Echoes from Germany's right lack former resonance

May 23, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The Republikaner rally in Kongresshalle at Alexanderplatz promised an eerie historical resonance: A right-wing political leader was coming from Munich to claim Berlin for his party.

But 1992 is not 1933, and the Republikaners lack passion, pageantry, menace and an Adolf Hitler. The only people in uniform in a Marxist baroque hall were in the band, and they were wearing 1890 Kaiser Wilhelm get-ups with spike helmets.

Franz Schoenhuber, a well-tanned former SS lieutenant who is the Republikaner leader, came from Munich this week to rouse the Berlin party to get out the vote in tomorrow's local council elections.

The wide-bellied Mr. Schoenhuber is a vigorous, crowd-pleasing orator, about a third-class demagogue, falling somewhere between George Wallace and David Duke.

He gloated a little over speaking in the hall where the old East German Communist boss Erich Honecker used to harangue the party faithful.

But generally his speech was more a catalog of contemporary complaints, irritations and a few prejudices than a rehash of Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

The Republikaners don't even have a good slogan. Mr. Schoenhuber ended his speech with John F. Kennedy's tag line: "Ask not what your country can do for you . . . "

They stood to sing "Deutschland uber Alles" just before filing quietly out into the late twilight of Alexanderplatz, the vast concrete central square of east Berlin.

The Republikaners have become a symbol of a rising right in Germany, mainly because of their successes in the last couple of state elections in both southwestern and northern Germany.

They got 9 percent to 11 percent of the vote and shocked both Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and the opposition Social Democratic Party, the two major parties in Germany.

Their numbers are beginning to look like the liberal party's. The liberals, the centrist Federal Democratic Party of retiring Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, are partners with the Christian Democrats in the coalition that runs Germany.

Mr. Schoenhuber caustically berated Mr. Genscher's round-the-world junkets. Spend the money on Germans, he said.

The Republikaners hope to repeat or do even better here in the councilmanic elections tomorrow. They're confident they will.

Middle-of-the-road observers are afraid they'll do well; the left is certain they will. But the big winner may be apathy: Only 57 percent of those eligible expect to vote.

The Republikaners are routinely called "radikal" and "fascist." They are an election issue themselves. The Social Democrats have plastered the city with posters that say, "Berlin has no place for radicals."

The Republikaners resist the label "radikal," or "braun" from the old Nazis brownshirts. The radicals are outside the hall, they say.

About a thousand protesters staged a perfunctory demonstration in Alexanderplatz. Two thousand armored and helmeted police kept them far from the 1,000 or so Republikaners inside the hall. Everything seemed nicely choreographed. Everybody went home early. Mr. Schoenhuber didn't seem to mind being called "fascist."

In an interview this week, he told a reporter that he distinguishes between Mussolini and Hitler, Italian fascism and German Nazism. Fascism was not racist, he said. He seems particularly sensitive to being called racist.

"I have Jewish acquaintances," he says. "I have Turkish acquaintances."

He likes to say Republikaner voters are "burgerliche Menschen." That is, ordinary people, middle-class, bourgeois. And looking around the auditorium you could concede his point, and wonder what that means.

The concerns of "burgerliche Menschen" are the issues in this election: rising housing costs, health care for the elderly, unemployment in East Berlin, rising taxes and costs of reunification in the west, the number of immigrants and asylum-seekers entering Germany, rising crime rates.

Political observers routinely say the vote for right-wing nationalist parties is a measure of German discontent. A big vote here could tempt the major parties to move right. And the question of how far right the country can move before falling into the abyss still haunts German politics.

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