Germany on Trial

December 06, 1992

Germany is such an easy candidate for a national guilt trip that the outside world, in reacting to escalating racist violence there, should be careful not to play into the hands of neo-Nazi extremists. This is well understood by the Israeli government, which has condemned hate crimes against Jews and foreigners but has drawn the line when it comes to punitive measures against the vast German majority striving to safeguard democracy.

There can be little doubt that Germany is in a state of psychological crisis after the fire-bomb killing of two Turkish girls and a grandmother last month caused international outrage. It is haunted by the Hitler past. It is troubled by a deepening divide between its eastern and western states that mocks the joy of reunification just three years ago. It feels overwhelmed by an influx of half a million refugees and asylum seekers. It is menaced by a recession that feeds discontent, especially in regions once behind the Iron Curtain.

In this situation, it is easy for foreign critics to urge that Germany be censured for human rights violations, or boycotted by tourists, or denied outside investment. But this, alas, would be just what neo-Nazi rabble-rousers and disoriented young skinheads would want to justify their xenophobia.

An Israeli parliamentarian, Dan Tichon, one of three who canceled a trip to Germany, thought he was speaking only for the Jewish state when he said: "In our relations with Germany, the heart is sometimes stronger than the mind." Actually, his words apply to all who would condemn the entire German nation for the crimes of a few.

When terrible things happen on German soil, they assume a magnitude not seen when terrible things happen elsewhere. In Austria, the leader of the third largest party encourages his followers to greet him with cries of "Heil Haider." In northern Italy, a secessionist leader apes Mussolini. In Latvia, Jews flee once again -- this time to Russia. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen rages against North Africans. Britain reports 70,000 racial incidents this year. The United States has its share of skinheads brandishing Nazi memorabilia.

Such comparisons mean little in a century that has known the Holocaust, and those Germans most devoted to democracy know their country will be judged by different standards. This is a heavy burden but not an insurmountable challenge. A left-of-center Social Democratic government succeeded in putting down the Red Army Faction in the 1970s. Now a right-of-center Christian Democratic government has to find the will and the strength to put down the neo-Nazi uprising. If it does so -- if it puts aside the timidity that has allowed this scourge to grow -- it should be able to count on world support and understanding. Until then, Germany will remain on trial.

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