Germany is working hard to prevent the far right from hijacking the soccer World Cup and promote a positive image weeks before the event opens. Will ongoing controversy over racism get in the way?
Germany says neo-Nazi protesters shouldn't abuse the World Cup
Former German government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye got the ball rolling. Last week, the one-time close aide of Gerhard Schröder said in a newspaper interview that he would tell World Cup visitors that there were certain "no-go" areas in the eastern German state of Brandenburg and elsewhere where he "would not advise anyone with a different skin color to go. They might not possibly leave alive."
Heye's comments unleashed a heated debate over whether such statements are useful and appropriate. Nearly every public figure seems determined to have a say, and many found Heye out of place. On the other hand, human rights group Amnesty International backed him up, saying he put the spotlight on "a serious problem."
Five Turks in Solingen died in this fire set by neo-Nazis in 1993
But with the World Cup literally days away, the roiling racism discussion has begun to bump up against Germany's concerted effort to present itself in the best light to the millions of soccer fans from around the globe who will watch or attend the games.
Germany sees the World Cup as an opportunity to make a good impression -- the country's notorious past is pointedly not part of that picture. But should such a timely topic be swept under the rug for the duration of the event? What should take priority, the country's image or individual safety?
Less than sparkling image among German immigrants
Memet Kilic came to Germany from Turkey a year after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. As chairman of the federal foreigners' advisory board, he sees parallels between that time and the current situation.
"The nationalistic feelings are the same then as now. The attacks on people with different skin color are rising just like after 1990. Heye is right about the 'no-go' zones. It's a big problem," said Kilic, now a lawyer in Heidelberg.
The worries about a tarnished image abroad concern Kilic less than the damage already done in immigrants' eyes in Germany. He is incensed that some politicians, such as Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber, place all the blame for integration problems on foreigners.
"I am very angry that Stoiber says things like 'I am going to save German society,'" Kilic said.
He reckons that during the month-long finals, the police will group right-wing extremists with hooligans, detaining them if necessary so that the World Cup does not suffer any embarrassing incidents.
The "xenophobic" image is perpetuated
Right-wing extremists want to demonstrate when Angola plays in Leipzig
The eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg are most often in the news when it comes to reports of racial attacks and xenophobia. On June 21, Angola faces Iran in a World Cup group match in the Saxon city of Leipzig. Neo-Nazis apparently want to march there on that day. Their plan is to show support for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his anti-Semitic rhetoric, including a denial of the Holocaust.
Saxony's commissioner for the affairs of foreigners, Friederike de Haas, said she hopes the demonstration won't take place. Such a march would only backfire publicly in the glare of the World Cup, she said.
Uwe-Karsten Heye warned that foreigners face grave dangers in some regions
Heye's coment about "no-go" areas and possible hazards to foreigners during the World Cup should be taken seriously, de Haas said. But, she said, it should not only be so in June and July.
Interior minister drops the gauntlet
A report out from the country's Office for the Protection of the Constitution on Monday said the number of members of neo-Nazi groups had risen from 3,800 to 4,100 last year, while right-wing extremists identified as being willing to resort to physical violence had increased slightly from 10,000 to 10,400.
From the standpoint of World Cup organizers, the timing of the report -- less than three weeks away from the opening whistle -- was not ideal. A documented increase of right-wing criminal activity does little to promote the World Cup as "A Time to Make Friends", the tournament's motto.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has pledged to keep neo-Nazis from using the sporting spectacle as a stage to demonstrate.
"We will do everything to make sure that the soccer World
Cup cannot be abused by extremist organisations to spread their detestable ideas," Schäuble said. "We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism."
Schäuble also stated his belief that there are no "no-go" areas in Germany. Security forces around the country will make sure that is the case and that "everybody can feel safe in our country," he said.