By Catherine Brown
On September 17 Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government announced plans to deport thousands of Romanians, many of them victims of the recent neo-Nazi attacks on refugee hostels in eastern Germany.
Since the racist riots started in Rostock on the night of August 24 and spread to other towns — including Leipzig, Berlin, Cottbus, Quenllinburg, Stendl and the west German Düsseldorf — politicians from the mainstream parties have pressed ahead with changing Germany's constitution on asylum.
In 1949, when the constitution was drafted, Article 16 guaranteed the right of asylum to anyone suffering political persecution. In the aftermath of World War II, this was an attempt to rehabilitate Germany in the world's eyes. It was not anticipated that many would come to devastated Germany for a higher standard of living.
In practice, anyone coming to the German border claiming asylum is allowed in. Housing, food and a pittance are provided until each application is processed, sometimes taking months. In the end, fewer than 5% are granted asylum.
Today, there are more than 6 million foreigners living in Germany. Most came as guest workers, to dig coal and labour in service jobs. Once needed by the growing German economy, these workers were never given citizenship rights, even though most have lived there for over 10 years.
There has been a recent upsurge in asylum seekers, 274,000 arriving so far this year. In the same period there has been a fourfold increase in racist attacks. Ten people have been killed and 700 injured in 970 racist attacks in 1992.
The ruling coalition has long wanted to tighten the asylum provision of the constitution (there is no provision for legal immigration at all). This requires a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag.
Until the end of August the Social Democratic Party (SPD) opposed these moves, but SPD leader Bjorn Engholm has indicated the party will support changes to the constitution.
The SPD's youth wing has opposed this back-down. A special conference in November will decide. Speculation surrounds a possibility of the left wing splitting over this issue and the
leadership's support for sending German troops abroad.
State authorities pay the costs of providing for asylum seekers. Crying poor, they have housed them in overcrowded areas with high unemployment. "It is no secret that authorities are putting refugees up in most uninviting conditions in an effort to deter them", stated Frankfurt's Süddeutsche Zeitung.
In Rostock, the scene of five nights of riots, the conditions were appalling: more than 100 asylum seekers were forced to camp in tents outside the overcrowded hostel in a residential area. Lack of sanitation further antagonised locals. A peaceful protest by locals was planned, around the slogan "Asylum Yes! Misuse No!".
Neo-Nazis used the opportunity to carry out an organised attack on the asylum seekers. They drove from Berlin, Hamburg and other cities in convoys using CB radios to coordinate the attack.
State and federal authorities had been warned of an imminent violent attack on the Rostock hostel but took no action. On August 25 several hundred neo-Nazis burned the hostel down, with local residents shouting encouragement from their balconies, many giving Nazi salutes.
During the attack, the police retired to headquarters, "to change shifts". As the hostel burned, attended by one fire engine, and rioters roamed the streets beating refugees, the Rostock chief of police went home to bed. He later claimed that he went home "to change his shirt".
Sixty per cent of those arrested that night were people helping the asylum seekers.
The response by politicians virtually gave the neo-Nazis the go-
ahead. Süddeutsche Zeitung reported: "The mayor of Rostock, even the interior minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern [the state government] had considerable difficulty hiding their sympathy with the attackers ... A particular line seems to be gaining currency. It has been articulated by, among others, Rudolf Seitiers, the federal interior minister, Rita Sussmuth, the Bundestag president, and Bjorn Engholm, the leader of the SPD. All three condemn the attacks on the asylum seekers. But they use these attacks to justify an immediate change to the current asylum policy. This line of argument is disastrously wrong ... Thus criminal violence by right-wing extremists — is turned into an act of self-defence."
While most German media condemned the attacks and the government's response, a main German television news program, in reporting the attack on August 25, predicted a second night of
clashes, thus encouraging more neo-Nazis to converge on Rostock, tripling their numbers for another night of violence.
The news item was condemned by Hamburg's counter-intelligence service as a blatant "invitation to violence".
As racist attacks spread to other German towns, mainly in the east, anti-racist protest were organised throughout Germany, drawing 3000 in Berlin and 2000 in Frankfurt. Two demonstrations were held in Rostock itself. In the first, around 5000 people spilled into the streets. The second, a nationwide anti-fascist mobilisation backed by local trade unions, drew at least 20,000 protesters.
Some 3400 extra police were mobilised in a massive operation on the evening of the anti-fascist demonstration. Ninety people were arrested even before the march started. Baton-wielding police assaulted anarchist protesters. Yet only a few nights earlier, 100 Vietnamese could have died as police allowed neo-Nazis to burn the hostel down while they were still inside.
The size of the protests indicates that the left can still mobilise far more support than the extreme right. But there are significant differences, indicated by the SPD support for a change to the asylum policy. Even the Guardian acknowledged that the role of the S>SPD has "strengthened the feeling among young extremists that they can successfully take the law into their own hands".
The government's policy of evacuating hostels attacked after Rostock only led to increased confidence of the neo-Nazis, as they claimed victory for driving the asylum seekers out.
The rise in racism and support for the extreme right reflects the failure of the Kohl government and the SPD opposition to provide answers to the deep problems in east Germany — unemployment of over 50%, inflation of 13%, massive de-industrialisation and huge rises in rents.
The Baltic port of Rostock, as a part of the former German Democratic Republic, was a thriving centre of shipping for Eastern Europe. From a population of 250,000, more than 55,000 worked at the shipyards.
Unification, or "colonisation" as it's called by many in eastern Germany, changed all that.
A loss of contracts from the former Soviet Union and deliberate undercutting of prices by the west German ports Hamburg and Bremen made unemployment soar to 50%. Only 5000 now employed at the yards, and their jobs are not secure. In some nearby villages
unemployment levels have reached 80%.
The housing estate in Lichtenhagen, where the neo-Nazi attacks occurred, is seven miles from the Rostock city centre. Its child-
care centres and youth clubs have closed since October 1990. It has little to offer — two or three supermarkets. Flats that didn't seem so small when you worked all day are home to 20,000. Frustration, bitterness and anger are rife.
"These are the people who lost their security and jobs. Young people have lost their hope and are totally frustrated", explained Dr Uta Nitschke, a lecturer at Rostock's university.
Some politicians openly admit the economic situation in the east is not about to improve. "The problem everyone knows, but nobody mentions, is about the proportion of potentially active people in employment", argues Dieter Angst, a minister in the Saxony regional government. "In the GDR, it was 85 to 90%. That was crazy. In the west it is 55 to 60%. That means there is 30% who were employed who will not be able to work again; they are nominally unemployed but not in the Western sense ... Insecurity is the price of freedom. We cannot take that insecurity away."