Kohl's Challenge: Keeping German Ultra-Right Out Of Political Mainstream

RONI GRAHL, a sinewy teenager with black, shoulder-length hair, has the right qualities for a responsible citizen in-the-making.

Take Roni's hard-working attitude. After recently completing high school, he found employment as an auto mechanic. ``Anybody can find a job, they just have to look for one,'' he says.

As for leisure, Roni likes cars and heavy metal rock music - tastes that are not for everyone, but which are generally recognized as being in the mainstream these days.

But when it comes to politics, Roni's views can arch a few mainstream eyebrows. ``Right-wing parties are moving in the proper direction,'' he says. ``Foreigners are a big problem right now. They're taking jobs and benefits away from Germans.''

Roni was one of several people voicing such views during recent interviews in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, one of five economically depressed eastern German states still adjusting to the effects of unification.

Keeping the ultraright out of the political mainstream is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the coming year will test his administration's ability to steer society clear of extremism. Germany in 1994 faces a multitude of elections, including the vote for the federal parliament.

So far, the most prominent ultraright parties - the Republikans and the German Peoples Union (DVU) - have failed to attract a broad following. But right-wing numbers are disturbing nonetheless, political observers say. Currently, an estimated 43,000 people belong to 83 ultra-right-wing organizations. That includes up to 6,500 hard-core neo-Nazis, Germany's internal security agency says.

Opinion polls indicate popular support for the Republikans is hovering at just under 5 percent, the level needed to gain representation in the federal Parliament. But campaign media exposure could cause the Republikans' support to rise, pollsters say.

Leaders of the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition, blame Mr. Kohl for the return of the ultraright, charging that his economic and social policies are driving people toward extremism.

Kohl's government and the German judicial system have faced criticism for allegedly being too slow and too lenient in punishing illegal ultraright actions, particularly attacks against immigrants. To counter the criticism, the government has addressed some ultraright complaints, while conducting a police crackdown on extremism.

For example, stringent immigration laws were introduced earlier this year to mollify antiforeigner feelings. German security services are also boosting cooperation with foreign agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to uncover international links among neo-Nazi groups. But the tougher official attitude toward extremism is best highlighted by the recent maximum sentences given to two neo-Nazis convicted of a firebomb attack that killed three Turkish women.

Statistics appear to show government success in dealing with the ultraright. The number of violent ultraright acts in the first 11 months of 1993 totaled 1,699 - a 28 percent drop from that period last year. But the figures do not measure the growing feeling of alienation among many, such as Roni, who are not extremists but find some aspects of the ideology attractive. ``To me Germany seems to be more or less a police state ... I can't really say what I want in public because the government is afraid of right-wing ideas. It's not a democracy if you can't say what you want,'' he says.

As for the extremists, some political observers warn the government crackdown is driving neo-Nazis underground, from where they may launch a terror campaign.

``There is a chance of spectacular demonstrations meant to strengthen their own structure, but also show the outside world that they aren't intimidated by bans or prosecution,'' Hermann Lutz, the head of a police labor union, told German radio.

Mr. Lutz added that neo-Nazis had not achieved a level of organization matching the ultraleft Red Army Faction that terrorized German society in the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet there are ominous signs that neo-Nazis strive to match the Red Army Faction's logistical and functional capabilities. Authorities have uncovered evidence of extensive ultraright computer networks. And a neo-Nazi-published booklet has been circulating that provides a ``hit list'' of 250 leftist activists.

Police also are probing a German connection to the recent wave of letter bombs in neighboring Austria.

Other factors may encourage potential neo-Nazi terrorism, including a growing tolerance among the German population for the use of violence to achieve political goals, a recent poll indicates.

Probably more important for German neo-Nazis, however, are the strong showings of ultraright candidates in recent elections both in Italy and Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia on Dec. 12 captured about 18 percent of the seats in the new parliament, enjoys close ties with the German DVU.

``This result will motivate right-wing radicals,'' says German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. ``We have to recognize there is a pretty extensive international network among these groups.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.