Hard line may be curbing neo-Nazis

December 06, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Late last year, the full weight of German constitutional law came down upon the neo-Nazi organization German Alternative and its leader, a pink-cheeked young man named Frank Hubner. The group was banned. As far as the authorities were concerned, another embarrassing voice of intolerance had been silenced.

Apparently someone forgot to tell Mr. Hubner.

There he was again Tuesday night, facing an audience of 50 people and five television cameras in a public library in eastern Germany. He calmly explained why he thinks foreigners and dark-skinned people don't belong in Germany, then he asked for votes.

He was running for mayor in the city of Cottbus under the banner of a new organization, the German League for People and Homeland.

Mr. Hubner's easy resurrection makes a telling point about Germany's struggle against right-wing radicals and neo-Nazis. Despite a willingness to trample the ideas of free speech and free assembly with sweeping bans and regulations, the government has neither stopped the growth of neo-Nazi groups nor prevented the worst outbreak of radical-right violence since World War II.

Yet, the tide may be turning, partly because some local officials have decided to get tough with their own tactics. In the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, where some of the most notorious attacks on foreigners occurred in 1991 and 1992, authorities have moved beyond the legalistic national approach with an aggressive raid-and-arrest strategy.

"In our opinion, banning an organization doesn't help," said Detlef Schoenherr, spokesman for Saxony's Interior Ministry. "You have to change people's minds. All you're banning is a name, and not the ideas. We don't care about names of groups. What interests us is how dangerous the individuals are."

And the best way to change the minds of dangerous individuals, he said, is to convince them they'll be caught, arrested and sent to jail if they commit a crime.

The initial success of the new approach in states such as Saxony has helped tip national statistics on neo-Nazi violence in an encouraging direction for the first time since Germany's reunification in 1990.

So far this year, acts of right-wing violence nationwide are running 22 percent behind last year's totals, despite the opposite impression left by the recent skinhead attack on members of the visiting American luge team.

In addition, fewer people are dying from the violence. Compared to last year's total of 17 deaths, eight have been killed through the first 11 months of this year, and most of those were the result of a single incident six months ago: an arson attack that took the lives of five Turkish women and girls in Solingen, a city north of Bonn.

One result is that even pessimists on the subject are expressing guarded optimism.

Jewish leader optimistic

Ignatz Bubis, head of Germany's Jewish community and a longtime critic of government policy on neo-Nazis, said: "By the end of next year I think the trend will be reversed."

But it sure took long enough, he said.

When euphoria over German reunification began giving way to anxiety over high unemployment and a slumping economy, frustrated young men began finding scapegoats in the hundreds of thousands of foreign residents and refugees who'd flooded the country under liberal provisions for political asylum.

An outbreak of rioting in the city of Hoyerswerda in Saxony in September 1991 was the first of several signature events of an explosion of right-radical violence. The 1990 total of 306 violent acts zoomed to 1,483 in 1991, then jumped again in 1992, to 2,584.

Equally disturbing has been the growing sophistication of the estimated 82 groups classified by the government as right-radical organizations, with an estimated 43,100 members.

Some have begun coordinating their efforts with a network of personal computers, and last August they used a hot-line number with taped messages and a few cellular phones to subvert police roadblocks and pull off a forbidden goose-stepping rally of 500 members in the city of Fulda.

Until recently the government responded to the threat with its old policy of banning groups as they began to make an impact. The government also has banned 176 publications, music recordings, videos, and computer games since 1980. And that's on top of the long-standing bans on such obvious symbols as swastikas and Nazi salutes.

The bans sound tough, and occasionally so do some of the prison sentences.

A 64-year-old man in Muenster got a one-year prison term for claiming in a document that the Holocaust was a lie, and Fred Leuchter, an American who also denies the Holocaust, faces the possibility of two five-year terms after being arrested in October for inciting race hatred and denigrating death camp victims. More often the results are tame and the sentences suspended.

The law's delay

It also often takes a while for a pending ban to make its way through the bureaucracy, and with plenty of advance warning groups can easily prepare for government raids. The Free

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