Berlin -- “Historically inaccurate and totally distasteful." Strong words from Madeleine Albright, who had good reason to apply them.
America's new secretary of State was referring to the widely publicized statement by Oliver Stone, Dustin Hoffman and other Hollywood celebrities equating Germany's current treatment of the Church of Scientology with the Holocaust.
When she met with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl last week, Albright was committed to bringing up U.S. "concerns" about Germany's treatment of Scientologists. At the same time, she clearly aimed to distance the U.S. government from the type of inflammatory rhetoric blaring from the full-page ads that have been appearing in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and other newspapers in recent weeks, which have invoked the specter of Nazi persecution. As the secretary of State made plain, such comparisons absurdly belittle the horrors suffered by 6 million Jews, Albright's own grandparents and other relatives among them.
One ad, in the form of an open letter addressed to Kohl, particularly stung the Germans because it was signed by 34 Hollywood celebrities, none of whom are Scientologists themselves. (The ad was sponsored by Bertram Fields, the Hollywood-based lawyer for Tom Cruise, who is a Scientologist.) "It's a mockery, a scandal," says Anna Rühle, the representative in the Berlin Senate in charge of keeping watch over sect activity in Berlin, "and very clever. Because it's an old story. Back in 1994, the Scientologists released a booklet called 'Hate and Propaganda' drawing the same parallel."
But this time, names such as Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Stone are attached to it, and even if they don't lend the parallel any more credibility, it's just the sort of story the media loves to bite into. It's got everything: movie stars, the reopening of Germany's old wounds, international friction and a weird cult to boot.
So while Albright and Kohl are eager to move onto bigger business, such as the expansion of NATO and their respective countries' relations with Cuba and Iran, the controversy won't go away. Earlier this month Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives criticizing the German government for discriminating against Scientologists.
And the media blitz shows no sign of letting up. A crew for CBS's "60 Minutes" has just swept through Berlin to prepare a segment on the dispute. "Entertainment Tonight" recently sent actress Anne Archer to Germany on a "fact-finding mission." Upon her return, she testified on Capitol Hill with fellow Scientologists Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea. "There's so much rumor, misunderstanding and hostility about Scientologists being spread by the German government that people's lives are being ruined," lamented the co-star of "Fatal Attraction."
The question is, whose lives? Germans fighting the Scientologists point to the many stories in the press about families broken up by the organization, about the lonely and the elderly having their bank accounts cleaned out, about brainwashing and general "psychoterror," as Rühle puts it. The 30,000 Scientologists in their country, contend the group's German opponents, are the victimizers, not the victims.
Not far from my own flat is an apartment building with anti-Scientology banners hanging from a few balconies. "We live with Scientology" and "Today it's us -- Tomorrow it could be you," read the banners hung by some disgruntled residents. One, a teacher who's already been sued by the organization (the suit was thrown out), described how scaffolding suddenly went up in front of the building and painters started sprucing it up. The residents had not been notified that the building would be renovated, so she called the owner to check it out. He told her that he'd sold the building to a company called Transwert.
Transwert is one of the many real estate companies currently snapping up Berlin apartment buildings and selling off the individual units as condominiums. But as reported by the Berlin magazine zitty, what's unusual about Transwert and nearly 20 other real estate companies operating in the city is that their profits go to the Church of Scientology.
In a letter to the residents, Transwert denied any connection to the organization, but added that "there's nothing wrong with Scientology." Contacted for this article, the company repeated its denial.
Scientology's real estate activities have been noted by other anti-Scientology organizations and by government investigators. Germany's Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors and Youth states in its publication "The Scientology Organization: Goals, Practices and Dangers": "A considerable area of activity for Scientology is the real estate market. Evidence shows, for example, that the area of the real estate market in Hamburg (where Transwert is headquartered) related to turning apartment buildings into condominiums is in large part determined by Scientology and/or companies led by members of WISE (World Institute of Scientology Enterprises)."
It's such alleged activities that make Germans determined to do something about the Scientologists. But what? Seventy percent of the population thinks an outright ban would be appropriate, but given the political and legal complexities of the issue, that is unlikely. Any such move would be bound to lead to a further bombardment of Scientology lawsuits and appeals. Although the organization has lost many cases, it has won a few. (Several of the landmark cases are outlined in Tilman Hausherr's "FAQ: Scientology in Germany".)
An alternative would be to ensure that Scientology is never recognized in Germany as a religion. But given the labyrinthine ways of the German legal system and the determination of the Scientologists (they fought for nearly four decades in the U.S. before being declared a religion by the federal government and, hence, free of taxation), that, too, appears remote.
The general approach of the government, reiterated two weeks ago by Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, is to view Scientology as a business, thus subject to government regulation. "This is our task as the government in Germany," says Rühle. "Not to go after them with a hammer, but to protect any citizens being victimized by Scientology."
Scientologists invoke Article Four of the German constitution, the "Meinungsfreiheit" article -- roughly equivalent to the U.S. First Amendment protecting free speech. But Germany's Article One, the right of the individual to human dignity, carries greater weight, says Rühle. When this right is violated, the government is not only justified but obliged to step in and act.
Other Germans, such as Schleswig-Holstein's sect-watchdog, Hans-Peter Bartels, advocate treating Scientology as a new form of political extremism. Germany has a whole set of laws keeping neo-Nazis and left-wing anarchists in line, and as Bartels has written in Die Zeit, these ought to be applied to Scientology because of the straightforward political goal the organization has explicitly outlined in its "Clear Germany" plan. Were that goal to be attained, 80 percent of the German population would be "clear," that is, fairly far along in their development as Scientologists. The remaining 20 percent would be denied all their rights as citizens. In other words, Scientologists have taken direct aim at the German constitution, according to Bartels, and should be dealt with accordingly.
Rühle thinks that's reaching a bit. She sees her primary job as one of education. "If I can get across to someone the possible dangerous consequences of becoming a Scientologist, show them the documentation, and he or she stills wants to join up, fine," she says. The Berlin official simply wants an equal shot, and that is getting tougher as Scientologists continue to fill their war chest with money from their members and operations such as their real estate ventures. "This is how they feed their advertising machine," she adds, referring to the celebrity-laden full-page ads. With a laugh, she notes that she's particularly disappointed in her screen idol, Dustin Hoffman.
Meanwhile, the Church of Scientology said it would intensify its campaign to "inform the world about the serious nature of discrimination and human rights violations in Germany." Church officials said its journal, Freedom, would seek to "uncover the motives of the politicians who so viciously attack minority religions, and so arrogantly dismiss and squash criticism of their discriminatory policies." Feb. 25, 1997
David Hudson is based in Berlin. He has written for the L.A. Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian and edits the online magazine Rewired.