INTERVIEW / Kohl urged to strike back against far right: In an exclusive interview, parliament's speaker tells Steve Crawshaw about German xenophobia

Click to follow
THE PRESIDENT of the German parliament, Rita Sussmuth, yesterday urged the German government to 'go on the offensive' against the far right. She was clearly critical of the attempts by Chancellor Helmut Kohl to play down the problem in recent weeks.

Mr Kohl is due to make a statement in parliament today on the subject of violence against foreigners. Until now, he has sought to imply that the violence should not be taken too seriously as a national problem. Last night he told a party meeting that the attacks on foreigners were not an expression of German xenophobia but a European-wide problem. 'What among us so often is labelled as xenophobia has got a totally different explanation. We are experiencing an increase in the preparedness to use violence throughout Europe,' he said.

Ms Sussmuth, in an interview with the Independent, sharply disagreed. 'It is important that we shouldn't give the impression that it's just a few isolated people. We shouldn't give the impression that it won't happen tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.' She acknowledged that there was a Europe-wide aspect to the problem of racist violence. But she emphasised: 'For me, the first priority is for everybody to deal with the problem in his own country.'

Ms Sussmuth - like Mr Kohl a Christian Democrat - called for the Chancellor to be more forthcoming in his speech to parliament today than he has been so far. Some argue that Mr Kohl is frightened of losing ground to the far right. But Ms Sussmuth argued: 'We mustn't be under the pressure of the far right. If we do that we'll be pushed ever further. The statement must make clear that we will not allow ourselves to be put under pressure. We must remove the soil in which they flourish. We must go on the offensive.'

Today's parliamentary statement and debate come in the wake of the arson-killing in Solingen of five Turkish women and girls at the end of last month. There are almost daily 'failed' arson attacks against foreigners, where nobody is seriously hurt, including at least two yesterday.

Ms Sussmuth argued, too - again in apparent contrast to Mr Kohl - that Germany must accept that there are special sensitivities about xenophobic violence in Germany. 'I emphasise: this is not a return to the Third Reich. But no nation can get away from its own history.'

Ms Sussmuth, a former university professor, is on the liberal wing of the Christian Democrats; Mr Kohl has been keen to exclude her from the inner sanctum of government politics. None the less, her national popularity remains high - much higher than that of Mr Kohl himself. Her name has been mentioned in recent weeks as a possible successor to the German President, Richard von Weizsacker.

On the Solingen killings, Ms Sussmuth may be more in tune with popular feeling than Mr Kohl, with his calculated reticence. After a Turkish woman and two children died in the north German town of Molln in November, huge candle-lit demonstrations against violence took place across the country. They helped to put pressure on the government. Now the shock has been even greater. One poll after Solingen suggested that 91 per cent of Germans see the re- emergence of the far right as a problem. Dual citizenship has been talked of as a way of helping to integrate foreigners in the longer term; at present, it is difficult for a Turk to become German even if he or she was born here or has lived here for decades.

Meanwhile, Germany's uniquely liberal asylum rules were recently changed in order to stem the flood of would-be asylum-seekers arriving in Germany - more than 400,000 last year alone. In this context, Ms Sussmuth talked of the need for a 'joint European solution'.

The opposition Social Democrats yesterday formally put forward their legal challenge to the presence of German troops in Somalia, arguing that the 'life and limb' of German soldiers is put at risk. The constitutional court in Karlsruhe is due to issue an emergency ruling on the question, probably next week.

Last night, Mr Kohl warned that a pull-out would be a 'catastrophe' for Germany's reputation. 'A German refusal to assume such obvious responsibilities would not be understood by our neighbours and partners, and would be understood as a sign of ingratitude,' he told a Christian Democrat party meeting.