BONN — PRODDED by domestic and international pressure to respond to violent attacks on foreigners, German authorities have begun cracking down on rightist extremism in their country.
"It is important that we start a security offensive now against violence," Chancellor Helmut Kohl's chief of staff, Friedrich Bohl, said Friday.
In recent weeks German authorities have banned a neo-Nazi party; created special police units to handle right radicals; and conducted a swift and successful investigation into the Nov. 23 fire-bombing of two Turkish apartment houses in which a Turkish woman, her niece, and her granddaughter died.
But critics charge that it took 18 months of such violence to convince the government that xenophobia is a deep-seated problem in Germany - not just a phenomenon that will pass as soon as Bonn can control the two-year surge of eastern Europeans seeking asylum. More than 1,900 violent acts of rightist extremism have been connected so far this year, a 28 percent increase over last year. Eighteen people have died.
Following the fire-bombing, Turkey and Israel strongly condemned German right extremism, admonishing Bonn to take action. Individual Israeli politicians even urged a boycott of Germany.
Thomas Kielinger, editor of the German weekly Rheinischer Merkur, says Germans mistakenly believed that rightist extremism could not flourish in their carefully crafted postwar democracy.
"We politicians must ask ourselves if we didn't talk too long instead of acting," said Rita Suessmuth, president of the Bundestag, in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung Friday.
Specifically, the Germans have stepped up their fight in these areas:
The law. On Nov. 27, German officials banned a small neo-Nazi organization, the National Front, and the police conducted a nationwide search that uncovered weapons, explosives, and neo-Nazi propaganda in NF offices. Other neo-Nazi organizations are expected to be banned soon.
The federal government is also weighing stripping extreme-right leaders of their basic rights, such as voting and free speech. Complaints against neo-Nazi rock bands have been filed in courts in Mannheim and Nuremberg in the last two weeks.
Justice ministers of Germany's states, or Lander, agreed Nov. 18 that a law banning symbols of the Third Reich should be expanded to include rightist symbols similar to those of the Third Reich, and suspects of severe peace disturbances should be held in investigative custody even if they have no previous crime record.
Investigation. Sending a strong political signal, Federal Prosecutor Alexander von Stahl promptly took over the Turkish case from local investigators.
Because of the significance of the Turkish case, Mr. von Stahl abandoned his previous position that rightists do not fall under his jurisdiction because they are not nationally organized and do not threaten the state. Within 10 days of the fire-bombing he had arrested two prime suspects. The two neo-Nazis faces charges of triple murder, attempted murder, and arson.
The police. On Friday, the government announced it would create a special task force to coordinate federal and state police efforts against rightist extremism. Lander interior ministers had agreed Nov. 20 to establish special police units to combat the aggression. They also agreed to improve contact with the thousands of asylum hostels, the main target of militant skinheads and neo-Nazis. Some of these dormitories have no phones, making it impossible to call the police in an emergency.
Dieter Walter, a senior official at the Federal Crime Office, says police have investigated about 50 percent of extremist crimes in recent weeks, a vast improvement over the low 15 to 22 percent rate of the last 12 to 14 months.
But deep problems in law enforcement persist. Asylum homes are still being set ablaze, foreigners are still being attacked.
Fritz Fliszar, director of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation, explains that the police have traditionally been "too soft on rowdies," partly because politicians fear the image of Germany as a police state. In eastern Germany, the police complain of a lack of training, riot gear, and above all, personnel. "We can't guard all of the asylum homes," says Leipzig Police President Wolfgang Walcher.
Many legal experts, meanwhile, argue that it is not stricter laws that are needed, but the application of existing ones. The time between arrest and sentencing of extremists, for instance, should be shortened. Youths who throw Molotov cocktails into asylum hostels should be charged with attempted murder, experts say.