German democracy is tested


BERLIN, Jan. 31 (JTA) — Only two days after last week’s solemn ceremony dedicating Berlin’s planned Holocaust memorial, young neo-Nazis marched to the site and declared the memorial to be “an undesirable stain” on the capital of the Third Reich.

The scene sent a chill through the hearts of many.

The opposing events — one of reconciliation and the other of hate — demonstrate that taboos against Nazism are fading and that Germany’s democracy, though strong, is struggling with its anti-democratic fringe. It’s a battle that has been exacerbated by the campaign finance scandal that has shaken faith in the mainstream conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union.

Though most observers say German democracy is strong enough to overcome these challenges, many agree that the road ahead is filled with major obstacles.

This is true particularly in former East Germany, where democracy is only 10 years old.

“The danger is great that youth will go into right-wing structures, with groups that are not democratic,” said Anetta Kahane, head of the Berlin-based Regional Workshop on Foreigner Issues, Youth and Schools. “As long as people are voting, they are participating in democracy. But many youth do not vote.”

Last weekend, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party won the right to march based on free speech laws, even though public expressions of Nazism — like the Hitler salute, the display of swastikas and the singing of SS songs — are prohibited.

Some 600 young extremists marched through Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate, shouting such slogans as “Glory and Honor to the Waffen SS,” and carrying a banner that read “Stop the Memorial.” About an equal number of counterdemonstrators showed up as well.

Police blocked streets and public transportation was rerouted during the march, which went through the famous Brandenburg Gate that once divided East and West Berlin. This was the first time police had allowed neo-Nazis to march through the gate, which during the Third Reich was the site of torchlight Nazi marches.

Reportedly, two neo-Nazi marchers were arrested for displaying banned symbols, and some 25 people were stopped from singing an SS song.

The NDP, meanwhile, announced that it is moving its headquarters from Stuttgart to Berlin, where — starting next week — the party flag will fly from the rooftop of a villa in Kopenick.

The weekend demonstration, however small, stood in sharp contrast to the solemn ceremonies of Jan. 27, Holocaust remembrance day in Germany, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945.

That morning, in the Reichstag, klezmer musician Giora Feidman had played “Shalom Chaverim” on his clarinet, walking slowly past Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Johannes Rau, Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse and other political and communal leaders.

Sometimes Feidman’s notes were as soft as a whisper. But it seemed fitting that here, in the rededicated halls of Germany’s democracy, even the smallest voice could be heard.

“We all know,” said Thierse, “that many people around the world view our new-old capital with worry and skepticism, adding that “it is our duty to remember how much injustice and unholiness came out of this place.”

Later, at the site of the planned memorial — which will consist of a field of 2,700 cement slabs resembling a huge cemetery, Thierse said Germany is building this “because we want to warn against terror and injustice, because we want to make confrontation with the Nazi history a part of our identity.”

Juliet Heck, 15, came to the memorial dedication with several classmates from the Leibig high school in Berlin. “I think this is a very good idea,” she said, “because you have to know what happened so we won’t make the same mistakes.” The students will visit Auschwitz in the spring as part of a class trip.

Though not a real ground-breaking — there are still problems to be ironed out before building can begin — the event culminated some 11 years of debate over whether such a memorial was needed and what it should look like.

Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen’s opposition to the memorial is not seen as an obstacle to its construction. But his decision not to attend the dedication was controversial, especially in light of the neo-Nazi demonstration that followed.

Meanwhile, last week’s ceremony occurred against the backdrop of the country’s biggest political scandal of the postwar years, an affair that some say has rocked faith in the democratic system.

Most observers don’t think the current scandal involving the party of former longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl — combined with high unemployment and rising xenophobia — will cause Germany to fall toward the extreme right, as in the 1930s. But they do agree that the job of inculcating democratic values has become both more difficult and more urgent.

Political pundit Ernst Cramer, chairman of the Axel Springer media publishing company, agreed that extremist parties “will pick up protest votes” in coming elections. “But it will never amount to something that may threaten the system or the basic pro-Jewish and pro-Israel attitude,” said Cramer, 87.

Most observers agree that the threats are far greater in Sweden, Switzerland and especially Austria, where Jorg Haider’s extreme right Freedom Party was on the verge of forming a governing coalition with the Austrian People’s Party.

In Berlin, various events related to Holocaust remembrance day highlighted the role of educators in inculcating democratic values.

In the eastern German state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, members of the regional parliament held a memorial service at the concentration camp memorial at Sachsenhausen, dedicated to the estimated 500,000 Gypsies murdered by the Nazis.

An innovative exhibition, “Jews Forbidden: The daily life of Jews in Berlin,” opened in a subway station in Berlin, featuring posters that said, “No Jews Allowed on the Subway,” and explaining the laws that had restricted German Jews from such activities as traveling, working or going to school.

In the east Berlin section of Hohenschonhausen, students made a permanent memorial out of their own school. They renamed it Oskar Schindler, after the German businessman who saved about 1,200 Jews by keeping them at work in his factory.

“I don’t think memorials alone can protect democracy,” said Berlin Jewish Community President Andreas Nachama at the dedication of the Berlin memorial. “But it helps keep this history in our consciousness.”

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