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Herr Paranoiac and the mind-benders from Hollywood

Scientology touches a German nerve, says Peter Millar

The Sunday Times (review section), 12 January 1997

'Don't mention the war," was Basil Fawlty's recipe for dealing with the Germans. What he really meant, of course, was: do mention it, repeatedly, at every possible opportunity: to knock them down and remind yourself of your moral superiority.

Now the Church of Scientology has taken a leaf out of Basil's book, and ended up looking just as silly. John Cleese may not be on the cast list, but John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are. A host of Hollywood celebs, including Goldie Hawn and Dustin Hoffman - far from all of them Scientologists - have signed an open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl accusing him and his party of crypto-Nazi attitudes and alleging persecution on a par with the Holocaust.

German politicians across the board have been horrified by the luvvies' lambasting, with Kohl himself suggesting it showed they knew nothing about Germany and didn't want to know. But the greatest outrage has been among the country's Jewish community. "The comparison is historically false, politically irresponsible and relativises the persecution of the Jews under the Third Reich," said Dr Michel Friedman, a Frankfurt-based member of the German board of deputies. "Even established religions have to subject themselves to criticism these days; the Scientologists must live with it."

Some of the charges alleged in the open letter are, however, readily admitted to be accurate. In two German states - Bavaria and Baden-Wrttemberg - Scientologists are barred from working for the local government. Norbert Blüm, the labour minister, did indeed propose, unsuccessfully, banning them from the civil service.

The measures may seem excessive but represent a distinct German paranoia about the risks a secretive cult might pose to the most successful democracy in their history. Yet this "better safe than sorry" policy has led to war between the Scientologists and the establishment.

"It is precisely because of our history that we must watch so closely these closed cults," says one leading Hamburg left-of-centre liberal.

In conservative, Catholic Bavaria the state government has put the Scientologists' activities under the scrutiny of the local plainclothes security service, the BfV. Theoretically, the BfV is the equivalent of MI5, but not quite. BfV stands for Bundesamt fr Verfassungsschutz P the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. A large part of its duties entails keeping tabs on organisations considered to be a long-term threat to the institutions of democracy.

German society, as established at the end of the war under British and American tutelage, was obliged to accept that it had certain outer limits on the right of freedom of speech. You may buy and sell Nazi memorabilia freely in the East End of London or in the Bronx in New York, but not in Berlin. There, it is a crime. /p>

But the constitutional proscriptions, in order to be workable, do not just target obvious neo-Nazis but any party or grouping that can be adequately proved to be implacably opposed to democratic government. For years there was intense wrangling over many states' prohibition of the employment of Communist party members in the civil service.

The opponents of Scientology justify their case by analysis of the movement's aims, actions and attitudes. The Scientologists claim recognition as a religion - latterly accorded them in Britain despite a 1968 Home Office decision that they were "socially harmful". But the most recent German court ruling, in Kassel in 1995, declared them a "business" engaged in "trading", through the sale of their "auditing" courses.

"They are a profit-making organisation. But their aim is to be identified with success. They are doubly dangerous because they demand the subjugation of the individual personality," says Burkhard Remmers, the Christian Democrat youth leader who launched the controversial boycott of Tom Cruise's film Mission: Impossible last year.

Remmers says a Scientologist plan, known as "Clear Germany 2000" aims to achieve 15%-20% penetration of German opinion-formers by the end of the century: "They want to take over the world in the end."

The last word belongs to Friedman, as representative of the Jewish community whose moral high ground the Scientologists have tried to hijack: "Both religions and pseudo-religions exist in a free society, and if the Scientologists give cause for criticism, then they have to deal with that, and not just shout 'Nazi'."

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