THE air is now filled with alarm about the resurgence of right-wing radicalism in Germany. Basically, there are two camps of observers. The first are ostensibly diffident government leaders bent on assuring us that all is well in Europe. The second are critics for whom Germany-watching qua Germany-bashing has become an obsession.
Reunification opened a Pandora's box of unresolved issues about Germany's past. The new nation faces a double burden of history - in the atrocities of the Third Reich on the one hand, and in a 40-year legacy of authoritarian rule in the old East Germany on the other.
Changing generations render Nazi burdens less heavy for many citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. The question of who is accountable for communist East Germany has been swept away. Former socialist Premier Erich Honecker is unlikely to face trial, for example, owing to age, illness, and a ban on ex post facto applications of Federal Republic law.
Rather, it is a young, troublesome breed of streetfighter in both the eastern and western states which now seeks to expose the raw nerve of common German history.
The new German Lander find themselves in a state of siege against foreigners. The most recent wave of rioting was in the port city of Rostock last summer. On Aug. 26, residents in the neighborhood of Lichtenhagen cheered on self-proclaimed neo-Nazi youths as they attacked and firebombed a 10-story refugee hostel housing over 200 Romanians and 115 Vietnamese. Older citizens were more subdued when 500 skinheads later took on 1,000 police, resulting in 195 arrests and 65 injured officers. Attempts to rend er Germany "foreigner-free" derive from the sense that taxpayers' money should be used to feed, clothe, and provide work for the indigenous population, not for would-be asylum seekers. Official unemployment in Rostock is cited at 17 percent. The number is actually close to 40 percent.
The use of radio networks (mobile phones and walkie-talkies) and the organized attacks testify to the provocative role of traveling rowdies. Many of those arrested came from Hamburg, Kiel, and Berlin. The Rostock "happening" also unleashed attacks against asylum-hotels stretching from Prenzlau, Cottbus, and Greifswald to Wismar, Eberswalde, Erfurt, and Leipzig. The federal police record 2,200 acts of violence so far this year, compared with 2,450 for all of 1991.
A citizen of Rostock argued, "Those are no Nazis, those are our children." True. Many reports wrongly apply the terms Nazi, neo-Nazi, skinhead, and fascist interchangeably. But if the participants in these assaults are politically alienated and economically disenfranchised young thugs (which my research dating to 1981 confirms), it still raises the question as to what parents, teachers, clergy, social workers, and elected officials will do about it.
After the first wave of riots, Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared in a TV interview that "xenophobia is a disgrace for our country." The tarnishing of the Federal Republic's peaceful and prosperous postwar image implicit in the reference to "disgrace" is hardly the issue. Mr. Kohl (whose reaction to earlier unrest was negligible) called for "the utmost legal firmness" in cases of hostility to foreigners. Last week, five skinheads aged 19 to 21 were convicted in Frankfurt for the November 1990 beating death of a 28-year old Angolan. They got two to five years in prison. Not merely do these crimes dictate harsher punishment. More important is youths' own realization that the pound of cure lacks an ounce of prevention.
It is disturbing that on the second anniversary of reunification, Kohl spoke against the forces of right and left extremism, which he said caused much suffering for Germans. This was an exercise in historical relativism. The assaults on foreigners are clearly the work of the right. Whatever their violation of human rights - from imprisonment to shooting escapees on the Wall - neither the former leaders of East Germany nor the terrorists of the now defunct Red Army ever undertook a systematic campaign to exterminate millions of "racially inferior," physically disabled, or ideologically opposed people. Kohl should have been heading the counter-demonstrations organized by leftists after Aug. 29 - not projecting false spectres.
Nor is the opposition Social Democrats' capitulation on tightening political-asylum guarantees very honorable. Bonn's approach to the violence so far is as effective as the application of snake-oil; the partisan debate has focused more on changing the Constitution than altering the mind-set of the attackers. But asylum is no more the issue than are tougher prison terms.
Some 200 Romanians have been evacuated from Rostock. The behavior of the so-called Gypsies has not been stellar. A pastor in Leipzig told me this summer of efforts at the Nikolai Church (cradle of 1989's peaceful revolution) to feed Romanians, only to have them dump the food in the garbage and rob the church. Adults often dope their small children to invoke the sympathy of passers-by with their listless, hungry appearance. Yet this does not exonerate anyone, especially elected politicians, from the failu re to respond to the economic collapse in East Europe.
Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters said in August, "The Federal Republic is and remains a land friendly to foreigners." On Sept. 24 Mr. Seiters signed a pact with his Romanian counterpart, Victor Babuic, that warrants a return of citizens from one country to the other, even without valid identity papers. This sounds innocuous but will be enacted in a one-sided way starting Nov. 1. Targeted are 57,446 asylum-seekers whose applications will likely be denied (only 0.2 percent of Romanians are taken in). The F ederal Republic has similar agreements with Poland, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.
Germany is home to 6.3 million foreigners. Some 33,000 Turkish-owned businesses generated 700,000 jobs last year, investing 6 billion marks in local economies. Over 1,000 refugees enter the county each day, double that of 1991. The projected total is 500,000. Some 300,000 have already arrived from war-torn Yugoslavia. Bonn provides 2.1 billion marks in assistance to Yugoslav war victims, but only 100 million marks for its own youth programs. Polls show that 86 percent of Germans oppose violence against f oreigners. In a survey of 2,717 citizens, 81 percent of westerners said right-wing extremism is "the greatest danger" to democracy; 90 percent of the easterners agreed.
In his first address to the United Nations on Sept. 23, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proclaimed his government's willingness to supply UN forces for peace-keeping missions in hopes of acquiring a permanent seat on the Security Council. He voiced regret over "the return of barbarity to the European House," referring not to violent steps to rid Germany of foreigners but to "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. The cry "Germany for the Germans" is no more and no less insidious than of "France for the F rench" and "Britain for the Brits" when considering those trying to escape destitution and genocide in Europe. The advanced industrial states apply more effort to passing the buck than confronting their own problems.
It is too easy for other Europeans to cast Germany in the role of the eternal bad guy. But those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. A British Superior Court made headlines with its decision to grant asylum to a Sudanese refugee who feared assault if re-deported to Germany. But Britain has tightened its own immigration laws four times since 1965. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher undercut support for the right-wing National Front in 1979 by having her own position on immigration reflec t NF demands.
The British solution to the refugee problem is not to let them in. That choice isn't open to Germany. French politicians ranging from Communist Party leader George Marchais to conservative Jacques Chirac exploit anger towards foreigners; Le Pen's National Front candidates have scored as high as 14 percent. One French farmer voted against the Maastricht Treaty, "... because then all of those foreigners and refugees in Germany will come over here." This represents a double-standard.
Historically speaking, Germans must be measured by very different standards. With respect to the current refugee crisis - a state of affairs that European and North American leaders have ignored for two years - the same standards obtain all the way around. The sealing off of one's own borders as a means of avoiding the tragic plight of millions violates the UN's declaration of human rights. It also makes a mockery of the moral principles for which our democratic governments allegedly stand.