The year is shaping up to be deadly," screamed newspaper headlines in the last week of July, after a bomb attack in Dusseldorf injured 10 ex-Soviet immigrants, including six Jews.
It sent shivers down the nations spine. It also spelt bad news for Indian software engineers whom Germany is inviting to boost its lagging IT industry. Earlier this month, perhaps to emphasise the German governments keenness to lure foreigners, Deepak Bhatt, the first Indian software engineer to arrive here under the new green card system, was accorded a rousing reception when he stepped into the Frankfurt airport.
But it was of little comfort to the minuscule Indian community perturbed by attacks from right-wing radicals or neo-Nazis. An Indian researcher was badly beaten up recently and dogs let loose on him when he emerged from a phone booth a day after his arrival in Leipzig. In the same city, another Indian sustained head injuries when a group of neo-Nazis set upon him.
Three such attacks were also reported from east Germany, according to Malay Mishra, minister (political and information) at the Indian Embassy in Berlin. Though local papers published the name and picture of one of them, the embassy withheld their identity for their protection.
Such racist attacks could dissuade Indian software engineers from working in Germany, a country they dont prefer anyway because of linguistic reasons. They might veer around to believing that the attacks would rise were their number to increase, and they became more visible.
Indeed, right-wing radical violence has caused four deaths and countless injuries this year. In mid-June, a Mozambican succumbed to his injuries inflicted by three right-wing extremists in Dessau, north of Leipzig. The youths, aged between 16 and 24, kicked him in the head several times with metal-capped shoes and stripped him, while he was returning home late in the night. In July, a homeless man was found dead in a village church in Ahlbeck. He, too, was beaten and kicked by four teens, the youngest, 15. Two more homeless people died after attacks in Wismar and Greifswald.
Whats worrying is that these attacks are not confined to the erstwhile Communist east, where decades of suppression, economic deprivation and rising unemployment has goaded them to vent their ire against the alien population. It was in Dusseldorf, West Germany that a blast claimed an unborn baby as splinters hit the mothers abdomen. Following it was the attack by a group of 20 skinheads on two Africans. They chased the asylum-seekers, kicked, spat and abused them, shouting Sieg Heil (hail to victory) at the railway station in Eisenach. And when police broke up a neo-Nazi rally commemorating the 13th death anniversary of Hitlers deputy, Rudolf Hess, demonstrators were arrested not only in the eastern side, but posters were also confiscated in Baden-Wrttemberg, Hesse and Lower Saxony states which are less racist.
The incidents are being seen as an embarrassment by the Schroeder government, which opened its gates to foreigners and initiated the Green Card process for IT pros. "We cannot allow a few rampaging skinheads to ruin what we have created here," the Chancellor said.
But Joschka Fischer, one-time firebrand student activist and now the Green foreign minister, blamed the people. He said a "silent majority" might be abetting the crimes by not protesting. Knut Bernstein of the Anti-Racist Initiative thinks people are indifferent as racism "is no pique of right-wing extremists but rooted in the centre of German society".
The government, though, announced it would spend more to fight right-wing extremism. It plans to channel an extra 35 million marks (besides the already allotted 400 million marks) annually into anti-racist educational projects, crime prevention and a fund for racist victims. The money will also be used to root out neo-Nazi websites and where possible ban them.
It wont be easy. After the rise in attacks, many leaders called for a ban on the most powerful ultra-radical party, the National Democratic Party (npd). Coalition partner of the ruling Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, is keeping the pressure on. But the government, fearing a backlash and more publicity for the 6,000-member party, is yet to decide on it. The constitutional court has the power to decide on a ban on a party opposing democratic rights. But it could take almost a year to win legal sanction. npd leader Udo Voigt claims his party doesnt indulge in violence and so cant be banned.
For, though chanting Nazi slogans, a Nazi salute or denying the Holocaust is a punishable offence, the countrys law cant stop anyone from accessing foreign websites. The National Socialist website uses an American server to spew venom. In the past few weeks right-wingers have tried to register domain names like "kill-all-foreigners" and "CC" (concentration camp). One site was registered as www.heil-hitler.de. The registering office had apparently overlooked it but the sites were later closed down by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Not only the Net, but skinhead bands or "Fascho bands" also lure the young. Many were formed after the tour of British band Skrewdriver in the mid-90s. Some take their names from the National Socialist period like Werwolf, Legion Condor (the German air unit) and Kraft Durch Froide (Strength Through Joy - slogan of the Nazi labour service). One of them, the Radikahl, even recorded a song Swastika, asking a Nobel for Hitler. Since the government crackdown has made it difficult to hold concerts, invites are sent out by word of mouth, or on cellphones just hours before a performance.
So whats the solution? Political analysts think courts need to be tough on teen offenders. Paul Spiegel, chairman, Central Council of Jews, says schools should be involved more intensively in the fight against neo-Nazi acts. Already the Third World Unit conducts special anti-racist training workshops for teachers in Brandenburg. One of its founding members, Sanchita Basu, came to Berlin 20 years ago and faced racial discrimination even from her professors at the Technical University. She started the movement with a Colombian friend in 1984. It also holds anti-discriminatory workshops for police, social workers and trade unions.
According to Basu, the attacks never ceased over the years, theyre just attracting attention now. Adds Bernstein: "Theres no sudden rise; the unifications certainly given them a boost." Everyone in the east blames foreigners for taking away their jobs, says Basu. A psychologist by profession, she feels the right radicals should be integrated into the mainstream and not treated as outcasts.
But many foreigners living here for years dont feel safe anymore, says Daud Haider, a Bangladeshi poet in exile. Haider had survived a neo-Nazi attack in 1990. Hes now the spokesman of the Asian Human Rights Group (anti-fundamentalism and anti-racist campaigner). Founded in 1995, it holds demonstrations and public meetings against racial violence.
Many echo his fear. Says an Indian engineer, living in Cologne for the past 30 years, "I avoid travelling alone at night." "They can hardly feel safe," says Bernstein. "Id say western Germany is generally safe except certain areas and eastern Germany generally unsafe, again, except certain quarters in the big cities. But its not easy for foreigners to find out."
As of now, Schroeder is on a damage-control tour of eastern Germany. Eager to project the liberal Germany to the world, he said the police and courts will be tough on racists. The Indian embassy is satisfied with the governments measures, even if others arent. Says Bernstein: "Considering the interior minister Otto Schilly (responsible for all foreigners) has made several derogatory speeches against immigrants and that the government has done nothing to stop the oppression of refugees in the country, theres no reason why it shouldnt be called a racist group itself.... What it actually tries to do is to check the rise of neo-fascist groups."
Schroeder meanwhile is asking for peoples cooperation. Many feel his appeal will fall on deaf ears. For instance, an 84-year-old lady in Halle - where the three youth who killed the Mozambican are being tried - wrote to the judge hearing the case saying she and others of her generation didnt rebuild Germany for poverty wages just to "hand it over now to the Africans".
Will Germanys "silent majority" speak up and exorcise the past? They had better do it fast or else the Indian software expert will prefer to try his luck further west - in England or the US.