West Germany's peace movement begins to unravel

The peace movement is in decline in NATO's linchpin country of West Germany. The sunniest Easter weekend in 22 years lured far more West Germans - 18 million of them - to shore or mountains than to the first major antinuclear protests since NATO Euromissile stationing began last December. And for the first time in three years the peace movement no longer has visible leverage on government arms control policy.

This time around, only one-quarter or even one-tenth as many opponents of NATO Euromissiles showed up on the streets of Hamburg, Cologne, and a dozen other cities as in last October's million-strong antinuclear happenings. The high estimate comes from protest organizers, the lower one from West German police.

Besides, this year's Easter marches were more diffuse than last year's demonstrations. The impressive uniting of various protest groups in an anti-NATO Euromissile focus over the past three years is reversing itself, with demonstrators diverging back to a multiplicity of causes: In support of the 35 -hour workweek; against nuclear power, poisonous chemical wastes, and the American mining of Nicaraguan ports.

The dedicated peace activists are as energetic as ever and probably better organized than ever before. But they no longer can mobilize those million sympathizers who are less committed than themselves.

One disincentive to joining protest is widespread resignation as it has become clear that the demonstrations would not block NATO stationing. The second battery of nine Pershing IIs was recently deployed in West Germany, and more will come in the course of the year. Under these circumstances, many sympathizers are inclined to drop futile inveighing against holocaust and go back to living their personal lives.

This attitude is perhaps especially pronounced among those high school students who used to take it for granted that they would graduate into adult politics by attending the demos in something like a class outing.

For their part, older West Germans who feared that the Pershing IIs were bringing nuclear war closer have been reassured this year by the decline of palpable East-West tension since the initial December deployment. In particular, their angst has been assuaged by conspicuously chummy East-West relations and the dramatic flow of East German emmigration.

The 80-mile-long traffic jams on Easter Monday - as contrasted with the much shorter antinuclear parades - are one measure of the peace movement's decline. The current praise of the West German government for the new American draft treaty on the chemcical weapons ban is another.

Thus, over the past three years, Bonn has constantly prodded Washington to be more forthcoming in arms control. The West German government - first under a Social Democratic chancellor and now under his conservative successor - was instrumental in getting the US to go to the Euromissile negotiating table at all , to finish the Madrid conference on security in Europe with a joint statement rather than a walkout, and to attend the current Stockholm conference on confidence-building measures in Europe.

Bonn - along with other European capitals - also got the US to modify its Euromissile negotiating stance from the ''zero option'' demand that all Soviet SS-20s be dismantled to an offer of lower equal East-West levels - and then, just before the Soviets broke of the Euromissile talks last November, to an American offer of de facto Soviet superiority in Euromissiles under certain conditions.

In every case, the rationale for European pressure was fear of the peace movement in Western Europe, especially in West Germany. If President Reagan did not tone down his initial bellicose rhetoric with proffers of peace, the Europeans contended, then NATO nuclear modernization simply could not be carried through politically in Europe.

The argument was persuasive in Washington: Euromissile deployment was deemed the sternest test of NATO in years, and everything has to be done to ensure that deployment.

Once stationing actually began, however, that concern evaporated. Washington saw NATO as having passed the test, worn down the antinuclear movement, and outnerved the Soviets. There was therefore no more need to coddle the faint-hearted European peace movement - especially since its ranks were dwindling.

Moreover, the fluid balance of policy advocacy within the Reagan administration shifted this year in favor of the foes of arms control with the unrelated collapse of State Department fortunes in Lebanon.

The outcome was an American insistence on highly intrusive verification measures in its pre-Easter draft chemical weapons ban - and unreserved West German government praise of the draft.

In the old days - following the pattern of the past three years - the Bonn government would have welcomed the American draft but also let German journalists know it favored the far less intrusive verification procedures that Bonn itself had proposed more than a year ago. And it would have argued in private to Washington that more modest inspection would suffice, would not provoke the secrecy-obsessed Soviets, and would enable the West German government to parry the criticism of its domestic peace movement.

Bonn's failure to do so this time - probably even more than the diminishing numbers of Easter peace marchers - illustrates the loss of influence of the peace movement here.

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