Swastika - Still Burden For Germany -- Harsh Law Against Nazi Symbols Contrasts With Growing Rightist Image

BERLIN - The burly man known as "Bomb" hunched over his beer in the smoky corner bar, his politics as clear as his crew cut, skinhead T-shirt and skull-shaped ring.

"Bomb," who heads the neighborhood neo-Nazi group, rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt. Stenciled on his skin was a tattoo of the German eagle holding a black swastika in its claws.

"I could get arrested for these tattoos," he said, quickly pulling the sleeve down.

At a time when Germany is besieged at home and abroad by images of resurgent Nazis and right-wing extremism, one of the paradoxes of Germany is that the swastika, along with other symbols of the Third Reich, remains illegal.

It is almost impossible to obtain a copy of "Mein Kampf." It is illegal to display a Nazi flag. Sending a fax or letter with Nazi symbols can get the sender arrested. The police even arrest people who give the Hitler salute in public.

"It's a typical German response: Hide a problem rather than face it and confront it," said Irene Runge, head of a Jewish group in Berlin. Runge has studied the rise of right-wing attitudes in the former East Germany.

But others, including the German government, disagree.

"For young people, the ban is counterproductive; showing the swastika is a very easy way to show they are dissatisfied with the state," acknowledged Felix Herzog of Humboldt University.

"But for Germany this is a problem of history. It makes sense to have a symbolic criminal law as a message for people living here and, even more important, as a message to the countries around Germany, to the Jews, to Israel. It would be scandalous to repeal it."

The German ban on Nazi symbols has its roots in the constitutions that both parts of a divided Germany drew up after World War II. The occupying Allied powers had banned the swastika after defeating Adolf Hitler in 1945.

Determined to avoid the bitter divisions between left and right during the Weimar period and eager to put the Nazi past behind them, West Germany banned "anti-constitutional" symbols and parties - a law that also was used to ban the West German Communist Party in the 1950s. West German law allows exceptions for artistic purposes, such as filming a movie about the Nazi era or displaying the swastika in a book about Hitler.

Determined to enshrine their victory over fascism and place a clear division between their new Germany and the old, Communist East Germany enshrined similar language in its constitution and laws. For 40 years the ban was effective, especially in Berlin, where the Allied powers retained considerable influence until the 1990 unification of Germany.

German judges in West Berlin often fined rightists $3,000 for making the "Heil Hitler" salute.

"Three fines like that was the cost of a new car," said Bernd Wagner, a Berlin criminologist. "Even the most fanatical Nazi would think twice about that."

But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the strictures have been loosening. Swastikas have blossomed on apartment-house walls and monuments. Neo-Nazis have marched in Dresden and other cities, thrusting their arms in the air in the Hitler salute while police look.

"Symbols and music and fashion are very important to the right-wing extremists," said Wagner, who before unification monitored right-wing activity in East Germany. "Just because somebody has a picture of Hitler on his wall doesn't mean he knows anything about Hitler. It is a way of passing along bits of ideology, to give these groups a cult-like status. These symbols are an iconography, like religious objects in a cult."