Tarnished German image on World Cup eve

Recent attacks on minorities and immigrants have raised concerns about visitors' safety.

With just days remaining before the World Cup opens June 9, the Brandenburg tourism office is abuzz with phone calls from potential visitors. But instead of queries about hotels or day trips into the lake region around Berlin, says spokesperson Birgit Freitag, callers have a more pressing question: Will they be safe?

A string of recent attacks on dark-skinned Germans and immigrants in the country, coupled with new police statistics showing a rise in violent right-wing activity in the past year, have presented Germany with a serious image problem as the country readies itself for the arrival of an estimated 1 million soccer fans.

A former government spokesman's suggestion two weeks ago that certain areas of Germany would effectively be off-limits to some visitors touched off the controversy, which has dominated headlines ever since.

"There are small and medium-sized towns in [the German state of] Brandenburg, as well as elsewhere, which I would advise a visitor of another skin color to avoid going to.... It is possible he wouldn't get out alive," said Uwe-Karsten Heye, formerly German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's spokesman and now head of the antiracism foundation "Show Your Face!"

Just days later, Turkish-born politician Gyasettin Sayan was accosted by assailants in the Berlin neighborhood of Lichtenberg. And a half-dozen people in three eastern German cities were attacked last week, leading to 13 arrests over the weekend. Newspapers have published maps of "no go" areas in eastern Germany, such as Lichtenberg, that they say foreigners had best avoid. And the umbrella group for the Germany's African organizations plans a similar online service for World Cup visitors.

Politicians and tourism officials have spent the past week trying to assuage concerned guests.

"The great majority of Germans are looking forward to our visitors during the World Cup," said Matthias Platzeck, the premier of Brandenburg, where neo-Nazis are suspected in last month's beating of a German-Ethiopian outside Berlin.

But critics say that such attacks are further evidence that Germany has failed to tackle a problem that has reared its ugly head repeatedly since reunification. Over the past decade, the subject has tended to be either hyped by the media or ignored altogether, says Stefan Reinecke, a columnist at the left-leaning Taz newspaper.

Most of the media attention since reunification has focused on the right-wing problem in former East Germany, where neo-Nazis espoused anti-Semitic and German nationalist ideas, says anti-racism advocate Anetta Kahane. When the wall fell, the violence "exploded," says Ms. Kahane, who heads the Amadeu Antonio Foundation - named after the first postreunification victim of racist violence, who was beaten to death by skinheads in the Brandenburg town of Eberswalde in 1990.

Though there are fewer deaths nowadays, says Kahane, the German political elite continues to ignore the fact that racism is spreading into all levels of society. The way the government is handling the current situation is proof of that, she says.

"Germany's defensive strategy when it comes to racism is part of the problem," she says. "They don't focus on the fact that [in East Germany] it's not safe for people of color to move freely."

Brandenburg and other states of the former East Germany make up just 20 percent of the country's population, but half of the right-wing activity, according to a report released last week by the Interior Ministry. The lack of economic opportunities for young people in the depressed regions has something to do with the problem, say sociologists. But so do crumbling family structures, a missing tradition of multiculturalism, and westward migration.

"The people who leave are the smart ones, the ones who are good in school," says Mr. Reinecke, the columnist. "What remains is a negative social selection. The people who stay are not mobile, are not smart. Frustration is their reason for violence."

The new Interior Ministry report showed a 24 percent increase in the numbers of right-wing attacks, and a rise in neo-Nazis to 4,100 from 3,800. Government officials tried to counter concerns that such groups would try and disrupt the World Cup by promising last week to increase police patrols. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told reporters that Germany "will do everything in its power to prevent the World Cup from being used by extremist organizations to spread their abhorrent thoughts."

The vast majority of Germans share his conviction. Equally as vehement as the discussion about "no-go" areas has been the desire by Germans not to be pushed into the same corner as the extremists as the World Cup nears.

"As a citizen of this country, I don't want a small minority to ruin Germany's image of hospitality," says Freitag. "I think that would be unfair." Antiracism advocates say the true test of Germany's commitment to tackling its right-wing problem will come after the World Cup, when the need to protect its image abroad is less urgent but the problem just as pressing.

"I think that the question should be asked continually, and not just in the weeks up to the World Cup," says Esther Lennart. Together with her colleague Timm Köhler, Ms. Lennart has been working to stop right-wing influence in such Berlin districts as Lichtenberg. Their consultancy group, mbr, sets up programs that help victims of racist attacks and aim to eliminate breeding grounds for right-wing culture - with some success.

"Where we work, they've started talking about right-wing extremism in a different way," says Köhler. "A few years ago it was a taboo subject."

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