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Harvest of Hate:
Rightist Violence in Germany
  
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Rightist Violence in Germany

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September 2000

The most prominent news out of Europe this summer, of special interest to Jews, has been the escalation of anti-foreign, including anti-Semitic, violence by young people in Germany. This has been a problem, mostly in East Germany, ever since the country’s reunification a decade ago.
Europe this summer there has been the escalation of anti-foreign, including anti-Semitic, violence by young people in Germany.
It was natural that any time when people used Nazi symbols and slogans in postwar Germany, it made more news than when similar or related events occurred in other European countries, and sensitivity to any revival of pro-Nazi feelings and acts was deservedly higher. But these past few months have been different -- more serious and going beyond the concerns of Jews.

This summer’s rash of attacks on foreigners, the newly aggressive tactics of the extreme right "National Democratic Party" (NPD by its German initials) and the sharply stepped-up neo-Nazi activity on the Internet, including extensive input from the United States, has made the issue the principal topic of public debate and activity in the Federal Republic. It has also raised questions about attitudes among the grass roots and about Germany’s image in the world. At the same time, the intense and continuing public discussion, as well as a series of new initiatives against the extremist fringe, are seen as a healthy and necessary means to face the issue head-on.

From President Johannes Rau to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to regional officials, federal and regional parliaments, civic leaders and especially spokesmen for the Jewish community, the reaction has been alarm and a series of proposals and actions to curb extremist activity. The event that had the most dramatic impact was an attack on a group of immigrants in Duesseldorf, among them six Jews, some of whom were injured. The fact that it had occurred in one of West Germany’s major cities and that Jews were among those assaulted triggered both top level responses and front page headlines that continue to this day.

The main facets of reaction have been:

  • Tougher police response and more prompt judicial action against perpetrators
  • Discussion whether to ban the NPD, which is seen as the organizational and ideological hub of the extremist actions;
  • how to stimulate sustained and effective opposition to the violence and its perpetrators among the general public;
  • how to deal with the misuse of the Internet as a means of both communication among the extremists and as a source of propaganda and strategy;
  • and how to come to grips with one if not the most important underlying cause of the extremist violence: frustration, alienation and a continuing sense of division of the country in the formerly communist-ruled eastern region, where most of the perpetrators come from and operate.

The first result of the policy of prompt and effective action against violent attackers was the life-sentence for an adult and nine-year sentences for two teenagers who were found guilty of beating an African immigrant to death in the eastern city of Dessau. The authorities hope that this rapid-response policy will help deter would-be neo-Nazi assailants.

On the political side, the NPD is today’s most active neo-Nazi party. It has only some 6,000 members in the country, can reach no more than a couple of percent at the polls for regional parliaments, but has new leadership that, with the use of current technology, can be far more effective than its numbers or support would suggest. This brought up the idea of outlawing it.

The problem is whether such a step would drive the party and its sympathizers underground and make them harder to combat; and, even prior to this, whether legislation to prohibit the party would be approved by the country’s Constitutional Court. Should the Court, in the name of freedom of speech and assembly, turn down the proposed law, the NPD would count it a success and exploit it. With this in mind, the Schroeder administration has set up a commission to assess the chances of approval by the Court.

As to the response of the public, it has been less prompt and spontaneous than when violent attacks on foreigners and immigrants first occurred in the early nineties, and when large numbers of citizens went on the street to protest. In part this may be due to the fact that the earlier assaults were more massive and cost many lives, but letters to the editor and to civil rights groups, including the Jewish community, suggest a widespread feeling of fatigue and "enough" about reminders of guilt.

On the positive side, it must first be acknowledged that smaller groups of citizens – ranging from the hundreds to a couple of thousand -- have demonstrated in many cities and communities. Because the protests were smaller than some in the past, they did not get much media attention. To generate a wider response, the federal government and the Jewish community leadership joined in the call for "Show your Face" (Gesicht zeigen). The government is trying to raise 75 million D-marks ($35 million) to provide logistic support for citizens’ organizational efforts. Another 10 million D-marks ($5 million) are to be set aside for victims of attacks. Legislation for the protection of citizens who protest the neo-Nazi activity is in preparation. The federal government has also established a new agency within the Ministry of Interior known as the "Union for Democracy and Tolerance – Against Extremism and Violence". Its purpose is to coordinate citizen initiatives, exchange experience and information and generally support "Show your Face"-type activity. Prominent people in the arts, in sports and the media have expressed themselves publicly against the violence and the attitudes that produce it.

One of the prime vehicles enabling the small number of NPD activists and neo-Nazis to raise their voices loudly and communicate among themselves and to the public is the Internet. Within the past two years, extreme right Internet pages have increased from 32 to 350, and much of the material comes from the United States. While Germany can and has outlawed certain categories of hate sites, American law precludes such action under First Amendment protection. Efforts are underway to work out legislative coordination between Europe and America and, in the meantime, to work with publishers to take action against the sale and distribution of hate materials.

Yet when all this is done, deeper questions remain:

  • how to deal with the frustrations in the east, resulting in what polls indicate is a 10-20 percent extreme rightwing potential ;
  • and how to address feelings of many people who are neither extreme nor anti-Semitic yet resent reminders and new claims by victims of the Nazis.

On the first issue, there is no shortcut to fundamental change. The east German population has gone through close to 60 years of dictatorship – 12 under the Nazis and 45 under the Communists. It took close to two decades for democracy and remembrance to take root in the west, and this under allied occupation and with western influence. In the east, state control and all that is associated with it, such as the secret police and youth indoctrination, continued for almost half a century after World War Two.

The Communist regime deliberately distorted history, omitting the special nature of the Jewish experience. All responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis was assigned to the west, particularly the west Germans and the "capitalist system", while east Germans were declared "anti-fascists" and clear of guilt – as though the division of Germany had existed under Hitler, with the east Germans as the good people. Ethnic and religious differences were not recognized. All those who were murdered by the Nazis were "anti-fascists", as called for by communist dogma. When schoolchildren were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where thousands of Jews suffered and died, teacher guides pointed out the place where Ernst Thaelmann, the leader of pre-war Germany’s Communist party, was kept.

It is against this background that freedom came to the east at the end of the eighties. But freedom also meant dislocation, and all the wrenching changes that led to massive unemployment, lower wages than those who did the same work earned in the west, a sense of second citizenship and disorientation of young people who had been regimented in the "Free German Youth" organization of the Communist regime.

The conditions were ripe for finding a scapegoat for all the disappointment, frustration and disorientation. As one writer put it: "The young people were looking for something they couldn’t find: their own identity. And so they went on looking and found others – not just others but those others who looked or were different. They found immigrants, including Jews."

German political and economic leaders expect that time and the accelerating economic development in the "new Laender" of the east will create conditions in which anger and intolerance among the general population will subside and it will become easier to isolate and curb the violent perpetrators.

In part, however, the issues transcend the east and pose questions for all Germany. There is an uneasiness and a sense of resentment among many Germans who would never commit a violent act that enough has been paid, that the reminders of what their parents or grandparents had done seem never to end, that foreigners are flooding the country, and that "they" are demanding too much of "us". "They" are by no means all or even in the first place Jews. "They" are immigrants, many of them residents and quite a few citizens and taxpayers. But the image among many Germans is that of Germans and foreigners -- a concept that does not fit an immigration country and that Germany, with close to ten percent of people of foreign origin, can no longer afford.

Germany needs a new basis of its identity— of what it means to be German. It can no longer be birth or ancestry, but a set of values that , as in the U.S.—the classic immigrant country -- include a recognition of equal rights and responsibilities without regard to race, religion or color.

To be sure, Germany cannot copy America, nor should it be expected to. It must find its own way to a new kind of German-ness, where the sharp divide between "Deutsche und. Fremde" (Germans and foreigners) ceases to define citizenship and community. Here lie the deeper roots of the problem of intolerance of those who are or look different, as well as some signposts of how to deal with it. Here, too, lie opportunities for education that, instead of teaching the Holocaust as yet another subject, integrates it into education for tolerance and against prejudice. This is where ADL’s seven-year-old A World of Difference program for training German teachers fits into the picture, because AWOD-trained teachers make prejudice and its costs come alive to students and thus give them a new and more realistic perspective of history. ADL is working with German government agencies and private institutions to explore additional ways in which its long experience in this field can be brought to bear in Germany.

Germany thus represents an opportunity. Public debate has become sustained. Government, educational authorities and a critical mass of private institutions and individuals are facing up to the issues, and there is a growing sense that the country cannot afford to slacken in nurturing the roots of tolerance.


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