Recent articles in the popular American press have tended to give the impression that the current peace movement in West Germany is anti-American and inspired by the Communist Party under the control of the Soviet Union. There have even been hints that the movement is tainted by a resurgence of the old German nationalism that brought about World Wars I and II. It sometimes seems that the authors of these articles wish to conjure up every possible negative image or association that comes up in connection with the words ''German'' and ''antiwar protesters'' in order to discredit the very legitimate and exciting movement that has been growing so rapidly in Germany.
My encounters with Germans during the last year, when I was studying in Freiburg, were overwhelmingly positive; far from sensing any significant anti-Americanism among the German people, I was impressed by how friendly most Germans are to Americans, and how eager they are to speak English and learn about our country. One of my most moving memories is of an older woman who broke into tears while she was telling me about her gratitude to Americans for the CARE packages they sent to Germany after World War II. While the younger people in Germany do not remember the war, they learn about it in school, and they too are aware of and grateful for the help the citizens of the United States furnished them in a time of desperate need.
What is bothering the Germans right now is not the Americans. It is the American government. There was great concern in West Germany last year when Ronald Reagan was elected, and Mr. Reagan has done nothing to diminish it. To understand the Germans' concern one must remember that Germany is one of the countries most ravaged by war in the 20th century.
After World War II German leaders pledged that no war would ever again start on German soil. The leaders of the German peace movement remember this pledge, and they intend to hold West Germany's leaders to it.
Moreover, many Germans remember with shame the virtual lack of resistance to Hitler during the Nazi period. Young people ask their parents what they were doing from 1933 to 1945, and it can be a very embarrassing question, since usually the parents were doing nothing, or at least nothing they could be proud of. Because of this it is not surprising that there is a certain lack of understanding between the younger and older generations.
The German peace movement is in no way dependent on the Soviet Union for support, although there are Communists in it. But these Communists are few in number and insignificant in proportion to the total movement. The DKP (German Communist Party) never gets more than 1 or 2 percent of the vote in national elections, and it is safe to say that the German populace is decidedly anti-Communist. The West Germans have no reason to love the Soviet Union, and they know perfectly well the drawbacks of the system that 20 million of their countrymen across the border in East Germany live under.
The extraordinarily strong importance of religious beliefs in German politics has almost totally escaped notice in the US. Germany is an overwhelmingly Christian country, and the Germans take their religion seriously. The strength of the peace movement is due in large part to the support it has received from organized religious groups. These groups have increasingly called attention to the Fifth Commandment and the Sermon on the Mount in accusing national and international leaders of ignoring the basic tenets of a religion they pretend to believe in.
If a war breaks out, the Germans know that they will be the first to be engulfed in and destroyed by it. Ronald Reagan can talk about the possibility of a limited nuclear war, but the Germans can't because for them any nuclear war whatsoever means apocalypse.
Mr. Reagan ordered the production of neutron warheads after Secretary of State Haig assured the Germans that this was not in the offing. At the same time , Germans were told to follow the American example and spend less on social programs and more on the military. (Helmut Schmidt appropriately reminded President Reagan that the US has no mandatory military service, while Germans have been required to serve in the German army - and thus to serve NATO - for over 25 years.)
Germans are also disappointed by the failure of SALT II. If the world can already be destroyed many times over by both sides, they ask themselves, why are more nuclear weapons needed?
The unrest is healthy and democratic, since it represents the desire of a people to avert nuclear war. The wonder is not that there are protests and demonstrations in Germany but that there are not more in America.