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NEWS ANALYSIS : Arson Killings Revive German Unease : Extremists: Leaders thought problem had been defused. Lawmaker sees need to 'learn to live together.'

June 03, 1993|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — A new wave of soul-searching about Germany's ability to coexist with its large foreign population has gripped the country after the deaths of five Turkish nationals in an arson attack apparently carried out by right-wing extremists.

The mood is driven in part by the visible shock of a nation whose leadership had convinced itself that last year's mass demonstrations and candlelight processions protesting attacks against foreigners had somehow defused the problem.

Those protests, which followed a deadly arson attack in the northern city of Moelln last November, seemed to alter the national mood and stifle the tacit approval that lent support to activist xenophobes on the violent fringe.

But last Saturday's killings in the western city of Solingen--followed by nightly riots in cities throughout Germany--showed that little has changed.

"Someone has to have the courage to tell the Germans that they can no longer live only among themselves," said Heiner Geissler, a prominent member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats noted for his moderate views.

In a radio interview Wednesday, Rita Suessmuth, president of the lower-house Bundestag, described the attacks as symptomatic of a sick society that had become fixated on material values. Like Geissler, however, she argued that the solution is tough but simple.

"The point is not to develop any great new theories; it's merely to learn to live together," she said.

For Germans, already struggling with the social tensions of integrating the former Communist east, learning to live together is proving especially difficult.

Germany is only one of many European countries struggling to contain ethnic tensions. Only this week, French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua called for an end to immigration into France, while the grandson of Britain's World War II leader Winston Churchill stirred controversy in his country by implying that growth in the nation's Muslim minority is threatening the British way of life.

But a series of unusual conditions largely unrelated to Germany's dark past give xenophobia an especially virulent twist here. The country's minority population, for example, is effectively excluded from full participation in society in a way that foreigners are not in other countries such as France, Britain or the United States.

Prussian-era citizenship laws still on the books decree that someone born in Volgograd, whose forefathers emigrated to Russia nearly 200 years ago at the invitation of Catherine the Great, has an automatic right to a German passport; but a child born and raised in Germany, whose parents happen to be foreign, faces near-impossible hurdles to obtain the same document.

In 1991, half of 1% of the country's 6 million foreigners were found to have cleared those hurdles, according to official figures.

Citizenship requirements for many jobs mean that only a small handful of those 6 million is eligible for public office or for employment as civil servants and police officers.

Hakki Ismail Kosan, the only minority member of Berlin's 241-seat city Parliament, said he pushed for four years to obtain his citizenship and was then refused.

"It took a political decision to reverse it," he said.

The result of all this is a subtle, uniquely German, form of segregation in which minorities only rarely appear in positions of even minor responsibility.

The absence of voting rights, even in local community elections, also leaves Germany's minority population as a collective political orphan. As a result, no national political figure of stature believes it necessary to court this group or attend to its needs.

In part, this explains why Kohl has never been photographed either showing solidarity with the victims of right-wing violence or participating in any of the cultural activities of foreign residents. He would gain little politically and, in the present social climate, could push some of his supporters to parties of the far right.

Another elusive factor also fuels the xenophobic attacks in Germany. Eckart Wertebach, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, estimated Wednesday that violence-prone right-wing extremists in Germany number about 6,500 "dim-witted mental defectives." But this tiny minority--mainly males between 14 and 25 years old--enjoys the quiet encouragement of a larger, more mature, minority.

At present, for example, the right-wing Republikaner Party, which officially distances itself from violence but appeals to racist, nationalist emotions, scores about 5% in national opinion polls.

The appeal to xenophobic emotions has gained strength because it has gone virtually unchallenged by the present government. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, a Bielefeld University social scientist who has focused on extremist youth movements, talked in an interview of an "intellectualization of xenophobia" in the country's serious media.

The respected national daily Die Welt, for example, in its Tuesday editions accompanied a report on the Solingen attack with a graphic showing the growing percentage of foreigners involved in crime in Germany and the number of foreigners in the country's schools.

The accompanying article carried no reference to crime or education.

"Such a display sends its own message," said Heitmeyer.

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