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Fighting Old Wars and Old Hatreds : Is history resurfacing in Germany, Austria?

The paradox of contemporary Europe is that even as its many countries are being compelled by economic and political self-interest to draw more closely together, fear and hatred are threatening to drive its many peoples ever farther apart.

VICIOUS VIRUS: In much of Eastern Europe and in what remains of the Soviet Union, ethnic hostilities that had been kept suppressed by now-overthrown authoritarian regimes have resurfaced in full fury. In some cases--Yugoslavia most destructively--these ancient animosities have led to vicious conflict. This virus has not spared Western Europe, despite its deeper democratic roots and traditions. As immigration, legal and illegal, has increased, xenophobia has grown. Anti-foreignism is a Europe-wide problem but for many, remembering history, its most disturbing manifestations now are in Germany and Austria.

Germany, with liberal immigration policies and about 5 million foreign residents, has seen an increasing incidence of anti-foreign violence since communism collapsed, clearing the way for reunification. Most of this violence is committed by rootless young men who profess a nostalgia for a Naziism that none of them experienced and who delight in attacking defenseless foreigners--Turks, Arabs, Poles, Afghans, whatever. A knowledgeable official estimates there could be as many as 40,000 of these thugs.

The best evidence so far is that these neo-Nazis are poorly organized and largely lacking in popular support. Indeed, it was encouraging over the weekend when tens of thousands of Germans marched--by no coincidence on the anniversary of the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in 1938--to protest the attacks on foreigners and to call solemnly on Germans to remember their past. Outrage, repudiation are the best responses to the depredations of the neo-Nazis. There cannot be enough of it, by the public and certainly by their elected officials.

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INCREASED VIRULENCE: In Austria, the far-right anti-foreign movement may ominously be gaining increasing political legitimacy through the ballot box. In Vienna’s city elections on Sunday the Freedom Party (FPO), nearly doubling its vote of four years ago, won 23 seats in the 100-seat municipal assembly, emerging second in strength only to the socialists. This was the FPO’s third significant electoral showing in the last three months, under a leader, Joerg Haider, who has publicly praised Hitler’s labor policies. FPO candidates appealed to anti-foreign and anti-Jewish sentiments, both long latent in Austria, and both of which have become more pronounced as immigration from the east has increased.

Americans, who could soon see an ex-Nazi elected governor of Louisiana, must be careful not to take too high a moral tone when it comes to deploring political extremism in other countries. But the fact that bigotry endures in the United States does not make any less disturbing the implications of what is going on in a number of European countries.

The echoes from the past may yet be faint, but they are chilling nonetheless.


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