Germany turns to its one-man conscience: Ignatz Bubis has stern words for the government in Bonn and calming advice for other Jews. John Eisenhammer reports from Frankfurt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GERMANY'S conscience is short, rotund, and fighting to stay awake. Ignatz Bubis, head of the country's small Jewish community, can barely cope with the demands suddenly thrust upon him. Everywhere, he is in demand: giving speeches; taking part in marches; on television; in meetings with politicians.

A nation that is shocked by the xenophobic outrages in its midst; by the brazen re-appearance of ghosts from a past it hoped had long been exorcised, has turned instinctively to its conscience and the voice of Ignatz Bubis. What do the Jews think?

It is a critical voice, attacking the German authorities for having tolerated for too long the neo-Nazi scourge. 'They should have gone in hard right at the outset, and smashed these criminals with the full force of the law. The government should have set the agenda,' said Mr Bubis. 'Instead they held back, pursuing a policy which effectively encouraged the extremists. The results are clear for all to see.'

But as a conscience, the 65-year-old chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany cannot just criticise. He also has to calm. His every declaration is a carefully worded balancing-act, between outrage and reassurance, alarm and appeals not to panic. Germany today is not Weimar, he says, only to add that if things continue as they are, then Weimar cannot be far away.

'I warn in all directions - telling one side that drastic action is needed; the other side not to panic; the one side that the situation is worrying; the other that people must not exaggerate - it is difficult to find the right measure,' said Mr Bubis.

International reaction to neo-Nazi violence has been 'very exaggerated' in Mr Bubis's opinion. 'I can understand this for historic reasons, but that does not mean it is correct.' The confidence of this successful Frankfurt property developer in Germany is unshaken. After the killing of three Turks in Molln, for which two neo-Nazis have been charged, Mr Bubis thinks that at last the government has been shocked into the necessary strength of response.

'No dialogue is possible with these criminal elements. First they must be crushed, and then the politicians can talk about ways of dealing with the problems of asylum seekers and foreigners. The priorities have been perilously wrong,' said Mr Bubis, whose family died in the Nazi camps.

Hoyerswerda, Rostock, Molln - Mr Bubis lists the worst violence against foreigners over the past 18 months, and the 'huge mistakes made by the authorities in holding back, looking on, passing light sentences'. One thing has led to another. 'First they attack asylum-seekers, and were not stopped,' he says. 'So they turned to desecrating Jewish cemeteries and concentration camp memorials, and were not stopped. And now foreigners have been killed - the violence has become increasingly bolder, and only decisive action will halt it.'

Mr Bubis has experienced the changes in Germany, the new-found confidence in expressing sentiments that just a few years ago were taboo. 'I get more anti-Semitic letters than before, and now, where they used to be anonymous, many are signed.' Unlike the violence, the racism and anti-Semitism will be much harder to combat, for it is part of the new nationalism developing since unification, argues Mr Bubis. The government, in his view, has made things worse by its narrow focus on the asylum issue, while virtually ignoring the problem of integrating and accepting the millions of foreigners already in Germany.

'People are not being prepared for the fact that tightening the asylum clause in the constitution here will not change much. Refugees will keep coming, and millions of foreigners will remain. There is a huge task of education that still needs to be done. But before it can even be properly started, the violence must be stopped.'

(Photograph omitted)