By Angela Matheson
BERLIN — Step off the train at Bahnhof Zoo in downtown Berlin for a taste of the new Germany, where gangs of broad-shouldered youth clad in jack boots, jeans and swastika insignia mill on the platform, picking their victims. Austrians, Swedes and other blondes pass unimpeded, but Asians and Africans often find themselves jeered at, jostled and prevented from leaving the station.
Scenes like these are now commonplace throughout Germany, which is in the throes of the worst racial violence since the Third Reich. Mass rallies of neo-Nazis, beatings and murders by gangs wielding baseball bats, and the torching of immigrant apartment blocks are rife across the country.
While the majority of Germans look on in horror, racist attacks chillingly reminiscent of the Nazi past are on the rise. Extreme right-wing parties like the National Democratic Party Germany's large immigrant population and asylum seekers as the cause of rising unemployment and soaring rents. Such parties are growing in popularity in the polls.
The extremist propaganda works because it provides a simple answer for people frightened about their falling standard of living. With up to 3 million out of a labour force of 8 million unemployed or on short-time work in eastern Germany alone, and rent increases of up to 400% over the past year, many are looking for someone to blame.
Over the last few months, a spate of ugly attacks against immigrants reached a peak when hundreds of thugs laid siege to two apartment complexes housing guest workers in the eastern town of Hoyerswerda. For almost a week, 230 residents, many of them African and Vietnamese, barricaded their doors with furniture as youths threatening to burn them alive rampaged through hallways.
The terrified occupants were finally evacuated by police to an army base as their attackers stood by cheering. That night, gang leaders appeared on TV, jubilant and defiant, proclaiming their town foreigner free.
Vicious attacks are now so common Germans take them for granted. With over 1000 mass assaults against foreigners already on record this year, immigrants, particularly those in smaller towns, live in fear of being stoned or beaten as they walk down the street, or finding their car gutted when they get home.
In the most racist areas, immigrants live in fear of their lives. A Ghanaian man died when his apartment was torched in a town in West Germany in September, and earlier this year a Mozambican guest worker was killed when neo-Nazis threw him from a moving streetcar in Dresden. Last month a gang threw Molotov cocktails into a shelter for Kurds near Bonn, injuring 10 people.
Most sinister is the extent to which xenophobia is openly paraded on n Berlin, young, closely shaven neo-Nazis, fresh from a bashing, stroll back to work at hawking chunks of the Berlin Wall and Soviet memorabilia — medals, watches and Gorbachev dolls — outside the glitzy Europa centre. They sit laughing on the pavement, assessing how good a kick they landed on their latest victim. Ordinary Berliners are now blasé and pass by without a glance.
But while Berliners make an effort to tear down fascist posters calling for a "Germany for the Germans", in the provincial heartland, neo-fascist claims that guest workers and asylum seekers are stealing German livelihoods have growing popular appeal.
Earlier this year a spectacular rally of more than 200 youth was hosted by the traditional, window-boxed town of Bayreuth to commemorate the death of Hitler's deputy, Rudolph Hesse. A Turkish guest worker who has lived in the town for the past five years was punched and terrorised during the rally as locals he knew looked on with interest, while others cashed in, selling swastika-shaped bread and offering discounts on beer. As yet the town council has not bothered to remove daubed slogans such as "Niggers, Jews and Foreigners Out" from the town walls.
Rallies like these have spurred a growing anti-fascist movement. Leading artists and intellectuals, including the novelist Gunter Grass, are so concerned at the swelling ranks of extremists that they recently issued a joint statement saying, "A vast majority of citizens are now ashamed that the people once again fear pogroms in Germany".
Citizen networks are mobilising to protect foreigners under attack, and last month more than 100,000 people across the country took to the streets in marches against racism.
Groups are springing up all around the country, demanding that authorities provide more protection for immigrants. Several hundred activists recently formed a human barricade around a home for asylum seekers in Cologne to shield the occupants from a gang of jeering rightists.
Anti-racist campaigners no longer prepared to tolerate government leniency toward attacks recently mounted a campaign to expose police collusion over the neo-Nazi siege of the apartment block in Hoyerswerda. The police commissioner of the state was forced to resign after being exposed for letting the situation worsen.
The absence of any strong statement from the government condemning the violence has led many to the conclusion that racial violence has become a convenient distraction from Germany's economic stagnation and the problems created by reunification. Under mounting pressure, Chancellor Helmut Kohl finally delivered a double-edged statement to trade unions in late October. He is not anti-foreign, he claimed, but "German friendly". And while condemning racist attacks, he went on to criticise refugees for "abusing Germany's liberal asylum laws". After the recent spate of attacks, interior minister Wolfgang Schauble fanned anti-immigrant sentiment by publicly claiming that "Large parts of the population are concerned about the uncontrollable influx of asylum seekers".
And while one far-right party is campaigning under the slogan, "The boat is full", Kohl's own party held a public forum titled, "Is the boat full?".
Germany's immigrant population make easy scapegoats at a time when the country suffers from a broad political, economic and social uncertainty. Since the '60s, large numbers of immigrants have moved to West Germany to provide labour during the economic boom. Although they were given residence permits, they were denied citizenship rights, as were their children born in Germany. In East Germany, the regime imported workers mainly from Vietnam and Mozambique under labour contracts.
There are up to 5 million politically powerless immigrants and refugees, in a total population of 80 million. They come mainly from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and countries from central Africa to southern Asia.
Now growing unemployment (the cost of selling off the entire nationalised economy of the east is paid for with workers' jobs) is played down by a government content to allow its surplus imported labour to catch the flak instead.
Bonn is planning to set up large camps staffed by police for asylum seekers. It also plans to speed up deportation of "undeserving" applicants. Yugoslavs fleeing civil war made up nearly half of about 33,000 foreigners who sought asylum in Germany in October.