BERLIN — Racism in Germany, always a vital and bitter affair, became a central issue again when a young man of Ethiopian background was attacked late at night on April 21 at a bus stop in the city of Potsdam, near Berlin. Ermyas M. — his family name has not been revealed publicly — is currently in a hospital-induced coma, with a skull fracture which could be fatal or, at the least, cause permanent and serious impairment.

When the attack occurred he was waiting for a bus and sending a telephone message by voicemail to his wife. The voice of one of his assailants has been preserved; footprints and traces of blood, not only of the victim, have also been found; and two arrests have been made. Despite their alibis it seems almost certain that the two men, 29 and 30 years old, are guilty. One is a doorkeeper at a disco-club with a criminal record involving minor violence and drug rings, the other is known to have connections with right-wing racist thugs.

Ermyas M., tall — almost 6’6” — handsome, with long dreadlocks, arrived in the German Democratic Republic in 1987 and studied the ecological use of water in agriculture at the University of Rostock. He married, had a daughter, now 12, but later remarried and moved to Potsdam, where he lived until the attack with his second wife Steffi and their 4-year-old twin boys.

He had become a German citizen. In a few days he was to have defended his dissertation at the Leibniz Institute for Agrarian Technology in Potsdam, which would have led to a doctor’s degree. He was developing a method for cleansing vegetables using a new efficient use of sparse water resources which he hoped to introduce in Ethiopia.

Many people who have known him spoke up to tell what a very fine person Ermyas has been: a law-abiding citizen who played amateur soccer in the local team, took part in a left-wing club of the Social Democratic Party, attended services in a small Ethiopian Orthodox church and went with his wife occasionally to eat at one of the few Ethiopian restaurants in nearby Berlin.

Reactions to the very brutal and bloody assault have differed dramatically. Many bouquets and a handmade sign with the names and pictures of foreign visitors or residents who have been attacked in the region in recent years were placed at the site of the attack. Four thousand Potsdam residents, supported by churches, unions and political parties, demonstrated against racism in the city’s central square and demanded strong measures against the neo-nazi, racist groups and organizations in the city and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. Politicians up to and including Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced racism and xenophobia.

But at the same time the minister of the interior in Merkel’s government, Wolfgang Schaeuble, from the same Christian Democratic Party as she (and himself the victim of an assault by a demented German), shocked much of the public by questioning whether a racist motive was really involved and stating that “blonde, blue-eyed people are also the victims of violence, sometimes committed by attackers who may not be German citizens. That is no better.”

This statement, almost an indirect justification for the attack, was criticized by leaders from nearly all parties, and was understood in terms of a growing atmosphere of intolerance towards foreigners, but especially towards Moslems. Since immigrants from Turkey and their offspring are the largest ethnic minority in Germany, and Arab and other Moslem groups are also quite large, this is an especially dangerous trend, especially in view of growing xenophobia in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Russia and other European countries. German neo-nazis have been especially vicious in attacks on Moslems, but also Africans and Vietnamese — all more recognizable than Jews, who they also attack, but usually verbally or with attacks on cemeteries and the like.

Politicians from the Christian Democratic Union of Angela Merkel have always been loud in officially denouncing racism — especially when foreign journalists are listening and reporting, and when international conferences or the like are in the offing — but in electoral campaigns they often subtly appeal to the hate crowd, hoping to steal votes from the neo-nazi parties and from anti-foreigner elements in other parties, who are regularly encouraged by not-so-subtle crime reports in the tabloid press.

Another tactic was also used in the east German state of Brandenburg, of which Potsdam is the capital, by the interior minister of the state, a West German ex-general and notorious right-winger, Joerg Schoenbohm. While at first trying to deny the racist nature of the attack (stressing that at a holiday celebration the victim had also been drinking), he joined a chorus of right-wingers in blaming the German Democratic Republic for both racism and a trend to violence. This argument is growing thinner with each year; the neo-nazis and racist thugs are mostly too young to have received many influences at all in a state which ended almost 16 years ago. But it is still used commonly.

It is also ironic that Schoenbohm and others, while they reject racism loudly and indignantly, have been systematically trying to get refugees from southern continents to leave Germany, frequently using force, in a few cases fatally. Meanwhile they cut funds from youth centers and groups devoted to bringing people of different nationality backgrounds together and opposing nazi tendencies. A new government ploy is to switch part of the limited remaining budget sums towards fighting “Islamists” and “leftist extremists” and away from the mostly left-leaning groups who try to oppose the increasingly common parades of neo-nazis in towns and cities all over Germany. It is these young people, not the pro-fascists, who are most commonly frisked, brow-beaten, arrested and sometimes beaten.

It is true that there are more neo-nazi activities in eastern Germany than in the west of the country, including the so-called “liberated zones” that such groups proclaim in towns where they have either won over or intimidated the mayors, judges and police. As soon as Germany was united, neo-nazi organizers — well-financed, skillfully led — swarmed through east Germany, where they found fertile grounds, partly because of the total mental confusion caused by the swift rejection and denunciation of all previous norms and influences, but even more because of the heavy burden of joblessness, with figures double those in Western Germany and reaching up to 25 percent or higher in some regions. Fear and hopelessness is common among young people; a huge number have left to search for jobs in west Germany; those who remained are often easy prey for the nazis. — or have joined in a courageous struggle against them.

Perhaps typical of the change in spirit is this phenomenon: while plaques, statues and street names honoring anti-Nazis who defied Hitler have been disappearing in recent years, they are often replaced by monuments like the one in the town of Duben, not far from Potsdam, which now, in golden letters, honors the local “Heroes who died between 1939 and 1945.” With such men praised as role models, the actions of some young people are easily explainable, including racist assaults like the one at Easter in the city of Potsdam.