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WSWS : News & Analysis : Europe : Germany

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 of assembly.

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 democracy itself.

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 protest.

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 are “German”.

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 tomorrow”.

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 Stalinism.

See Also:
Right wing violence in Germany and the government's response
[11 August 2000]
[WSWS Full Coverage]

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