AFTER a relatively quiet first half of 1994, German right-wing extremists are again wreaking high-profile havoc. A series of incidents is undermining efforts to shape reunified Germany's 21st century image as a leading force for moderation and stability.
Last weekend, the government began shutting down the right-wing extremists. Police vans, loaded with riot-gear-clad officers, constantly patrolled Bonn and other German cities, preventing planned neo-Nazi demonstrations to mark the anniversary of former Hitler henchman Rudolf Hess's suicide Aug. 17, 1987.
But over the last month or so, several incidents have generated wide publicity and unsettled many Germans and foreign governments. On July 23, a group of right-wing youths rampaged at the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, now an antifascist memorial.
The 22 neo-Nazis smashed windows, overturned a Holocaust display, and shouted ``Sieg Heil'' (hail to victory). Police quickly arrested the youths, but all but one neo-Nazi was then released. Public outrage prompted police to rearrest and detain the troublemakers.
Early this month, there were more neo-Nazi demonstrations. But a court ruling released Aug. 9 on neo-Nazi activity generated the most controversy.
A three-judge panel in the southwestern city of Mannheim in June gave Gunter Deckert, leader of the far-right National Democratic Party, a suspended one-year prison sentence for inciting racial hatred. Mr. Deckert's crime was propagating the so-called Auschwitz lie, essentially a denial that the Holocaust occurred.
In his written opinion, the chief judge described Deckert as a ``strong-charactered, responsible personality with clear convictions,'' adding that Deckert's denials were a ``matter of the heart.''
The decision provoked harsh criticism at home and abroad. Chancellor Helmut Kohl immediately expressed regret and denounced the opinion, saying it sent a ``bad signal.''
On Aug. 15, Chief Judge Wolfgang Muller admitted making ``unfortunate formulations'' and resigned, citing ``long-term health reasons.'' Despite the resignation, however, the Kohl government is left to repair Germany's tarnished image.
Many Germans complain privately that outsiders mistakenly view the actions of a minuscule minority as having widespread backing. They also believe Germany isn't given enough credit for its relatively rapid transformation from totalitarian menace to thriving democracy - now the engine for Europe's integration.
``There is no revival of national socialism, particularly among the older generation who have seen enough of it,'' says a retired Army colonel.
He compared neo-Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, but implied neo-Nazis are seen internationally as a greater threat because of World War II. ``Neo-Nazis are only stupid, uneducated kids, celebrating what their grandfathers have told them was a glorious past,'' added the colonel, who requested anonymity.
Some scholars suggest that the Mannheim court ruling is symptomatic of an attitude that encourages neo-Nazis. Karlheinz Niclauss, head of the political science department at Bonn university says many justice officials suffer from ``blindness in the right eye,'' or a greater tolerance for right-wing excesses than for those of the left. ``The German judicial system was never properly de-Nazified,'' Mr. Niclauss explains.
Some observers argue that ``blindness in the right eye'' was reinforced by the cold war, during which western Germany served as the West's main European bulwark against the Communist bloc. As a result, many western Germans tend to view leftist radicals with more suspicion than their rightist counterparts. Meanwhile, some eastern Germans, struggling to overcome an economic depression, are attracted to the simplistic right-extremist program.
``What we also have is a readiness to resort to violence among German youth,'' Niclauss adds. ``It is the case all over Germany, but it is more prevalent in the eastern states.''
Chancellor Kohl's government in recent months has vigorously battled to overcome the impression of ``blindness in the right eye.'' Authorities have gotten tough on radicals of all political hues. And the courts, excluding the Mannheim ruling, have given stiff sentences to right-wing extremists. The first half of 1994 showed a marked decrease in right-wing violence.
But some Germans feel neo-Nazi violence cannot be satisfactorily contained until the economy fully recovers from Ger- many's worst postwar recession.
Since World War II, ``the latent potential of rightist and Nazi sentiment ... has always existed in all strata of German society,'' argues Heinz, a retired lawyer. ``This is due to a lack of debate after 1945 concerning the Hitler regime.
``These sentiments were successfully suppressed so long as the economy boomed,'' Heinz continues. ``Now that many fear for their jobs and their children's social welfare, they [rightist feelings] emerge once more.''