Germany’s Xenophobic Violence Should Concern Jews Around the World

“We have laws enough, justice enough, and police enough,” said Hans Koschnick. “The real problem is what to do with the people who stand alongside and applaud.”

Koschnick, a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag, the German parliament, was talking to the leadership of the American Jewish Committee, who went to Germany after a recent wave of attacks against foreigners.

We know that xenophobic violence rarely excludes Jews. The current situation in Germany is no exception. An arson attack on the wooden barracks of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which housed a memorial and exhibit on the Jewish extermination under the Nazis, followed closely on the heels of the attacks on foreigners in Rostock and other cities.

Ironically, it was not until the fire at Sachsenhausen that public opinion was truly mobilized. Government leaders issued unequivocal statements of condemnation against the action of right-wing extremists.

Barracks No. 38 at the Sachsenhausen site contains the small exhibit on the Holocaust. When we visited, the barracks were charred; the acrid smell of fire hung in the air. It was the Sachsenhausen event that most German officials assumed was on the minds of the AJCommittee.

“We absolutely condemn it, and we will bring the culprits to justice,” Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters told the AJCommittee immediately after words of greeting.

In the eastern state of Brandenburg where the camp is situated, Prime Minister Manfred Stolpe emphasized the importance of the unanimous decision by Parliament, “strictly condemning anti-Semitism.” Stolpe led in organizing a demonstration at the camp a few days later.

If we had come to Germany attentive only to fears of a resurgent anti-Semitism, we might have left more reassured. But other matters brought us to Germany: reports of violence directed toward foreigners, plans to limit the right of asylum and deport Romanians, mostly gypsies, the growing number of neo-Nazis, other extremists, and the picture of applauding bystanders. These concerns remain.

All major parties in Germany are committed to putting a stop to the violence and protecting the safety of asylum-seekers in their houses.

Police forces in the eastern states need to be beefed up and the extremists who commit these crimes need to be brought to justice. This message was stated clearly and repeatedly by Seiters and others.

It is clear that Germany’s liberal asylum laws will be changed. Supporters of the current laws see them as a way of “atoning” for Nazi sins. But now, whether by amending the constitution or applying new enforcement measures to the current provisions, authorities will move to stem the ever-increasing flow of foreigners into Germany.

The right to political asylum will remain, but the right to automatic entry and government support for anyone claiming asylum will surely be curtailed.

Federal, state and local officials are overwhelmed by the current numbers. As Berndt Seite, prime minister of the former East German state of Mecklenberg- Vorpommern, stated: “Germany simply cannot accept more foreigners.”

Will such measures solve the problems? There is an intense feeling of bitterness and anxiety in eastern Germany. People see positions in government and business being filled each day by western Germans.

Residents’ heady expectations of immediate economic improvement after unification yielded to a more sober realization of the scope and magnitude of modernizing the former East German economy to integrate it with the capitalist West.

Hans Otto Brautigam, justice minister in the state of Brandenburg, cautioned that one must separate the issue of violence from the influx of foreigners.

“Young people are against something,” he said. “But it is not clear just what.”

While the violence may be unorganized and carried out by small numbers of people, Brautigam warned that, “the wider population shares their feelings, if not approves of their actions.” Persons in the East under age 70 have never known as adults what it is to live in freedom.

Recent opinion surveys show support for right-wing parties approaching 10 percent, with 30 percent of German youth favorably disposed toward extremist views. If an election were held today, none of Germany’s major parties would likely win even 40 percent of the vote.

Frustration with Germany’s political leadership and disillusionment at what the future holds are apparent. The population was told that unification would make Germany “stronger and richer.” But now, two years later, neither is the case, at least not yet.

Violent incidents may be controlled and extremists brought to justice, but no one seems to know the number of people who are silently supportive or how to address them.

Even if the number of “asylum-seekers” crossing Germany’s borders is slowed, the country will still be left with a foreign population of over seven million. Yet it has no real policy to absorb these foreigners into the political and social fabric. This is a time bomb ticking away.

In the West, Germany’s democratic institutions have roots that span more than four decades and attest to a remarkable transformation. Still, the problems that a reunited Germany confronts are severe.

Beyond addressing the immediate concerns, no one is certain where things will lead. Some political leaders are even fearful about allowing the country to work these long-term problems out by itself.

It is as though the new Germany must be anchored in a unified Europe and a transatlantic partnership as much to allay the concerns of the Germans themselves as well as those of other people.

Wolfgang Schauble, leader of the CDU-CSU faction in the Bundestag, implored: “You should not leave us alone.”

Alfred H. Moses is president of the American Jewish Committee.

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