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Troubling signs of extremism in Germany are not going away

We can see what has been happening to President Clinton, but while other people's problems shouldn't give us any joy, also look at what's happening in what's supposed to be the civilized part of Europe.

Starting left to right, British Prime Minister John Major has a record-low 16 percent approval rating in the polls. His Conservative Party is in ferment, and unless his fortunes turn, others are soon going to be trying to get his job.

Across the channel in France, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur is, like Clinton, flirting with the idea of protectionism as one way out of a recession that shows no sign of abating. Nor does an unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent, and unless he straightened out things with Clinton on Tuesday, the United States and France could be on a collision course over trade.

Just to the south, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez scraped through with a personal victory in the Spanish elections last week. But he still has to win control of his own Socialist Party and tackle the highest unemployment rate in Western Europe, some 22 percent.

In Italy, the old political order has simply collapsed, and no new one has emerged to take its place.

Yet all the above is marginal compared to what has been happening in Germany. In the three years since its euphoric reunification on a drizzly October night in front of the old Reichstag in Berlin, it seems to have lost its way.

The prosperous citizens of the 11 Western laender (states) have been unwilling to curb their own lifestyles enough to finance the incorporation the five poor laender of the formerly Communist East Germany. The German Bundesbank has loaded part of the cost on the other countries of Western Europe in the form of high interest rates that in turn have contributed to recession.

German competitiveness has evaporated, the cost of labor being 50 percent more than in the United States, and 35 percent more than in Japan, so that German factories have begun to emigrate.

Mainstream political parties are in flux and have lost some ground to the extremes.

Last week the small but pivotal Free Democratic Party, which has made or broken almost every coalition in post-World War II Germany, finally chose a new leader in Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel.

This week, the main opposition Social Democrats, after losing three straight elections, chose still another leader, Rudolf Scharping, the 45-year-old president of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. His predecessor resigned after lying to the Bundestag.

As for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is approaching 11 years in office, he, too, is at a low in the polls, but with elections looming again next year, there is no alternative. In the latest polls, 69 percent of Germans thought the Social Democrats were incapable of governing.

Most worrying of all, Kohl and the post-World War II political establishment as a whole simply seem unable to deal with the upsurge of mindless racist violence that is shaking German society to its foundations.

A few weeks after Kohl assured the Turkish government that the wave of violence by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists was waning, arsonists set fire May 29 to a house in the town of Solingen, killing two Turkish women and three Turkish girls.

That brought to 49 the number of people killed by skinheads and other right-wing hooligans since Germany's reunification.

When a Turkish woman and two girls were burned to death last November in the town of Molln, one of 2,000 anti-foreigner incidents last year, Turks kept to their homes. But this time they marched in angry, violent protests that drew attention to the fact that the 1.8-million Turkish "guest workers" in Germany are second-class residents with little possibility of getting citizenship even though a generation has now been born there.

Kohl may announce some changes when he opens a Bundestag debate today. But in the past he has been cold to calls for dual citizenship.

Kohl himself is part of the problem, having pointedly stayed away from the funerals of the victims, in marked contrast to German President Richard von Weizsaecker. While Kohl has now tried to defend himself by saying he didn't want to attract hostility, the polls also show that 62 percent of Germans (the polling industry in Germany is flourishing) thought he should have attended those of the women and girls who died in Solingen.

Kohl has issued statements deploring the attacks on foreigners but never has he done it on national television. All this leads to charges that he cares far more about getting right-wing votes than giving the vote to the Turks, and just doesn't like to be around to hear von Weizsaecker say that the murders are being committed in "a right-wing extremist atmosphere."

Germany has been a model citizen since World War II and accepted more refugees than anyone else, more probably than was good for it, until it finally began to tighten the regulations last month. It has been at the core of European unity and what the United States and the world's other democracies need is for it to stand beside them.

Germany has begun to shed its inhibition from the Nazi years about sending troops abroad to participate in peacekeeping, and the United States has now proposed it get a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Yet Germans suffer from this recurring angst that has now generated into violence against foreigners.

Until it gets control of itself, the world also has a right to worry.