Set adrift by a failure of political nerve: By ducking the crucial asylum issue, Germany's leaders have left their new nation bitter, directionless and ruing unification, says Thomas Kielinger

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ANYONE trying to explain what is happening in east Germany must tread cautiously, or they may seem to be excusing the inexcusable. These riots, like disturbances in other industrial democracies, including Britain, are the product of deep-rooted social problems. Yet there can be no defence for pogrom-like violence, whether directed against foreigners or resident citizens.

In east Germany, such a defence is currently being mounted. As the lines of the unemployed grow longer, the economic recovery falters and confidence in the forces of law and order ebbs away, a host of amateur sociologists are trying to justify the attacks on foreigners.

This is a pity, to put it mildly. The criminal aspect of the present upheavals may yield information for the sociologists and the politicians, but the first duty of any German is to condemn it. A mob is a mob, and setting fire to the homes of asylum seekers, or threatening their lives, is an offence that should be severely punished.

But there lies the rub, for the east German authorities are hopelessly overstretched in trying to deal with the unrest. In the new German provinces, local government is only just beginning to function in a rudimentary fashion. Worse, the public officials were trained under the Communist system, where until the very end such disturbances were unknown, and where taking the initiative was actively discouraged.

The incompetence of the police in Rostock, Eisenhuttenstadt and other east German cities is a symptom of this mentality. And on the evidence of the past two weeks, neither they nor the new breed of east German politicians have any idea how to avert further violence.

Compared with the hapless east Germans, however, the political class in Bonn is an even more embarrassing spectacle. For years, the coalition led by Chancellor Kohl has tied itself in knots over the asylum issue. Local authorities have been obliged to receive growing numbers of asylum seekers, with no suggestion from Bonn of financial relief or a change in policy.

The confusion over Germany's liberal immigration laws is proof that coalition government does not work. For some time, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats have sought to amend the right to asylum that is granted by Germany's constitution. But their partner in government, the Liberal Democrats, refused to budge on the issue; and so there was no pressure on the opposition Social Democrats to change their own view, straight out of Cloud-cuckoo-land, that Germany's door must be left wide open.

The result of this stalemate is plain to see. Germany's reputation abroad is being tainted by scenes that are reminiscent of its unsavoury past. For west Germans, who have 40 years' experience of democracy, it is a particularly painful experience. We believed that the ghosts of the past had been exorcised, that we had rebuilt the German soul. But we now realise that in the east, where people were subjected after 1933 to 56 years of dictatorship, those demons still exist.

The recent scenes of wanton destruction of asylum centres and, even more sinister, the unashamed applause of 'respectable' bystanders, come from the heart of this darkness.

In east Germany, the people were harassed for decades by the commissars of ideological scum. Given their first taste of freedom, they have been unable to resist the temptation to get their own back.

Under the Communists, foreigners were the pampered beneficiaries of 'international brotherhood', provided they, too, came from a socialist country. Now they are the scapegoats for the east Germans' frustration at their dismal plight.

Many fair-minded west Germans are recoiling from the horror of what they see in the east, even as they try to understand its causes. With their well-founded distaste of nationalism, they are becoming nostalgic for the time when there were two Germanys. This is echoed in a corresponding development in the east, where the sense of being different from the westerners - even if that also means being poorer - at least provides an anchor to withstand the tidal wave of change.

Germany is adrift, emotionally and politically, barely three years after unification. If the German people are to recover their confidence in the future, the political class, having failed the leadership test posed by the asylum issue, must recover its nerve. There is no sign yet that this is happening.

The author is editor-in-chief of the national weekly 'Rheinischer Merkur', published in Bonn.