Germans Voice Concerns About Rising Crime

West is more dangerous, but easterners have most difficulty adjusting to lack of safety

IT seems that on just about every subway platform in Berlin these days, riders can find two security guards in blue berets accompanied by a muzzled mastiff or rottweiler.

In hardware stores, meanwhile, prominent display is given to all kinds of locks and door bolts, along with a plethora of home alarm systems. Ask about it, and merchants will say simply that people are afraid.

``You can say I'm profiting from the fear. I know this may not sound good, but that's the way it is,'' Dieter Schulz, the proprietor of a small hardware store in the Berlin suburb of Teltow, says about his brisk business in security-related items.

Personal-safety craze

The personal-safety craze is a sign of the times in post-unification Germany. Crime has emerged as perhaps the biggest issue after the economy as Germany heads toward federal elections in October. City-dwellers now talk about being afraid when out alone after dark, while those in the country complain about break-ins.

The mood in formerly Communist eastern Germany is especially sensitive. Although government statistics show that cities in western Germany are more dangerous, there is a widely held perception in the east that crime is a bigger problem in the ``neue Lander,'' or states that comprised the former east Germany.

``The psychological situation here is different,'' explains Rainer Faupel, the state secretary of the Justice Ministry of Brandenburg state, which surrounds Berlin.

Under the totalitarian East German regime, crime received little publicity in the tightly controlled, state-run media, Mr. Faupel explains. Now, all sorts of crimes receive saturation coverage, producing a shock-effect on east Germans.

``This gives the impression that crime is higher here than in the west,'' Faupel says.

Currently, government statistics show that the city of Frankfurt has the worst crime rate, followed by the ports of Hamburg and Bremen. All are in western Germany. Berlin, which was divided between East and West during the cold war, comes in fourth.

Rising crime is not an entirely new trend in Germany. Between 1972 and 1987, the rates for all kinds of crime in the then-West Germany almost doubled, from about 4,000 per 100,000 citizens to 7,000 incidents per 100,000 people.

Though the crime rate has been climbing steadily over the past 20 years, crime did not start becoming a big issue until rates shot up dramatically after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin officials say one of the main reasons for the explosion is due to the huge, post-Wall influx of refugees and economic migrants from Eastern Europe. The drastic economic collapse in eastern Germany has compounded the regional crime problem.

``We've had an entirely new situation since the [Berlin] Wall fell, with crime coming in from the East Bloc,'' says Norbert Schmidt, a spokesman for the Berlin city-state Interior Department.

Statistically speaking, rates may not be as bad in the east as in the west, but there are several factors that make it more difficult for officials in eastern states to cope with rising crime.

One is the unreliability of statistics compiled by the former Communist regime. East German crime-related data before 1990 was often falsified to present a better picture than actually existed, said Faupel of the Brandenburg Justice Ministry. The faulty figures probably overdramatize the seriousness of the situation in the east today, he adds. ``It is necessary to explain the reality. We have to explain to counter emotion,'' he says.

Far more problematic for the authorities, however, is the difficulty of adapting to a new system of justice. When East was incorporated into West, totalitarian methods were replaced overnight with a West German system that does far more to observe defendants' rights, Faupel says.

Justice officials in the east, from police to prosecutors and judges, are still struggling to make the adjustment to new ways, meaning that the process of putting criminals behind bars takes longer in the east than west.

``Considering the starting point, we have made considerable progress,'' Faupel says. ``But we are far away from the standard that we should have.''

Lenient sentences?

Exacerbating popular discontent is that many easterners, who grew up under the firm hand of Communism, often feel today's sentences are too lenient.

Hoping to capitalize on the crime issue, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has tried to give his Christian Democrat-led government a ``law-and-order'' image. In February, the government proposed a Security Bill that would toughen sentences and speed up trials.

But many eastern Germans - who voted heavily for the Christian Democrats in 1990 and could hold the key to Mr. Kohl's reelection hopes this year - don't seem to be buying it.

Many say that the government in Bonn is too far removed from the east to understand the region's special characteristics.

``In most cases they [politicians in Bonn] try to understand the situation, but in some cases they don't,'' Faupel says.

Of late, people have started taking matters into their own hands. Civilian patrols have been launched in cities and towns across the former East Germany.

And in Berlin, officials are spending roughly $17 million a year on a private security agency for subway guards, augmenting the regular police force, said Mr. Schmidt of the city's Interior Department. The guards have no police powers, he adds, but act as a deterrent.

The idea of people other than police combating crime does not sit well with many officials. Faupel, for example, says that when the state loses control over law enforcement, it can produce unwanted results, such as vigilante action.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Germans Voice Concerns About Rising Crime
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today