Right-Wing Violemce and Dangerous German Myths

As if to mock the tougher line German officials have been hinting at, extremists pounded Germany last week with one of its worst periods of right-wing violence since unification. The terror peaked early Monday when neo-Nazis firebombed two apartment buildings in a North Sea town, killing a Turkish woman and two girls, ages 10 and 14.

More lives have already been taken this year by right-wing


radicals and skinheads than the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang was able to extinguish at the height of its activity in 1977.

The ghastly spate of violence has left Germany's leaders frustrated, disgusted and remorseful. But they will never muster the political will to smash a dangerous movement if they don't explode myths about the roots of the violence shaking the country and fraying its relations with the world.


First is the wishful illusion that Germany's right-wing problem is primarily an eastern phenomenon.

Although proportionately higher in the former German Democratic Republic, there were more acts of right-wing violence this year in western Germany, where, despite the burdens of unification, poverty has been decreasing and per capita earnings are up. In fact, the largest number of suspects were from North Rhine-Westphalia, with the affluent southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg not far behind.

The latest rampage claimed three lives in the North Sea village of Molln in western Germany, not in the east.

In August, attacks on a hostel for refugees in the eastern German port city of Rostock horrified the world. But Rostock thugs were not operating alone. Right-wingers from the west came by bus to assist their comrades-in-arms -- CB radios, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails in tow. Many eastern German rightists claim inspiration from neo-Nazi strategist Michael Kuhnen, a west German agitator who died of AIDS last year.

No, it's not just an "Ost" problem, as some wish to believe. Nor is growing right-wing sentiment exclusively tied to the disenfranchised and jobless.

Gainfully employed Bundeswehr soldiers are currently under investigation for involvement in three murders, at least 20 attacks on refugee centers and the spreading of neo-fascist propaganda. In the west German city of Bielefeld, researchers have found extremism is stronger among young people with jobs than it is among the unemployed. In the east German city of Cottbus earlier this month, police found submachine guns, carbines, tents and payroll records during raids on one ultra-rightist group.

The violence, officials still unconvincingly insist, is random and largely unorganized.

The biggest and perhaps most dangerous myth is that the growing right-wing movement is attributable to the increasing presence of foreigners and abuse of the country's liberal asylum policy.


It's true that nearly half a million refugees have poured into Germany this year. But eastern Germany, scene of much of the most hideous types of violence, has been home to roughly 120,000 of Germany's 6 million foreigners. In fact, the east has fewer foreigners today than during Erich Honecker's Communist rule.

While it is true that extremists across Germany are singling out foreigners for violence, they have also been busting up brothels, desecrating Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials and storming hangouts frequented by gays and leftists.

Of the 15 people killed by rightists this year, eight were Germans. One German was beaten to death by neo-Nazis in Buxtehude last March for making anti-Hitler remarks. A man was murdered by hoodlums in Wuppertal north of Bonn two weeks ago, because they thought, erroneously, that he was a Jew.

Germany needs to reform its asylum policy. But foreigners will not go away -- the German economy needs 300,000 a year to keep the wheels of industry moving.

The roots of xenophobia, social aggression and criminal violence are complex, and Germany's democrats have profound matters to ponder these days. Meanwhile, the responsibility of the democratic state is clear.

Kurt Biedenkopf, the governor of the east German state of Saxony, warned an interviewer recently that "repression alone" was not the answer. Perhaps not. But the state has the monopoly on the use of force, and it is not repression to crack down on violent anti-democrats.


Nor will anyone question Germany's democratic ethos if the country starts to enforce laws that ban propaganda and symbols of any "former National Socialist organization." The caller that phoned in the deadly arson attack in Molln hung up with a confident "Heil Hitler."

In the 1970s, authorities launched a war on terror from the left. It is urgent that Germany come to grips with a far more serious threat today.

Jeffrey Gedmin, the author of "The Hidden Hand: Gorbachev and the Collapse of East Germany" is a research associated at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.