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The Battleground For Germany's Soul


Letter From Berlin

THE BATTLEGROUND FOR GERMANY'S SOUL

Jogging one evening on the deserted periphery of the Tiergarten, the huge park at the heart of Berlin, I was doing an obviously American thing and wearing obviously American athletic clothes. I further displayed my non-Germanness when, after finishing my run, I absentmindedly strayed into the meter-wide red-brick path reserved for bicyclists.

Suddenly, a cyclist who looked to be in his early 20s wearing a black leather jacket bore down on me, shouting "Get out of Germany!"

Such incidents make reunified Berlin a kind of battleground for Germany's soul. On the one hand, it is a bastion of liberalism, with both the largest Jewish and Turkish communities in Germany. Home also to a well-established counterculture and lively nightlife, Berlin attracts cultural groups such as dance and theater companies from elsewhere in Germany. And now that six government ministries appear certain to move from Bonn to Berlin later this decade, more foreign diplomats and journalists are coming to what they think will be the seat of the German government.

Yet Berlin has a hard edge of a kind a traveler doesn't immediately feel in Bonn or Cologne or Frankfurt. It is the edge of hate, expressed not only toward the 400,000 foreigners living in Berlin but also toward fellow Germans. One reason for the aggressive, confrontational tone is that Berlin is where the profoundly different psychologies of the former West and East Germanies butt heads. Westerners blithely dismiss the old East German system as having nothing worth preserving other than right-turn-on-red. Easterners say they've been invaded by greedy, materialistic Westerners. "Spekulaten Raus!" scream the graffiti scrawled on a wall in eastern Berlin, attacking Westerners who have been snapping up apartment buildings.

Moreover, Berlin is the place where Germans confront the demons of their collective past. The sense of history from the kings of Prussia to Adolf Hitler to the Berlin Wall clutches at your ankles like ground fog. Germans from other parts of the country often say that everything bad in German history has come from Berlin. But Berliners, many of whom have their roots in the Prussian tradition, say they have been a force for tolerance and sophistication.

Some 20,000 Jews, for example, call Berlin home. Some of the older Easterners had embraced Soviet-style socialism as a noble cause against Hitler. Those in the West are solidly capitalistic. All seem to be trying to revive their religion and culture, and their numbers are bolstered by newcomers from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

At the moment, Berlin is a safe haven compared with smaller towns throughout Germany, where vandals have attacked Jewish cemeteries. Still, Berlin's Jews worry about an undertone of discrimination they see building. Denise Elkin, 36, the daughter of an American Jewish father and a German mother, describes how her fellow graduate students responded when she told them that her late father had been a Jew. They began to freeze her out of social activities--and even conversations. "If someone from a different cultural background behaves differently, they get the cold shoulder," says Elkin, as we stroll through the predominantly Turkish district of Kreuzberg, where she lives.

FIREBOMBS. Berlin's 137,000 Turks probably live in the greatest tension. Now that the economics of reunification have soured, they are fighting Germans for jobs and housing. Turkish students are victims of harassment as they enter and leave school buildings. Armed gangs of Turks and Germans clash in the streets, and the windows at the headquarters of the moderate Turkish Community offices have been smashed. Neo-Nazi groups set off bombs or start fires at places where foreigners live. "People get used to hearing about far-right attacks on foreigners," says Turgut Cakmakoglu, leader of the Turkish Community. "It becomes part of everyday life."

Sitting beneath a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, the 41-year-old former schoolteacher explains over thick Turkish coffee how many Turks speak only German and can never be accepted back in Turkey, even though a growing number, about 30%, have lost their jobs in Berlin.

But the police, immigration authorities, and judicial system are stepping up the pressure to encourage resident Turks to get out of Germany by denying them citizenship, for example. Cakmakoglu argues that these authorities are acting in sympathy with the dozens of neo-Nazi groups that have sprung up and with the slightly more moderate Republican Party. This combination of right-wing violence and official harassment worries Germans committed to living in a pluralistic society. "Some Germans want ethnic solutions, not social solutions," says Barbara Johns, Berlin's Senate Commissioner for Foreigner Affairs.

Far from the commotion of Kreuzberg is the Berlin headquarters of the Republican Party on quiet, prosperous Kluckstrasse. Leader Werner M ller, 55, is an unlikely rightist. He took early retirement after being a civil servant in Bonn and was a member of the slightly left-of-center Social Democratic Party. Now he's trying to exploit economic discontent in working-class districts to win votes for Republicans. At a time when many Germans are out of jobs, "the influence of foreigners must be stopped," says M ller. "This is unbearable."

Although M ller attempts to position his party as a voice of reason--an alternative to fascism--there is a medieval undertone to his words when he argues that "Christendom" has to fight back against the "Turkish colony" in Germany. To American ears at least, it is dark voices like his that give Berlin a deeply fractured psyche.WILLIAM J. HOLSTEIN


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