High Saxon official confronts hecklers face to face, defuses neo-Nazi violence

November 16, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

DRESDEN, Germany -- The hooting and the whistling from bands of anarchists started up here last Monday at the rally against racism and neo-Nazism, just as it had the day before in Berlin. It looked as if another moment of national embarrassment was about to occur.

But Heinz Eggert, the tall, balding, athletic-looking interior minister of Saxony, strode off the platform and into the crowd. He began talking to the hecklers.

"I went to them, and we had a very quiet discussion for about an hour," Mr. Eggert says. "I had the advantage that they knew me."

Mr. Eggert has made a national reputation defusing neo-Nazi violence in Saxony, although this time he had to use his talents with radical hecklers called "autonomen."

He had been deeply troubled by the image projected to the world from Berlin a week ago when the "autonomen" disrupted a rally summoned on the 54th anniversary of "Crystal Night" to renounce the horrible sentiments of that night and their modern manifestations. Crystal Night refers to shattered glass during a savage outbreak of violence in Nazi Germany against the Jews.

"More than 300,000 people came together," Mr. Eggert says, "but only one picture emerged: The highest representative of the German republic [Chancellor Helmut Kohl] can only talk of the dignity of people from behind the shields of police."

Mr. Eggert goes out on the streets of Dresden to talk to the young people who find excitement in imitating the Nazi past, or in hooting down speeches. He'll have a beer with them. He tries to understand them. He'll send his police officers after them, too, if he thinks he has to.

He's 46, tough and personable, and one of the most dynamic politicians in a country where almost everybody else is as bland as a boiled potato. He's a Lutheran clergyman who has the lean, slightly battered look of a light-heavyweight boxer.

A rising star

And, for a man whose motto was once "No political office," he's become one of the hottest stars in Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union. But he doesn't owe much to the all-powerful chancellor.

Mr. Eggert was elected one of Mr. Kohl's four party deputies at the CDU convention in October. He knocked off one of Mr. Kohl's personal choices, Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, also a rising star.

Mr. Eggert sealed his election with a stirring speech. He praised the CDU as the party of German unity and said the CDU must be steadfast in working out the problems of German reunification. He also called for tougher action against extremists from the left and right.

And he spoke with the authority of a native of the former East Germany who had survived persecution under the old Communist state.

Mr. Eggert preached with fierce independence from his pulpit in those days. He became virtually a cottage industry for the state security forces, the Stasi.

About 60 agents watched him for nearly 20 years. His Stasi file ran to 2,800 pages. They sent him to one of those infamous mental institutions. They even drugged him.

"A person who survives a totalitarian system can also be guilty when he withdraws himself from political responsibility," he told the CDU delegates.

He talks about taking political responsibility, but not much about political ambition. He is, in fact, now in the line of succession to Mr. Kohl.

He dismisses speculation about his future, saying he has more than enough work in the state of Saxony where he has been interior minister about 14 months.

In an ironic turnaround, his office is in the building that housed the old Communist security agencies in Dresden. His press spokeswoman, Barbara Tewes, remembers being interrogated there for 16 hours before she fled from the now-defunct German Democratic Republic in the mid-'70s.

Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony, which lies in southeast Germany and has long borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia. Lots of drugs and illegal immigrants enter Germany across those borders, Mr. Eggert says. Lots of stolen autos go out.

Police always watching

He's a very busy man, and these days, very sought-after by the press and television. On this day, he's devoting the whole afternoon, about six hours, to interviews.

As interior minister of Saxony, he's something like the attorney general of a U.S. state, but with considerably more police power. And he uses it.

He has launched the biggest raids on neo-Nazi extremists in Germany. He has set up a special police unit to deal with the radical right.

"They've searched 686 homes and apartments," he says. That's legal in Germany with a judge's permission.

In 94 percent of the attacks on asylum-seekers' homes, he says, "We know who did it."

Mr. Eggert says that there is no real right-wing leader in Saxony -- no mini-Hitler -- and no permanent organization, either. But there is a hard core of right-wingers who can't be reached with arguments, the ideologues who cry "Auslander raus" -- "Foreigners out."

"You can't talk to them anymore," he says.

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