Nearly half a million Germans marked the 60th anniversary Saturday of Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy to power by taking part in candlelight demonstrations held in several cities to protest the recent convulsion of racist-driven right-wing violence in the country.
In Berlin, police estimated that more than 100,000 people braved subfreezing temperatures to form a chain of light that ran from the prominent 19th-Century Victory Column in western Berlin to Alexander Platz, once the heart of the former Communist eastern part of the city.
An equal number reportedly turned out for a similar protest in the Rhine city of Duesseldorf, while smaller demonstrations occurred in at least 18 other cities, including the Baltic seaport of Rostock, where German President Richard von Weizsaecker marched with about 25,000 people along a nine-mile route from the city center to the suburb of Lichtenhagen.
Last summer, extreme rightist German youths burned the homes of foreign asylum seekers in the suburb and attacked residents during a week of some of the worst rioting ever seen in post-World War II Germany.
The attacks were among the most widely reported of the more than 2,000 known incidents of right-wing violence last year in Germany--attacks that claimed 17 lives and left hundreds injured.
The inability of the police to combat this violence, coupled with the prolonged inaction on the part of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s coalition government before cracking down on the extremists who triggered it, eventually led to a wave of mass protests against the unrest.
Aided both by Von Weizsaecker’s warnings that public indifference helped undermine the ill-fated Weimar Republic in the early 1930s and his persistent urgings that only visible, broad-based opposition to extremism and racial hatred can protect Germany’s present democracy, several million Germans--the vast majority of them never before politically active--have taken to the streets during the past three months.
As in Saturday’s protests, the majority of the rallies have been organized without the help of the main political parties, which are viewed by a growing number of Germans as contributing more to the country’s problems than to their solution.
“They (politicians) are the ones who got us into this,” said Kaethe Reichel, a well-known east German actress who helped organize the Berlin chain of light.
The participants, primarily young people and families with small children, passed through the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate--the landmark where exactly 60 years ago Nazi storm troopers celebrated the death of Germany’s first democracy and the rise of their leader with a very different torchlight parade.
That scene was described in chilling detail by American reporter William Shirer in the opening pages of his widely acclaimed chronicle of the Hitler era, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
“By the tens of thousands, they emerged in disciplined columns from the depths of the Tiergarten, passed under the triumphal arch, their bands blaring . . . their jackboots beating a mighty rhythm on the pavement, their torches held high and forming a ribbon of flame that illuminated the night and kindled the hurrahs of the onlookers massed on the sidewalks,” Shirer wrote. It was the beginning of modern Europe’s darkest hour, and many of those who turned out for Saturday’s protest said they felt history compelled them to come.
“Hitler didn’t grasp power, he was given it because no one stood up and said, ‘No!’ ” said computer programmer Axel Mellenthin, who attended the Berlin rally. “You can’t achieve everything with a candle, but you can at least say, ‘I’m here.’ ”
There is little doubt the protests have helped turn the public mood in Germany from a kind of tacit approval of the attacks against foreigners to one of condemnation.
Reflecting this change, many right-wing extremists who once liked to boast of their deeds to reporters now refuse to give their names for fear of reprisal.