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Germany Opens an Escape Hatch for Neo-Nazis

With right-wing crimes soaring, the government offers jobs and protection to youths willing to change their ways.


BERLIN — With right-wing crimes rising 40% last year and nearly half of German youths brooding over the presence of foreigners in their country, authorities have recognized that they need to do more than urge those attracted to neo-Nazi circles to "just say nein."

The federal ministers for police and social affairs launched ambitious programs this week to lure disgruntled youths away from the radical right. Included are an "exit" option that provides witness protection for those willing to turn on the ringleaders and jobs for those who simply want out.

Right-wing extremism has soared, especially among jobless and jaded young easterners from families that have yet to benefit from Germany's 1990 reunification.

The government's political rivals say the new programs are too little too late. But justice officials and social scientists see much merit in the initiatives, arguing that any move against xenophobia, bigotry and anti-Semitism is money and energy well spent.

Unemployment remains close to 20% in the east, and 46% of teens surveyed in the former Communist states say there are too many foreigners in their midst. More than 40% of youths in western Germany also express resentment toward outsiders.

Interior Minister Otto Schily said the exit program is intended to provide an escape from the peer pressure and threats faced by disaffected hangers-on to the neo-Nazi scene.

A nationwide hotline is to be established within the next few days to provide information on how to swap a life of crime for a job, impunity--even police protection and a new identity--if participants are willing to provide evidence against radicals wanted for serious offenses.

Schily's efforts are being augmented by a wide-ranging program of education and training and support for victims of right-wing violence laid out by the federal minister for family and social affairs, Christine Bergmann. Her ministry and a social development fund of the European Union earmarked an extra $30 million this year for regional programs to encourage tolerance and integration.

"The idea is to weaken and destabilize the right-wing scene," Schily said, rejecting claims of some eastern political leaders that his program rewards those who have responded to hardship by breaking the law. One eastern state governor from the opposition Christian Democratic Union, Bernhard Vogel of Thuringia, said the lure of housing, work and welfare for giving up the radical scene could become an inducement to enter it in the first place.

Justice officials, however, laud the assault on the extremism, which has demoralized the upright majority, sapped police resources and cast aspersions on Germany's democratic credentials.

"When you consider the very important fact that seven out of 10 on the rightist scene are not very committed to the ideology, this could be a good method of breaking the power the hard-core radicals have over them," said Geert Mackenroth, vice president of the German Federal Assn. of Judges.

While some conservative opponents of Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government doubt the new measures will have much influence, the CDU governors of two major western states, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, have praised the actions. In the latter state, an effort to offer neo-Nazis a way out has been tested since last autumn. Eighty-four of the 324 known troublemakers approached so far have signaled interest in escaping the scene, state Police Chief Erwin Hetger reported.

Sociologists tend to welcome any effort to thin the ranks of right-wing rabble--54,000 neo-Nazis by official estimate. But some see deeper causes for the social illness that cannot be cured with what they see as the baby steps being taken.

"It is a problem that requires billions," contends Hajo Funke, a political science professor at the Free University in Berlin who is writing a book on the post-reunification rightist upswing. He urges more dramatic action "to address the social despair expressed by so many young people who don't know if they have a future."

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