German Unity - and Diversity

TWO weeks of youth riots in two German towns, aimed at foreigners (mainly refugees) and the police, reflect the new tensions and confusions brought on by German unification - particularly in the former East Germany.

High unemployment, scarce expensive housing, the issue of German identity, an end to socialist habits, peer pressure, and record numbers of immigrants - played upon by youths in the guise of Nazi-fascist protest - are behind the deplorable attacks on foreigners.

In Rostock, a ship-building town until German unification in 1989 and scene of last week's violence against 200 Romanians, unemployment is 40 percent. Relatively lax immigration laws mean 500,000 new foreigners will arrive in Germany this year, twice that in 1991. East Germans who have languished for years on waiting lists for housing feel anger when East European or Asian refugees take up residence in hotels or cheap new apartments.

This does not excuse rioters in Rostock or Eberswalde this week - or those in Hoyeswerde last February. Germany is a liberal democracy. Any new patterns of hate, particularly when aggressive forms of ethnic violence are on the rise elsewhere in Europe, need to be checked. The danger is in how easily even "good people" can be exploited and manipulated when confronted with clever fear tactics. Some protesters are hardened haters, but many are kids swept up by a tide.

They need to be given a swift reality check. Can, or will, the Germans do this? Local German leaders must better speak to the issue. The schools can play a role. In the East, this means facing 40 years of denial of Nazism. East Germany blamed Hitler on "the West." They rarely taught children about the Nazi period, Aryan genetic theories, or German responsiblity for the Holocaust. The kids need to know who the Nazis were.

Bonn may have to tighten some immigration laws. But traits need confronting too. A German friend notes that many youths grow up there without a sense of difference among people and they demand conformity. A united Germany is strong enough to appreciate diversity - and must begin to do so.

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