The Red Diva who speaks like the right-wing AfD. Who’s afraid of Sahra Wagenknecht?

High updos, suits from the late 80s and early 90s, round-toed pumps, pearl earrings – the consistency with which Sahra Wagenknecht has crafted her public image over the decades has paid off. You may not like her, you may not share her views, but almost everyone recognizes her. Wagenknecht is like the inverse Angela Merkel: also from the East and no less ambitious, except that entering the Bundestag, she did not shed her femininity. She, in her own way, “pop-culturized” it.

Sahra Wagenknecht, born in 1969, came into the world in Jena (Thuringia, then within the borders of East Germany) as the child of a German mother and an Iranian father. Her father left the family when Sahra was three years old and returned to Iran. She was raised by her grandparents in a village near Jena until the age of seven. Her grandmother worked in a village store, and Sahra spent much time alone at home. By the age of four, she was already reading, though in interviews, when asked if she was a “spiritual child,” she always replies that she “did not read Goethe as a preschooler.” However, her fondness for the German literary giant remained with her throughout her life, though Karl Marx was her earlier influence. She graduated from high school in Berlin, where she lived with her mother, an art gallery employee. Growing up in an artistic environment, Sahra read extensively and wanted to study philosophy, but in Berlin, due to her “complicated character,” instead of university, she was first offered a two-year job at Humboldt University as an office assistant. She quit the job after three months.

When the Berlin Wall was falling, Sahra was reading Immanuel Kant. Unlike the older Merkel, instead of jumping from the GDR sauna directly into the whirlpool of democracy, Wagenknecht joined the Socialist Unity Party. As she explained in interviews: “I felt like a socialist and a Marxist, I did not want the fall of the GDR, I wanted its change.” Her first trips abroad took her to Athens, Rome, and Paris; she only ventured into West Berlin in search of a needed book. In her twenties, she spoke of the Berlin Wall as a “necessary evil.” Over time, she revised her attitude towards the wall, but when asked about the victims of the Stasi, the political prisoners, she usually gave evasive answers, saying, “time cannot be turned back, but what happened was not in line with socialist ideals.”

Between 1991-95, Wagenknecht served in the leadership of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). In a September 1996 issue of Der Spiegel, the editors of this Hamburg weekly characterised the then 26-year-old Sahra as: “The eloquent speaker of the Communist Platform in PDS, fights class struggle through clothing. In a bid to preserve the former FDJ newspaper, she offered her ‘most beautiful blouse.’ In a promotional announcement, it was promised that Wagenknecht’s shirt (advertised as ‘30% cotton and 80% Marxism’) would be raffled among new readers. And now, the red leader goes even further. Asked how many more shirts she would sacrifice if it could bring back the deceased GDR, Wagenknecht replied: all of them.”
German left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht before a press conference where she presented a new political project named Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht. Berlin, October 23, 2023. Photo: PAP/EPA, Filip Singer
Two years later, the same Der Spiegel dedicated an article to Wagenknecht titled “Madonna of Neo-Communism.” The text began with a description by a PDS member, portraying Sahra as “walking in front of a line of demonstrators like a sacred apparition, like Rosa Luxemburg.” Wagenknecht was described as the “enfant terrible of the PDS, a communist in over-the-knee boots, white blouse, with a red scarf and high updo” (25 years later, when asked how long it takes to do her hair, she admitted it takes 15 minutes). The article recalled all the controversial statements of “Red Sahra,” such as that 1989 was actually a “counterrevolution,” and that communist Walter Ulbricht “was a brilliant tactician.” It also emphasised Dantean scenes involving Wagenknecht and the party leadership (Gregor Gysi and Lothar Bisky). The article did not spare various jibes at the fighter for a classless society. It reminded readers that a year earlier, she had married West German journalist, film producer, and financial advisor Ralph-Thomas Niemeyer (the marriage took place on the anniversary of Marx’s birthday). It also mentioned that she travelled to rallies in first class, stayed in good hotels, liked trips around Europe, and didn’t necessarily fit in with the company of fervent proletarians.

  Later came new disputes Wagenknecht had with her comrades from post-communist circles, her career marked by successive mandates in the European Parliament and Bundestag, and roles in the leadership of the party Linke, founded in 2007. There were also many developments in her private life. In 2013, Sahra and “Red Ralph” left the courtroom separately. As it turned out, life with Niemeyer had its twists and turns; the husband stood trial several times for fraud, and he had three children from extramarital relationships. After the divorce, the pair reportedly remained on friendly terms, even after Wagenknecht married Oskar Lafontaine, who was 26 years her senior, and moved to the German-French border.

Her ex-husband remained active as an aspiring politician and journalist after the split, and when that didn’t work out, he gravitated towards the Reichsbürger movement. In July 2022, Niemeyer declared himself the leader of the “German government in exile” and promised that “after the collapse of the Federal Republic of Germany,” he would negotiate with Vladimir Putin. In September, he went to Russia, where he allegedly discussed “agreements with Gazprom,” and upon returning, announced that Olaf Scholz’s government had been “suspended” and that he, as the chancellor in exile, was taking over power. Niemeyer’s name was also mentioned after the so-called Reichsbürger network was busted, associated with Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss. The last time Wagenknecht’s ex-husband made headlines was in March 2023, when he appeared live on Russia Today, presenting himself as “the last negotiation partner with Russia, representing the German opposition.”

Marriage to the unfulfilled successor of Willy Brandt

Niemeyer represents the madness and exotic, albeit sometimes unsettling, fringes of German public life, while Oskar Lafontaine is in a completely different league.
June 2012. The then-leader of the Die Linke faction in the German federal state of Saarland, Oskar Lafontaine, and deputy party leader Sahra Wagenknecht during a conference in Goettingen. Photo: PAP/DPA, Jochen Luebke
Oskar Lafontaine, a long-time (1985-1998) Prime Minister of the Saarland, was the SPD’s chancellor candidate in the first elections after the unification of Germany and one of the party’s leaders in the 1990s, briefly serving as the finance minister in Gerhard Schröder’s red-green cabinet. Today, few remember, but in his heyday, the ambitious and politically eloquent Lafontaine was a star of German social democracy, pointed out by the great Willy Brandt himself as his successor. His brilliant, though turbulent career (he was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1990, which he barely survived) collapsed at its peak after joining the federal government. It’s hard to say why in 1999, after a few months, the Saarlander left the government and resigned from the party leadership. Was it opposition to Schröder’s social state-reforming agenda, or was there simply no room for two alpha males in the SPD?

The result was that Lafontaine moved left of the SPD, and after a few years, found his place in the Left Party (Die Linke), uniting post-communists from the East (PDS) and the extreme left from the West. There, he met Sahra. Eighty-year-old Oskar, now retired from active politics, still speaks out publicly. Last year, he released the neat booklet Ami, it’s time to go! Plädoyer für die Selbstbehauptung Europas (Plea for Europe’s self-assertion). The titular “Ami” obviously refers to Americans, the cause of all evil, also blamed – of course – for the war in Ukraine. Lafontaine’s views are consistent today, and he’s not afraid to break many canons of correctness: Germany is a vassal of the USA, the war in Ukraine is the result of NATO’s eastward expansion, sanctions against Russia are a mistake, the biggest agent of America in Germany are the Greens (because climate transformation is in the interest of the hegemon), excess wind power plants are destroying the “historic landscape of Germany”... He still hasn’t forgiven his former SPD comrades, and he thinks Scholz’s government is the worst imaginable. We need to return to Brandt’s détente policy... and so on...

The retired guru of the left, like his current wife, always cared about comfort. Their grand house in the Saarland, where they now live together with Sahra, is mockingly called the “palace of social justice.” Do they discuss there a Germany free of American supervision and a “conscious” Europe together with his ambitious wife?

Anointed as Germany’s future chancellor

Sahra Wagenknecht of 2023 and the one from the time of her marriage to Ralph Niemeyer are not two different Sahras, but certainly, with a calmer husband by her side, it’s easier for her to focus on her goal. And that goal is power, though maybe not as red as it’s portrayed. Wagenknecht still enjoys the good life, earns from selling books and giving lectures on economics, and in her future party’s programme, she appeals not only to the “little man” but also to the middle class.

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In December, an unauthorised biography of Wagenknecht titled The Red Diva is set to be released, supposedly revealing details of her political project, which she announced at the end of October. Media associated with Alternative for Germany (AfD), such as the magazine Compact, which in February anointed Sahra as the future Chancellor of Germany, are already promoting the book. Experts now predict that Wagenknecht’s party will deal the biggest blow to the far right. Indeed, it’s more complex than repeating the mantra about a neo-Marxist, former parliamentary group leader of Linke, who suddenly decided to create a new party for “ordinary people.”

A new player will appear on the German political map in January. It is not yet known what the new party will be called, but since October 23, it has been clear that it will grow out of the “Sahra Wagenknecht Association for Reason and Justice” (BSW). Why is the leader’s name in the association’s name? The lady herself criticises the alleged authoritarianism of the government and at the same time has no qualms about advertising the future party with her own name? – she was asked during the press conference of the new entity’s leaders. Wagenknecht explained that it’s about recognizability, so that every voter knows that they are voting for her party. One of the German public television satirists, joking about the journalists’ interest in the press conference itself, where Sahra Wagenknecht announced the establishment of her own party and sealed her separation from Linke, said that “Olaf Scholz’s engagement to Taylor Swift” probably wouldn’t have attracted more cameras. Further jokes were about the Alternative for Germany, that after the birth of Wagenknecht’s party, it would no longer be a political teenager and would join the ranks of the so-called old parties – after which a photomontage was displayed showing Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla from AfD aged by about 30 years.

Dry humour, but reflecting the spirit of the debate around a party that has not yet been established, yet can already count on trust comparable to that enjoyed by the Greens. At least that’s what the INSA poll for the tabloid Bild (from November 1, 2023) indicates, in which the (non-existent) Wagenknecht party got 12 percent support, the Greens 12.5 percent, Linke could count on 4 percent, and AfD would drop from 23 to 18 percent. And this is a nationwide poll. Wagenknecht’s future party performs even better in polls reflecting the potential voting preferences of residents of eastern states. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Wagenknecht’s party could count on 18 percent support, taking the lead and distancing the current leader, the CDU. When such a simulation was conducted in July among residents of Thuringia, the new party also took first place there, gaining 25 percent. From the current polls of this type, it appears that part of AfD’s voters (40 percent of AfD sympathisers favour the new party) and Linke could vote for Wagenknecht, and for the latter, the emergence of strong competition on the left could mean saying goodbye to the Bundestag.
The Linke parliamentary group is already facing a crisis because 10 of its deputies belong to the BSW, and if they leave (which is expected to happen in January), the group will shrink from 38 to 28 members. This will result in funding cuts and the need to lay off 108 staff members from parliamentary offices. The Linke leadership asked the dissidents from Sahra to resign their mandates along with their party membership, so ten new members could take their places. The group would survive, and people wouldn’t lose their jobs. This latter argument was used in an attempt to appeal to Sahra’s leftist conscience, but to no avail. With the official formation of the new party on the German left, the Linke group will automatically cease to exist, as the Bundestag rules state that one group cannot contain two competing parties. “This parliamentary group is already politically dead,” said the leader of the Linke faction in the Bundestag, Dietmar Bartsch. And it will be as he said. Instead of one group, there will be two parliamentary circles, the second led by the red diva Sahra Wagenknecht, loathed by Linke leadership.

How much AfD is in Wagenknecht?

On November 6, a migration summit took place, planned before the summer, involving Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the premiers of all federal states. As expected, the states appealed for more funds from the central treasury to maintain migrants, while the guardians of the federal treasury (led by Olaf Scholz) are reluctant to increase this pool. According to the German Basic Law, the states are responsible for housing, feeding, and deporting migrants, yet in the face of skyrocketing costs arising from these duties, the money problem has become the number one issue. According to the states’ calculations, maintaining one migrant is an average annual cost of 10,500 euros, amounting to 6 billion euros, to which are added expenses for accommodation, and the state premiers want Scholz to cover these costs. As calculated by the current chairman of the State Premiers’ Conference, head of the government in Hesse, Boris Rhein (CDU), the states spent 17.6 billion euros this year alone on the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Additionally, German municipalities incurred extra expenses of 5.7 billion euros.

However, financial issues are just the culmination of a whole cause-and-effect chain. It is not without reason that there is increasingly bold talk about the need to change Article 16 of the German Constitution, which pertains to the right to asylum. According to Saxony’s Premier Michael Kretschmer (SPD), this article should be adapted to today’s realities, as it was created at a time when millions of people were not flocking to Germany. Germany’s Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) is advocating for reducing social benefits for migrants, and FDP General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai is calling for “realpolitik in migration policy.” The Christian Democrats have been proposing for several months to replace financial benefits with material vouchers. Not to mention the AfD, as their idea for migration policy is inspired by Denmark, known as the cradle of one of the most restrictive models for deterring migrants. And in such an atmosphere, Sahra Wagenknecht steps forward and communicates: “The message that should go out to the world today should be: Germany is overloaded, there is no more room in Germany, Germany is not ready to be a country of first choice.”
Thousands of people participated in a demonstration organised by Sahra Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, calling for peace negotiations with Russia regarding the war in Ukraine, February 25, 2023. Photo: PAP/Abaca – Anadolu Agency, Abdulhamid Hosbas
After these words, Wagenknecht points to Denmark and, like the politicians from AfD, praises its strict immigration policy (to be clear, the Christian Democrats also discovered the Danish model some time ago, but stopped praising the social democrats from Copenhagen when the AfD began to champion the Danish’s inflexibility). According to Wagenknecht, Denmark has shown how to “regain control”. Control is an important word in Wagenknecht’s rhetorical arsenal. She often repeats that the federal government has lost control of the state, that Germany has lost control over its own economy by cutting itself off from cheap raw materials from Russia. During the October 23 conference, Wagenknecht even mocked the government for first imposing sanctions on Russia, then cutting itself off from raw materials, and finally importing Russian oil indirectly through India and gas through Belgian ports.

This affinity for Russia connects Wagenknecht with AfD, as does the demand to revive both Nord Streams, calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, and opposing the delivery of weapons to Kyiv. The spark for February’s demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate was the so-called “Manifesto for Peace”, initiated by Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer, doyenne of German feminism and editor-in-chief of the magazine Emma, calling on Scholz to stop military aid to Ukraine. Nearly a million Germans have already signed it. Another demonstration will take place on November 25 in Berlin. The previous one gathered, according to various estimates, from 15 to 50 thousand people, a mixed company, as both post-communists and sympathisers, or even politicians from AfD, including co-chair Tino Chrupalla, signed the manifesto. The question is how many people will now come to the demonstration, which at the same time may turn into a rally supporting Wagenknecht. Information about the planned event appeared in the November-December issue of Emma magazine, right after a multi-page interview with Alice Schwarzer and Sahra Wagenknecht. The magazine’s cover features a photo of Wagenknecht with the caption: “What does Sahra W. plan?”

The interview itself, conducted in a casual conversation over wine at Wagenknecht and Lafontaine’s rural estate, seems forced. Schwarzer’s unnecessarily elaborate and leading questions are often longer than Wagenknecht’s evasive answers. Anyway, those who have slogged through dozens of interviews with the Red Sahra will find nothing fresh in this conversation, except for the declaration of how Wagenknecht’s programme is supposedly different from what the AfD has been offering for years. Here she strikingly states that “AfD does not recognize the West’s co-responsibility for the situation in the countries of origin of migrants coming to Germany and that it serves up racist resentments; besides, AfD advocates economic and social policies that would increase inequalities, namely greater privatisation and dismantling of the welfare state.” And that’s all.

The rest, that is, the attitude towards Russia, the war in Ukraine, the mistakes of immigration policy, policies during the pandemic, cutting off from cheap Russian raw materials, the stance towards NATO and the USA (hostile), criticism of the green transformation, reindustrialization of Germany, etc. – all these elements are the same for AfD and the future Wagenknecht party. The changes are cosmetic, unless we descend to the level of eloquence and literary studies. Here Wagenknecht can recite a fragment of Goethe’s Faust II from memory, while AfD co-chair Tino Chrupalla has trouble naming his favourite German poem. Will the new left-conservative force sweep AfD off the political chessboard?

For now, it will greatly harm its mother party, Linke, and time will tell about the potential of the Wagenknecht Party in a few months. Everything that happens before that will only be theatre for citizens of Germany increasingly weary of the political consensus.

– Olga Doleśniak-Harczuk, Antoni Opaliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz

Main photo: Sahra Wagenknecht during the Die Linke congress in Bielefeld in 2015. Photo: PAP/DPA, Oliver Berg
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