Mr Kohl fiddles while people burn

Click to follow
THERE are two ways of interpreting the behaviour of the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, in the past fortnight. The pessimist's version is that Mr Kohl knows exactly what he is doing and that his famed political instincts are as well-honed as ever. The second version - the more optimistic interpretation for those sympathetic to German democracy and the German nation - is that Mr Kohl has hopelessly lost his way and is out of touch with his electorate.

In the two weeks since the murder of five Turkish women and girls, Mr Kohl has kept his head down. He refused to appear on television in the days after the arson killings. His published message denied, in effect, that there was a broader problem; instead, he declared that 'we shall not permit' the friendship between Germany and Turkey to be destroyed. He refused to go to the memorial ceremony in Cologne; instead he sent his interior minister and foreign minister, implying that this was merely a law and order problem, or a diplomatic one. Turks in Germany were shocked and angered.

How can his clumsy reticence be explained? Some in Germany argue that Mr Kohl, the consummate survivor, is playing to a hidden audience, which would think less of their Chancellor (who faces elections next year) if he seemed too willing to indulge in breast-beating over a few dead Turks.

But the truth may be less damning of the German people. An opinion poll this week suggested that a remarkable 91 per cent take seriously the prospect of an emerging far right. It seems clear that ordinary Germans are acutely conscious of the dangers that could face their country.

Mr Kohl, by contrast, appears to live in a world of his own. Already, in recent months, he has shown himself, in the view of many Germans, to be ill-equipped to deal with the painful aftermath of reunification. Now he may be out of tune on the question of right-wing violence, too. When he was asked why he had not attended the Cologne ceremony, he said that he might be barracked, and 'I know exactly what pictures would go round the world'.

He has dismissed the killers as 'asocial' - by implication, 'no responsibility of ours'. He seems determined to minimise the significance of the Solingen killings, when anguished German neighbours were woken by the screams of the children of the Genc family as they burnt to death in a quiet street in an ordinary German town.

Mr Kohl seems obsessed with image. You get the feeling that he would bring in a German Saatchi & Saatchi if he thought they could do anything to help with the problem of Turks being burnt alive. But Mr Kohl, one of Europe's most experienced politicians, has failed to grasp one simple human truth: that honesty and self- criticism can pay rich dividends. He criticises those who talk up the problem, blaming them for damaging Germany's image abroad. In reality, by pretending that difficulties do not exist, he is in danger of becoming the problem for the national image.

In a television interview last week, he played down any suggestion of xenophobia in Germany. Then, when pressed, he emphasised the pressures caused by having too many refugees in Germany today. (Those pressures are real: the country took more than 400,000 asylum-seekers last year alone - almost 20 times more than in the UK.)

When pressed again by his German interviewers, he complained about Turkish extremists, 'whom we have suffered here far too long.'

Eventually, the interviewer expostulated: 'But none of this has anything do with arson, and with attacks on asylum-seekers' hostels . . .'

Mr Kohl retorted: 'The disputes among the Turks are part of the spectrum of violence.'

It was a disingenuous response. The lethal violence against foreigners - against asylum- seekers or against the Turks who have helped to make the German economy strong - is on a quite different scale from the scattered clashes between rival Turkish groups or the barricade- burning of a few far-left demonstrators. Every Turk in Germany today probably lives in greater fear than before Solingen. And yet Mr Kohl has failed to deliver a full-blooded condemnation of the creeping racism that has become so much more violent in the last two years. Instead, he suggests that the Solingen killings were an isolated disgrace.

The overwhelming majority of Germans are appalled by the xenophobic violence. When a Turkish woman and two girls were burnt to death in the north German town of Molln in November, huge candlelit demonstrations emphasised the nation's shock at what had taken place - and helped to put pressure on an indifferent Bonn. It needs to be said, again and again: Germany is not sliding back into the horrors of earlier years. None the less, the killings cannot be brushed away impatiently, as the Chancellor seeks to do.

In the early hours of yesterday, there were two further arson attacks - one in the south and another near the Dutch border. The murderous version of Russian roulette - 99 arsons cause no fatalities, and the hundredth hits the jackpot - are set to continue. As Der Spiegel magazine noted: 'The arson in Molln was almost pushed to the back of people's minds, as a horrible, single excess. But the quintuple murder in Solingen shows that there can be another Molln at any time - and probably will be.'

Some of the leading figures in Germany today are less mealy-mouthed than Mr Kohl about the painful implications of recent events. At the ceremony in Cologne, Richard von Weizsacker declared: 'We owe it to the victims, as well as to ourselves, to be honest. The murders of Molln and Solingen are not individual, unconnected acts. They come from a climate created by the far right . . . Far-right violence, however lacking in ideas it may be, is politically motivated - and has increased.'

Mr von Weizsacker acknowledged that there are no easy solutions. Even dual citizenship - which would make integration easier, but which Mr Kohl is still wary of - would only have impact in the long term. But, unlike Mr Kohl, Mr von Weizsacker argued that the responsibility cannot simply be unloaded. 'We feel, painfully, the danger for our civilisation . . . We feel deep concern about those of our young people whom we have not been able to inculcate with values of decency.'

In a sense, Mr Kohl is justified in arguing that this is not just a German problem, but a Europe-wide phenomenon. As many Asians can confirm, racist violence is real enough in Britain today. But German racism is a German problem, and the vast majority of Germans believe it to be so. Because of that, the ever-confident Mr Kohl may find himself out of step.

In an interview yesterday, Mr Kohl reflected on his 20 years at the head of his party: 'One has to be careful not to become cynical,' he said. Perhaps he should take his own advice to heart.