By linking last weekend's bomb explosion at Munich's Oktoberfest to a member of a neo-Nazi group, a more sinister dimension has been added to right-wing extremism in West Germany.
From what seemed a preoccupation with violence on the extreme left, public and official attention has broadened into concern for attacks from both ends of the political spectrum.
Fallout from the tradegy has also spilled over into what is the final week of the West German election campaign. Rarely missing a chance to call for improved law and order, Franz Josef Strauss, the opposition candidate for chancellor, has attacked the government's interior minister for belittling terrorism and undermining morale among West Germany's security forces. In response, government spokesmen have accused Stauss of vilification for the sake of propaganda.
Leading members of the governing Social Democratic and Free Democrat parties have pleaded for the Munich outrage to be kept out of election polictics. Today, Strauss and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt did stop campaigning and joined together in mourning at a memorial service for those killed in the explosion.
In fact, Strauss' blustery accusation could backfire on him. It was apparently made before being informed that police suspected a connection between the bombing and the Defense Sport Group, a neo-Nazi club headquartered in the state of Bavaria. Strauss, who is prime minister of Bavaria, himself once dismissed the group as more nuisance than security threat.
Moreover, the fresh association of terroist activity with the political right could scare voters away from choosing even the moderate conservative option offered by the Christian Democrat-Christian Social Union coalition whose ticket Strauss heads.
The federal prosecutor's office said today there was still no evidence to implicate the outlawed extremist group in the explosion which killed 12 and injured 213, beyond the fact that Gundolf Koehler, the 21-year-old geology student believed to have set the bomb, was a member.
West German authorities yesterday freed the six organization members arrested over the weekend on suspicion of involvement, including the group's leader, Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, who said he had not seen Koehler for three years.
But the link to Koehler was enough to increase public concern for what has been an alarming rise in terrorist actions by members of the radical right in West Germany in recent months.Police still are pursuing the theory that Koehler did not act alone and was perhaps a part of an international network.
Strauss seems to be hoping that a strong antiterrorist stand will win him support from those who do not really differentiate between political extremes and simply regard the current Bonn government as not doing enough to combat terrorism.
In general, the Munich bombing is widely believed likely to have little effect on the election result this Sunday. While chancellor Helmut Schmidt still frets about how the half million undecided voters will split, the odds for victory are comfortably in his favor.
That the German campaign would not be shaken by the Munich explosion owes much to the change in public mood toward terrorism here since the peak of left-wing attacks in 1977, when members of the Red Army Faction murdered the federal attorney general, a bank president and the president of the National Employers' Association. They also participated in a plane hijacking that eventually led to the mysterious apparent suicides of Andreas Baader, the group's leader, and two associates in their prison cells. a
At the time, the terrorists appeared well-organized, a difficult match for what looked like a weak state. Since then, though, no successful attack on a leading German public figure has occurred, and a number of those wanted for earlier murders have been brought to trial.
Wanted posters still hang in public buildings showing mug shots of the remaining 15 hardcore terrorists sought by police. Bonn resembles an armed camp in some areas, with government buildings surrounded by barbed wire and armored police cars patrolling the streets. But the general alarm on terrorism has faded.
Improved international police cooperation and sophisticated search techniques partly explain the success at halting left-wing terrorist acts in West Germany. Moreover, terrorists have greater difficulty today finding sympathizers willing to provide undercover support and assistance, according to police experts.
The problem that seems to confront authorities most is how to handle what remains of the left-extremist problem. The policy differences, not stated publicly, appear to be between those who think that prosecution and detention must be pushed harder than ever and those who believe in the need to show some flexibility.
Interior Minister Gerhard Baum reportedly favors a more lenient approach.
During the past year he has sent "signals" to underground terrorists through published interviews, pledging government help to rehabilitate terrorists if they would renounce past links and give themselves up. In one such effort, he met publicly with a former terrorist.
This angered some law enforcement officials and opposition politicians who continue to press for harsh sentences against unrepentant terrorists, and was likely what Strauss had in mind in his public attack on Baum following the Oktoberfest tradegy.
In contrast to the highly publicized efforts by authorities to fight left-wing extremists, relatively little has been said or written about government actions against the extreme right. Critics would say this is a reflection of the state's general inaction in this direction, raising the old charge about German's being overly watchful of the left but blind to the right.
Law enforcement officials refute that notion by pointing to figures that show for, for instance, that during the past 12 months, West German courts handed down convictions in 498 cases involving crimes with an extreme rightist political background. An additional 101 persons were indicted and 183 more are said to be under investigation.
But more often than not, German authorities have not really bothered with right-wing groups, hoping that if police and press alike ignore them, they would go away.
Rarely has the government outlawed neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. Unless a criminal case can be built, officials say they have difficulty finding cause for action and are reluctant to excercise government power over the constitutionally protected freedom of assembly. The reason Hoffmann's Military Defense Group was outlawed last January had to do with the inordinate amount of publicity it was receiving from the domestic and especially foreign press -- a function of Hoffmann's own relish for publicity.
Organized right-wing extremism is hardly a significant political factor in West Germany today. Indeed, the total number of known organized ultra-rightist militants, has been falling steadily in the past decade.
But what has begun to worry authorities was the growing size and violent tendencies of the neo-Nazi element. The number of hardcore right-wing extremists jumped last year from 400 to 1,400, and in the past four years, there has been a steady rise in the number of brazen acts committed by these people. More than 1,000 neo-Nazi offenses were recorded last year, including disecration of Jewish graves, disturbing the peace and painting racist slogans.
Last month, six radical rightists were arrested and charged with a series of bombings and arson attacks this year against homes for political refugees and foreign workers all over the country.
The "New Right" can hardly be described as a movement. It is scattered, disorganized, lacking a common strategy or leaders who appear capable of commanding a wide following. In contrast to the left, the extreme right are mostly nonintellectual, craftsman types, often unemployed, with a desire for action and, according to one state police study, demonstrating "a rage against anything existing." Police now say the right-wing extremists will be taken more seriously in West Germany.