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Germany's Right-Wing Violence Becomes Issue in Election Year

An affable young Turk, Ofuk Hiyaro, matter-of-factly digs into his pocket and pulls out a hunting knife.

``You always should have one of these,'' he says, unfolding it.

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Thinking about self-defense seemed to be second nature to Mr. Hiyaro and other foreigners interviewed on the streets of this eastern German city over the weekend. Just about every male here who is of foreign nationality says the same thing: They each carry a knife for protection against possible attack by right-wing extremists. The tones of their voices indicate that no one is anxious to use their weapons. But if attacked, they will always fight back, they say.

Such a scenario unfolded almost two weeks ago in Magdeburg. According to press accounts, it all began when a group of about 50 neo-Nazi youths began chasing several Africans who were waiting at a downtown trolley stop. The foreigners sought refuge in nearby restaurants - one a Turkish-run fast-food stand, the other an Italian cafe.

Turkish employees armed with knives came to the Africans' defense and, in the resulting melee, at least three were injured, several suffering stab wounds. The clash then touched off rampaging across the city that involved perhaps hundreds of people. Several hours went by before police could regain control of the situation.

The shock waves from the May 12 incident are still resounding in Germany, refocusing the nation's attention on the problem of neo-Nazi violence. With Germany in the middle of a super-election year - including today's vote to fill the largely ceremonial post of president as well as state, local, federal, and European parliamentary elections - politicians from all parties are calling for action. But philosophies differ on how best to combat right-wing extremism.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel has said the inability to stamp out right-wing violence is damaging the nation's image abroad and making it difficult for Germany to be assertive on international human rights issues.

The Magdeburg clash is the latest in a string of neo-Nazi-related incidents. In the last three years, officials say, more than 6,000 far-right attacks have occurred, with 30 people killed.

The conservative governing coalition led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats says tougher punishment is the solution. Crime, along with the economy, have emerged as the two most important issues in the run-up to October 12 parliamentary elections.

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On Friday, the German parliament's lower house passed a wide-ranging anti-crime bill. Under its provisions, propagating the ``Auschwitz Lie''- essentially denying the existence of the Holocaust - would become a punishable criminal act. It also calls for increasing the maximum sentence for neo-Nazi-style assault to five years from three years.

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), not wanting to be perceived as soft on the crime issue, went along with the bill.

But passage in parliament's upper house, which is Social Democrat-controlled, could be more difficult. Many SPD legislators are uncomfortable with the sweeping nature of the bill. Some argue that Germany does not need more stringent laws, but stricter enforcement of existing legislation.

Back in Magdeburg, a bleak collection of Soviet-style apartment blocks located about 70 miles west of Berlin, talk about tougher laws is met with derision in the foreigner community. The main problem, they say, is the reluctance of authorities to confront the issue of right-wing extremism.

Many also echo a widely heard complaint that German justice is ``blind in the right eye.''

Law enforcement authorities in Magdeburg have been severely criticized by left-leaning politicians and various civic groups, who allege that the May 12 clashes were mishandled. The police have been castigated for not quickly containing the violence, while the local prosecutor's office has been denounced for its initial decision to free all but one of the 50 neo-Nazi suspects originally taken into custody. At least seven suspected right-wing extremists have subsequently been charged with crimes in connection with the incident.

One eyewitness, Hafid Zamraoui, insisted that when police arrived on the scene about five minutes after the clashes began, officers initially moved only against foreigners. ``If it's a matter between a foreigner and a German, the foreigner will always be the one punished,'' said Mr. Zamraoui, a Moroccan national who is married to a German.

Magdeburg Mayor Willi Polte defended the city's law-enforcement officials, saying that the police were undermanned. He also blamed the press for distorting the situation.

``You get the impression that they had preconceptions of what occurred and they tried to make the facts conform to their opinions,'' Mr. Polte said, referring to German media coverage.

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