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No time for Nazi-hunting

Those who warn of a Nazi revival in Germany are confusing the past with the present, and confusing the debate about what has caused the recent wave of racist violence. Rob Knight reports

The attack on an immigrant hostel in Rostock in August marked an escalation in violence against asylum-seekers in Germany. And the response to the violence from liberal and left-wing commentators marked a new stage in the creation of a right-wing consensus in German politics.

The left was quick to blame Nazism for the violence in Rostock. In so doing it distracted attention from the real cause of the violence - the respectable racism of the German state. It also inadvertently contributed to the right's campaign to relativise the experience of Germany's Nazi past.

The wave of violence against foreigners in Germany began last year, not with a declaration of war by neo-Nazis, but when the government began its campaign to tighten up the asylum law. The debate over asylum was a clear attempt by Helmut Kohl's government to scapegoat foreigners for the rise in unemployment and social problems in Germany. Such encouragement of racism is an important element in the government's project of creating a stronger sense of German nationalism.

Campaigning under the slogan, 'the boat is full', Kohl's supporters put the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) under pressure to bring their own policy on asylum into line with the government's. The SPD then proposed a plan to speed up the processing of applications in order to sort out 'genuine' asylum-seekers from the rest. After forcing the SPD on to the defensive, the government insisted that this was not enough, and that the entire asylum law would have to be changed.

Getting the message

Having won the argument that immigrants are a problem, the Kohl regime proceeded to aggravate the situation by putting asylum-seekers in areas such as Rostock in eastern Germany. Rostock, along with many areas in the old East, has 60 per cent unemployment because of the devastating impact of the market and privatisation. In Rostock the hostel was so overcrowded that many immigrants had to live outside without even basic sanitation. The combination of racist state propaganda and the disgusting material conditions in which immigrants are forced to live created the basis for focusing on immigrants as a problem.

Meanwhile in the streets, disaffected youth from both eastern and western Germany got the message from the government that foreigners were legitimate targets. If the boat is full then it does no harm to tip a few overboard. The infamous incident at Hoyerswerda followed, when attacks on an immigrant hostel were reportedly met with applause from some local residents. Since then attacks on foreigners have continued unabated, but with less publicity. What brought Rostock into the headlines was both the sustained ferocity of the attacks, and the apparent inability of the authorities to contain the violence.

Cause as cure

After pious condemnations of violence in Rostock, leading German politicians made it clear where their real concerns lay. The local interior minister, Lothar Kupfer said that he 'understood' the rioters, and called for the asylum law to be amended further. Politicians from across the spectrum have used the violence as justification for tightening the asylum laws, on the grounds that it is immigration which causes racism.

In fact, immigration laws are a central cause of racism in the West, since they brand foreigners as second class citizens without rights. Today, however, the consensus in Germany is that this cause of racism is really the cure. Kohl and his cronies have managed to establish that liberal opposition to changing the asylum laws increases racism, while tighter immigration controls would release racist tensions. Kohl's success in this is reflected in the way that the SPD has caved in and backed a revision of the asylum law.

The reaction from the German left to the violence against asylum-seekers in Rostock has been to emphasise the role of Nazism. By trying to pin the blame on neo-Nazis, the left does the German authorities a great service.

First, the left is making itself increasingly complicit in the right's project of relativising the Nazi period. Leading members of the German Green Party have already compared the Serbs to Nazis and backed the government's call for intervention against them. Having discovered a holocaust in Bosnia, the left has now discovered Nazis in Rostock. No doubt these comparisons are intended to emphasise how bad things are in Bosnia and Rostock today. In fact, they end up de-emphasising the specific brutality of the real Nazi era, in a way which can only assist the German establishment's attempt to play down the importance of its past crimes.

Off the hook

Second, the left's Nazi-hunting approach ignores the fact that the German government has encouraged attacks on immigrants by systematically playing the race card. The left's concentration on 'Nazis' is letting the government off the hook. While the left searches for Nazis, the respectable racism of the state is left unchallenged. Undoubtedly some far-right groups have been involved in the violence. But they did not instigate it, nor make it widely acceptable; the government did that by scapegoating foreigners.

The left is uneasy about challenging the state's immigration policy. It prefers to court easy popularity by identifying Nazis as the problem. The German left has made it clear that it even includes Kohl's government in its planned 'coalition' against Nazism. In a bizarre reversal, the instigators of racism are presented by the left as allies in the struggle against it.

The left's calls for more effective policing against 'Nazis' also play into Kohl's hands. The fact that police took a break while rioters set fire to the Rostock hostel was a clear indication of how much concern the state feels for immigrants. When the state is encouraging the idea that foreigners are a problem for Germans, it is hardly surprising that the police should not be overly concerned about immigrant welfare.

There has been some controversy about whether or not there was open collusion between some police officers and the rioters in Rostock. But this is all beside the point. The police will continue to give immigrants a raw deal, not because some officers are sympathetic towards neo-Nazis, but because the German state's policy is founded upon a rock of racism.

Sitting targets

A few days after the rioting the police arrested some locals who they claimed were responsible for the violence. The left's call for police action against racism allows the authorities to improve their credentials through token gestures of this kind. But it does nothing to stop the government's racist campaign against immigrants rolling on regardless. For example, all sides expressed their support for the arrest of a few people found behaving suspiciously in the vicinity of refugee camps. Yet nobody saw fit to point out that it was the government which penned refugees into those camps as sitting targets in the first place.

Kohl's Christian Democrat government must be very satisfied with its easy victory so far. The government has won the argument on immigration and forced the opposition to back it. However, not everything is under government control.

The way in which the attacks on foreigners swiftly turned into attacks on the police has provoked deep concern among politicians. The violence in Rostock was not only a reflection of the racist climate in German society. It was also an expression of general dissatisfaction with the government and the state. The position in Germany today is highly contradictory. Most people are influenced by state racism. But at the same time there exists deep distrust of the political system.

As much to fear

The disaffected youth of Germany are looking for targets against which to vent their frustrations, and the police have potentially as much to fear as immigrants. This shows the absurdity of dubbing all those influenced by racism today as 'Nazis'. Most are far from being hardcore Hitlerites or fascists. They are frustrated youth whose anger could well be turned in another direction.

The German left's preoccupation with Nazism is not only allowing the Kohl government to pursue its campaign of respectable racism unhindered. It is also missing an opportunity to build on the deep unpopularity of the German state.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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