Germany, Scientology trade charges of tyranny

To explain the furious hostility between Germany and the Church of Scientology, German officials might point to the story of a young man from Braunschweig named Jürgen Behrndt.

 

Shortly before his graduation from technical school in 1989, Behrndt received an offer of free career counseling in a brochure from an employment agent in Hamburg. But the man turned out to be a Scientologist recruiter, and instead of employment advice, he gave Behrndt a copy of the Scientologists’ Bible, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.” Then a woman from the Scientologists’ Hamburg office began calling, Behrndt said, and pressuring him to take a 200-question personality test.

 

He did, beginning a six-year membership with the group, an endless series of “audits” of his mental health and classes to “stabilize” his mind. “When things went well, I paid ever-more money out of my pocket,” Behrndt recalled. “When things went poorly, I was insulted and rebuked.” In Behrndt’s first year of membership, Scientology officials visited his parents with him seeking a DM 75,000 ($50,250) loan toward his activities. By the time he broke from the group in 1995, Behrndt had spent some DM 200,000 ($134,000), was unemployed and emotionally ravaged. “Many days I saw no reason to even get up,” he said.

 

However, the Church of Scientology describes the German situation differently. Its officials claim the German government is encouraging a resurgence of the Nazi regime’s religious intolerance, but this time Scientologists, rather than Jews, are the target. Pointing to the decision of the major political parties and the state of Bavaria to ban Scientologists, the group ran full-page ads featuring swastikas in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post in an effort to resurrect memories of the Third Reich.

 

Gerhard Waterkamp, a German Scientologist who says his employer fired him because of his affiliation, explains the analogy. “It cannot compare with the Germany of 1941. I was allowed to leave the country. I was not killed.” Waterkamp, 43, moved with his wife and two daughters to Glendale, California, last year because he could not find another job. “But this absolutely compares with what my mother told me about 1934 to 1940, when Jews were not killed but the Nazis kept them out of certain jobs and people boycotted their businesses. This is how it starts.”

 

Nothing upsets the German public more than statements like this. The Scientologists’ campaign ignited a firestorm of media attention in Germany and abroad. Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of Germany’s small Jewish community, said he was insulted and denounced the ads. The German government stated, the charges “are not only false, but also insult the victims of the Holocaust.” The U. S. State Department agreed, though it has criticized the Germans’ handling of the Scientology issue. “We aren’t going to support the Scientologists’ terror tactics against the German government,” spokesman Nicholas Burns said. As Dan Hamilton, Associate Director of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Department, said, “The stories that sell about Germany usually involve Nazis. That comparison was made here, but we think it’s ridiculous.”

 

“Intergalactic Holocaust”

Scientology sprouted in America in the 1950s. L. Ron Hubbard, a moderately successful science fiction author, founded the group and wrote Dianetics and other books that outline his principles. Scientologists believe that an intergalactic holocaust 75 million years ago caused mankind’s spiritual problems. They perform “audits” of their members’ mental states and offer expensive remedies in the form of counseling and self-improvement courses.

 

Scientology has fought long legal battles for recognition as a legitimate religion around the world; it claims eight million members, including 30,000 among Germany’s 80 million residents. It has succeeded in many countries, including the United States, where a judge granted the group tax-exempt status in 1993 after the IRS had denied it for decades. Germany, however, considers Scientology a dangerous and greedy cult bent on manipulating and extorting its recruits for financial gain.

 

Claudia Nolte, Germany’s Federal Minister for the Family, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth, has been one of the most vocal critics, vowing to fight the group “with all means at my disposal” and calling for federal agents to monitor it. “Scientology aims for world domination and the destruction of our society,” said Nolte, a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

 

While Scientology took root in Germany decades ago, it became a consuming issue to the government in the late 1980s. “Members of the parliament received letters from concerned parents and relatives asking the government for action. We determined we had to do something,” explained an official from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. Like other German diplomats, he requested anonymity to speak about the issue for fear of harassment. In addition, members of the CDU claim Scientology produced a report entitled “Clear Germany” that outlined a plan “to infiltrate the economy, the social system and politics in Germany,” though Scientology denies the charge.

 

The government’s fight against Scientology has developed across many fronts in the last two years:

 

* An administrative court ruled in 1995 that Scientology’s extensive marketing of books and courses make it a commercial enterprise under German law.

 

* A federal labor court that same year ruled that Scientology utilizes “inhumane and totalitarian practices,” often separating members from their families to make them psychologically and financially dependent on the Scientology group. In its decision, the court quoted one of Hubbard’s instructions to “make money, make more money–make other people produce so as to make money” and concluded that Scientology claims to be a church merely as a cover to pursue financial interests.

 

* Another court supported Federal Minister for Labor and Social Affairs Norbert Bluem’s description of Scientology as a “contemptible cartel whose oppression and ringleaders are criminal.”

 

* Postbank, the German credit network located in post offices, won the right to refuse to handle Scientology’s business accounts last year in a Stuttgart district court. Postbank shut down four accounts Scientology held in Ulm because it did not want its name associated with the group. A Scientology attorney said 17 other banks in the area turned down the group’s business.

 

* The CDU’s youth organization last year called for a national boycott of Tom Cruise’s film, Mission Impossible, because the American actor is a Scientologist. “The tactic of Scientology is to connect it with the notion of success,” said Burkhard Remmers, head of the youth group in Lower Saxony. “That is aided by the many U.S. stars who go on publicity tours in Europe. But [being a member of] Scientology does not mean success.” Members of the group distributed fliers warning movie-goers about Scientology at theaters; the film nonetheless grossed $23.6 million. Cruise himself said little about the issue: “I’m a Scientologist, but that’s an entirely personal matter,” he testily told the press during a promotional tour last summer. A Scientologist spokesman labeled the campaign “a rebellion of midgets.”

 

* The CDU has campaigned for more protection, legal advice, and emergency financial help for potential Scientology drop-outs, to counter the “massive psychic, economic and legal pressure” the group employs to keep them in.

 

* Finally, after the parliament commissioned an investigation into the activities of Scientology and other “sects and psycho-cults,” it was determined that the Church of Scientology would be placed under nationwide observation by federal and state anti-extremist watchdogs on “suspicion of anti-democratic intent.” The year-long observation will assess whether Scientology can be classified as anti-constitutional.

 

“Radical Politicians”

The Scientologists counter that the government’s accusations are nothing but a front to cover the true reason for its attacks: government officials with ties to the mainstream churches are in a panic over declining membership and religious offerings. Members of Catholic and Protestant churches contribute financially to their churches through their income taxes, but that stops if they leave for a non-sanctioned group such as Scientology.

In fact, the only Germans interested in persecuting Scientology are “a handful of radical politicians very connected to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches who blame us for taking their money away,” said Leisa Goodman, spokesperson at Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters. Despite the campaign – or perhaps because of it – Scientology’s numbers in Germany keep growing, she said.

 

“It continues to expand at a rapid rate because these reports have made the Germans very curious,” said Goodman. “Many walk in and say, ‘I don’t understand why the government is harassing you this way.’ Germany stands on its own in terms of degree of abuse,” she said. “But it’s not working. Their churches need to figure out how to give more to their members instead of targeting a group that is growing and expanding.”

 

U.S. Reaction

Scientology gained an unlikely ally in the U.S. State Department, which rebuked Germany’s treatment of Scientologists in its annual world survey of human rights.

 

“One could argue about the methods of Scientology,” said the State Department’s Hamilton, “but for our purposes we look at a single point: Do you discriminate against someone because he belongs to a group or because he’s actually done something?”

 

The report noted examples of the former such as the political parties’ exclusion policies, the short-lived Mission Impossible boycott and reports of job discrimination in the private sector. The segment is but a small part of the very positive assessment of human rights in Germany, and the State Department actually noted improvement on this issue over the previous year.

 

“Much of this is a debate between the media of both countries rather than a dispute between governments,” said Hamilton. “[Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright made a point on her first trip to Germany of saying we consider this a non-issue.” During her meeting with Chancellor Kohl, Albright also condemned the comparison Scientologists have made between Germany’s current government and the Nazis. “We find that absolutely unacceptable,” Hamilton said. “Germany is one of the freest nations and the most respectful of human rights…. The Scientologists have not helped themselves with this reaction.”

 

Waterkamp says he worked as a manager in Weinheim at the Freudenberg Company, a manufacturer of automotive parts and textiles, until 1995. Then, somehow, his employers received a Scientology publication documenting that he and his wife completed a church seminar in Florida some years before, and fired him “on the spot.”

 

“I turned to the employment agencies and described my situation,” he said. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m a Scientologist, but I never speak about it, it’s a private thing.’ They said I would not find a job in Germany.” After seven months of unemployment, Waterkamp decided to leave the country, later joining the Dohring Company working with information systems.

 

“I’m not sorry”

Waterkamp says he paid an average of DM 10,000 ($6,700) a year toward Scientology before moving to the United States. “Some years it may have amounted to DM 50,000 ($33,500) a year, and other years it didn’t take anything when I practiced auditing at home,” he said.

 

“I’m not sorry about a single penny I spent,” said Waterkamp. “For me, it’s a very valuable tool to improve family life…. In 17 years with the church I’ve met hundreds of Scientologists and I cannot remember a single case where a person was unhappy.”

Except perhaps, he noted, for the other Scientologists whom the Germans have hounded out of work. “I think it will be impossible to go back for the next five to ten years,” he said. “I would not be able to find a job because of my religious beliefs.

 

“My mother is 75. She told me she’s so happy I’m in the United States because she’s afraid another catastrophe in Germany will happen,” Waterkamp said. “Democracy was a gift to Germany after World War II. It’s time politicians took better care of that gift.”

 

This appraisal prompted groans from German diplomats.

 

“We have to be more sensitive of these radical, undemocratic movements,” said the German embassy official. “After all, we had a very bad experience with such a movement 60 years ago.”

 

Hubbard’s writings call for “a civilization without insanity, without criminals, and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights.”

 

This contrasts wildly with the experience of Albert Anhut from the city of Hamburg: “Friends of mine landed in the gutter, began to booze, and became very sick.” A 36-year-old graphic designer, Anhut says he lost DM 50,000 ($33,500) to Scientology in two years. “They had easy play with me,” he lamented. “You give money, work, and effort for something that turns out to be a deceitful, empty lie.”

German Life, 1997