Behind the Headlines: German Authorities Reluctant to Address Neo-nazi Attacks

Increasingly vicious attacks on foreigners by neo-Nazi gangs are fast becoming Germany’s most serious internal problem, but the authorities have so far taken little concrete action to address it.

While the Jewish community has been largely spared until now, a classic case of cemetery desecration occurred near Berlin last week.

But the most violent of the recent incidents took place last Saturday night in Immenstadt, Bavaria, where young arsonists burned down a building housing asylum-seekers from several countries. Five of the occupants were injured, three seriously.

Police said they arrested three young right wing extremists.

At about the same time, neo-Nazi and Skinhead gangs were attacking refugees, guest workers and other foreigners in towns in the federal states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt, all in what was formerly East Germany.

In the western German port city of Hamburg, long considered a bastion of tolerance, Germans brawled with patrons of a restaurant frequented by foreigners. About 70 Turks were attacked.

Police broke up the fistfights before serious injuries were inflicted.

Jewish institutions have not been hit to date. Nevertheless, police protection has been increased around synagogues and communal centers.

JEWISH CEMETERY DESECRATED

But neo-Nazis managed to overturn tombstones and smear them with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans at a cemetery in Strausberg, east of Berlin, early on the morning of Oct. 10 and got away undetected.

Interior Minister Alwin Ziel of Brandenburg said 36 neo-Nazi Skinheads have been arrested in the region surrounding Berlin in the past three weeks, while 138 other right-wing extremists are under investigation in the southern district of Dresden.

But the violence continues. Two Skinheads smashed windows at a home for asylum-seekers in Rangsdorf, south of Berlin, and threatened arriving police.

Skinheads bombarded a refugee reception center in Luebben with stones and spray-painted it with anti-foreigner slogans.

According to police, there have been about 500 attacks this year on Africans, Asians and Eastern Europeans who have applied for asylum in Germany.

Jewish activists in Berlin warned last weekend that, if allowed to continue, these attacks will have grave implications for the emerging political culture in newly united Germany.

But the response of the authorities so far has been to restrict the number of refugees allowed into the country, which critics say amounts to the appeasement of violent racists.

Another example of appeasement occurred in the former East German town of Hoyerswerda in Saxony, where foreigners were shunted out of town after neo-Nazis attacked them and burned their hostel earlier this month.

The incident was especially revealing because local citizens cheered the neo-Nazis and jeered police trying to restrain them.

While politicians in Bonn have spoken out against the wave of violence, there was no early, clearcut condemnation by top government officials, critics charge.

HOUSING FOREIGNERS IN CAMPS

On the other hand, the government has published statistics indicating that the nation spends $4 billion a year to house and feed refugees. Such reports exacerbate xenophobic tendencies.

Another suggested approach, which has shocked many Germans, is to house the foreigners in a network of camps to keep them out of sight and out of trouble while their resident status is being determined.

The idea was agreed to by the major political parties. Only the opposition Greens protested, warning that the camps would amount to ghettos for foreigners, who would be deprived of contact with the German population.

Other critics of the idea said the camps would be a throwback to the dark days of Stalinist rule in East Germany, when so-called guest workers were housed at abandoned military bases or in heavily guarded barracks on the edge of towns.

Meanwhile, Bernd Wagner, Bonn’s top official assigned to gather intelligence about the neo-Nazi gangs, estimated last week that there are 10,000 to 15,000 individuals in eastern Germany ready to resort to violence to advance their extremist views.

He said that at least 50 well-organized neo-Nazis could be found in almost any town in the newly formed federal states in former East German territory. Their groups are well structured and maintain contact with similar groups nationwide.

Wagner denied the popular conception that most neo-Nazi youths are unemployed or frustrated for lack of “socialization.” Investigations have shown that the extremists come mostly from “good homes,” live with their parents and enjoy a relatively high standard of living and social status.

According to Wagner’s profile, the average neo-Nazi activist is 25. But most of them were recruited as young as ages 13 to 15.

INDEPENDENT FROM THE WEST

In eastern Germany, Wagner reported, a strong self-consciousness and self-confidence has emerged among the neo-Nazi activists. They are also independent, claiming that they had to fight for their cause under more difficult conditions than their western German counterparts.

“They no longer want to be instructed by veteran neo-Nazis from the West,” Wagner said. “They have established their own system of political education and claim better methods to fight what they consider the major danger to Germany — the influx of foreigners from European and especially non-European countries.”

If Wagner’s analysis is correct, it may be difficult for veteran neo-Nazis in the West, such as Gerhard Frey, to consolidate a national movement.

The 58-year-old Frey leads the extreme right-wing German People’s Union, which won seats in the Bremen city-state legislature last month by polling more than 5 percent of the popular vote.

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