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Regional Outlook : Can Europe’s Right Wing Take Flight? : Extremists mostly find it hard to translate economic and ethnic tensions into votes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a man with no real following, Ewalt Althans gets a lot of ink as a potential political threat.

Stern, Germany’s leading illustrated weekly, featured the 25-year-old public relations consultant prominently in a recent article, and even the Washington Post devoted a lengthy dispatch to charting his activities.

The reason for the attention is easy to find: Althans is a self-styled neo-Nazi leader.

That the activities of the extreme right draw close scrutiny in Germany is hardly surprising, both in light of the country’s nightmarish experience under Nazism and a visible shift of the public mood to the right both here and elsewhere in Western Europe.

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The collapse of the socialists and the strong showing of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in French regional elections last week has heightened unease, but so far Europe’s extremists are having a remarkably hard time converting economic and ethnic strains into either open support or votes.

Despite a growing dissatisfaction among western Germans about the influx of more than 1 million immigrants and asylum-seekers over the past two years and concern in the former Communist east about the effects of massive social dislocation and economic depression, inroads have been small.

In elections scheduled Sunday in the western states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Schleswig-Holstein, current polls indicate that only one right-wing party has even a remote chance to break the 5% barrier required to win legislature seats.

“Sympathy for these views remains extremely limited,” noted Renate Koecher, co-managing director of the Allensbach Institute, one of Germany’s leading opinion research firms.

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The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors political extremist groups, last year put the number of neo-Nazi sympathizers nationally at 4,000, a figure equal to 0.005% of Germany’s approximately 80 million people.

All extremist groups combined, including established political parties such as the Republicans and the Nationaldemokratische (National Democrats, or NPD), presently add up to 40,000, according to the same government office--although the groups themselves claim larger memberships.

In part, the reason for the relatively small numbers lies in history.

In Germany, as in countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, the lingering odor of bygone fascist dictatorships still dampens the appeal of a Le Pen-like message.

Elsewhere, such as Britain, The Netherlands and Scandinavia, either a tradition of tolerance or a dearth of immigrants has kept the extreme right from gaining an electoral foothold.

While the Flemish extremist party, the Vlaams Bloc, scooped up 25% of the vote in Belgium’s second-largest city of Antwerp last November and increased its representation in the 212-member national assembly from 2 to 12 seats, only in Austria has a leader with genuine political skills emerged on the extreme right to approach the stature of Le Pen.

There, a dynamic 41-year-old politician named Joerg Haider mixed a call for a complete halt to immigration, a bit of pan-Germanism and some controversial praise for Hitler’s labor policies into a message appealing enough to win his Freedom Party 23% of the popular vote in Vienna municipal elections last November and establish himself as a national force.

But in most of Western Europe’s established democracies, concerns about the flood of immigrants and the fears of trouble stemming from newly free but poor and unstable nations of Eastern Europe have unleashed far more subtle and complex forces than an outbreak of raw fascism.

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In Germany for example, where the search for signs of a Nazi revival is constant and intense, these changes have instead brought other changes.

Here, the new mood is characterized by a rebirth of nationalism so broad-based and devoid of ideology that the mainstream political parties have had little choice but to absorb it.

Ironically, this shift of nationalism into the political mainstream has sapped the appeal of the hard right that once was the only voice that dared to express such ideas.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall nearly 2 1/2 years ago, the lone success at the ballot box for a right-wing extremist party here was the German People’s Union’s (DVU) ability to clear the minimum 5% barrier and win 6 seats in the 100-member Parliament of Bremen, the country’s smallest state.

The Republicans, who won seats in a 1989 election to the Berlin state Parliament, lost them in elections last year. They also last year failed to break the 5% barrier in their home state of Bavaria.

“You call this new mood assertiveness, but it’s really a case of we Germans coming to terms with our own nationalism,” said Angelika Volle, a senior research fellow at the German Foreign Policy Assn. in Bonn.

Concluded the respected Hamburg-based weekly, Die Zeit, in a lead article earlier this month, “Germany is becoming more German.”

Although less dramatic than neo-Nazism, the components of this new nationalism carry major implications both for Germany and its European neighbors. Among them:

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* The country is moving to scrap its open-door policy toward political asylum-seekers, a policy anchored in the constitution and long an important symbol of “the new Germany.”

Responding to grass-roots pressure, major parties, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democrats, late last year backed a policy to place asylum-seekers not in local community hostels but in isolated transit camps until investigations into their claim of political persecution are complete.

Earlier this month, those same major parties agreed on a draft law that would cut the time for investigating these claims, which frequently spanned years, to a maximum of six weeks.

* Germany’s enthusiasm for European integration, once strong and unquestioning, has plummeted amid a growing impression that Germans are being asked to sacrifice too much, including their much-valued deutsche mark.

“Hands Off Our Mark,” screamed a headline in the influential daily Bild Zeitung, voicing opposition to the European monetary union. The paper quoted a telephone survey showing 96% against the planned currency union that would replace the deutsche mark with a common European currency.

A more recent poll conducted earlier this month by the Munich-based Ifo Institute found only 14% of those questioned supported the historic Maastricht treaties of EC economic and political union.

“Euro-bashing has become politically popular,” said Volle. “There’s a feeling they (other EC countries) are demanding too much from us.”

Any long-term erosion of German support for European unity would be catastrophic. Germany is not just the EC’s richest, largest member and the single largest contributor to its budget--a strong Germany committed to European unity is considered a prerequisite for the Continent’s stability.

Analysts believe this new nationalism has played at least some role in eroding public support for a continued American troop presence in the country, although they stress this erosion has been driven mainly by the reduced external threat that has come with the collapse of Soviet communism.

While the Allensbach Institute’s Koecher said more recent soundings indicate that civil unrest in the former Soviet Union and worries about regional instability had caused a slight revival in German public support for the presence of U.S. troops, the country’s new mood must still be considered a potential force against it.

Germany’s new willingness to press its national interests in foreign policy--as demonstrated by its push late last year for diplomatic recognition for Croatia and Slovenia--also adds a new dimension to European and trans-Atlantic diplomacy.

That Germany’s new nationalism has so far evolved without the emergence of a Le Pen-style figure is to some degree a result of a careful tactical game played by Kohl, who has left room within his Christian Democrats for the extreme fringe elements.

The chancellor, for example, was the first to push openly for limiting asylum-seekers’ entry, and he has been conspicuously absent from any show of solidarity with the victims of xenophobic attacks.

Last week he lunched in Munich with Austria’s President Kurt Waldheim, a man who has been shunned by other Western countries because of questionable activities while serving in the Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia and Greece during World War II. Kohl drew sharp criticism, especially from Jewish groups, but his actions played well with the arch-conservative Bavarians who form a central element of his coalition’s support.

As long as Germany’s hard right can find a home within the political mainstream, strong showings by extremist parties seem unlikely, observers believe.

Still, few would argue that the danger of a potential resurgence of the right does not exist.

Especially in the troubled east, with no democratic tradition in memory, only superficial loyalties to the established mainstream parties and a strong sense of alienation from the nation’s western-dominated leadership, conditions would appear to offer potentially fertile ground to a demagogue maverick.

Any sharp growth of right-wing extremism elsewhere in Europe could also rub off here, analysts believe.

“What happens around us will carry its own influence,” said Volle. “There’s no getting away from that.”

Times bureau chiefs Joel Havemann in Brussels, William D. Montalbano in Rome and Rone Tempest in Paris also contributed to this article.


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