17 Years After German Reunification, Xenophobia Renews East-West Divide

Some 500 racist attacks were registered in Germany over the past year, a 33 percent increase from the previous year.

BERLIN - Without knowing it, the three Greek citizens who stopped for gas last week in the east Berlin borough of Pankow crossed a virtual line separating the city's safe areas for foreigners and the dangerous ones.

The three - two men and a woman - were attacked in the gas station by a group of skinheads who beat and kicked them, shouting abuses. The men had to be hospitalized.

A week earlier an African youngster was beaten up in Berlin, and a week before that four Czech and Hungarian youngsters were attacked by a neo-Nazi gang in Wismar, a port town in the northeast.

There has been a spate of racist attacks in the former East Germany since the fall of Communism. Wednesday is the 17th anniversary of German reunification, and experts are warning that racism and xenophobia could redraw the old division between east and west.

Some 500 racist attacks were registered in Germany over the past year, a 33 percent increase from the previous year. Most of the incidents took place in former East Germany. Since the reunification, 130 racist murders have been registered, more than a fifth of them in Berlin and the state of Brandenburg. At the same time, radical right-wing and neo-Nazi parties in east Germany have increased their power and entered local parliaments, while opinion polls are reflecting growing xenophobia.

"If you're dark-skinned, you simply can't go into certain areas in east Berlin on weekend nights," says Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation, which aims to rein in extreme right-wing violence in Germany.

"In the Pankow and Lichtenberg districts in east Berlin, for example, foreigners have a 25-times greater chance of being attacked than in the western part of the city," she says.

The foundation she heads was founded in the late 1990s and named after an immigrant from Angola who was beaten to death by skinheads in Brandenburg in 1990. A series of murders of foreigners in the years after the unification shook Germany, and the problem still exists today.

"We must face facts: Every day there is an attack against foreigners, and most of them occur in the former East," says Kahane.

"It's not easy to explain why east Germany is a hub of xenophobia and violence," says Dr. Gideon Botsch, a political science expert from the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies in Potsdam.

"Apart from the classic explanations of high unemployment, a bad economic situation, faulty education and high crime rates, it's important to look at the way in which democracy has been introduced in those areas," he says.

"In the first, formative years of the unification, the government's presence was hardly felt, the police did not exist and there were hardly any public services. This period led to the wave of attacks on foreigners. The people in the east felt immune to the implications of these attacks. We believe that people who were born between 1971 and 1979, who were youths in the 1990s, are involved to this day in attacks and neo-Nazi activity."

The reduced government presence in several villages and small towns in the east has allowed this trend to continue and to increase the younger generation's joining in. When the government is weak, the radical right thrives," says Botsch.

Kahane believes that one of the main reasons for this is the way East Germany refused to deal with the German people's responsibility for the Holocaust and World War II. "The starting point of the German Democratic Republic was that everyone is forgiven for what happened in the Third Reich," she says.

"As far as the government is concerned, all East German citizens were victims, a working class abducted by a fascist leadership. Overnight they all became anti-fascist, anti-racist and filled with fraternal comradeship. The whole debate about guilt in the West didn't take place in the East. We see the results today in the rise of the radical right wing there."

"In Brandenburg, for example, there are radical right-wing activists who are 'ticking bombs,'" warns Botsch. "They are dedicated to the neo-Nazi ideology and attracted to violence. It's only a matter of time until they kill someone."

"We're in a race against time," says Kahane. "The question is who will win - the radical right, which is cleverly recruiting more and more youngsters and establishing political support, or the government and civic organizations trying to stop them."