Germany's Communist youth group rises again

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The Independent Online

Chancellor Angela Merkel belonged to the organisation, and in its heyday, thousands of its young, blue-shirted members would march across former Communist East Berlin waving red banners and chanting slogans such as: "Learning from the Soviet Union means learning to win!"

East Germany's Communist youth organisation, the Free German Youth (FDJ), was set up in 1948 as the socialist answer to the Nazis' Hitler Youth movement. Membership was virtually compulsory – not belonging meant no higher education – hence Mrs Merkel's involvement.

The FDJ disappeared from Germany's political map after reunification in 1990. Since then, most assumed it had been consigned to one of the nation's many dustbins of history. But it has staged a sudden and wholly unexpected comeback: the 58th anniversary of the founding of East Germany once again brought blue-shirted youths out on to the streets of Berlin. FDJ brochures, insisting organisation was out to "expose capitalism and shake it to the core", were on sale at ¿3 (£2) each.

The man behind the FDJ's rebirth is a 29-year-old East German bricklayer called Ringo Ehlert, who is proud of the fact that he once forced the authorities to take him to court over his refusal to do military service. "The United States used to be our enemy, but now it is the government of reunited Germany," he insisted in a recent interview.

Mr Ehlert, who was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, claims the FDJ has hundreds of members in both eastern and western Germany, and that its appeal is growing. The FDJ, Mr Ehlert says, is on the rise thanks to its opposition to war and to Germany's involvement in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

"Germany has learnt nothing from its history and is a danger for the rest of Europe," Mr Ehlert claims. "Its intervention in Afghanistan and the economic pressure it is putting on Poland are the best examples of this."

The FDJ's message is already partly mirrored by German public opinion. Although few want a return to Communism in the east, there has been a wave of Ostalgie – or nostalgic longing for a return to the superficial cosiness of life behind the Iron Curtain. Opinion polls also show that more than 50 per cent of Germans are in favour of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. A rise in strident left-wing political thinking also accounts for the recent success of Die Linke (The Left), formed when leftist parties from western Germany merged with what was the Communist Party in the east. Die Linke is now Germany's third most powerful political party.

Despite this success, the FDJ's reappearance has surprised Germany's political establishment. Volker Ratzmann, chairman of the Green Party, warned last week that the FDJ was similar to a religious sect and claimed that it posed a real threat to young people. "We must ensure that it does not secure any kind of political foothold," he said.

Germany's intelligence services said last week that the FDJ had no more than 200 members country-wide. But conservative politicians argued that its public demonstrations showed that it was gaining strength.

Even Die Linke wants nothing to do with the new FDJ. Marion Seelig, a spokesman for the party, said: "It is extremely disturbing that young people... listen to the FDJ. Its ideology is completely absurd."