Germans Move To Curb Young Extremists
NEO-NAZIS AND SKINHEADS
POTSDAM, GERMANY — THE rise of right-wing extremism in east Germany has captured the attention of the country's political leaders.Last weekend, in an unprecedented show of force, about 150 skinheads attacked a home for foreign workers in Hoyerswerda, near Dresden, hurling Molotov cocktails at the building and police as onlookers applauded. They then attacked a nearby home for foreigners seeking asylum in Germany. Unable to control the skinheads, the local authorities this week bused the foreigners to secret locations - residents cheering all the while. Today, there are no foreigners left in the concrete apartment houses of Hoyerswerda. For the past year, violence sparked by right-wing extremists has been played down by local politicians. The press is blowing the problem out of proportion, they have said, adding that plenty of other European countries also have difficulties with skinheads. But now the seriousness of the problem is recognized: "Forty-six years after Adolf Hitler, we're walking on thin ice," Bundestag member Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen said Wednesday, when the German parliament met in emergency session to discuss right-wing extremism. Recently, several commissions and committees have sprung up in east Germany to deal with this issue. The federal government in Bonn is planning a 20 million deutsche mark ($12 million) program, which a government spokesman describes as "preventive." Funds would be made available for youth and sports centers - sorely lacking in east Germany - and for international youth exchanges. "Politicians must go on the offensive. A form of terror is reigning, and if the state doesn't react and take some measures, the fear will grow," says Hans Misselwitz, a policy maker for Brandenburg state. Brandenburg, eastern Germany's largest state, has formed a commission to find out what motivates the extremists and what can be done to bring the situation under control. According to a report issued last month by the German Interior Ministry, right-wing radicalism is gaining popularity in east Germany, while in west Germany, it is losing appeal (membership in rightist groups in the west dropped 10 percent in 1990). Right-wing extremists in the east are also more militant and brutal than in the west, and the "potential for neo-Nazi violence is more dangerous in the new states," the report says. The radical right in east Germany consists of several groups, including soccer-fan "hooligans," skinheads, and neo-Nazis. Many are armed with gas pistols, baseball bats, spiked brass knuckles, and chains. Their members are young (from the mid-teens to the mid-20s), often come from broken homes, and are angry at widespread joblessness, uncertainty, and disruption that have accompaned German reunification. Right-wing extremists say their goals are twofold: expulsion of foreigners (whom they perceive as job-stealers) and opposing leftists (communists, anarchists, and members of the far left), some of whom are also armed and often clash with the rightists. Right-wing radicals may find little support for their violence, but they are rallying around a mainstream interest. Germans say they are being flooded with economic refugees from Eastern Europe and may have to change their favorable asylum laws to stem the flow. Chancellor Helmut Kohl says Germany "is no immigration country." Today he will meet with political leaders in his coalition and in the opposition to try and reach consensus on a new asylum policy. Neo-Nazis, like skinheads, vehemently oppose foreigners and leftists. But they also want to restore what they call the "values" of the Third Reich: order, camaraderie, leadership, social well being, and national pride. Although they raise their arms in the Hitler salute, shout slogans, and use symbols from the period, anti-Semitism is apparently not a main part of their doctrine. This is of small comfort to Jews, says Peter Ambros, spokesman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "We know where this kind of hatred can lead," he says. Only a small part of the east German population is involved in violent groups, says Frieder Boettger, who heads Brandenburg's commission on extremism. "It's a minority, but it is becoming more and more visible," he says. According to the German Interior Ministry, about 2,000 neo-Nazis are known to east German police officials. Some estimates put the total number of right-wing extremists in the new states at about 15,000. Neither Mr. Boettger nor his colleague, Mr. Misselwitz, fear the rise of a fourth German Reich. "What worries us," says Misselwitz, "is the stability of the surrounding society here. Is there potential for growing sympathy [with the extremists]? There is, and it's because of competition for jobs." About 32 percent of east Germans are either out of work or working reduced hours. Misselwitz names several approaches the Brandenburg commission is taking to combat extremism. One is basic consciousness-raising through a public relations campaign and seminars for teachers, the police, community leaders, and social workers. While right-wing extremism existed under the communists, it was hushed up by the press and denied as a problem by the party. Few people who deal with east German youth today have experience with this phenomenon. The police, especially, have been a problem, say experts here. Not fully understanding their new role in a democracy, they are timid with the extremists and hold back, afraid to make a mistake. Brandenburg is also spending 3 million marks ($1.75 million) on youth centers and sports facilities as a way to keep kids off the streets. Since the collapse of the main communist youth organization, which ran virtually all free-time activity for youth, there is little available to east German teenagers today. The limited sports facilities, mostly dedicated to training Olympic athletes, are inappropriate for public use - lacking changing rooms and viewing stands, for instance. The Central Council for Jews in Germany, which has strongly criticized government response to the rise of right radicals and neo-Nazis in the east, says it welcomes the attention finally being paid by German politicians. But "the danger is great," says Mr. Ambros. "Enough will have been done only when you can notice on the streets that this tendency has evaporated."