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Otto Schily quotes a former president of France. "I believe it was Georges Pompidou who once said that only idiots never change their minds," he says. "I try not to be an idiot."

According to this logic, Schily, Germany's interior minister, is an astute politician.

He began on the extreme left and has changed his path.

Now 69, Schily enjoyed a great deal of publicity during the 1960s and 1970s, when he was defense attorney for members of the Bader-Meinhof gang and of other leftist activists. During that period, the star attorney adopted the label "the liberal Communist." Others chose to define him as an "enemy of the state."

In 1980, Schily was one of the founders and leaders of the Green Party. He made a well-publicized turnabout in 1989, moving over to the Social-Democratic Party, without successfully convincing his "Green" friends that the time had come to put down roots in the heart of the establishment, to end their opposition activities, and to break away from their romantic-radical views.

Since the victory of the Social-Democrats in the German general elections in 1998, Schily has been serving as the federal minister of the interior and is today considered the strong man in the government, and its right-winger. Political observers in Germany praise him. "He has a sharp intellect, razor-sharp. There is no doubt about his cleverness," wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung in a profile of him last week.

Educated, brilliant, a bright star - say those who write about him.

In a conversation in his Berlin office, Schily turns out to be cordial, perhaps someone wrestling with a difficult inner conflict, trying to maneuver between his basic humanism and the sensitive political constraints that dictate his agenda.

The fight against neo-Nazism, for example. The former "enemy of the state" has marked neo-Nazis as today's "enemies of the state." Interior Ministry statistics show that the number of racist incidents in which the extreme right was involved increased last year by 59 percent, and reached 16,000 incidents. Such incidents involving violence rose by over one-third, and reached 1,000. This is the largest number of racist incidents since the wave of xenophobia that broke out in the country after its reunification a decade ago.

"This is a step up both in extent and in severity of extremist activities," says Schily. "It must stop."

Schily is most identified with the widely covered and controversial initiative to outlaw the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD). The small party numbers about 6,000 members, but it is considered the most dangerous of the three parties on the extreme right operating in Germany.

If Schily's initiative succeeds, it will be the first time in almost 50 years that a political party has been outlawed in Germany.

The conservative right parties, which are afraid of losing votes to the extreme right, support Schily's initiative. It is on the left that various groups are expressing opposition to what they call "damage to freedom of speech and assembly." Dr. Josef Joffe, editor of the weekly Die Zeit, says that Schily's initiative is "both philosophically and politically mistaken." A democratic society does not have to use boycotts, he says. Second, he adds - and this is a common claim - Schily is taking a very serious risk: If the constitutional court decides that there is not enough evidence to determine that the NPD works against the constitution and endangers democracy, this will give the party a tremendous propaganda tool.

If Schily wins the legal battle, he will lose on the practical level: the NPD will go underground and amass strength, thanks to its new status as a party persecuted by the government.

But outlawing the NPD is essential, says Schily. Otherwise his "hands are tied." "At present, the NPD is allowed to participate in elections, to assemble publicly and to hold demonstrations. In some cases, the legal system has even been used to cancel orders issued by regional states that wanted to ban demonstrations in their jurisdictions.

Schily also complains that he cannot do anything against hundreds of Internet sites, most of them in the United States and Canada, which spread racist propaganda. Outlawing the NPD will at least hinder them from disseminating such propaganda, Schily believes. It will also prevent the party from receiving federal funding and other rights the legal parties enjoy. It will put an end to the absurd situation in which the republic funds neo-Nazi activity against its will.

Personal experience

Every racial epithet, every Hitler salute, and every drawing of a swastika automatically are added to the threatening statistic of 16,000 racist incidents a year, and Schily is keenly aware that the reverberation in the international media after each of those incidents often stems from the fact that they are happening on German soil. He still remembers the Nazis' forcing their way into his parents apartment in 1941 and the expropriation of books from their house. The painful experience left its mark on him. He stopped in the middle of a speech he was making in the Bundestag on the anniversary of Kristalnacht [the Night of the Broken Glass, in November 1938], when tears gathered in his eyes.

"The Nazi party was founded during the early 1920s, in the Weimar Republic, and was allowed to operate freely for too long," he says. "One of the reasons why we are acting as we are today is the belief that the NPD is similar in character to the original Nazi party. We must not wait such a long time again. We must act immediately."

As for the possibility that the court will reject his appeal concerning the NPD, Schily says: "I have no reason to expect such a constitutional failure. If it is proved that the NPD is operating legally and democratically, i.e. if the party has in fact changed in character, then the legal proceedings will fail, but then there wouldn't be any logic to them. Meanwhile, the facts speak for themselves: Even opening the proceedings has already weakened the party."

Schily is now leading another constitutional and social revolution, which is likely to affect the fight against racism and xenophobia: the new immigration and citizenship laws. These are considered very sensitive issues, mainly in the former East Germany, where 17 percent of the population is unemployed. There is no reason to open the gates to new immigrants, says the right: Already now there are 7.3 million foreigners in Germany (9.1 percent of the population), and 3.7 million unemployed, they say. Surveys show that most of the public supports this position.

But the demographic situation and the changing needs of the labor market require a new policy, says the government: Germany's economy is crying out for hundreds of thousands of high-tech, telecommunications, engineering and biotechnology workers, in addition to laborers. Moreover, according to Interior Ministry estimates, the aging of the population and the low birth rate - 1.3 children per family - promise that in 2050, German will have fewer than 60 million inhabitants, as opposed to 82 million today. The percentage of retirees, who constitute the main burden on the welfare system, will grow from 22 percent to 40 percent.

In order to cope with these problems, Schily has set up a committee of experts, consisting of representatives of the employers, the trade unions, the universities, the church, and the Jewish and Turkish communities. In an impressive tactical move, a representative of the opposition Christian-Democrat party, Prof. Rita Sussmuth, the former chair of the Bundestag, was put in charge. After nine months of work, at the beginning of this month, the committee presented its findings to Schily. The 323-page report signals a dramatic change: Germany will officially become a country of immigration. Sussmuth writes: "Immigration should no longer be regarded as a burden, but as an enriching factor. Germany needs immigrants."

The report is an "historic" event, says Schily. He plans to use it as the basis for a new bill he will present to parliament in the fall. Germany will soon be able to boast of "the most modern citizenship law in Europe," he hopes, and it will complete the historic government decision of two years ago to adopt the Jus Soli (the Land Law), enabling millions of German-born children of foreign parents to receive German citizenship.

Schily, it seems, knows there may be pressures from the right, and wishes to prevent a situation in which the question of immigration will dominate the coming election year, in 2002, so he will work for an immigration policy that will be "flexible, transparent and practical." This will be "a policy that will take into account humanitarian principles on the one hand, and economic interests on the other." In less diplomatic words, Germany will absorb fewer immigrants who need Germany, and more immigrants whom Germany needs. It's estimated that together with spouses and children, about 200,000 people will be absorbed annually.

"We don't want a multi-cultural society," said Friedrich Merz, head of the Christian-Democratic faction in the Bundestag last week. The demand he made in early 2001, that foreigners must accept German culture as a Leitkultur (leading culture), sparked a fierce public debate. Merz was accused of racism.

Schily doesn't use the same expression, but indicates that the integration of the immigrants into society is the key to their success. Even today, many of the two million Turks who began arriving in Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1950s, continue to live in a "Turkish bubble." The Turks accuse the Germans of prejudice and of placing obstacles that prevent them from integrating into society. The Germans reply that the Turks have isolated themselves out of choice, and were never really interested in integration. The Sussmuth committee recommends that government investment in teaching immigrants such subjects as language, culture, tradition be increased by more than $200 million.

The subject of immigration and integration into society greatly concerns the Jewish community in Germany, which is growing at the fastest rate of any in the Diaspora. The community, which numbered about 40,000 people at the beginning of the 1990s, has grown to over 100,000, in the wake of the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union. The head of the Jewish community in Berlin, Dr. Alexander Brenner, says that "most of the immigrants are older, uneducated, and totally unfamiliar with the German language and culture. Most came here for material reasons, and their absorption is very difficult." Brenner adds that the community does in fact arrange seminars and educational programs for them, but the success of these programs is in doubt, because at least half of the immigrants are not Jewish.

The director of the Jewish museum in Frankfurt, Georg Heuberger, says: "The community is trying to bring about the integration of the new Jewish immigrants into society, but the immigrants are demanding events in Russian, labeling of the museum exhibits in Russian, bi-lingual community newspapers. Some of them feel much more at home with the Christian icons museum."

The Jewish community now wants Germany to retreat from its liberal policy and to adopt a stricter one, enforcing clear criteria for the acceptance of immigrants. Brenner says: "We have to stop the phenomenon of immigrants pretending to be Jews who settle in Germany and are entitled to assistance and social benefits at the expense of `real Jews' who stayed behind in the former Soviet Union."

Schily says that he meets often with representatives of the Jewish community in order to discuss the problem. "I explained to them that the Jewish community itself has to determine which people it recognizes as members of the community. We can't do that for them." In other words, one cannot ask a German to decide who is a Jew. Certainly not someone who doesn't consider himself an "idiot."