Germany's Backlash Against Immigrants


April 09, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Germans have more than once turned rightward since World War II. There were ephemeral ''neo-Nazi'' movements in the 1950s, and at the end of the 1960s a rightist party did well in regional elections, barely missing representation in the federal parliament. Three years ago the right-wing Republican Party got more than 7 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections and won nearly 10 percent in some south German municipal elections.

Thus, Sunday's strong showing by these same Republicans (10.9 percent -- plus 2.1 percent won by two other small rightist groups) in the Baden-Wurttemberg parliamentary election, and the 6 percent won by the neo-Nazi German People's Union in Schleswig-Holstein, are not quite as dramatic a result as many, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, have made out.

The chancellor's Christian Democrats lost their controlling majority in prosperous Baden-Wurttemberg for the first time in 20 years, good reason for his shock; but the success of the right is explicable by non-catastrophic reasons.

The first is economic discontent and difficulty, in part the result of Mr. Kohl's politically motivated generosity in exchanging East Germany's internationally worthless currency for West German deutschemarks on a one-to-one basis at the time of Germany's unification. This greatly added to the costs of unification. The East German economy was in much worse condition than expected.

Germany has also given more aid than anyone else to the former Soviet Union, and invested most in Eastern Europe. The aid underwrites the recall of the Soviet armies still in eastern Germany. Bonn is building housing for them in their own country and attempting to improve the economic opportunities to which they return.

The domestic German economy experiences high interest rates and inflationary national wage demands, plus business pressure for tax cuts. There is a popular revolt against the promise Germany made at the Maastricht European summit meeting last December to replace the cherished deutschemark with a common European currency unit. All this makes voters apprehensive.

The second motive for the rightist vote was hostility toward immigrants in general, and specifically to those -- mostly Asians -- claiming to be political refugees. Germany's constitution offers asylum to all genuine political refugees, a response to the fact that Germany's own anti-Nazi militants of the 1930s and 1940s survived -- those who did survive -- thanks to the willingness of (some of) Germany's neighbors to give them political refuge.

Most of those who today claim to be political refugees are actually economic refugees -- a dreadful condition itself, but fTC potentially that of millions in the Third World. Neither Germany nor any other European country is prepared to take in large numbers of foreigners simply looking for work. However, Germany admits and investigates and houses each applicant for asylum -- a lengthy affair. There is a popular reaction against this, and the two major parties cannot agree on what to do.

The refugee-immigration problem exists everywhere in prosperous Western Europe. It is chiefly responsible for the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, and contributed the success of the populist and separatist ''leagues'' of

northern Italy in the Italian legislative elections which took place Sunday and Monday.

Germany's economic problems actually are good problems, linked to eventual gains in national prosperity and success. Sacrifice today can reasonably be expected to produce prosperity in East Germany and Eastern Europe tomorrow, and with that greater trade and prosperity for Germany. Sacrifices made now to reinforce the European Community's single market and fiscal integration also contribute to a more successful future.

The bad problem Germany faces is the social tension provoked by the immigration issue. This has a particular character in Germany because it bases nationality on ''blood,'' not residence. You are not a German by being born in Germany, but rather from possessing German ''blood.'' This writer, who speaks no German, has never lived there, and whose only connection with Germany is that his paternal grandparents left Baden for the United States a century ago, has a better legal claim on German citizenship than the child of a Turkish worker in Germany, born in Germany, educated there, culturally German, and speaking no other language than German.

This East European conception of nationality, based on ethnic origin rather than secular citizenship, is the source of much grief in that part of the world. Minorities in one country claim nationhood in another, and governments make national claims on people who belong to other political jurisdictions -- as in Yugoslavia today. Ethnic minorities are often denied full citizenship.

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