Three years ago this month, Germans danced for joy as the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain became a venetian blind.
The crumbling of the wall on Nov. 9 coincided with the anniversary of Kristallnacht. On that infamous day in 1938, 91 Jews were killed, 30,000 were sent to concentration camps and synagogues and stores were burned and looted during a Nazi pogrom.
The irony was not lost on Jewish leaders. While they welcomed a return to democracy and freedom in East Germany, they feared a united country would forget the lessons of history.
Were their concerns justified? The recent wave of neo-Nazi violence targeting refugees and Jewish memorials is an ominous echo of the past.
Rioting has killed 10 foreigners this year. A report issued by German police records 1,483 acts of right-wing violence in 1991, a five-fold increase from the previous year. In 1992, the numbers are expected to be higher as the situation deteriorates.
Once again Jews are among the targets. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, former death camps firebombed and Holocaust memorials attacked. Demonstrators proudly shout “Sieg Heil.”
There are less violent, but equally troubling signs. Although an official ceremony was scrapped, several hundred elderly Germans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first successful launch of V-2 rockets. About 20,000 slave laborers died while building V-2s, which killed 2,700 civilians in England alone.
In a nationally televised address, Chancellor Helmut Kohl noted that “aggression toward foreigners and anti-Semitism brings disgrace to our country.” Germany’s President Richard von Weizsacker has preached against intolerance.
Many German citizens have pressed for an end to the violence. Participants in anti-racism rallies outnumber neo-Nazi marchers by a wide margin.
The German government, however, has been slow off the mark and has reacted ineffectively. By seeking to gut Germany’s constitutional guarantee of asylum to political refugees, politicians appear to tacitly endorse the growing intolerance.
It is time to beef up both prosecution and education. Refugees must be provided with adequate protection. Extremist groups whose purpose and actions are inimical to the open and democratic society guaranteed by the German Basic Law (constitution) should be banned.
Although the laws against neo-Nazi activity are adequate (and much tougher than those here in Canada), they must be applied with commitment and consistency. In particular, more effective surveillance, a refusal to tolerate violence and stiffer penalties are needed.
A major educational effort is also necessary, particularly in the former East Germany, to further citizens’ understanding of the benefits of diversity and the threat of Nazi-inspired thinking.
Racism and neo-Nazism have no place in a unified Germany. They are a legacy of the Holocaust and of the attitudes and practices which made it possible. This inheritance places a special obligation on the German government to root out hate-mongers.