But last year, stung by the neo-Nazi murders of Turks in Molln, the German government cracked down on racist groups. The interior ministers of all 16 provinces were summoned by the central government. They agreed on a range of measures. Police surveillance was increased, prosecutions pursued, arrests made. The Molln attackers were caught and neo- Nazi rioters who had caused mayhem in Rostock were jailed.
In a society deeply respectful of law and order, the state made it clear that racist violence was beyond the law. The security forces finally acknowledged that the threat to civil order was now from the extremist right, and the formidable resources of the Office for the Defence of the Constitution were refocused on to it.
It seemed to work. By March this year the Interior Minister was expressing satisfaction at the fall in the number of racist attacks (which always fell far short of the number recorded in Britain).
Even more important, the German people themselves took to the streets to record their rejection of racism. More than 3 million participated in candle- lit vigils, defying the skinhead admirers of Adolf Hitler in Munich, ringing the lakes of Hamburg with lines of light, bringing Frankfurt to a standstill and registering the belief that Bonn is not Weimar - that today's anti- immigrant thugs, unlike yesterday's Storm Troopers, will never achieve power.
Yet after all this there now comes the tragedy at Solingen. Five Turks murdered by fire in a town where race relations have been good. All the hallmarks of a neo-Nazi attack are present and Chancellor Kohl is back with his and Germany's nightmare, wringing his hands in despair that 'such murders can happen in the middle of Germany'.
His is the anguish of respectable, middle-class Germany, for whom all of this is like some appalling apparition - but one that uniquely in Germany is infused with the substance of nightmares past, the historic memories of black uniforms and closed cattle trucks carrying the victims of racism to annihilation.
No wonder, then, that Germans today are riven by angst. The old certainties seem to have vanished, to be replaced by an enveloping sense of moving into the unknown.
In the east the repression has gone, but so also has the reassurance of Communist authoritarianism. On the bleak housing estates of East Berlin, Leipzig, Rostock and Dresden, youngsters are still disoriented by their freedom to do what they like with their time. Their boredom makes them easy prey for the excitements of 'foreigner-bashing'.
In the west, disorientation is more subtle. The land of the 'economic miracle' is not suffering the same levels of unemployment as the east, but west Germans are hugely frustrated by the growing recession and the apparent failure of the east to 'get up and go', in spite of the aid it receives - running at nearly pounds 50bn a year.
The west's manufacturing output has fallen by more than 10 per cent in the first quarter of this year. The reunification of Germany, far from adding to the nation's economic power, has so far detracted from it.
Life may not, however, be quite as dreadful as it seems. The neo-Nazi groups that have targeted Germany's 1.8 million Turkish residents as the most conspicuous foreign community will not gain widespread support as the Nazis did. Nazism left Germany ruined and reviled. That memory guarantees the failure of neo-Nazism.
More positively, the vast majority of Germans, east and west, identify democracy with security, acceptability and the prospect of prosperity. The neo- Nazis are seen as 'beyond the pale'.
In 1992 at Hoyerswerda in eastern Germany, a crowd of hundreds cheered on thugs attacking an immigrant hostel; The police, when they arrived, ferried out the immigrants instead of arresting the rioters. By contrast, at Solingen the police action has been swift and the horror of local Germans at the murders is unambiguous and unqualified. There is today a strong sense that the German public has made up its mind on the neo-Nazis. It doesn't want them.
On the other hand the Republikaner, the party of the far right, may continue to do well. Germany has tightened its immigration laws, making it harder for economic refugees to pour across its eastern borders. The Republikaner will claim credit for having successfully put immigration at the centre of political debate.
They have been rewarded electorally, too. In the Baden- Wurtemberg election last year their support leapt from 1 per cent to more than 10 per cent. In Schleswig Holstein the far right won six seats in the parliament. In both elections they gained particular support from voters under 25. To rob the far right of its appeal and to frustrate its hopes of breaking through at the next general election, the government must act now on two fronts.
First, it must give fresh impetus to the economy. It can no longer disguise the cost of reunification. Taxes will have to rise and public services will have to be pared back. The signs are that slowly, and in a typically consensual way, the Germans are coming to terms with this. Recovery without inflation looks achievable.
That, certainly, is the determination of the Bundesbank, and its strategy may well prove right. It has resisted all calls from abroad radically to lower its short-term interest rates. Its focus is purely German. Only 15 per cent of business borrowing in Germany is short term (as against 66 per cent in Britain). What matters in Germany is the long-term interest rate, and here the Bundesbank has acted.
All this makes life difficult for German exporters and miserable for weaker currencies such as sterling, but what counts for the Bundesbank is the value of the currency it is constitutionally bound to uphold. A strong mark means low inflation, and in spite of pain this may well give Germany a long-term and sound recovery. What is needed is tough government action on taxes and spending.
Second, the German government and people must re-examine the basis of German nationality. The millions of ethnic Germans locked up for decades behind the Iron Curtain can all now claim German citizenship if they can prove themselves German by blood. Sometimes this is difficult, and one bitter west German joke tells of an immigrant from Siberia proving his ethnicity by owning a German shepherd dog while a Turk, resident in the Federal Republic for three decades, is refused.
This is the nub of the matter. By insisting that Turks cannot become German unless they cease to be Turks, the German authorities have ensured that only about 1 per cent of them do so. This ban on dual citizenship is bad for the Turks, who feel alienated as well as disenfranchised, and it is bad for the Germans who - because the law always matters in Germany - do not see Turks as equal citizens.
In combating racism, Germany must concede nothing to the arguments of the extremist right. That means rejecting ethnicity as the basis of citizenship. Germans today are horrified by what a few neo-Nazi thugs have done to their fellow human beings in Solingen. Such murders are less likely to recur if those fellow human beings are also fellow German citizens.
The writer is author of 'The Germans - who are they now?' published by Methuen at pounds 17.95.
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