Germans absorbed by neo-Nazi acts Kohl is victim of his success at unity

November 28, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood ashen and gra before the German Parliament this week with his head bowed in silent mourning for a Turkish woman and two girls killed by neo-Nazi terrorists.

It was an extraordinarily ironic image. The chancellor could have been mourning his own lost popularity. Two years ago he rose before Parliament in buoyant celebration, the chancellor of the reunification of Germany, perhaps then the most popular leader of Germany since World War II.

Reunification promised joy and freedom and prosperity. The very anthem of the new unity was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode to Joy." Now the fruits of unification seemed to include bitterness, stagnation and violence.

The Germans spent this week in a paroxysm of national self-examination. They are an extremely self-absorbed people at all times.

Newspapers and television, books, plays and movies, lectures and exhibitions continually examine the Nazi and Communist past in minute and fascinated detail.

The nation picks at its wounds like a patient recovering from some dreadful disease, searching the body for signs of relapse.

This week there were plenty of symptoms to find -- from a sputtering economy, to increasing neo-Nazi violence, to clashes between extremists right and left -- and police -- on the streets of Berlin.

And there was no shortage of diagnoses. The rise of the right is routinely attributed to the collapse of optimism over reunification. Costs have been far higher than predicted, unemployment far greater, recovery of the eastern economy far slower.

Eastern youth are seen as rootless and disillusioned, prey to a neo-Nazi nationalism that was banned in the bad old days of the Communist past.

But, in fact, of the 1,800 anti-foreigner attacks reported this year, nearly a third have been in just two west German states.

Mr. Kohl reaps much of the blame for this social and economic unrest. He is seen to have overestimated the ease of reunification and underestimated the costs. His popularity is less than half of what it was two years ago.

But this week the chancellor seemed symbolic of Germans in general. He reacted with shame and horror at the deaths in the small north German town of Moelln.

In a midweek speech to Parliament he urged tolerance for foreigners living in Germany and a crackdown on violence from both the right and left.

But he did not go so far as to push for the voting rights, which would give foreigners real political power. Leaders across the spectrum of non-German communities have called for political rights for their people born here or who have lived for many years in Germany.

About 6 million foreigners live in Germany; 1.7 million are Turkish. And German citizenship is notoriously difficult for them to acquire.

A wide range of government officials this week demanded new bans on neo-Nazi parties.

One, the small Nationalist Front, was banned yesterday and its premises in 40 German cities raided.

Since World War II, about 250 groups have been banned as posing a violent challenge to constitutional order. Two political parties -- one far left, the other far right -- have been outlawed by the courts.

Till now the major response to the recent attacks on foreigners has been to try to limit the number of foreigners by changing the constitutional right to asylum.

Official ambiguity reflects an ambivalence that seems rooted deeply in German culture. Germans tend to like exotic foreigners -- Masai warriors and Tibetan Lamas -- as long as they are far away in another country.

Pollsters say that 83 percent of the German people are afraid of right-wing violence. More than three-quarters would accept some sort of suspension of civil liberties in an emergency crackdown on terrorism from either the right or the left.

But at the same time, only about a quarter of those polled would unequivocally reject the neo-Nazi slogan "Auslander Raus," Foreigners Out, a contemporary twist on the old Nazi cry "Juden Raus," Jews Out.

The victims whose deaths caused this week of national anguish and outcry were a 51-year-old Turkish woman who had lived peacefully in Germany some 20 years, her 10-year-old granddaughter and her 14-year-old niece, visiting from Turkey.

They were trapped in their second-floor apartment by the firebombs thrown into the stairway early Monday.

A voice on the telephone told police the house was burning and said: "Heil Hitler."

Television showed firefighters carrying the dead from the house in black body bags, a picture repeated throughout the week.

Germans learned that the Turkish woman was the matriarch of a large, respected family. Everybody in town called her "Mama." Her granddaughter had been born here.

And Moelln is a charming, prosperous west German town, not some dilapidated east German urban slum beset by 20 percent or 30 percent unemployment. About 500 Turks live among about 17,500 Germans.

By nightfall Monday, the people of Moelln had begun a candlelight procession to the burned-out house. Flowers piled up on the sidewalk.

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