Festooned with lovingly-painted protest pop-art, its elegant nineteenth century columns wearing necklaces of barbed wire rows to keep out police who might attack, Rote Flora stares out at a long row of coffee shops and restaurants, packed with city residents enjoying the sunniest summer in years. “Solidarity begins here,” reads one slogan. There’s a large board at the entrance, welcoming homeless people to stay — but sternly warning against getting drunk, and fascist salutes.
The building is the informal headquarters of the coalition of radical-Left groups who are organising protests next month at the G20 summit of leaders from the major world economies that some expect will be the largest — and most violent — in years. Thirty-five protest demonstrations have been officially registered. There are others which will defy official restrictions, and seek to blockade Hamburg port and shut down the roads world leaders will take to their meetings.
Perhaps oddly, Germany seems to be welcoming the protest: the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, will meet members of non-governmental organisations from all over the world in two weeks time, as part of an unprecedented outreach to hear the concerns of social movements. Inside Germany itself, there has been outreach to labour groups, women’s organisations and civil society groups.
“I think it is vitally important that these conversations and protests happen, because the G20 should happen in the midst of a democratic society, not in the middle of nowhere,” said Wolfgang Schmidt, the State Secretary of Hamburg in Berlin — the region’s ambassador, as it were, to the capital. “I don’t agree with the radical Left’s position, but I do think it’s important to listen to everyone.”
“The idea is that we continue these conversations when the next G20 is held in Argentina,” Schmidt says, “and, who knows, the one after that in India.”
“There’s an arsonist coming from America, prepared to burn down the world order, he’s going to meet an arsonist from Russia who is burning down Ukraine, so it’s okay there’s an arsonist or two from Hamburg, too,” quips a city official.
Rote Flora’s story helps understand the complex reactions in Hamburg to the upcoming G20 summit. The Red Flower Theatre, opened in 1888, bringing operettas and revues to what was then the working-class district of Sternschanze — home to thousands of families working in Hamburg’s giant shipbuilding and meat-packing industries. It continued to host performances through 1943, even as the city was relentlessly bombed, evolving after the Second World War into an 800-seat movie theatre.
But then, the oil shock of the 1970s, and competition from shipbuilders in East Asia, sent Germany’s economy into a crisis that would last until the end of the decade, in the process Hamburg’s traditional working class.
In 1987, when a developer bought out the by-then shuttered theatre, radical-Left activists occupied it — sparking violent clashes with the police, which eventually led to plans for it being turned into an upmarket music venue to be abandoned.
The protests were part of what is known as the squatting movement. As Sternschanze’s working class residents had moved out, speculators had bought up low-value properties, planning to eventually develop high-rent apartments. This, in turn, sparked a crisis of affordable housing, which led the radical-Left to simply occupy vacant homes.
Rote Flora became a symbol of this struggle, slowly drawing support from the community that expanded beyond the Left. In 2013, when the local government announced plans to redevelop the building, a social media campaign — and renewed clashes with the police — forced it to back down.
Andreas Blechschmidt was one of the young anarchist militants who stormed Rote Flora in 1987. He will be leading several of the protests which police in Hamburg have identified as most likely to turn violent. Blechschmidt admits his ideas — a borderless world, with free movement of labour; an end to the neoliberal order which made countries like Germany rich — have little currency with an increasingly gentrified city, but thinks their time might finally be coming.
“It’s strange how this double-income-no-kids class who now live around Rote Flora relate to us,” Blechschmidt says. “They see us as this kind of folkloric thing, a kind of living cultural artifact connecting them to Hamburg’s working-class Left traditions.”
Hamburg, with half of Berlin’s population, earns twice its tax revenues, evidence of the wealth that courses through Europe’s third-largest container port. Yet, the symbols of the radical-Left, though, dot upmarket upmarket Sternschanze: at the Plaz der Genossenschaft, one of several beautiful, green square that dot the district, the Colturshock DIY music store sells anarchist rock, while the house at number 125 bears a bright, red hammer-and-sickle logo.
Little doubt exist the G20 protests have support in the city that extends outside the radical-Left: 12,000 students have signed a petition asking for the summit not to be held. Inside Germany, there’s been criticism of free trade deals by leading politicians, who claim some have been skewed against German workers.
“I think a lot of people share this feeling that they’re losing control of their lives. It’s what is giving rise to the new Right in and outside Germany, and I believe we have to start discussing what a more just world might look like,” Blechschmidt argues.
“As I see it, free trade is the solution, not the problem,” says Hamburg government’s Schmidt. “We’re living in times of great uncertainty about how the world’s economy should be governed, how we can fight poverty, and how we can protect our planet. The answer lies in conversation, and I hope we’ll have lots of it at the summit.”