Old Ghosts in the New Germany

September 02, 1992

Germany has no monopoly on hate, violence, xenophobia in a Europe showing signs of its old madness, but when it erupts in the anti-foreigner riots that have shaken Rostock and other cities in the past ten days, all the world shudders. Ghosts of the Nazi past are always prowling, placing a terrible burden on millions of young Germans innocent of Hitler's crimes and inciting a tiny militant minority -- mostly skinheads -- to the use of fists and stones and, yes, arms raised stiff in salute.

It happened from time to time when Germany was divided, but the West was too prosperous and the East too controlled for right-wing extremism to flourish. This time the unrest is of a far different order of magnitude. Frustration stalks the old East German states, where the first experience of democracy has too often meant the loss of employment. Foreigners flood over the borders, beckoned by an open-door asylum law with a guaranteed safety net, and ethnic Germans pour in from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Even plush West German states feel the pinch of subsidies flowing eastward at the rate of $100 billion a year.

This is a witch's brew for trouble -- and trouble there is. With 500,000 asylum-seekers arriving this year, 250,000 ethnic Germans expected and 200,000 refugees from Yugoslavia, many eastern German towns already plagued by 40 percent unemployment are overwhelmed. Foreigners are housed in tent villages and public buildings while their petitions for permanent residence crawl along a court system that cannot handle the workload.

For months, politicians in Bonn smelled the coming crisis but were gridlocked along partisan lines. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democrat who had promised too much at the time of reunification, was thwarted by Social Democrats who associated unrealistic immigration policies with their cherished idealism. But the mayors of scores of cities are screaming, and a constitutional change might ease the situation marginally.

More pertinent is how to deal with spreading attacks on immigrants, especially when so many citizens look on passively and even applaud Nazi-like thuggery. East German police lack moral authority because of their Stalinist past. Federal vTC authorities lack power that resides in the states under Germany's confederal constitution.

Germany's right-wing outbreak infects more than Germany. In France, always fearful, those favoring a stronger European Community tout it as the way to contain Germany while opponents argue the EC is already stacked for German domination. French debate resonates eastward. The pending Maastricht Treaty to unify Europe could die.

The rest of the world has a right to demand much of Germany. It has a right to demand that right-wing violence should be suppressed with utmost vigor no matter what extenuating circumstances may exist. There must be zero tolerance for actions that bring shame to a nation that has made significant progress in overcoming its past.

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