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Crime Soars Along With Unemployment in Eastern Germany

July 22, 1996

LEISTEN, Germany (AP) _ For the Christian youth group from the industrial Ruhr Valley, it was supposed to be an idyllic retreat: a camping trip to picturesque Lake Plau in Germany’s rural northeastern corner.

But dozens of rampaging skinheads, drunk and shouting ``Sieg heil,″ brought the outing to an abrupt end, descending on the campsite armed with baseball bats and steel pipes. Six members of the youth group were hospitalized with broken ribs and bruises.

The July 12 attack was only the latest and most dramatic example of a crime wave that has plagued the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania since the end of communism _ and since the loss of thousands of jobs in an already underdeveloped region.

The land known for its gently rolling hills, undisturbed woods and lakes and rugged Baltic coast has become a Wild East, where alcohol abuse is rampant and crime rates rival the big cities of Berlin and Hamburg.

Especially worrisome to local officials is the rising proportion of youthful offenders. Almost 40 percent of the crimes in the state last year were believed to have been committed by someone under 21 _ 15 percent more than 1994.

Many also have ties with radical right-wing groups that thrive in a region where unemployment, unseen in communist days, is now almost 17 percent _ twice that in western Germany _ and hope for improvement dim.

In 1992, the state’s largest city, the Baltic port of Rostock, was the scene of four nights of anti-foreigner rioting that shook the nation. Violence by right-wing extremists continues. According to Interior Ministry statistics, the number rose from 483 in 1994 to 644 in 1995.

``They’re looking for something that brings togetherness and security,″ says Hinrich Kuessner, the state’s deputy governor and minister for social affairs.

``They don’t understand the complications of the new society, and they’re looking for easy answers, short and direct. That can lead quickly to criminal acts.″

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with 1.9 million people, has the lowest population density of any German state.

But after the city-states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, it has the highest rate of violent crime, according to federal statistics. It even outdoes Hamburg in the category of ``street crime,″ which includes such offenses as muggings, public fights and vandalism.

Peter Gaedke, a police investigator in the state capital of Schwerin, says breaking into cars, taking them for joyrides then trashing them has become almost a sport among area youth. The city of 110,000 has the highest rate of auto-related crime in the country: about 20,000 cases reported last year.

Youth gangs have also terrorized camping places, threatening what has become the state’s biggest employer after the army: tourism. Police say 38 people have been injured in attacks on campsites since 1994.

Although some of the 48 youths taken into custody after the attack at Lake Plau had ties to the neo-Nazi scene, police say they don’t consider the attack politically motivated.

Witnesses at the remote Leisten campsite say the Christian group leader had chased away some older youths a short time earlier because they had been harassing some of the girls.

``Then it just escalated,″ said one camper who did not want to be identified. The young men, ``completely drunk,″ went back to their campsite deep in the woods and returned with their friends and weapons.

Six youths, ages 18 to 20, have been charged with causing grievous bodily harm and disturbing the peace.

Unemployment and crime are problems across eastern Germany. But many say the problems in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are worsened by a tradition of alcohol abuse.

The state’s alcoholism rate is the highest in the country, Kuessner says.

``People have always downed more booze here, even in the olden days,″ he says. ``But since 1989, this problem has gotten much worse because of the high unemployment and the conflicts this leads to in families and among friends.″

Only about a quarter of the industrial jobs that existed in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania under the communists survived the transition to capitalism.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, seeking ways to cut the federal budget deficit, recently proposed trimming billions from job-creation measures for eastern Germany.

Union leaders warn that will create 300,000 more jobless. Members of Kohl’s own party from the eastern states have threatened a revolt in parliament unless the plans are dropped.

Meanwhile, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is working to provide more outlets for young people, such as sporting leagues and youth clubs, and to change public attitudes about alcohol abuse, Kuessner says.

But at the Leisten campsite, people see little hope that things will improve soon. Many agree the crime plaguing their state is fueled by drink and boredom and frustration.

``The landscape is beautiful, but otherwise there’s nothing to do,″ says a 25-year-old camp worker, who also didn’t want her name used. She works, but only in the summer. ``In the winter I sit at home.″

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