Germany's Neo-Nazi Danger

November 11, 1992

History played a macabre trick on Germany when the Berlin Wall fell three years ago on the same date -- November 9 -- that Nazi thugs went on the 1938 Kristallnacht rampage against Jews that anticipated the Holocaust. Both events go to the heart of the German dilemma: how to deal with an ugly past and a present in which the high hopes of reunification have been replaced by rightwing attacks on foreigners and anything Jewish.

There was a whiff of Weimar in what happened this week when political leaders tried to mark this double anniversary by leading a protest against a mounting crisis enflamed by their own dithering. To the credit of the German people, 350,000 demonstrators (five times the anticipated number) turned out in Berlin Sunday to denounce the violence tearing at their society and its reputation. But in a scene reminiscent of the turmoil that killed the Weimar republic between the two world wars, left-wingers succeeded in trashing the rally.

There should be no phony relativism equating the menace from the right with the antics of the left. Both are violent, to be sure, and intolerant of dissent. But the mounting volume of beatings, fire-bombings, desecrations and even murder committed by neo-Nazi gangs is the real problem the German political establishment must confront.

President Richard von Weiszaecker, who was pelted by eggs and rocks at the Sunday melee, once again proved why he is the most admired of German politicians. "Free expression must not hide," he declared the day after. "It has to go out where danger is lurking. So I will go out into the street to stand up against violence and for human rights."

Mr. von Weiszaecker's stirring appeal was combined with a dig at Bonn's politicians, saying the German people are waiting for them "to live up to their responsibilities." His remark was aimed not only at Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose Christian Democratic government has not been tough enough on the neo-Nazis, but at the opposition Social Democratic Party as it argues endlessly on whether to tighten barriers against the half-million foreigners seeking asylum in Germany this year.

Such parliamentary squabbling demeans all that the postwar German democracy, now blessed with reunification, has tried to accomplish. However the asylum law is amended, this can be no substitute for a massive effort by government and populace alike to go out where the neo-Nazi danger is lurking and to stand up against violence and for human rights.

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