From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Broad alliance confronts German right-wing extremists

Date 02 Feb 2001 08:42:20for <,>; Fri, 2 Feb 2001 08:48:19 -0800 (PST)

Note #6367 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Broad alliance confronts German right-wing extremists

by Jerry Van Marter
Ecumenical News International

POTSDAM, Germany -- In Furstenwalde, a city of 35,000 residents on the
German state of Brandenburg's border with Poland, the group Plattform gegen
Rechts (Platform against right-wingers) has persuaded more than 50 local
businesses to post small, green signs in their windows identifying their
shops as places of refuge from violent racist attacks.

The signs -- line drawings in white on a green background showing a person
entering a doorway -- are simple. The message, said Plattform organizer
Rainier Killisch, was clear: "We will not tolerate racist violence and here
is a safe place if you are attacked."

Because of the Second World War, racism is particularly a sensitive issue
here. While most Germans are firmly anti-racist, a number of neo-nazi groups
have in recent decades attracted a small, extremist following. One
organization, the National Democratic Party (NPD), has become the political
home of about 6,000 militant skinheads and neo-nazis. The federal parliament
is now trying to have the party banned.

At the same time, churches and other groups believe that legislation and
court action alone will not eliminate racism. Anti-racism programs by
churches, trade unions, youth organizations and groups such as Plattform are
stepping up their efforts to confront extremism throughout the country.

In Brandenburg, for example, the three-year-old Alliance for Action against
Violence, Right-wing Extremism and Xenophobia is coordinating hundreds of
anti-racism groups, including Plattform.

"Our purpose is to find ways to make people learn about, discuss and examine
their prejudices," the alliance's press officer, Wolfram Meyer, told a group
of foreign journalists who are in Potsdam, Brandenburg's capital, for a
meeting of the World Council of Churches' central committee.

"We cannot eliminate this problem, but we can reduce it," Dr. Meyer said. 

On January 30, the German cabinet submitted a 103-page report to the Federal
Constitutional Court detailing 152 allegations that the NPD "tries to turn
social protest into fundamental enmity towards democracy and the rule of
law, espouses racial views that are in the spirit of national socialism, and
spreads anti-constitutional ideas that call for a totalitarian government
and social order."

The federal court has previously banned two political parties -- the
Socialist Reich Party in 1952 and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956.

NPD's leader, Udo Voigt, has claimed that the cabinet attempt to ban his
party will fail, and that its failure would be "a victory for democracy."
But the cabinet's case to the constitutional court stresses the NPD's
undemocratic behavior, including belligerent rhetoric and readiness to use
violence. "People have been and are being hunted, beaten and murdered," the
cabinet states in its submission, referring to neo-Nazi groups.

Explaining the activities of hard-line groups here, Dr. Meyer said that
right-wing extremists were "people who work against the democratic system in
a tradition of militant nationalism with a heavy element of racism."

Extremism manifested itself in various ways, Dr. Meyer said: as "beliefs"
(which are passive), social behavior (sometimes producing violent criminal
acts), and political action (such as NPD activities).

While political parties could be outlawed and criminal behavior prosecuted,
much right-wing extremism "cannot be handled by the police," Dr. Meyer said.
"It is the role of the alliance and its local projects to force
conversations and examination of right-wing extremist attitudes."

Furstenwalde's Plattform was set up late in 1998, when churches, unions,
local party officials and other individuals became concerned over the
pre-election popularity of the NPD. Killisch told journalists yesterday: "We
started with 12 members and had very heavy discussions about raising public
awareness because the mayor wanted to deny the problem. He feared that talk
of a right-wing extremist violence problem in Furstenwalde would look bad
for the image of the city."

Inge Czerwinske, a Green Party representative on the Furstenwalde town
council and an active member of Plattform, said that resistance from
political leaders was no longer a problem. The "safe place" campaign and a
series of other Plattform events over the past two years, culminating in a
mass demonstration by townspeople and a worship service in the city's
biggest Protestant church last November, "gave such a huge signal to the
people here," she said.

"People, especially the politicians, have finally learned that denying there
is a problem is the worst thing they can do, and actually makes problems
worse," Dr. Meyer said.

Czerwinske pointed to the adoption of the Furstenwalde Declaration -- an
anti-racism declaration signed by Plattform and the Furstenwalde town
council -- as an example of government and non-governmental organizations
working together to address the problem.

The Alliance for Action against Violence, Right-wing Extremism and
Xenophobia is a unique partnership, funded by the Brandenburg state
government, but run entirely by alliance members.

The alliance has no programs of its own, but co-ordinates and shares
information between its members. Local initiative is the key to success.
"When a trade union does an [anti-racism] campaign, for instance, it has an
obvious effect," Dr. Meyer said.

"Is a colored man safe in Furstenwalde after dark? I hope so," Czerwinske
said. "There is no more graffiti, and you can tell people are thinking more
seriously. We are trying so hard. I'm sure it's safer than it used to be."

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