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The Lutheran church—rebuilt after the war—is one of the few attractive buildings in Hoyerswerda, a small town north of Dresden. It lies in what is known as the “old town”—a bleak little place with a market square, a modest hotel, and a narrow street of preserved artisans’ houses, decorated with stucco carvings of glass-blowers and the like. The sky is more or less permanently stained yellow by the brown-coal mines which are the town’s main business. The large mining enterprise is called the Schwarze Pumpe, the Black Pump. The Black Pump workers live across the Black Elster River, which divides the old town from the new town. The new town was built after the war. It consists of rows and rows of concrete housing blocks, of the kind you see in the slums of east London, Peking, or Katowice. Hoyerswerda was one of the most prosperous towns in the former German Democratic Republic.

At the Lutheran church I attended a Sunday morning sermon, delivered by Pastor Friedhard Vogel, a pleasant, roly-poly man with a tolerant smile. He told the story of the three kings. They were heathens, he said, not of the people of Israel, foreigners. This meant that “people with different histories, of different colors, from different countries can find their way to Jesus.” The sermon ended with a short prayer: “God, we pray for our town, Hoyerswerda. We pray that we can find the strength to accept foreigners in our midst and offer them our hospitality.”

There are hardly any foreigners left in Hoyerswerda. Until a few years ago there were several thousand, employed at the Black Pump, from such countries as Mozambique, Algeria, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They lived in virtual isolation. Their wages were low. The Algerians were known as “camel drivers,” the southeast Asians, for some odd reason, as “Fijis.” There had been trouble between the Germans and the foreigners, especially between Germans and Africans, often to do with women. When foreigners showed too much interest in German women (or vice versa) knife fights broke out. But such troubles were never reported in the press. Peace, solidarity, and eternal friendship between the workers of the world were the official reality of the GDR. Every German worker was forced to pay “solidarity money,” or “soli,” toward this end. The money was meant for foreign aid, but usually was spent on youth festivals instead, during which friendship and peace were proclaimed, loudly, in unison, en masse.

Many of the foreign friends left before the end of the GDR, but some Fijis and camel drivers remained, and a few hundred asylum seekers from twenty-three countries arrived after the unification of Germany. Almost all the foreigners were forced to leave last year, however, after an incident which attracted the attention of the world press and made Hoyerswerda a rallying cry—a kind of Alamo—for assorted xenophobes in Germany and even beyond. The word “Hoyerswerda” was daubed on the wall of a housing project in southeast London, signed by the British National Party.

Much has been written about this event. Many clichés were aired in the press: old attitudes, suppressed by Communist rule, were again coming to the fore; Nazi culture had been frozen into the ice of the Communist state, and the ice was melting; the destruction of traditional values under communism had led to neo-Nazism. The Lutheran pastor, who had been there, had a more complicated story to tell.

It all started one market day last autumn. Eight local skinheads—aggressive youths with shaven skulls, dressed in bomber jackets and big boots—attacked a few German citizens for kicks. Then two Vietnamese passed by and, to the relief of the Germans, the “Skins” decided to have some sport with them instead. The Vietnamese managed to escape to their apartment on Albert Schweitzer Street. But later that day more Skins arrived to throw Molotov cocktails and stones and shout insults. The neighbors, leaning out of their windows, elbows comfortably resting on cushions, joined in the fun by encouraging the youths. The police did virtually nothing. The charitable view is that they were helpless (hampered, perhaps, by the desire not to resort to the authoritarian methods of yester-year). A less charitable view is that they felt more affinity with the Skins than with the Fijis.

A few days later the Skins shifted their attention to an apartment block where 280 asylum seekers from all over the world had found a temporary shelter. By this time Skins had come all the way from Berlin and other parts of East and West Germany. “It was a festival atmosphere,” said the pastor. “Volksfest” was the word he used. “People found it much more exciting than television.” TV crews arrived from German and foreign networks. Youths obligingly shouted, “Sieg Heil!” in front of the cameras. Windows were smashed and the neighbors laughed. But nobody was injured until the authorities packed the besieged foreigners into special buses, which sped out of town after dark. A Vietnamese man managed a terrified smile and waved at the frenzied crowd through the window of his bus. A stone smashed the glass. “Bull’s Eye!” shouted the crowd, and a splinter lodged in his eye. Hours later a clinic in Dresden refused to treat his perforated eye because he lacked the required documents for admission. 1

That was not the end of the affair. Some days later bands of “antifascist” youths, dressed in black jeans, arrived from west Berlin on a “Strafexpedition,” a punishment expedition—a term, by the way, commonly used by SA gangs in the early 1930s, when they went to beat up reds. The skinheads had disappeared, and the antifascists decided to punish Hoyerswerda by smashing up some public property.

The pastor explained that the skinheads, or neo-Nazis, were not all deprived or unemployed youths. “The problem of anti-Semitism and Nazism was never really dealt with here,” he said. “You would often see Nazi slogans on walls, or swastikas in Jewish cemetaries. I would say this was invariably the work of children from good Communist homes.” Shouting Nazi slogans or wearing Nazi gear was the most shocking thing a rebellious adolescent in a Communist state could do. One was sure to get attention. The same is true of young people growing up in a liberal democracy, haunted by the Nazi past.

Germany is particularly rich in youth gangs, all with their own distinctive uniforms and politics. And uniforms continue to hold a deep attraction. Which gang one joins may be partly a matter of temperament: some prefer bomber jackets and symbols of brutal discipline, others feel more at home with black-clad dreamers of anarchic utopias; the former tend to be beefy; the latter rather thin. But most come from the same class, lower-middle to lower—at least in the capitalist west, where the gangs originated. Their politics, though not entirely without significance, are confused and may be incidental. The main thing is a sense of togetherness, conformity—even among the anarchists—and a kind of order. Songs, beer, and beating up foreigners foster this feeling among Skins, and beating up Skins fosters it among the antifascists. Skins disfigure Berlin subway trains with such slogans as “FOREIGNERS OUT!,” the antifascists with “KILL THE NAZIS!” Not all antifascists are peacefully inclined; nor are all Skins attracted to Nazi symbols. I once saw a confrontation between “rightwing” Skins, who yelled incoherent slogans about a Germany cleansed of foreigners, and “left-wing” Skins, who preached revolution and accused their brothers in uniform of giving Skins a bad name.

As with gangs everywhere, turf is important. The Skins of Hoyerswerda were apparently resentful that “leftists” had places where they could meet, whereas there was no club for “rightists.” This has been remedied. The pastor explained that the church had been working with Skins to build a nice, new clubhouse. “Some people here feel sympathy for the Skins,” the pastor said, “because they like what these young people are saying about order, patriotism, and feeling good about our Heimat.”

To judge from newspaper reports there are more cases of anti-foreign violence in the western half of the country. Just the other day skinheads in west Berlin attacked a Pole in a subway car and cut half his tongue out with scissors; the house of an Asian who had sought asylum in Munster was set on fire by anti-foreign gangs, and so were houses of refugees in Hamburg, and in Hessen. Indeed, there were 338 such cases of arson against foreigners in 1991, 247 of them in the old federal republic, 91 in what used to be the GDR.

To the extent that neo-Nazism is an organized movement, the leaders are in the West, or in Austria. One of the most active organizers of neo-Nazi activities is a Viennese called Gottfried Küssel, a pudgy dreamer of a greater German Reich. Few people in Germany or Austria had heard of this rather absurd figure, until he was interviewed on ABC television. The Austrian ambassador in Washington became nervous and sent a tape to his ministry in Vienna. The Austrians, keen to dispel the impression in America that a Fourth Reich was at hand, arrested Küssel.

It is possible that organized neo-Nazi groups have links with skinhead gangs. It is also possible, according to the pastor, that resentful former secret police agents are involved in stirring up trouble. Then, too, the pastor mentioned the possibility that some rightwing politicians might not be averse to anti-foreign violence, since such alleged expressions of the people’s will could help tighten up laws against people seeking asylum. On the other hand, youth violence, such as occurred in Hoyerswerda, may have nothing to do at all with organized political activities. Not yet, at any rate.

So some skepticism is in order when people—especially West Germans—make general statements about old attitudes emerging from the melting ice of the post-Communist East. Nor is brutality against foreigners only a German problem. Similar violence is happening all over Europe, east, north, south, and west. The politics of xenophobia is a pan-European phenomenon: Le Penism in France, the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, the National Front in Britain, the Movimento Sociale and the Lombardy League in Italy. Polish nationalists declared themselves against Jews and… Germans. The Archbishop of Ravenna warned his flock against the “Islamization of Europe.” A week before Christmas I went to see a soccer match between teams from Rotterdam and Amsterdam, once a city with many Jews. I had the misfortune to sit with the Rotterdam supporters, about 20,000 of them, who bellowed “Jewish dogs” every time an Amsterdam player had the ball. When the Amsterdam player happened to be black, he was a “Jewish nigger.” This in nice, tolerant Holland.

Still, as the German writer Horst Krüger once observed, the Germans “are sentenced to be haunted by Hitler for life.” He meant his own generation, which experienced the war. In fact, Hitler’s ghost still hovers round parliamentary debates, antiwar demos, editorial columns, classroom exercises, university faculties, memorial day speeches, military cemetaries, immigration offices, and television talk shows. Hitler cannot be shaken off.

  1. 1

    This detail is not from the pastor’s account, but from a report by Mathhias Matussek in Der Spiegel, September 30, 1991.

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