March 4, 1991

By Will Firth

BERLIN — Nationalism has had a frightening upsurge in many European countries in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Germany is no exception, and fear is widespread that not all of the "evil spirits" of 50 years ago have been purged.

National chauvinism is not new in postwar Germany. Neo-fascist organisations and the Union of the Exiled, whose members dream of a Greater Germany within its 1937 borders, have long pursued reactionary and xenophobic politics. Could an arrogant national exclusiveness extend to the political mainstream?

Linked with German unification and the collapse of the East, three factors are of prime importance here: German economic expansion in the East; ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe migrating en masse to Germany; and the wave of refugees and work-seekers from European and other countries.

Corporate expansion

The takeover of Czechoslovakian car manufacturer koda by the giant Volkswagen corporation in December 1990 is but one example of German capital's spearhead role in the economic thrust into East Europe, often utilising the contacts and business acumen of East German enterprises.

This process fuels German corporate control and national self-importance. It also strengthens the dependence and frequently subservient position towards Germany in the East European countries. The Yugoslav dinar is formally pegged to the deutschmark, and this could also become the case in other countries as more currencies in the region are made convertible.

A significant and related nationalist mood-former is the aid program of food and medicine to the USSR. Millions of packages were donated to help poorly supplied Soviet citizens get over the winter. Most of the recipient cities of the German effort are in the part of the USSR which suffered directly at the hands of the Nazi invaders during World War II.

While there is undoubtedly some basic humanitarianism involved, the motor force of the aid is power politics. Aid to the Third World (which is chronically hungry, not just in danger of one famine) has been reduced from a trickle to a drip. It's not a matter of who's hungry but of moving quickly to secure long-term control and dependence. Eastern Europe is being groomed for a new role as free trade zone in Germany's backyard.

The national guilt complex for Nazi war crimes, the subject of endless debates in postwar Germany, is being eroded by this aid program and its associated attitudinal changes. German trucks (albeit with peacetime loads) are again rolling forwards across Russia and the Ukraine. The German "helping hand" is a not insignificant piece of replay and at the same time a reparation. It is a semiconscious historical ego trip shrouded in a humanitarian mantle.

Flood of immigrants

A flood of ethnic Germans is adding to the upsurge of nationalist emotions. Poland, Romania and the USSR are the main sources of these arrivals, whose ancestors migrated east in centuries past. Now, masses of these ethnic Germans are fleeing from poverty, dislocation and minority status to the el dorado of Germany.

Anyone capable of proving German descent, even if it be distant and the German language and culture lost, is eligible to obtain citizenship through a simple procedure. Several hundred Soviet Jews are also arriving every day. Jews are given favourable treatment in Germany.

All available hostels, transit centres, camps and other sources of emergency accommodation are saturated with these settlers or "homecomers", as certain sections of the press have been calling them.

The ranks of the new arrivals are swelled by thousands of mainly Southern and Eastern Europeans looking for work. There are also large numbers of Palestinians, Kurds, Tamils, Iranians and people of other nationalities seeking political asylum. The presence of Soviet troops on the territory of former East Germany could further compound problems if the current spate of desertions does not abate.

Having no family ties with Germany, these foreigners have little chance of being allowed to stay. Having a work contract is often a prerequisite for getting a work permit and right of residence, and of the refugees only 3% succeed in getting classed as political refugees automatically eligible for a pension.

Hostility to foreigners

A considerable amount of ill-feeling has been registered among the Germans towards these foreigners. The fact that they are "different" makes them unwelcome in some Germans' eyes, regardless of the fact that the "German" settlers from East Europe can also be quite "un-German".

The accommodation crisis adds to the tension. Of course, more space could quite easily be created if the political will existed (eg by instituting local-government campaigns for basic refurbishing of the numerous empty houses and flats in East German cities).

Anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise, especially in East Germany. Here massive unemployment in the wake of unification has created a lot of frustration. In the absence of a coherent and organised socialist movement, this frustration is transmuted into various obsessions and scapegoating. Also, the relative closedness of former East Germany means that a spirit of cosmopolitan tolerance is rather weak.

The Bundestag has been debating stricter measures to "hold back" the expected influx of migrants from Eastern Europe. The main reason cited is the inability to accommodate and support many new arrivals, but there is no change in policy regarding the ethnic Germans — it's the "others" who should be kept at bay. A conservative "protect our hard-earned standard of living" mentality seems to have gained a lot

North-South divide

The introduction of stricter entry and stay regulations will only help formalise the existing split between wealthy and poor nations. How different is this rising German nationalism from Le Pen's racist populism in France and the National Front's sentiments in Britain?

The common denominator is the swarms of "greedy foreigners" coming to "steal our money" and "take way our jobs" — more or less explicitly stated regardless of whether the bugbear is from Eastern Europe, North Africa or Pakistan.

A united Europe, with its greater capital agglomeration and political muscle, will be no good news for the struggling masses in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The gross riches of the leading Western industrial states are based on milking the labour and natural resources of the Third World through unequal trade. But ironically, the West remains a magnet for eager searchers for a better life and for those uprooted and oppressed in their exploited, violence-laden homelands.

For socialists it is as important as ever to think globally. And locally! A "small" German issue highlights the steamrolling attitude of the new mega-Germany:

The Sorbians are a 60,000-small indigenous Slavic people living in the south-east of eastern Germany and speaking a language related to Polish and Czech. In East Germany they enjoyed stable cultural support, including funding for their daily paper Domovina, and public use of Sorbian placenames. Admittedly, the regime also utilised the Sorbians as a "minority for show" in its propaganda, making a spectacle out of folk-dancing and national costumes and loudly lauding itself for the "good ethnic politics" in East Germany.

Now all that is over. The days of this limited cultural independence are numbered, and the work pressures, travel freedom and insidious culture from the West are certain to speed up the erosion of the Sorbian nation and its unique identity.

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