After a wave of neo-Nazi violence, German leaders try to reverse country's image of intolerance

SINCE reunification, reports of brutal attacks on foreigners and the desecration of Jewish memorials have given the world the impression that Germany is reverting back to the Third Reich.

This impression, German leaders stress, is wrong. On Nov. 8 the world should receive "an impressive signal" that most Germans vigorously oppose these attacks, says Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen. That is when his city will host what he hopes will be a massive, nonpartisan demonstration against xenophobia.

The Germans are beginning to see that their domestic problems with right-wing radicals have international consequences.

The Goethe Institutes in the Eastern Mediterranean, for example, recently sent an open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and party leaders stating that right-wing activities are jeopardizing Germany's reputation as a civilized member of the Western community. The "damage done out here is immense," it read.

In a newspaper interview published in the Leipziger Volks- zeitung Oct. 26, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said about a third of his daily conversations involve explaining the new xenophobia and its context to worried diplomats and visitors.

"There have been no events in the last 10 years which have had as grave an effect abroad as the ones that are playing out now," the foreign minister said.

The global impact is not lost on German business, either. On Oct. 20, the Bosch electronics group released a statement saying violence against foreigners was damaging Germany's image and its companies around the world. With offices in more than 120 countries, Robert Bosch GmbH called for tolerance and recognition of the achievements of its non-German employees.

Because many of the extremist attacks are aimed at asylum-seekers in Germany, the government interprets the trend not as an interest in neo-Naziism per se, but as a sign that people are frustrated with record numbers of refugees taking advantage of the country's lenient asylum law. About 500,000 refugees in Germany are expected to apply for political asylum this year, double last year's amount.

The government wants to change the asylum law - and thus the Constitution - but to do that it needs cooperation from the opposition Social Democrats. Chancellor Kohl recently threatened a state of emergency if the government doesn't get that cooperation.

Criticism rained down on the chancellor for that announcement, with both the Social Democrats and Kohl's coalition partner, the Free Democrats, calling it reminiscent of the fascist emergency laws of Germany in the early 1930s.

Since then, the government has been furiously back-peddling on Kohl's statement, saying that if it could not garner the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment, it would not override the Constitution, but instead introduce laws requiring only a simple majority to pass.

The world is watching as the Germans tackle this problem. So far, Bonn's first concrete step - the deportation of Gypsies back to Romania under a $21 million bilateral agreement which took effect Nov. 1 - has been criticized as discriminatory by the human rights organization Helsinki Watch in New York.

A successful Berlin demonstration, featuring Germany's moral voice, President Richard von Weizsacker, could help lay the groundwork for a change in attitude here, but the demonstration is being boycotted by Kohl's coalition partners in the Christian Social Union of Bavaria. Germany doesn't need a propaganda demonstration, they say, it needs fewer asylum seekers.

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