A 15-year debate about plans to extend Frankfurt International Airport into nearby woodland erupted this month into scenes resembling civil war. Hooded youths barricaded freeways, catapulted steel pellets at police, and hurled Molotov cocktails - all in the name of ecology. The cause was the State of Hesse's stubborn insistence on enforcing its legal right to chop down 300,000 trees and build a 2.5-mile concrete runway designed to keep the airport internationally competitive in the 1980s.
But last weekend's fierce clashes may just have spawned the seeds of a compromise, for both sides seemed genuinely shocked at what they had done. The conflict, known locally as the ''Battle of Startbahn West'' (West runway), highlights West Germany's problems in weighing a staunch attachment to the rule of law against respect for the rights of aggrieved minorities.
The antirunway campaign began more than a decade ago as a suburban movement uniting anxious citizens concerned about noise and air pollution, preserving scarce woodland, and protecting the value of their property. But it escalated into a relentless battle of wills between the modern industrial state and its critics.
Supporters of the $60 million extension say the extra 15 percent capacity it will provide is essential if Frankfurt is to maintain its place as Europe's second-busiest airport. Flight delays have become so frequent that major airlines are threatening to desert Frankfurt, putting many of the airport's 32, 000 jobs at risk, they say.
Opponents argue the runway would only fractionally increase capacity at a time when world air traffic is contracting anyway - and this at the cost of untold damage to Frankfurt's already troubled environment. The financial metropolis with a population of some 700,000, was bombed to rubble in World War II and has a chronic shortage of green space.
But it is a war of faith rather than figures, pitting disaffected youth against hardened politicians and job-conscious trade unionists in a standoff similar to West Germany's running conflicts about nuclear energy and NATO's nuclear weapons.
The antirunway movement has long been an uneasy coalition between worried citizens, genuine ecologists (the so-called ''greens'') and radicals (nicknamed the ''red greens''). In what looked like a desperate bid to prevent the inevitable, they got up a petition with more than 220,000 signatures recently to have the issue decided by a referendum.
State Premier Holger Borner dismissed the move as unconstitutional, and unless the Hesse Supreme Court overrules him, the protesters will have reached the end of their road in legal efforts to have the airport extension scrapped. A private opinion poll conducted for the state government shows that even if a referendum were held tomorrow, 60 percent of the local electorate would still vote for the runway.
The signs are that the protesters realize this and are turning instead to civil disobedience.
Mr. Borner decided not to sit back and let justice take its plodding course. In a surprise move, he sent 5,000 battle-dressed riot police into the woods last month to demolish a makeshift village of wooden huts built by demonstrators in the path of the proposed runway. The government was acting within its rights, but its tough stand set off a chain reaction of violence in which both policemen and protesters ran wild. On the antirunway side, the ''red green'' radicals took over.
A police force driven to the edge of tolerance by some 600,000 hours of overtime this year because of the airport issue swung its batons with almost desperate fury, sparing neither journalists nor bystanders. In two weeks of almost daily clashes, hundreds of people were injured and damage ran to millions of dollars.
West German commentators, stunned by the violence, seemed perplexed at the passions unleashed by the runway issue and unable to focus on anything except the threat to the rule of law. The lack of flexibility on both sides, thwarting patient mediation efforts by the Lutheran Church, had turned a nagging local conflict into a bitter national confrontation in which both sides were utterly convinced of their own rectitude.
The margin for compromise is slim, since as one local official said, ''You can't build half a runway.''
But there may just be a way out. If concerned citizens can regain control of their movement from the radicals, and if Mr. Borner's shaky government feels able to make concessions without losing face, they might agree to a symbolic tree-felling stop for the few weeks until the Hesse Supreme Court rules on the legality of a referendum.