need an ‘add-on’ ticket to travel to and from there. It’s also not great for the many people who live in Potsdam in Brandenburg and commute into Berlin regularly. 

READ ALSO: Berlin gets green light to launch €29 transport ticket

How can people get hold of it? 

Unlike the €9 ticket, you won’t be able to buy it at stations on a monthly basis. Instead, the €29 ticket is only for people who take out a monthly ‘Abo’ (subscription) for zones A and B. If you’ve already got a monthly subscription, the lower price will be deducted automatically, while yearly Abo-holders will likely get a refund. 

You can take out a monthly subscription on the BVG website here – though, at the time of writing, the price of the ticket hadn’t been updated yet. According to Giffey, people will be able to terminate their subscription at the end of December without facing a penalty. 

What types of ‘Abos’ are eligible for the deal? 

According to Berlin transport operator BVG, people with the following subscriptions are set to benefit from the reduced price from October to December: 

  • VBB-Umweltkarten with monthly and annual direct debit
  • 10 o’clock tickets with monthly and yearly direct debit
  • VBB-Firmentickets with monthly and yearly direct debit 
  • Trainee subscriptions with monthly direct debit

People who already have reduced-price subscriptions, such as over-65s and benefits claimants, aren’t set to see any further reductions. That’s because many of these subscriptions already work out at under €29 per month for zones A and B. 

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train in Berlin

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train at Zoologischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Can students with a Semesterticket get it as well?

That’s one of the things that still needs to be clarified. It’s possible that universities will choose to refund part of the Semesterticket price like they did with the €9 ticket. The Local has contacted BVG for more information. 

Can I take my bike/dog/significant other along for the ride? 

Once again, this doesn’t appear to have been ironed out yet – but we can assume that the usual rules of your monthly or yearly subscription will apply. So, as with the €9 ticket, if your bike is included in your subscription, you can continue to take it with you. If not, you’ll probably have to pay for a bike ticket.

In most cases, monthly BVG subscriptions allow you to take one dog with you for free, and also bring one adult and up to three children (under 14) with you on the train on evenings and weekends. These rules are likely to stay the same, but we’ll update you as soon as we know more. 

How much is this all going to cost?

According to regional radio station RBB24, around €105 million is set to be put aside in order to subsidise the temporary ticket. However, this still needs to be formalised in a supplementary budget and given the green light in the Senate. 

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

OK. And what happens after the €29 ticket?

That’s the million – or, rather, billion – euro question right now. In its latest package of inflation relief measures, the federal government said it would be making €1.5 billion available for a follow-up to the €9 ticket.

The ticket is set to be introduced by January 2023 and will rely on Germany’s 16 states matching or exceeding the federal government’s €1.5 billion cash injection. So far, it looks set to be a monthly ticket that can be used on public transport nationally, with the price set somewhere between €49 and €69.

However, the Greens continue to push for a two-tier model that would give passengers the option of buying either a regional or national ticket. Under their proposals, the regional tickets would cost €29 and the national tickets would cost €69.