The Political Animal: An Italian Communist in the Bundestag

Article published on July 15, 2014
Article published on July 15, 2014

Born in Tus­cany, Paola Gi­ac­ulli was al­ready an Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party ac­tivist at the age of 15. But now this po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal has mi­grated to the Bun­destag, where she bat­tles his­tory, cap­i­tal­ism and An­gela Merkel on be­half of Ger­many's far-left party, Die Linke. She also had a shot at the European Parliament. I caught up with her in Berlin...

I meet Paola Gi­ac­ulli in Die Eins Café just around the cor­ner from the Bun­destag. Strange sculp­tures nes­tle in wall re­cesses, a friv­o­lous touch that con­trasts with the bru­tal black ta­bles, sharp and shiny, Teu­tonic. Paola Gi­ac­ulli ar­rives and we recog­nise each other im­me­di­ately, al­though we’ve never met. We must have formed ac­cu­rate men­tal im­ages from our email ex­changes. Or per­haps it’s a process of elim­i­na­tion – I’m the only per­son in the café, so it must be me.

Paola Gi­ac­ulli is an Ital­ian com­mu­nist in the Bun­destag. How­ever, what in­ter­ests me most, per­haps coun­ter­in­tu­itively, is the ques­tion of, what does an Ital­ian com­mu­nist in the Bun­destag do when she’s not in the Bun­destag? The ques­tion is earnest, but ap­par­ently it’s a curve­ball. Si­lence en­sues... be­fore Gi­ac­ulli chuck­les, “that’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion be­cause I’m a po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal.” Oh Lord. She laughs, but she’s not jok­ing. The laugh­ter quickly turns to zeal. “I was born with this kind of pas­sion. For me it’s a pas­sion and a fury against any kind of in­jus­tice.”

Pris­on­ers of his­tory

Die Linke rose from the ashes of the East Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party, which gov­erned East Ger­many from 19491989. They were Ger­many’s third largest party in the 2013 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions with 8.6% of the vote. Relics of Ger­many’s di­vided past are strewn across the cap­i­tal — out of the win­dow I can see the Marschallbrücke Bridge which the Nazis blew up to halt the Red Army’s ad­vance. Equally, a residue of his­tor­i­cal ran­cour still clings to pro­ceed­ings in the Bun­destag. “Some­times I get the feel­ing in the Bun­destag that we are still in the 50s, still in the Cold War,” says Gi­ac­ulli bit­terly. She lays the blame squarely on the shoul­ders of Merkel’s Chris­t­ian De­mo­c­ra­tic Union, re­call­ing in­dig­nantly how she was ac­cused of being a Stal­in­ist crim­i­nal. “Until these peo­ple die, you’ve got to cope with this,” Gi­ac­ulli laughs mor­bidly.

Al­though Die Linke’s grey vote is strong amongst East Ger­man nos­tal­gics, the party is not anachro­nis­tic. Gi­ac­ulli de­fines Die Linke with a few buzz­words - open­ness, fresh­ness, cul­ture, fes­ti­vals - rhetoric which is backed up by my chance en­coun­ters with the party in Berlin. I met a group of Die Linke rep­re­sen­ta­tives out­side the Fam­ily Min­istry cheer­ing the rais­ing of the rain­bow flag over the Min­istry for the first time ever. A few days later, I saw a Die Linke flag fly­ing over a sea of gy­rat­ing tor­sos and twerk­ing but­tocks at the Les­bian and Gay City Fes­ti­val. The mem­bers were min­gling, out­lin­ing poli­cies over pound­ing techno.

Im­mi­gra­tion is a sta­ple in the diet of any thor­ough-bred Eu­ro­pean po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal, left or right, and Paola Gi­ac­ulli is no ex­cep­tion. In Eu­rope, for months, even years, our weary ears have been bat­tered by anti-im­mi­grant dis­course — by Merkel and Cameron’s talk of ‘so­cial/ben­e­fit tourism’, by Le Pen’s Is­lam­o­pho­bia, by the rhyth­mic drone of UKIP’s at­tacks on East­ern Eu­ro­peans. Even ‘pro-im­mi­gra­tion’ par­ties dis­cuss the issue in prac­ti­cal terms that turn you off, re­duc­ing the de­bate to nu­mer­i­cal skir­mishes about taxes and ben­e­fits. As such, Paola Gi­ac­ulli’s utopian ideas lend the de­bate a re­fresh­ing vi­tal­ity.

“I don’t be­lieve in a world di­vided into bor­ders,” she says with a sin­cer­ity that is more rous­ing than even the most se­duc­tive sta­tis­tics. In­stead of being pre­oc­cu­pied with our petty com­plaints about im­mi­gra­tion, Gi­ac­ulli says what con­cerns her are the rather less petty prob­lems that in­spire im­mi­gra­tion. Im­mi­grants come to Eu­rope “flee­ing from war, from hunger, from tor­ture”. She be­lieves all Eu­ro­peans should have the same pass­port. This sense of uni­ver­sal­ity and trans-na­tion­al­ism an­swers one of my more ur­gent but less pro­found ques­tions: why is an Ital­ian ex-Com­mu­nist work­ing in the Bun­destag any­way? “I be­lieve in the Eu­ro­pean pro­ject,” ex­plains Gi­ac­ulli, “so it makes no dif­fer­ence where I work.”

Let's get back those bil­lions

What about the fight against cap­i­tal­ism, that fa­bled bat­tle of the 20th cen­tury which has been reignited by the Great Re­ces­sion? Gi­ac­ulli’s so­cial­ist fer­vour is fo­cused on the Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship (if you haven’t heard of it, you will soon.) “End­ing the TTIP is the biggest chal­lenge of the new age of cap­i­tal­ism,” she says ar­dently. She claims the pact is a di­rect at­tack on democ­racy, a threat to the rights that work­ers have fought tooth and nail for over decades.

In­deed, most of the in­jus­tices that rile Gi­ac­ulli she traces back to cap­i­tal­ism. A pas­sion­ate paci­fist, she rails against the cap­i­tal­ist arms trade; “how can you pro­duce in­stru­ments of death? It’s il­log­i­cal and ter­ri­ble!” She spits venom against a sys­tem which pays peo­ple a pit­tance to pro­duce valu­able things they them­selves could never dream of buy­ing. She takes a Fran­cois Hol­lan­desque pot-shot at the world’s high rollers; “there are too many peo­ple with too many bil­lions. I want to take these bil­lions from them.”

But rather than sim­ply chang­ing the way the world works, Gi­ac­ulli thinks we need to rev­o­lu­tionise the way we ex­pe­ri­ence it. She at­tacks the fetishism of com­modi­ties and cap­i­tal, which tricks us into crav­ing things we do not need. She claims cap­i­tal­ist val­ues blind us to what re­ally mat­ters, set­ting up il­lu­sory ideals and turn­ing peo­ple into in­stru­ments, a nod to Marx’s the­ory of alien­ation. “You don’t need that much to live a good life,” she says, un­wit­tingly sound­ing like Jesus Christ. But if Jesus was the first so­cial­ist, then Angie Merkel’s right-wing ‘Chris­t­ian’ de­moc­rats are on the wrong end of the spec­trum.

As the in­ter­view winds up, a large white screen rolls down just be­hind Gi­ac­ulli’s head. A pro­jec­tor splut­ters to life in a blaze of light that al­most blinds her. She turns and says, “Mex­ico – Cameroon,” be­fore launch­ing into a World Cup story. It turns out Gi­ac­ulli worked at the 1990 World Cup in Italy for two years in the in­ter­na­tional press of­fice. Al­though “it was quite fun,” her World Cup stint shone a light on the cap­i­tal­ist car­nage be­hind it all. She spits out the names of Blat­ter and Have­lange like they’re dirty words. “They re­ally are a Mafia,” she fumes, “I’m dis­gusted by it. They’ve spoiled every­thing. Cap­i­tal­ism spoilt every­thing. It spoilt our fun.”

This ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to Berlin. It's part of "EU-topia : Time To Vote", a pro­ject run by Cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the Hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­faires and the EVENS foun­da­tion.