Angry Germany points to the past

Germans of all political persuasions and religious beliefs united yesterday to rebut the slur that their country was conducting a Nazi-style persecution of Scientologists.

"It is disgraceful and irresponsible to draw such historical parallels which are completely out of touch with reality," said Michel Friedman, a board member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "It's totally off the mark. Today we have a democracy and a state based on the rule of law. Then it was a dictatorship."

The "open letter" from 34 leading American entertainers, published as an advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, drew fire from opposition and government alike. Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, accused Scientologists of "distorting history".

Rudolf Scharping, the leader of the largest opposition group, the Social Democrats, said: "This letter is not acceptable, especially because of the scandalous comparison of today's Germany with Hitler's fascist rule." The commentators agreed that the letter, addressed to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was in bad taste. "They picked the highest address in Bonn and the lowest point in German history," wrote the daily Die Welt. "The result is the nastiest public attack against the Federal Republic."

The republic will survive, but the Church of Scientology's days in Germany may be numbered. Edmund Stoiber, the Prime Minister of Bavaria, promised yesterday to "go after this organisation" with renewed vigour. Bavaria has already banned members of the sect from state jobs and the teaching profession, a measure which the conservative government in Bonn wants to implement nationwide. Scientologists, believed to number about 30,000 in Germany, are also excluded from all leading parties and several trade organisations.

These measures are already the most repressive in Europe, but the government has mooted further restrictions which would in effect drive the sect underground. There are proposals to place the Church of Scientology under observation, to be watched by an office which keeps track of all extremist groups.

This kind of vigilance is indeed a legacy of the Nazi era, but not in the way that the Hollywood stars understand. Under the Federal Republic's constitution, all organisations which aim to subvert democracy are proscribed. To Germans, the Scientologists' mind-bending techniques and their habit of radiating their propaganda through prominent personalities smacks of Nazism.