Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Neo-Nazi attacks on the rise in Germany

Foreigners have become scapegoats for post-communist ills and social dislocation

By David Crossland  /  REUTERS , POTSDAM, GERMANY

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Robert, a black asylum seeker from Cameroon, is so used to people calling him "Nigger" or making ape sounds at him that he no longer pays attention to it.

What still makes him angry, however, is being followed around shops or the local library by staff expecting him to steal something. Or seeing how guests in a cafe remove their coats from the hanger he has just put his jacket on.

"It's like hell here. Everywhere ... you are suspected all the time. They believe black men live through crime," said the 45-year-old auditor who has lived in an asylum-seekers' hostel in Potsdam, southwest of Berlin, for four years.

He did not want his full name to be published.

Such overt racism is widespread in former Communist eastern Germany, where unification brought mass unemployment, and where people lived for decades without meeting foreigners, apart from Soviet soldiers and eastern European tourists.

In the early 1990s, when many of the thousands of asylum seekers who fled to Germany from war zones in the Balkans and elsewhere were sent to cities in the east, foreigners became scapegoats for post-communist ills and social dislocation.

The xenophobia has bred neo-Nazi groups and far-right violence, said Judith Porath, director of Opferperspektive, a state-funded agency that helps victims of attacks.

"A large part of the population has a racist, xenophobic attitude," she said.

Attacks motivated by racism and anti-Jewish sentiment aren't confined to the east, but are three times more frequent than in the west measured per capita, according to an intelligence report last year.

Robert was beaten up by two muggers last year in what he is sure was a racist attack. A friend from Sierra Leone had his arm broken when youths assaulted him by a taxi rank, he said. "None of the drivers got out to help him," said Robert.

The attacks, often by young skinheads, are so frequent they rarely make the pages of the national press.

Growing threat

But news in mid-September that police in Munich had foiled a bomb attack on the foundation stone laying ceremony of a Jewish community center has concentrated attention on far-right violence in the country that carried out the Holocaust.

It has also caused concern that the authorities were so busy hunting Islamic militants after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that they have failed to stop an escalating threat from neo-Nazi groups.

"In recent months there has obviously been an escalation. Things have moved to a totally new level," said Bavarian state Interior Minister Guenther Beckstein.

Police seized explosives and pistols and arrested several people in Munich and the east, including a leader of one of Germany's 160 neo-Nazi organizations or Kameradshaften. Many of the members of such groups belong to gun clubs, police say.

Hajo Funke, political analyst at Berlin's Free University, who specializes in the far-right scene, said waning public pressure had helped it become deadlier.

"Right-wing terrorism has been in the air," he said. "People in the far-right scene had been getting frustrated just putting up placards. They have not been achieving anything politically."

No one in Germany expects the far right to pose a serious challenge to the state. Democracy is so well rooted that far-right parties get a negligible share in national elections, much less than in France, Austria and the Netherlands.

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