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The public debate on right-wing violence in Germany
Politicians, media call for "strong-state tactics"
By Peter Schwarz
28 August 2000
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For over three weeks now, public discussion in Germany has been
dominated by the topic of right-wing violence. Not a day passes without
editorialists, commentators, statesmen and politicians coming up with new
proposals and resolutions on how to counter the brazen conduct of
neo-fascist groups and the wave of violence against foreigners.
These proposals fit into one of two categories:
The first category centres on giving greater repressive powers to the
state apparatus. These proposals range from banning the most aggressive
and best organized neo-fascist party, the NPD (a demand that is now also
supported by the German government) to increased activities by the police
and the semi-military Federal Border Police (BGS), total video-camera
surveillance of city centres and limitations on freedom of expression,
including a general restriction of the right to demonstrate and the right
The common feature of these proposals is that they ride roughshod over
democratic rights and principles. It doesn't seem to occur to their
proponents that such a strengthening of the state's repressive apparatus,
although superficially aimed at the neo-fascists, ultimately undermines
A typical example is the editorial in the latest issue of the weekly
newspaper Die Zeit. Writing under the banner headline “Fight the
Nazis!”, journalist Toralf Staudt enthusiastically projects a society in
which there is a policeman standing on every street corner—something which
up to now was generally considered to be the characteristic feature of a
police state. “Officers of the Federal Border Police can ride the regional
trains, and mobile police buses should be ready in waiting wherever
violence-prone youth gather—at market squares, in pedestrian zones and at
gas stations”, writes Staudt.
In another article published in Die Zeit, headlined “With the
Full Force of the State”, prominent Social Democrat Klaus von Dohnanyi
summarily dismisses democratic objections to such a strengthening of the
state's repressive powers. According to von Dohnanyi, the “allegedly
'liberal' warnings” that wire-tapping homes and using undercover agents or
video camera surveillance lead to a police state ignore the concept of a
“democracy able to put up a fight”.
A slogan popular in anti-fascist groups, “Fascism is not an opinion, it
is a crime”, also tends in this direction. Even accepting that this is an
honest expression of revulsion against the extreme right wing, its logical
conclusion is that fascism is an issue of criminal law, not of politics.
That is a false approach which, in the final analysis, hinders the
development of an effective counter-strategy.
The second group of proposals—often interlinked with the first
category, although not proclaimed so loudly—consists of educational and
propagandistic initiatives: political education, discussion in schools,
financial support for anti-fascist initiatives and appeals for more
personal courage on the part of the general population.
Like the first category, however, such proposals only address exterior
symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. While the proponents of
state power approach the issue solely from the vantage point of policing
and criminal law, the advocates of increased enlightenment see the source
of the fascist threat exclusively in individual consciousness and personal
conscience. This is despite the obvious fact that the escalation of
right-wing violence has more profound political and social roots.
These roots lie, on the one hand, in the crisis of society, which is
driving more and more sectors of the population into economic insecurity
or outright poverty, and, on the other, in a political climate that seems
to offer no progressive way out of the societal blind alley. It is the
interaction between these two factors that is the source of the growth of
neo-fascism and xenophobia.
In itself, the social crisis expressed in high unemployment and the
growing gap between rich and poor does not by necessity have to result in
a shift to the right. Such crises can also provide the impetus for a
broad-based movement of solidarity at the “lower end” of society—at least,
this is what happened in the past. However, the prerequisite for such a
movement is the existence of a political alternative to the existing order
which is capable of captivating the imagination of the masses and which
constitutes a genuine opposition to the ruling parties that are
responsible for the social crisis.
Seen from this angle, the prime responsibility for the growth of
right-wing tendencies rests with the trade unions and the SPD (Social
Democrats). These organizations claim to represent the interests of the
working population and disadvantaged strata, but in fact have become fully
integrated into the ruling order.
The trade unions have long since ceased to put up any resistance to the
attacks on jobs, income, pensions, health care and social welfare
benefits. They co-operate closely with the government and big business,
and see their most important task in taking the heat out of any social
Since assuming power in the national government, the SPD has completed
its transformation into a big business party. Having been elected on a
wave of social indignation against the former conservative government
headed by Helmut Kohl (Christian Democratic Union—CDU), the Social
Democrats are now dismantling the welfare system much more drastically
than the Kohl government would have dared to.
Under these circumstances, social indignation turns into desperation.
With the struggle against those at the top apparently blocked, some people
start directing their pent-up aggression against those at the bottom.
Thus, the poorest and most defenceless members of society are misused as
scapegoats for the desolate state of society.
What other explanation is there for the fact that xenophobia reaches
the highest levels in regions with the lowest percentages of foreigners in
the population—less than two percent? How else can one explain why
unemployed youths kick homeless persons to death? This is a climate in
which right-wing and nationalist demagogy flourishes. Faced with a
hopeless situation, people try to find consolation in the fact that they
The appeals by the trade unions and the SPD for more “citizens'
courage” and new initiatives against neo-fascism amount to a cheap alibi.
This is not to question the earnestness of those who join such initiatives
and take up the fight against the neo-fascists, often enough at the risk
of life and limb. But the task they face is practically insurmountable.
While they fight to win the hearts and minds of individuals—and are at
times somewhat successful in this endeavour—the breeding ground for the
fascists continues to grow.
This development is also fuelled by the official racism propagated by
top political leaders. When Federal Chancellor Schröder calls for the
expulsion of “criminal foreigners” in election speeches, Federal Interior
Minister Schily states that Germany's “stress limits” have been exceeded
by the influx of immigrants, or Bavarian Interior Minister Beckstein
divides up foreigners into those “who are useful to us” and those “who are
using us”, this differs only in form, not in substance, from the Nazi
slogan “Foreigners out!”
Additional factors are the attacks on the right of asylum, supported by
all of the established parties, and the state persecution of refugees and
persons seeking asylum, who are denied the most elementary democratic and
social rights. For the neo-fascists, this can only be seen as official
approval of their own violent attacks on foreigners.
Giving greater repressive powers to the state, as is currently being
demanded, will not eliminate the neo-fascist danger, but will rather
promote even more a political climate beneficial to the spread of
xenophobia and racism. Intolerance and xenophobia flourish best in an
atmosphere of state repression.
State surveillance, the imposition of sanctions and the banning of
parties may temporarily intimidate and financially damage some rightists,
but they will not change anything with regard to the root causes of the
spread of right-wing extremism. That also applies to banning the NPD. This
would set a dangerous precedent curtailing freedom of expression, which is
an essential prerequisite for combating the neo-fascists. A state that
prohibits ideas because it has nothing to counterpose against them has in
effect declared the bankruptcy of its own democratic pretensions.
Indeed, the advocates of more repressive state power are less concerned
with the fight against right-wing extremism than they are with defending
the state monopoly on the use of force. What worries them is not the
emergence of right-wing tendencies, but rather the eruption of the social
tensions that are tearing society apart. Klaus von Dohnanyi formulated
this fear most clearly in the Die Zeit article quoted above.
Dohnanyi warns against assuming that the right-wing extremists are
“primarily driven by right-wing ideology”. On the issue of extremist
violence, he writes, one must cast aside the differentiation between
“right-wing” and “left-wing”. He declares, “Violence in political
conflicts and racism” are, in the final analysis, “not linked to any
party”. The “potential violence of tense social conditions” can “erupt
against foreigners today, and against businessmen and politicians
This is what it all boils down to. Dohnanyi fears that the social
tensions that today erupt against the weakest members of society will be
directed “against businessmen and politicians” tomorrow. He senses the
dangers resulting from the increasing alienation between the mass of the
population and the political parties. Consequently, he is a firm adherent
of “hard state force”. Even the appeals for more citizens' courage seem
suspect to him: “Public order can only be maintained by the police and the
courts, not by well-intentioned citizens.”
At the same time, Dohnanyi wants the official campaign against
foreigners to be consistently continued: “Honesty on the issues of crime
by foreigners, improper and illegal immigration practices and the limits
of the country's and region's capacity to accommodate immigration must not
be discredited as support for 'right-wing slogans'“.
Of all people, the politicians who prepare the ideological ground for
right-wing extremism—Bavaria's Interior Minister Beckstein and the
interior minister of Brandenburg, Schönbohm—are now the most vocal in
demanding “strong-state” tactics. That alone is reason enough to stop and
think. It makes it clear that this cannot be the answer to the neo-fascist
danger. What is required is a completely different strategy: a political
re-arming of the workers' movement, which has become paralyzed and
disoriented through decades of predominance by the Social Democrats and
violence in Germany and the government's response
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