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Vol 2, No 18
9 May 2000
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Germany news News from Germany
All the important news
since 1 May 2000

Jens Boysen

May Day in Berlin

"Bonn is not Weimar" went a common slogan in the old Federal Republic, hinting at the calm, low-profile, and politically stable way in which the West German state was run. The move of (re)united Germany's capital to Berlin was opposed by some because they feared the "hotter" atmosphere of the three-million strong meltingpot with its far-from-reconciled eastern and western halves, as well as the nasty memories of political battles between Nazis and Communists in the early 1930s. So, today there might be some sporting a grim smile when looking at the "New Berlin" in its second working year as the capital.

As it has been the case already for a number of years, 1 May 2000 has been used by both left- and right-wing extremists to "make a point" on the streets of the capital. About 1200 of the latter ones marched, under heavy police protection, through Berlin-Hellersdorf, an East Berlin district marked by high youth unemployment and considerable neo-Nazi sympathies, just as in the adjacent Marzahn district, a nightmare of concrete. To this right-wing parade, there were some leftist counterdemonstrations, but no clashes occurred.

At the same time, the already sort of traditional "Revolutionary May Day Demonstrations" saw several thousand left-wing extremists - known as the "autonomous" groups – dominating for several hours the central district of Kreuzberg, the focus area in partition time of those alternative subcultures which tend to tolerate a violent fringe directed against the "system." After the end of the official demonstrations, the dreaded "unofficial" part began – street battles against the police, leaving about 200 injured on either side and seeing about 400 rioters arrested.

As a consequence, Berlin Senator (Minister; Berlin is a Land) of the Interior Eckart Werthebach (CDU) has called for a tougher demonstration law; this suggestion has, however, been rejected by most politicians on both Federal and Land level, notably by Federal Minister of Justice Hertha Däubler-Gmelin (SPD). In her view, a general restriction of the right to demonstrate would ill-serve the cause of fighting extremism.

Interestingly, although the actual damage in Berlin has been caused by left-wing extremists, the subsequent discussion is concentrating on the danger of neo-Nazism. This is partially due to the recent attack on the Erfurt synagogue and the worrying growth of right-wing activities in the eastern Länder. Beyond that, however, it is characteristic of the peculiar embarrassment that any evidence of neo-Nazism means for Germany. In contrast, ever since the 1970s large parts of the burghers of West Germany have been lenient on left-wing "excesses" which were given the benefit of the doubt as mere radical expressions of an essentially noble cause, be it "anti-fascism," "anti-capitalism," or otherwise.

"Ethnic cleansing" in the countryside

Alas, there is no lack of reasons to fear the force of violent xenophobia and racism in the east German provinces. In the town of Lassan, in the north-easternmost hook of Germany, a group of neo-Nazi youths have chased and beaten up nine Vietnamese who were camping at a lake site. After passers-by told them to "get lost" from the "German" town of Lassan, they were then hindered to do so by the gang who beat them up severely. Apparently, the injuries were not life-threatening.

The huge record of racist anti-foreigner violence, run up since 1990 in eastern Germany, shows, apart from idle hands and criminal energy, the total inability of the locals to handle ethnic diversity. This collective shortcoming, which must be called a "mental" one, can be traced back to the fact that in the Communist GDR there was practically no immigration; even today, the share of foreigners in the population of eastern Germany is less than 1 percent (in western Germany, it is close to 9 percent). Contract workers from third world socialist "brother countries" who came to the GDR for training or working purposes were kept effectively isolated in separate housing and leisure areas, with little contact with the Germans beyond immediate working relations.

After 1989, many of these "children of proletarian internationalism" stayed stranded in post-Communist Germany, mostly with a shaky legal status. Together with the asylum seekers which the German government was insensitive enough to rush since 1990 to the freshly established eastern Länder, they became an object of ethno-nationalist hatred. As it stands, western German "anti-fascist" moralism will not change that situation, but rather will a more general strengthening of civic spirit among the eastern Germans, many of whom feel to be "second rate" and lash out in "classical" chauvinist manner, against those who are counted as "third rate."

Welcome to Germany

A different group of contract workers may encounter fewer problems coming to Germany. The debate on the issuing of "green cards" (in fact, time-limited working permits) to a maximum number of 20,000 foreign information technology (IT) specialists has been brought to a preliminary end after the Federal government, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and representatives of the German computer and IT industry agreed on the conditions for this initiative.

Anyone will be able to apply for the programme who either holds a university degree in an IT-related discipline or works in the IT field and can prove a present annual salary of at least DM 100,000 (ECU 50,000). Accepted applicants will be allowed, from July 2000, to stay in the country for five years with their families. Corporations have already expressed their wish to keep both the time horizon and the quantity of working places open for future increases. In turn, the powerful IG Metall trade union, while generally sceptical about labour imports, has called for a "fair treatment" of the new work force, which would imply an unlimited right of residence.

The initial targeting of India as a source country for the desired experts has widely faded away, despite the heated debate on immigration triggered by the opposition CDU for election campaigning purposes in the Land of North-Rhine Westfalia. So far, most of the approximately 1600 applications received by the commissioned agency have come from Central and Eastern Europe.

Security problems

Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping (SPD) is increasingly public with his existential fears for the operability of the German army. For a long time he has been highlighting the insufficient funding of army restructuring and a lack of support from his cabinet colleagues. Notably, the strict anti-debt budgeting of Finance Minister Hans Eichel (SPD) has hit the army hard. For months, several committees have been working on reform plans for the Bundeswehr, with the immovable financial cap being the dominant parameter.

At a meeting with German armament companies on Thursday in Berlin, Scharping stated that the Bundeswehr "lives off its substance," and announced an effort to try reducing costs by checking which functions in the field of armament procurement and logistics might be outsourced to private, but state-controlled agencies. This way, an annual DM 1 to 1.5 billion (ECU 500 to 750 million) might be saved and used for improving equipment and training.

The minister warned against Germany lagging ever farther behind its allies militarily, and thus losing its Bündnisfähigkeit (capacity to live up to its NATO obligations) and Europafähigkeit (obligation for a future integrated European defence policy). Maintaining his meager defence budget has become the minister's major goal; there seems to be no way for Germany to respond positively to the US call for an increase in defence spending after the double Balkans disaster in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Long gone are the days of the Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army which, though party to many Nazi crimes, has to date remained with historians and military experts a reference point for any assessment of military prowess. Today, the Bundeswehr is reeling: ten years after reunification and the end of the Cold War constellation, it is called upon to switch its armament and organisational pattern away from outdated heavy territorial defence and towards small-scale crisis reaction forces and "IT-war" capacity. The task is clear, and the military is fairly ready for change; but for years, the army has been primarily used as a budgetary milk-cow by both the former CDU-led and the present SPD-led governments.

This amputation policy was started in the early 1990s by the conservative government of Helmut Kohl (CDU) under the apparently inherent stability of US President George Bush's post-Cold War "One World." It was continued after 1998 by the Red-Green government on the basis of a traditional left-wing allergy to all things military, notably with the Greens coming from an "alternative," anti-establishment background. Downsizing the army, apart from being a stipulation of the 1990 "2+4-Treaty" re-establishing German unity and sovereignty, was and still is regarded by many on the left as a virtue in itself, according to an old conviction that it is armies which produce wars. The Wehrmacht's role in World War II serves as the historical backdrop to the anti-army resentment. Even after the government brought itself to joining NATO's war against Yugoslavia, the army's needs fall widely on deaf ears.

Within the general debate on the future of compulsory general service – which Scharping and most Social Democrats vigorously defend as the concept of "citizens in uniform" – the left-wing bourgeois Greens have entered into sort of a coalition with the right-wing bourgeois Free Democrats (Liberals): both want to see the army, regarded as an expression of nationalism and power politics, banned behind the walls of its garrisons unless it can be abolished altogether or turned into a professional club. This attitude effectively harkens back to the 18th-century separation of army and society under the absolutist Ancien Regime.

Jens Boysen, 6 May 2000

Moving on:


ZDF (Public German TV) Online News
Frankfurter Rundschau
Süddeutsche Zeitung
Der Spiegel
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


EU Focus:
Mel Huang
Between Helsinki and a Hard Place

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungary Playing Hard to Get

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Cities

Jens Boysen
German Hegemony

Rafał Riedel
Poland on Course

Robin Sheeran
Slovak Catch-up

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Road to Reform

Jan Čulík
Anarchists on Parade

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
Britain Looks East

Andrew James Horton
Director Aleksei Balabanov

Elke de Wit
Football Flick

Wojtek Kość
Polish Sensation

Culture Calendar:

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Terrorists

Mel Huang
PR and Extremism

Czech Republic