German Violence Puts Heat on Police
Public is baffled that so few perpetrators of racist violence have been arrested
BONN — APPREHENSION is spreading in Germany that neither government officials nor the police have a grip on increasing violent extremism here.
After the massive Berlin demonstration against right-wing extremism Nov. 8 was sabotaged by radical leftists, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's office was flooded with calls from concerned citizens demanding government action.
What is the country coming to, television anchors ask, if Germany's strongest moral voice, President Richard von Weizsacker, cannot even appear before his own people without being pelted with eggs and stones? (Anti-racist protests, Page 6.)
Criticism of the police is especially sharp. In Berlin, the city's interior minister - who is himself under pressure to resign - has called for an investigation of police handling of the demonstration. According to press reports, the police had ample warning of a major disturbance by leftists.
But Berlin, in many ways, is not typical of Germany. It is almost tradition there that leftists engage in street battles with police. More disturbing is the apparent ineffectiveness of police in controlling right-wing radicals, who commit far more violent crimes and are brutally attacking foreigners.
An October report by the human rights group Helsinki Watch finds that police, especially in eastern Germany, have failed to intervene to protect foreigners from attacks by neo-Nazis and skinheads or to investigate cases of violence against foreigners.
So far this year, 1,688 violent acts, including 11 killings, have been committed by extreme rightists in Germany, in contrast to 1,483, including three killings, for all of last year.
Most Germans cannot fathom how it is that so few of the perpetrators of anti-foreigner violence are behind bars.
"It is indeed a scandal when a youth who throws a Molotov cocktail into a dorm for foreigners ... gets a sentence of 14 days or four weeks - which is really no sentence at all because he's being handled as a minor," says Eckart Werthebach, president of Germany's internal security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
In a recent briefing with the foreign press in Germany, Mr. Werthebach said there are about 40,000 extreme rightists in Germany (out of a population of roughly 80 million). About 4,500 are violent radicals and most of these are skinheads.
Deutschlandfunk radio reported Nov. 11 that right-wing radicals have trained at Army maneuver sites, and that some German soldiers have joined the anti-foreigner attacks, according to the Associated Press. The radio report said 21 soldiers "are suspected of transgressions in connection with rightist radicalism."
Leading German politicians have been trying mightily to put a good face on the disrupted Berlin demonstration, labeling it a success after all. They have criticized media coverage as one-sided. The real "crime," said Chancellor Kohl, who was forced to quit the demonstration because of all the objects being thrown at him, is that the media gave the world the wrong impression of Germany.
The fact that the demonstration was shanghaied by a few hundred leftists is beside the point, Kohl said. "The crucial thing is that far more than 300,000 people protested peacefully against violence and racism. That is the true Germany."
President von Weizsacker also forwarded the majority-of-good-Germans-versus-minority-of-bad-Germans argument. "This is not like it was in the Weimar Republic," he stated Nov. 9. "We don't have too few democrats."
The day after the Berlin mass protest, 180,000 Germans took part in memorial services nationwide to commemorate the anniversary of the 1938 pogrom against the Jews.
Probably the most often asked question outside of Germany is: How serious a threat are the extremists?
Social Democratic parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelsputz, a specialist in legal and domestic affairs, says "it would be a mistake to play down" the situation. On the other hand, he adds, "I am fully convinced that democracy has been firmly rooted in Germany for a long time and that the decent people of Germany are the great, great majority."
Many Germans believe that a key factor behind the attacks on foreigners is the flood of economic refugees, mostly from East Europe, abusing the country's liberal political asylum laws. More than 60 percent of the refugees moving into western Europe come to Germany, which this year expects close to 500,000 applicants for political asylum - double the number last year.
Kohl has tried for months to get the opposition Social Democrats to agree to changes in the law which would allow Germany to immediately refuse refugees who come from countries where there is no political persecution.
Bending to public pressure and fearful of the increasing popularity of the right wing, it now looks as if the Social Democrats will reach a compromise with Kohl. On Nov. 16 at an emergency party congress, the Social Democrats are expected to approve an asylum measure closer to Kohl's position.
Even if Germany changes the law, most politicians here believe that the explosive situation will continue for at least a year. It will take time to enforce the law. And more importantly, the root causes - poor conditions in East Europe and social uncertainty in east Germany - will not change in the near future.