Germany's Furies

First came the crash of a firebomb. Then the roar of spreading flames. And finally, the phone call: "Fire in Ratzeburger Street! Heil Hitler!" Those words, called in to the fire department in the small Baltic town of Molln, resounded across Germany last week. They announced much more than the arson attack that killed two Turkish girls and a 51-year-old grandmother. They were a cry of rightist revolt that jolted Germans into a frightening realization: the 1,800 attacks this year on foreigners and Jewish monuments can no longer be described as the random vandalism of a minority of alienated youths in the formerly communist states of eastern Germany. Rather, neo-Nazi attacks pose nothing less than a challenge to democratic order in the entire country. For the first time, officials of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative government began branding the rightist youths as "terrorists" on a par with the leftist assassins who targeted industrialists and politicians in the 1970s and '80s. Federal prosecutor Alexander von Stahl, who had previously declined to take over right-wing attack cases from the states, took the lead in the Molln case, saying: "The unknown attackers want to re-establish a National Socialist dictatorship in Germany."

There's virtually no chance they will succeed. "This republic is not Weimar," Kohl declared in an emotional Bundestag speech defending his country and his government after the Molln incident. Indeed, for all the punditry about resurgent Nazism, the country's underlying stability and the basic strength of its democratic institutions are not really in imminent peril. Germany, with its famous efficiency, its $1.6 trillion economy and its strategic position bestriding the prosperous West and the newly opened East, is hardly the sick man of Europe. Its current woes seem depressingly normal in a continent where every state is beset by unemployment, regional divisions, budget deficits and racism.

Even so, the mere fact that Kohl and other German leaders believe they have to remind the world of such facts is a sign the country is in unusual difficulty. It faces a battery of demoralizing problems, of which far-right terrorism is only the most telegenic. The country is also plagued by lingering cultural and economic gaps between the west and the east, whose absorption has proven much more expensive than originally forecast; by the widespread perception that its political leaders have grown stale and out of touch, and by a destabilizing flood of refugees. And last week Kohl was also forced to admit that his country is in a recession. Looked to since the heady days of reunification to become "a new superpower," or at least the engine of growth and democratic renewal in Europe, Germany today seems too absorbed in its own identity crisis to be a leader.

By any measure, the German government has responded slowly and clumsily to the right-wing threat. The government estimates there are 40,000 right-wing extremists in Germany, of whom about 4,000 are violent skinheads. Such groups are now suspected in the deaths of 16 people. Yet the justice system has treated most of the young lawbreakers with sometimes astonishing leniency: five youths convicted last September of beating an African man to death were given sentences ranging from two years' probation to four years in jail, even though the maximum penalty was 10 years.

Such leniency is partly due to the fact that the alleged offenders often have been juveniles. But it is all the more glaring because Kohl has seemed concerned mainly with the electoral threat posed by xenophobia. In local elections in April the anti-immigrant German People's Union and the Republikaner Party led by former SS officer Franz Schonhuber won seats for the first time in two state parliaments. Since then Kohl's Christian Democrats have been seeking to prevent rightist parties from gaining a foothold in the Federal Parliament. The chancellor has resisted most calls for a dramatic show of support for asylum seekers, such as a visit to an asylum hostel. He has labeled the inflow of immigrants a "national emergency" and campaigned hard for a tightening of the country's extraordinarily liberal asylum provisions. For months, that confrontation has consumed the country's politicians.

Since the Molln killings, however, the authorities seem prepared to get tougher on the violent right. The police swiftly charged nine young skinheads from the area with involvement in similar attacks, though police said the man they initially thought was the ringleader was not involved in Molln. (Authorities elsewhere had already pressed the first attempted-murder charges in firebombing cases, and interior ministers from all 16 states had met to agree on a package of tougher measures against the right.) Last week the government banned a 130-member neo-Nazi group, the Nationalist Front. And Kohl offered his first impassioned denunciation of xenophobia, reminding the public in a Bundestag speech that "we invited [foreigners] here ourselves ... If they were not here, the gross national product of Germany would be far less than it actually is."

As it is, the GNP isn't growing very fast anymore. While economic woes were only a secondary cause of Germany's ethnic violence-the current wave of anti-foreigner attacks began immediately after reunification, when the country was still enjoying a post-Berlin-wall boom-the public would probably feel less stingy toward outsiders if the global recession hadn't hit Germany. "The Five Wise Men," an independent council of economists that advises Kohl, predicted this month that the German locomotive that was supposed to pull both Eastern and Western Europe forward will itself experience zero growth in 1993. That would be the first such slowdown in more than a decade.

The slump can only intensify the Verteilungskampf-"distribution battle"-between former East and former West Germany. Though neither labor nor management is willing to admit it, the joint labor-management boards that govern major German corporations have been discouraging investment in east Germany in order to preserve west German jobs. Because their productivity is low, many east German workers have become unemployed victims of the generous labor agreements that west German unions pushed through on their behalf in the euphoric and deceivingly optimistic rush toward unification in 1990. As a result of such economic pressures, east and west seem to have settled into a constitutionally mandated display of togetherness riven by mutual resentment, suspicion and hurt feelings. This awkward state of affairs could continue indefinitely, if the views of the younger generation are any indication.

Der Spiegel reports that 45 percent of pupils in the western state of Rheinland-Pfalz listed increased taxes as a result of unification as their main concern, while 76 percent of Thuringen pupils, in the east, are worried about being unemployed. "Right after the wall fell, I was fascinated by all the glitter," said Dirk Sommer in Ludwigsfelde. "But when I looked closer, I saw the other side. You know, antisocial people on the streets, Turks, Gypsies."

Germany cannot escape its history. The world sees drunken skinheads marching in the streets or battling leftists and immediately draws comparisons to Weimar. Buildings firebombed in the night and huddled, frightened victims evoke Kristallnacht. The neighbors clucking at it all from behind their drapes, or even cheering lustily from their balconies, remind outsiders of the see-no-evil attitude that permitted Auschwitz to happen.

This legacy makes it difficult for German leaders to react to their current problems with something more positive than left-wing breast-beating or the conservatives' awkward defensiveness. The Kohl government, for example, recently tried to portray its treaty with Romania for the deportation of illegal aliens, mostly Gypsies, as a "reintegration" program. Foreigners can only cringe when Kohl's spokesman Dieter Vogel defends the chancellor's decision not to attend a memorial service for the Molln victims by saying: "This terrible thing is not going to get any better if we now embark on some condolence tourism." But Germany can do better; its history has not given it the luxury of settling for what might be seen as normal elsewhere. For too long, right-wing violence and the immigration problem have been occasions for interparty squabbles. Last week's tragic events in Molln may finally shock Germans into treating them as the serious threats to democracy that they are. And that, at least, would be a small step toward laying to rest analogies to Weimar and the rise of Nazism.