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German violence breathes life into a specter from the past

Peter, big, rawboned and 20, fought in the three-day attack on the refugee camp here at the end of August under the banner of the Nazi swastika and would do it again.

His friend, Karsten, also 20 and wearing a cap bearing the English words "Kill them before they kill you," didn't join. He was off demonstrating against other foreigners in the west German city of Essen.

Robert, 17, joined the demonstrations outside the refugee hostel one day but didn't go back the next, he said, "because I had to go to a birthday party."

Despite the spitting rain, they were quite willing to stop on their way through Cottbus' restored Almarkt Square on Friday afternoon and talk about the youthful anger that has fueled increasing right-wing attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers throughout Germany in the past two years.

Scarcely a night has gone by since the major outbreak in the northern port of Rostock in August that somewhere small gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads don't try to attack a refugee hostel or desecrate a Jewish cemetery, often fleeing before police can get there.

Police think there are probably no more than 4,500 of these hard-core hooligans throughout Germany. But their violence against foreigners _ 10 have been killed in the past year _ has awakened the specter of the past that most Germans thought they had put behind them.

They have forced the problem of would-be refugees pouring into Germany onto the agenda of all mainstream parties, government and opposition, to the point where critics say politicians are paying more attention to revising the liberal asylum laws than they are to combating the violence itself.

German President Richard von Weizsacker called the attacks intolerable.

"The racist and anti-Semitic attacks shock us," he said. "Those who carry out such attacks .

.

. shame the name of our nation. Are we again going to turn away our eyes, or worse, look on without reacting when human beings are attacked? .

.

. There must be no tolerance of intolerance."

Chancellor Helmut Kohl has spoken of shame, too, but critics see his words as too little too late, as might be the counter demonstrations in several German cities against the attack in late September on a former concentration camp in the town of Sachsenhausen that is now a monument of the Holocaust in World War II.

Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel joined the protest demonstration of 5,000 in Sachsenhausen itself but that, too, was compared with the 100,000 led by President Francois Mitterrand and the whole French Cabinet after an attack on a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras, France, in 1990 _ and also compared with the tens of thousands of Germans who demonstrated against the Persian Gulf war.

When Interior Minister Rudolph Seiters called together his counterparts in the 16 German laender (states) last week, they were unable to agree on the tougher measures he proposed against the demonstrators. The Social Democratic ministers argued that current laws are enough if only there was more will to enforce them.

The same political divisions plague efforts by Kohl's Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition to amend, or not, the liberal right of asylum that by the end of the year will have allowed in an estimated half-million refugees. German officials say 95 percent of them are not political refugees for whom the law was intended, but people from Eastern Europe and the Third World seeking a better life.

While their cases are being decided by a cumbersome and overworked bureaucracy, they can live here with food, lodging, medical care, education and spending money from the German taxpayer, sometimes for a year or more. And they have given the right-wing extremists a major issue that strikes a chord across the political spectrum.

This is nowhere more true than in former Eastern Germany where disillusionment runs deep along with an unemployment rate that in some areas approaches 40 percent to 50 percent two years after its reunification with a prosperous West Germany.

Cottbus, an industrial town of 125,000 in the brown coal belt 75 miles southeast of Berlin, is not that badly off, but it also has the largest hostel for refugees _ more than 1,000 of them crowded into four former apartment blocks for Soviet army officers _ in the state of Brandenburg.

And Aug. 29, gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads launched what appeared to be a well-planned and coordinated attack that lasted several days. No foreigners were hurt, only a few police officers and rioters. When the rioters couldn't reach the hostel, they burned a few cars. No onlookers cheered them on here as they did the gangs in Rostock.

But it gave Cottbus an image that the city leaders have been hard at work trying to erase ever since, fearing it would drive away outside investment.

"We weren't against foreigners, but just against people who only come here looking for a better life," said Peter, the apprentice metal worker I met in Almarkt. "The Gypsies from Romania aren't in any danger in their own country."

His friend Karsten, an apprentice locksmith, interrupted:

"We've come to the point that families have to take them into their homes. .

.

. They get all the money and our gang doesn't even have a meeting room. (In East Germany), we didn't have prostitution and drugs in the schools."

Robert, the youngest of the group, said he had just lost his job as a butcher.

"If I find they've hired a foreigner in my place, I'm going to beat him up," he said grimly.

The violent gangs and the estimated 40,000 or so neo-Nazis behind them already have registered a victory of sorts by forcing the German government to conclude an agreement with Romania, at the cost of $21-million, to take thousands of refugees back. Of the 280,000 who have come here from Romania so far this year, an estimated 60 percent are Gypsies.

Germany has never had a love affair with Gypsies: An estimated half-million of them died in Nazi concentration camps. The newcomers today are widely blamed for thefts and welfare fraud.

Helmut Groba, a Cottbus city council official in charge of refugee affairs, concedes that Gypsies have been one of the big problems. But he adds that after dialogues between a committee of hostel refugees and interested Cottbus residents, such things as bicycle thefts and the littering of parks have stopped or decreased.

But the groups of swarthy, roughly dressed men lounging around the half-wrecked cars near the hostel compound outside Cottbus hardly fit into the ideal neatness of a German lifestyle.

Although Gypsies make up the largest group in the hostel, the one apartment I was able to visit belonged to a frightened and embarrassed Vietnamese couple, Nguyen Trong Huong and Nguyen Thi Thuong and their 2-month-old son born after they came to Germany.

They had come to escape Communism, Trong Huong said, and had been waiting a year to find out whether they can stay.

If they can't, he said, they will leave their infant son in Germany to have a better life.

In the German Bundestag (parliament) last week, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger reported that 405 attacks against foreigners had been registered so far this year, compared with 393 in all of 1991.

Eighty percent of the attackers, Interior Minister Seiters added, were youths under 20. Officials and social workers all point out the background of why so many of the attacks take place in what was Communist East Germany.

All youths were organized into one organization that along with indoctrination provided social clubs, sports and cultural activities. With the collapse of the Communist East German state, these things disappeared along with guaranteed employment.

According to Theo Geissler, who is "Youth Protector" in the Berlin government, the change has shaken the three pillars of life for many of former East Germany's youths _ family, friends and jobs.

His colleague, Josephina Hempel, who is an East German, said in an interview last week that youths in East Germany now realize they had been lied to about Communism and many other things by their parents and teachers.

Some, Hempel said, were listening not to their discredited parents but to grandparents who remembered a better life under the Nazis, which helps explain why some youths in this part of Germany were a fertile field for cultivation by neo-Nazis, and the shouts of "Heil Hitler" at their demonstrations.

"If we didn't have foreigners here," Geissler said, "the attacks would be directed against someone else, homosexuals maybe, people with long hair or big noses."

Government spokesman Dieter Vogel estimated that no more than 5 percent of German youth have been involved in the violence. My walk along Spremberger Strasse here after talking to Peter, Karsten and Robert tended to bear that estimate out.

For 17-year-old Stefan and 19-year old Katrina, the anti-foreigner riots here were "ridiculous."

Further along the street, 17-year-old Sibylle and 19-year-old Christin were unlocking their bicycles from a post next to one of the wooden tubs of flowers in the middle of the newly refurbished walking street. They are "left wingers" they said, and thus strongly against the August demonstrations.

Sibylle said she and some of her friends even organized to watch the railway stations in August to try to keep right-wing extremists from other parts of Germany from joining the demonstrations.

"Left and right don't have much to do with the riots," Christin said. "It depends on who your friends are. People go to the riots or don't depending on what their friends do."

Then along came 17-year-old Christian, who was wearing a Chicago Bears jacket, and 16-year-old Sven, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders jacket. They hadn't been interested or involved in the riots either. American football affiliations were the thing in former East Germany just now, they said.

Neither had heard of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Isn't that in Wisconsin?" Sven asked.

Further along, 19-year-old Rene and 20-year-old Ronny, who identified themselves as centrists, said they didn't riot either. The riots, they said, were organized by the neo-Nazis, but "they had to happen" because of the foreigners here and might well happen again.

By this time, it was dark and raining hard, so I drove back to Berlin. I could only conclude that the anti-foreign attacks in Germany, the youth and the neo-Nazis, however few in number, all bear watching by other Germans and the rest of the world.

"I always felt safer here, perhaps because of the past," said Norma Drimmer, a first-generation German who is a member of the executive council of the Jewish Community of Berlin. "I raised three children here. And now I see this."

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