A spate of recent violence has raised fears that right-wing extremists are becoming more brazen in Germany. Minorities, especially foreigners, have become the targets of brutal attacks across the country this summer.
This week, the government had planned to celebrate the launch of a limited immigration program to attract computer specialists from abroad. Instead, politicians are now filling the headlines with appeals to fight a neo-Nazi resurgence. "I am very concerned," says Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "I can't recall, since 1945, that in such a short period of time there were so many acts with a right-wing background."
On Saturday night, right-wing youths in Eisenach chased a pair of African asylum-seekers through the streets. Last week, a pipe bomb exploded in a train station in Dsseldorf, wounding 10 people. There's been no claim of responsibility, but because six of the victims are Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many suspect right-wing extremists. Only days before, neo-Nazi skinheads in Ahlbeck trampled a homeless man to death. In June, right-wing youths in Dessau beat to death a Mozambican who had made Germany his home 20 years ago.
Such incidents are the most serious examples of almost daily reports of arson attacks, beatings, and verbal abuse targeting foreigners, particularly in the former communist east.
Opening the door
Official Germany traditionally has insisted that it is "not a country of immigration." But the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schrder, in power for less than two years, has taken half-hearted steps toward making naturalization easier for the country's 7 million foreign residents and opening narrow immigration channels for highly qualified - and much needed - computer experts from abroad.
Yet the center-left ruling coalition has been opposed every step of the way by the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which to varying degrees of success has played on latent antiforeigner sentiment in the population.
Politicians of all political stripes expressed outrage at recent right-wing crimes, though their proposed solutions have differed.
In an appeal for more public outcry against extremism, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, "The point has been reached where the silent majority of the population may no longer be silent." Sigmar Gabriel, premier of the state of Lower Saxony, called for a massive presence of police and even border troops to bring skinheads into line. Bavarian Interior Minister Gnther Beckstein said the government should ban the National Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi fringe party.
"I have the impression that the politicians have come to the conclusion that enough is enough," says Mr. Spiegel. "People have understood that it's not just about foreigners, minorities, or Jews, but about an attack on all Germans and on that which since 1945 was so painstakingly built up."
Tracking criminals, Web sites
At an emergency meeting called on Tuesday, federal and state officials agreed to set up a central database to track right-wing criminals and to tighten the grip on Web sites with neo-Nazi content.
Leading conservatives accuse Chancellor Schrder's government of being too lax on fighting crime. Justice Minister Herta Dubler-Gmelin has countered such charges by pointing out that a tough legal framework already exists. "Each perpetrator must know that he will be taken to court quickly and punished harshly," she said in a newspaper interview on Tuesday.
The weak link in the Christian Democrats' chain of responsibility is that the party itself has run two recent election campaigns on the backs of foreigners. Last year, the CDU won a tight race in the state of Hesse by launching a populistic drive against a federal plan to permit dual citizenship - a proposal that appeals to Germany's large Turkish population.
In state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia this spring, Jrgen Rttgers, the leading Christian Democratic candidate, attacked Schrder's high-tech immigration program with the slogan, "Children, not Indians." (India is a major source of trained and mobile computer professionals.) Voters rejected the xenophobic ploy.
The CDU is not alone in probing the swampy territory of acceptability in the search for votes. Two summers ago, as the Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor, Schrder was criticized for saying on the campaign trail that "there is only one thing for those who abuse our hospitality: Get out, and fast."
The choice of words underscored a belief among many Germans that foreigners are merely guests, not permanent residents, who can be given the boot when they misbehave. But even those who stick to the rules, such as most asylum seekers and refugees from the Balkans, have often been portrayed as parasites feeding on the generous German social system. But until recently, German law prevented refugees from seeking legal employment.
The former communist east, once sealed off from the outside world by barbed wire and travel restrictions, is becoming a breeding ground for a virulent neo-Nazi youth culture.
"There's a smoldering fire in eastern Germany that in the heat of summer can turn into an explosive, open blaze," says Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University and an expert on right-wing extremism. Sometimes all it takes to set off a conflagration, he says, are a few provocative words from a politician.
"Not for all, but for a significant number of eastern Germans, it's almost become a normal part of the daily frame of mind to be against foreigners. That people aren't ashamed of that is an alarming difference [to western Germany]," Wolfgang Thierse told the weekly Die Zeit. Mr. Thierse, president of the lower house of parliament, is one of the most prominent public figures from eastern Germany.
While the two recent killings by neo-Nazis took place in economically depressed towns in eastern Germany, the pipe bomb exploded in Dsseldorf, a prosperous western city. Right-wing extremism is not isolated to one region or social class here.
As an indication of the neo-Nazis' reach, there are now more than 500 right-wing Web sites, up from just 32 in 1996. Some include death lists and bombmaking instructions. While the government is pledging to crack down on Internet propaganda, Spiegel says, "Germany can't do it alone, and neither can Europe. The key lies in America." The US government, he says, should no longer tolerate blatantly neo-Nazi material on the Web.
Despite all the appeals and rhetoric of recent days, many observers remain skeptical. Professor Funke says that so far, he sees little serious effort on the part of politicians to tackle neo-Nazi activity.
"It's now a topic of discussion, but it's still an open question whether the political will will spring from it," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society