West German Social Democrats in nuclear quandary

1. Ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt is: A. Irresponsibly equating the American and Soviet superpowers and thus fanning anti-Americanism in West Germany.

B. Cleverly co-opting the peace movement and thus keeping the Social Democratic Party (SPD) behind official West German defense policy.

2. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is:

A. Too passive in confronting opponents of new NATO nuclear missiles.

B. Cleverly playing down the phenomenon in order not to puff it up.

3. The Social Democratic Party is:

A. Falling apart and about to forfeit power.

B. Just indulging its usual penchant for squabbles before pulling together again at the last minute.

Those who answer "A" are pessimists (or else opposition conservatives who smell the possibility of power after a decade in the wilderness).

THose who answer all "B" are optimists.

Those who answer "none of the above" may include the more than 50 Social Democratic members of parliament (out of the 45-seat government majority) who will defy their own chancellor and march in the estimated 100,000 strong demonstration in Bonn Oct. 10 against mid-1980s NATO nuclear deployments.

The differing opinions arise from the presurgence of popular nuclear angst in West Germany after a generation of quiescence, from fear of bellicose Reagan administration rhetoric about the Soviet Union -- and from vacillation within SPD about how to reconcile legitimate defense needs with the public yearning for safety from holocaust.

Chancellor Schmidt, a former defense minister, was the first to urge NATO to redress the imbalance that by now gives the Soviet alliance a 2-to-1 advantage over the NATO alliance in European theater long- and medium-range nuclear warheads. He therefore wholeheartedly supports the NATO decision to deploy 572 new nuclear missiles in the mid-'80s.

Schmidt also believes that security in the nuclear age must involve as much East-West cooperation and detente as possible, however. He therefore prodded a reluctant Reagan administration into entering the European theater nuclear arms control talks that will open next month in Geneva.

Schmidt calculated that this gesture on the part of the US would deflate the minority but growing mood of antinuclearism in West Germany. He further calculated that the opening of negotiations would be the best possible answer to nuclear angst -- and that until the negotiations actually began, the less said the better.

The test of his theory will be the Oct. 10 protest, now expected to be the largest antiestablishment demonstration in West Germany since the tumultuous 1960s. If Schmidt is correct, the antinuclear movement should peak with the Bonn demonstration and fade away as the Geneva talks proceed.

If Brandt is right, his willingness to concede the legitimacy of peace demonstrators' existential fears -- and the Russians' security fears -- can keep a dialogue open between the government and troubled young Germans. It can prevent these people from turning against the systems altogether -- and against an America that is seen to symbolize both a driving force in the arms race and the technological giant for a broadly antitechnological movement.

In theory the actions of a Brandt and a Schmidt should thus be complementary. Schmidt -- who is sometimes ironically called the best conservative chancellor Germany ever had -- could assure the SPD right wing and the voters' silent majority of the government's stability and common sense. Brandt -- with his constant sober reminder that there have been worse things in German history than young people demonstrating for peace -- could assure the young dissidents that the government shares their moral anguish.

Theory has collided with reality however, in the run-up to the Oct. 10 rally. Erhard Eppler, an impassioned Christian idealist and antinuclearist on the SPD executive board, recently announced his intention to speak at the rally. Brandt , as party chairman, permitted this. An outraged Schmidt, who saw the demonstration as an attack on the government, said so publicly and blew his stack at both Eppler and Brandt.

More than 50 Bundestag members than expressed their solidarity with Eppler by announcing that they, too, would attend the rally. Those in the left wing who would seek ideologica purification on peace and social welfare issues by going into opposition and avoiding dirty compromise took heart.

As for all the other Social Democrats, they shuddered and made herculean efforts to mend the rift.

In the view of deputy SPD chairman Horst Ehmke the party will in fact survive its badly mismanaged Oct. 10 debacle and will go on at next spring's party congress to salvage support for the two-pronged government policy of rearming while negotiating. This outcome will require hard work, but it can be accomplished. And in the process the 90 percent of peace demonstrators who genuinely oppose excessive nuclear armament by both washington and Moscow can be persuaded of the West's bona fides

Some foreign observers are less sanguine. Some American officials find Brandt very slippery on the subject of American and NATO arms and overly willing to humor the peace movement's uncritical acceptance of Soviet protestations of an existing European nuclear balance. They deem Brandt's highly publicized doubts about the Reagan admininstration's willingness to negotiate arms control and offensive shift of blame away from the real culprit, a Soviet Union that has steadily expanded its military machine over the past 15 years, invaded Afghanistan, and now threatened Poland.

They think further that Schmidt, tired after seven long years in office, has let this issue get away from him and no longer displays the take-charge leadership that may now be needed to shore up the West defense.

The final answers to all the crucial multiple-choice questions must now await the Geneva arms control talks. American defense decisions, and further West German political leadership.

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