As right-wing violence surges in eastern Germany, so do foreigners' fears

August 10, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Aso Mohammad's plans to visit a friend recently in the eastern part of this city ended quickly when he got on the subway.

He had no sooner sat down than three German teen-agers with crew cuts and olive-green bomber jackets came up to him, demanded that he leave the train and, when he refused, dragged him off at the next station, where they beat him up.

After spending the night in the hospital for stitches and a mild concussion, Mr. Mohammad is pessimistic about the region of former East Germany.

"I've learned my lesson. I'll never go to East Berlin alone again at night," said Mr. Mohammad, 36, a Kurdish refugee.

His experience in one of East Berlin's concrete suburbs is just one example of dozens of attacks by angry eastern German youths on visible minorities, as well as on gays, lesbians and leftists.

It also is a sign of what experts believe to be a growing problem that has exceeded previous predictions and threatens to persist long after the end of its immediate causes -- high unemployment and disorientation following the unification of Germany.

The phenomenon has been enough to arouse a reaction from usually silent politicians for the first time since reports of neo-Nazi tendencies in post-Communist eastern Germany began surfacing a year ago. The federal justice minister has called for legal and social programs to combat radical right-wing behavior, and even Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that he was "indignant" about the developments.

The problem also caused a high-ranking government official, Federal Foreigner Commissioner Liselotte Funcke, to resign in protest over the government's inaction to protect and integrate foreigners.

"The government has no concept to deal with these warning signals from the east. There are problems, but they are played down," Ms. Funcke said.

One reason the problem is receiving widespread attention in Germany only now is that hard numbers are just becoming available.

Law enforcement officials estimate that there are about 2,000 hard-core extreme right-wingers in eastern Germany, with an additional 15,000 sympathizers and as many as 50,000 who may inclined toward radical right-wing reactions to both imagined and real problems in the east.

Figures from the Joint State Criminal Office show that far-right gangs have committed 89 acts of violence in eastern Germany this year. These included 31 attacks on foreigners, with two resulting in the deaths of African students. Nine others were on Soviet army installations, and three against Jewish community property.

As the extent of the problem becomes clearer, analyses of the causes are changing. Most contradict earlier reports that the problem was caused by the youths' upbringing in East Germany and by the current mass unemployment.

"It's all that, but it's much more a problem of an entire society that is breaking apart," said Marianne Birthler, the state of Brandenburg's minister for education, youth and sports.

She agrees that earlier explanations blaming old East Germany have some truth. The Communists' empty "anti-fascism" was just PTC part of the country's loathed authoritarian educational system that "did not tolerate questions, doubt or problems," Ms. Birthler said.

Unemployment is also an important cause, she said. For example, up to 100,000 high school graduates were not expected to find a job or a training slot this summer, and many are looking for scapegoats, Ms. Birthler said.

But the problem is deeper -- a sign of the entire eastern society's breakdown in the wake of German reunification, she said.

"Violence isn't just the violence of youth gangs. It is a reflection of the acute problems of the current social reality," said Thomas Krueger, who heads youth and family programs for the Berlin city government.

The problem is an "overall collapse of every value that ever mattered in their lives. Fascism is seen as an alternative to communism. With communism radically discredited and democracy seeming to fail, young people are searching for a radical alternative," Mr. Krueger said.

Guidance through this difficult period is unavailable, he said. All the usual authority figures -- from teachers to police officers to parents -- have been exposed as having lied or even cooperated with the secret police. Neo-Nazism and other forms of radicalism are attempts to fill this vacuum, Mr. Krueger said.

Whatever the explanation, the result has been perplexity among politicians and panic among the 60,000 foreigners in eastern Germany.

"Foreigners don't know what to do. We tell them not to go out on the street at night, but that's no solution at all," said Marita Schieferdecker, Dresden's commissioner for foreigners.

Moves to reassure the foreigners and address the long-term problem of the region's alienated youth range from calls for special troops to patrols of high-crime areas to massive investments in sport, cultural, educational and job-training facilities -- all of which would require money Germany does not have.

One imaginative initiative has been undertaken by 300 West Berlin students. They voluntarily patrol subways carrying polish remover to rub out racist slogans, and they give out leaflets encouraging passengers to be less passive. Mr. Mohammad received help only because a subway employee called police.

But whether the government relies on big programs or small initiatives, Ms. Birthler said that no one ought to expect rapid improvement.

"We have to face up to the fact that these quick fixes miss the causes and put all the blame on young people," she said. "To really solve the problem, we will need time and money, but especially time."

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