Because we're friends: Antirepression work in Germany and the Rote Hilfe

18 / 8 / 2018

Demi, an activist of Rote Hilfe in Heidelberg, describes the German model of solidarity through its most long-running and active symbol. With the legal team, the managing of the news and the press release, RH remains the most important reference point for the struggle against political repression in Germany and coordinates hundreds of activists all over the country.

If you've ever been to a protest in Germany, or just had a leak on the loo of a flat housing activists there, chances are you have encountered Was tun wenn's brennt? (also affectionally known as WTWB, and available in English as What to do in the case of fire – a small booklet containing advice on what to do if you get into trouble with the German police.

This little booklet is the flagship publication of an organization called the Rote Hilfe (i.e., Red Help, RH). Organizing roughly 10.000 supporters and several hundreds of active members, it deals with anti-repression work – and anti-repression work only. We carefully avoid statements about general political issues, so all leftists can participate in the RH. Whether you're an anarchist or communist, antifa or animal rights activist, or all of the above: if you experience political repression (in particular from State actors), you're welcome, and we're not out to judge your particular cause, as long as it's clearly progressive.

One might expect there to be a lot of in-fighting about what exactly is – and is not – left and progressive. But actually, while a lot of discussion is going on in the RH, in practical support work that's almost never an issue. Our by-laws, anyway, get by just giving examples: «As well as it can, the RH provides solidarity for everyone [...] prosecuted in Germany because of their political activity. Political activity in this sense is, for instance, acting in support of the goals of the worker's movement, international solidarity, the antifascist, antisexist, antiracist, democratic and union struggle as well as the fight against antisemitism, militarism and war. Our support is for everyone who loses their job, are hit by Berufsverbot, are being tried in a court of law, are being sentenced to jail or fines, or are subject to other detriments. In addition, our solidarity is for everyone being politically prosecuted by the reaction in all countries of the earth».

Propaganda vs. Action

Work on anti-repression has several aspects. An important one is figuring out how to counter political repression and educating activists. The WTWB is an example for that, but there also are leaflets on topics like pepper spray or DNA analysis as well as, fairly centrally, a longer brochure on refusing to testify (Aussageverweigerung) – a fairly big deal in that if a state prosecutor or a court of law calls you as witness, in Germany refusing testimony can and has put people in jail. Working out that it's far worse if they don't refuse and keeping the lessons learnt alive is one important thing where a large organization on the national level clearly has advantages over the model of many small, local paralegal groups.

On the other hand, most practical anti-repression is local in nature: Say there's a rally, and the authorities confront the organizers with silly restrictions (they always do in Germany) – perhaps they demand several participants' names, or they won't let you gather where you want, or you're not allowed to carry banners of sufficient size. Then, at the rally, police hassle people, want only to stop the demo, or go in with senseless violence. And after it's over, police and courts go after activists. In all these cases (and more beyond), RH is there to support the activists, offering advice, getting people in touch with lawyers, and, where necessary, help pay the bills. In the normal case, we cover 50% of the expenses people have in lawsuits filed against them, with the assumption that other structures can cover the other half.

All these hands-on problems are a lot easier to tackle if people know and trust each other – and know, say, who of the local lawyers understand that in political lawsuits getting the defendant out isn't all there is to it. Therefore, they wouldn't be terribly well handled by a centralized organization. That's why most of the support work of the RH is done by the local chapters. Most major cities in Germany have one, and it's them people go if they're in trouble. Most of these local chapters also run the legal teams (Ermittlungsausschuss) in their cities.

Central vs. Local

The RH thus is a bottom-up organization, but things like producing information material or working out policies happen in cooperation between the chapters, and money is managed centrally. We even have some paid staff for making sure the paperwork is done reliably. They're not involved with policy decisions, though. For that, there is a biannually elected council (Bundesvorstand) of roughly a dozen people meeting about every two months. Apart from handling day-to-day policy issues, a central press contact, and much more, the council in particular can override the local chapters' decisions on financial support – that, by the way, rarely happens, and when, it's almost always because the defendants made far-reaching statements to the authorities endangering other people or when they gave the courts the satisfaction of at least appearing to regret (and condemn) their actions.

Dealing with money centrally is a good idea because by pooling the money all the local chapters have, the financial fallout of larger events – think about Hamburg's G20 meeting, or perhaps a large Nazi gathering – doesn't ruin the organization. Incidentally, another advantage of organizing beyond the scale of a major city is that people living out in the country still have an organization that can help them when they are being prosecuted – and they are (remember? we are everywhere!).

That the RH exists might seem as a bit of a miracle in world in which leftist organizations typically split faster than they can grow. Indeed, the RH at least initially grew by local paralegal initiatives merging, which started in the seventies and went on all the way through the 2000s – though by far most members today joined the RH as individuals, not by being merged in.

Past vs. Future

The activists that dared start the RH as a state-wide organization back in the seventies had a famous model: the Rote Hilfe Deutschlands (RHD) of the 1920ies and 30ies. The RHD back then was a huge affair sporting up to a million members, supporting tens of thousands of activists struggling against the rise of the Nazis (and, of course, in the many other struggles of the day) – it even operated children's homes for the offspring of activists sent to prison. And although it was run essentially as a subsidiary of the KPD (a fairly orthodox communist party that in the early 1930ies organized about 300000 people), many less orthodox intellectuals like Thomas Mann, Kurt Tucholsky, or Albert Einstein supported the RHD. Once power passed to the Nazis, RHD activists and many of its lawyers ended up in concentration camps or were murdered right away. Hence, the continuities are tenuous indeed between the original RHD and the RH forming from the motely leftists of the seventies.

Motely the RH remains – the various chapters have somewhat different outlooks, have activists from wildly different movements and different generations, which becomes obvious when we, as an organization, try to make up our collective minds. For instance, we currently have to come up with a common position on refusing identity checks, which was fairly successfully practiced by anti-coal activists recently. When trying to figure out a, well, wise stance on such questions, it does help to have in one organization both people involved with climate action and people who have bailed out young folks who forgot their papers on the way to the demo once too often.

Also, some chapters disappear because they fail to replace people leaving, but new chapters are formed as people realize a well-functioning anti-repression structure is important if you want an active and thriving left scene. But miraculously, the RH keeps helping progressive activists and, much to the chagrin of the German secret service, it keeps growing. Ha!

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