In Germany, a Crisis of Identify

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 03, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- The racist violence in Germany during the past week results from the clash between a high-minded German determination never again to be implicated in political persecution and the deep nationalist and exclusionary instincts of any people suffering a crisis of jobs, prospects and identity.

Skinheads are a peculiarly unattractive manifestation of the problem, joyfully attacking the hostels holding Gypsy, Vietnamese, African and East European foreigners who claim to be political refugees from their own countries and ask to be allowed to stay in Western Europe to do the hard and demeaning work Europeans themselves no longer care to do.

But in East Germany, where unification has brought something like 50 percent unemployment as well as collapse of the social, economic and political structures of the communist state, these foreigners, who are provided with housing and subsistence money by the German state while awaiting judgment of their asylum demands, seem perversely privileged rivals to the former East Germans' own survival.

This much is easily understood. The disturbing aspects of what has happened have been the failure of the police to deal with the demonstrations in a professional and efficient way, the administrative confusion or indecision behind that police failure and the political stalemate in the German parliament produced by these questions of immigration and political refuge.

The German constitution, framed in the aftermath of the war, guarantees refuge to anyone in true need of political asylum. A great many of those today asking for political refuge are actually economic refugees and job-seekers.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition government wants the constitution amended to restrict the refugee influx. The Social Democratic Party opposition has said that it will consider a change but has not been able to agree what. The Social Democrats are under pressure of their own membership not to amend the law.

The defenders of the asylum law are making an idealistic but, in practice, unrealistic challenge to the social conventions and established social patterns of a society in the midst of economic crisis.

The result feeds forces of xenophobia and exclusion which, in Germany, irresistibly and provocatively evoke the catastrophic evils of the Nazi past.

It is a conflict that Germany's neighbors witness with dismay, as they try to deal with the prejudices and nationalist anxieties in their own societies.

These events in Germany are a significant factor in the current French debate over whether to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on further European integration. The Danish public voted against Maastricht last spring in considerable degree because the Danes feared too close an association with a powerful and perhaps unpredictable Germany.

Germans have since 1950 found themselves in a secure and cooperative union with their neighbors, enjoying shared benefits and mutual respect. The neighbors have been able to rely on the splendid qualities the Germans possess, and set aside their fears of that other quality which a French writer has named ''the German vertigo'' -- that capacity for irrational action which Germans, under pressure, have displayed in the past.

The racist explosions in Rostock and elsewhere would not be so troubling today if Europe itself were secure, hence allowing the Germans to be secure.

Unfortunately, those disturbances come at a moment when France, about to vote on the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, gives sign of perversely rejecting that very program of European unification which France itself invented and launched in the 1950s.

They come when war in the ruins of Yugoslavia has produced feeble and cowardly responses from the West European governments and from Washington, demonstrating suddenly and unexpectedly that Europe today is not secure, not progressive, not a place where the future can be relied upon.

They come as that war has already generated more than two million new refugees -- true political refugees, a diaspora of the ruined and dispossessed who will wander Europe for years.

Those events in Germany have come, in short, at a time when the structure of postwar Europe shudders under assault, and people in every country feel a hideous awakening from what now appears to have been only the dream of peace.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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