Tomorrow does not belong to them: Those yearning for a new fuhrer draw parallels between the 1990s and the Weimar years, but they face a revolt against neo-Nazism. Adrian Bridge reports from Munich

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The Independent Online
A QUARTER-MILLION Germans took to the streets of Munich yesterday in a protest organised under the simple banner: 'A city says No'.

Bearing candles, torches and lamps, the protesters formed themselves into a giant star: a symbol of light and hope in a country once again riven by doubts about its destiny.

For the scores of ordinary citizens taking part, the purpose of yesterday's rally was clear: to say 'no' to xenophobia, 'no' to anti-Semitism and 'no' to the neo-Nazi thugs who yearn to hear the words 'Sieg Heil' ringing through the streets again.

'At last the silent majority is standing up for decency and democracy,' said Josef Joffe, foreign editor of the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung and one of the driving forces behind yesterday's protest. 'People have begun to understand that attacks against foreigners are also attacks against us - against our whole way of life,' he continued. 'To those responsible, the message must be unequivocal: 'You may still be harking back to Mein Kampf (My Struggle), but it is not our struggle'.'

That important opinion-formers like Mr Joffe - and all those taking part in yesterday's protest - feel it necessary to make that point reflects the deep- seated fear held by many Germans that the country could indeed descend into Nazism for a second time.

Ever since skinhead mobs stormed a hostel for asylum-seekers in the north- eastern town of Rostock in August, unleashing a wave of xenophobic terror across the country, that fear has grown. The sight of swastikas daubed on Jewish gravestones and of foreigners' hostels set ablaze almost nightly - sometimes to the cheers of onlookers - has prompted painful comparisons with the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period and the disastrous years of the Weimar Republic which preceded it.

Hitler, it is pointed out, rose to power on a right-wing wave that targeted anything and everything considered to be un-German and which was rooted in an economic malaise, echoes of which can be found in the country's current attitude towards asylum-seekers, the ever- lengthening dole queues, especially in the east, and in the growing acknowledgment that Germany is sliding into a recession.

When President Richard von Weizsacker was pelted with eggs and stones by left-wing extremists at another anti-xenophobia rally in Berlin last month, many cried out that that was precisely the sort of incident that characterised the Weimar years. When, subsequently, it was revealed that Bundeswehr soldiers had participated in some of the racist attacks, further parallels were drawn with the dubious role played by the Reichswehr in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Certainly, neo-Nazis themselves believe history is turning their way. 'We won once and, for the first time since the war, we feel we could win again,' said Michael Swierczek, leader of the Augsburg-based Nationale Offensive, one of some 60 right-wing extremist organisations which, nationwide, boast a membership of 7,000. 'Sure, this is definitely not 1932. But we could be somewhere in the 1920s. The system is tottering. Destabilisation has set in. The boom years of the 'economic miracle' are over. And in a crisis, Germans always turn to the far right.'

In their quest for historical parallels, Mr Swierczek and his colleagues point to the widespread feeling of dissatisfaction many Germans have towards the main political parties, the growing reluctance to feel guilt about the Third Reich and, most importantly, to the increasing number of violent clashes between extreme right- and left-wing groups - a phenomenon which, perhaps more than any other, characterised the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic.

To some extent, the figures bear them out. So far this year, right-wing extremists have carried out more than 2,000 violent attacks in which 16 people have been killed, a sharp increase on the 1,400 attacks and three deaths recorded in 1991. This year has also witnessed some 18,000 xenophobic or anti- Semitic incidents, ranging from cold- blooded murder to the raising of the right arm in the 'Heil Hitler' salute, a 70 per cent increase over last year.

This trend, Mr Joffe concedes, 'evokes the sulphurous smell of Weimar'. Mr von Weizsacker conceded as much himself in a nervous speech at last month's Berlin rally delivered behind a row of riot-police shields. 'Let us entertain no illusions,' he warned. 'What is happening this year has not occurred in this country since the war. Something evil is afoot.'

The temptation to draw analogies with Weimar is almost irresistible but according to Norbert Frei, an expert on the inter-war years at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, closer inspection reveals them to be almost wholly unfounded. It is, for instance, ridiculous, he argues, to compare the economic difficulties experienced today with the overwhelming catastrophe that hit the German economy in the 1920s. In 1923, millions of middle- class Germans lost their entire savings when hyperinflation rendered the mark valueless - at one point the exchange rate against the dollar reached 4.2 trillion marks. Six years later, the Wall Street stock exchange crashed and the ensuing world recession pushed 6 million Germans on to the dole queue.

'Hitler was able to make political capital out of the resulting economic misery in a way that no extreme right- wing movement could today,' says Mr Frei. Despite Germany's current unemployment rate of almost 3 million and regions in the east of the country where it is higher than 50 per cent, welfare payments to those out of work are much more generous. 'In 1930 people out of work were on the bread line,' says Mr Frei. 'Today they are unhappy - but they are not desperate.'

If the economic parallels are shaky, so too are those concerning extremist violence. Although the number of clashes between far-right and -left in Germany today is rising, it is still nowhere near the level reached during the Weimar period when almost every political party and movement had its own private army. Between January and September 1932, 155 people died as a result of street clashes. The figure for this year is five.

The quantitative difference is matched by a qualitative one. Whereas those perpetrating the violence 60 years ago belonged to parties enjoying mass support, such as the Nazis and the Communists, today's aggressors represent minuscule groups almost totally cut off from society: on the right, the neo-Nazis; on the left, the Autonomen, a collection of anti-fascist, anti- authoritarian pressure groups.

And then there is the Versailles Treaty. One of the most important factors behind Hitler's rise to power was his ability to exploit the deep resentment many Germans felt for the peace treaty concluded at the end of the First World War under which Germany had to surrender its colonies and some of its territory and face the ignominy of having to pay reparations to the victorious allies.

'There is no sense of national grievance whatsoever today,' says Mr Frei. 'People in the west recognise that after the Second World War we were actually helped to get back on our feet. With reunification, moreover, people no longer feel resentment over what was the division of Germany. And with regard to the eastern territories (land ceded to Poland after the war), that is simply not an issue for most people.'

The crucial difference between now and the 1920s, however, is that then most Germans were fundamentally anti-democratic, while the vast majority today is convinced that democracy is the best form of government. Between 1919 and 1933, when Hitler came to power, Germany experienced 20 changes of government. With no tradition of democracy, people blamed the system for the country's economic ills and yearned for a return to a more authoritarian form of rule.

After 40 years of almost unbroken economic growth, most west Germans, by contrast, have come to associate democracy with stable government, prosperity and, at last, peace. As long as the financial burden of reunification does not bring the country to its knees, most observers are convinced that east Germans will, in time, think likewise.

Hence yesterday's protest in Munich - the city Hitler adopted as his own, the birthplace of the Nazi party and the city where the future fuhrer staged his abortive 'Beer Hall Putsch' in 1923. Yesterday Munich, like countless other German cities over the past few weeks, said 'no'.

'I may be indulging in wishful thinking, but what we are witnessing now is a reassertion of the taboo against the Nazi past,' says Mr Joffe. 'Germans would never have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands to defend the values of the Weimar Republic. Today they will. That is the difference. And that is democracy in action.'

(Photographs omitted)