How strong is W. German democracy? It could depend on Weimar legacy

Democracy will hold in West Germany, commented football coach Jurgen Pabst, ''so long as unemployment is kept within limits.'' There are no right extremist parties nowadays to undermine democracy as the Nazis did 50 years ago in Germany, he noted. And ''young people today are much more politically conscious and active than I was when I was 18.''

''There are great dangers [for our democracy], such as blaming everything on foreigners,'' said a young newcomer to Hamburg, Gerda Ihnen, ''but I don't think it will go bust.''

And for Irmgard Pruvost, housewife and mother of two, the stability of democracy in West Germany was so obvious that she had difficulty grasping the question.

All three were Hamburg residents interviewed at a political rally for Social Democratic chancellor candidate Hans-Jochen Vogel and the local Bundestag (parliament) candidate, ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

The majority of West Germans would probably agree with this spot-check of Hamburg voters in evaluating the sturdiness of democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany. To an extent that would astound any citizen of Hitler's (or the Kaiser's) Germany, the citizens of the Federal Republic have adopted the democratic system and values as their own.

Nonetheless, there's one nagging question that crops up periodically in the news media and in after-dinner discussions, and has surfaced again in 1983: ''Is Bonn Weimar?''

By that is meant: Could the present republic, like the interwar Weimar Republic, self-destruct in some fatal mix of unemployment, inflation, nationalism, racism, extremist violence, and decent peoples' contempt for politics?

The answer, by now, is usually a resounding no - followed by warnings about where dangers for the future might lie.

''We aren't perfect democrats,'' said one campaign worker thoughtfully. ''I've worked in the last three elections. And I've come to the conclusion we aren't good at it. We're not mature enough. People don't have enough information. Election campaigns are so senseless. The parties try to find out what people want, and then tailor their campaigns to it, (instead of providing enlightening leadership on issues).''

Whether the persistence of the Bonn-Weimar comparison is a sign of confidence , overconfidence, or doubt, is a point that is debated. The first time it was raised, by a Swiss journalist in the 1950s, it was meant as reassurance by the inventor of the question, but it spurred doubt among many West Germans.

The Swiss thought his northern neighbors were not doing badly at all in constructing a new society on top of the physical and moral ashes of the Third Reich. The economy was being vigorously rebuilt. The new democratic institutions midwifed by the American, British, and French occupation were functioning.

Federalist checks on too much power in the center had revived the German tradition of regional, cultural, and political strongholds. The ideal of a united Europe had replaced a poisonous German nationalism and racism.

A strong leader who had refused to cooperate with the Nazis, Konrad Adenauer, was restoring German self-respect and leading his country away from Germany's previous vacillating between East and West and toward a wholehearted commitment to Western democratic principles. Millions of Germans who had been driven out of lands that became (or reverted to) Polish or Soviet possession were absorbed into the new society without any revanchist ''stab in the back'' theory gaining wide currency.

Moreover, West Germany, despite the economic strains of starting over from zero, was on its way to an unprecedented payment of conscience money to relatives of Hitler's 6 million Jewish victims, and to Israel.

The doubters were not reassured, however. They were still haunted by the terrible, unanswerable question: How could the good, cultured Germans - who had welcomed the Jews and integrated them into their society more than any other European land - have let themselves be perverted to mass murder? And where were the guarantees that it could not happen again?

The skeptics, therefore, were painfully aware of the dark side of West Germany. They saw that large numbers of officials in education, law, and the intelligence service - as well as a disturbing number of big industrialists and even politicians - had Nazi pasts. (The Western occupying powers had abruptly terminated their de-Nazification campaign as the post-World War II cold war intensified, in order to enlist ex-Nazis on the side of the West. West Germany did not begin its own trials of Nazi-era extermination-camp officials until the 1960s.)

The critics felt a social rigidity and subservience to authority that were at least an echo of past German hierarchies. They approved of the unaccustomed absence of the old social classes that Hitler had so brutally wrought. They disapproved, however, of the perpetuation of an elitist education which allowed for little more than the exceptional merit advancement that especially gifted German children had enjoyed historically.

They saw behind the praiseworthy ''economic miracle'' in their land the momentum of a far less praiseworthy economic selfishness and materialism.

They wondered, in the end, if formal democratic political institutions weren't only a thin veneer on top of a still undemocratic society. And they wondered just how sturdy their democratic institutions would prove to be in any real crisis.

Much has changed in the quarter century since that first searching debate. An entire school of novelists - Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll, and others - has wrestled with German guilt, then and now. The initial curtain of silence about the Hitler era has yielded to a flow of documentaries and school trips to concentration camp sites - so much so that the educational problem by now is less ignorance than surfeit and boredom.

The university system here has been pried open to something approaching mass higher education - with new problems of diploma factories and a class of unemployed intellectuals. Unchecked pollution in this crowded land has stirred citizens to an altogether new grass-roots, do-it-yourself political activism outside the established hierarchies.

West Germany's fourth chancellor, Willy Brandt, has reconciled West Germany with its East-bloc neighbors. He went into Norwegian exile rather than conform to Hitler's Germany, and knelt in sorrow at Auschwitz. The next, also remarkable , chancellor named Helmut Schmidt has guided West Germany through the oil crisis with the best record of any large industrialized country other than Japan. He brought Bonn, in tandem with Paris, to a European leadership that is no longer resented.

And in those 13 years of Brandt's and Schmidt's Social Democratic government, a real two-party system of democratic alternatives has - very quietly and almost unnoticed - finally been established. (There is a small third national party, the swing-vote Liberals, who for two decades have determined which major party would form a government. But basically it's a two-, or perhaps a two-and-a-half-party system.)

The Social Democrats moved away from their century of class competition to promote as well the interests of the burgeoning middle class. In the process they became ''salonfahig'' - ''fit for the salon.'' The conservatives learned in their 13 years out of power that they had no divine right to rule. They came as well to accept the liberal, legal, and more egalitarian social reforms spearheaded by the Social Democrats, along with West Germany's postwar borders and reconciliation with the East.

Moreover, various crises were surmounted, or at least passed through, without any structural damage to democracy. Then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss made a personal use of police powers in the 1960s ''Spiegel affair,'' when police raided the office of Der Spiegel magazine and had German journalists arrested in Spain. Yet Der Spiegel came out of the affair strengthened, Strauss weakened. Thereafter, Strauss never did succeed in his efforts to become chancellor.

A few years later, the 1960s student revolt incurred one death by a police bullet. Yet the police changed their methods after this fatality, no longer using sidearms against protestors (as the high tally of injured policemen at violent demonstrations in recent years testifies).

Then a decade later, leftist-anarchist terrorists murdered three leading government and business figures in the space of a few months, aspired to a Chicago gangland-style direction of operations from prison cells, and took Lufthansa passengers hostage to force the release of jailed terrorists.

Yet the government refused either to be blackmailed or to turn itself into the repressive state the terrorists hoped to provoke. The hijackers were overpowered by a hitherto secret West German commando squad that immediately returned to obscurity. Radical chic faded. Public alarm about violations of civil rights led to retraction of most of the most-intrusive measures adopted to counter the terrorist threat. (These included vetting every young person crossing the German border and compiling dossiers on those travelers possessing leftist magazines.)

Civil libertarians still object to a number of practices and laws here, such as the hastily passed 1977 legislation (invoked once so far) barring access to lawyers by jailed terrorists or even suspected terrorists under certain conditions. They object to indiscriminate police wiretapping of suspects that occurs once every few years; to the radical ban on civil servants that has been so zealously applied as to bar teen-agers from jobs as gardeners' assistants; and to the mass arrest in 1981 of almost 150 young Nurembergers - all of whom were finally acquitted this year - just because they happened to be in a youth center after a demonstration in which some shops were broken into.

In retrospect, most West Germans would probably now view this country's civil rights record in recent years as manifestly better than France's or Italy's, and as somewhere close to Britain's.

West German social critics, however, including a strong, articulate minority of the better-educated young, are less interested in a comparison with other countries than in a contrast with the ideal.

Looking to the past, they point out that although West Germany has by now convicted thousands of Nazi-era extermination-camp officials - and lifted the statute of limitations on mass murder - it has never legally reversed any of the ''judicial murder'' decisions by Hitler's judges, or convicted any of these judges. They regard the issue of Nazi holdovers in high places as resolving itself now by the ''biological solution'' of retirement or death of the older generation. But they ask if that is good enough.

Looking to the present, the critics worry about erosion of the right of peaceful demonstration through recent attempts to make groups organizing demonstrations liable for damage caused (with no proof required of who actually caused the damage). They are concerned that demonstrators (in Baden-Wurttemberg, according to new regulations there) are required to pay for police maintenance of order during marches.

The skeptics worry too (along with the data protection commissioner in his latest annual report) about the railroad police's passing on to military officers of the names of young people distributing flyers about conscientious objection to the draft - and about the federal government's refusal to let the commissioner check the use by the FBI's equivalent here of social welfare or other governmental data.

Beyond the specific democratic issues of civil-rights guarantees lies the more intangible issue of excessive social conformity. In this area judgments are more subjective. But the everyday experience of an American reporter's acquaintances suggests why this is a question. One recent high school graduate notes matter-of-factly that while he is curious to see what life is like in East Europe, he can't travel there - because that would blight his hoped-for career in business.

For the same reason, one West German mother refuses to let her junior-high children correspond with East German teen-agers (to the astonishment of the East German parents of the would-be pen pals). One young West German lawyer recalls the political examination required of him as a student when he applied for a part-time job in the university library.

So what does it all add up to? How sturdy would West Germany's democracy and civil rights be, the doubters keep asking, in a real emergency?No one knows the answer, of course. And the burden of suspicion is great on a people that once upon a time failed to defend the Weimar Republic against Hitler. But then, no one could answer the question either about what a real crisis might do to America's democracy.

For now, in West Germany, what can be said is that there are a lot more like football coach Herr Pabst, who feels a personal stake in democracy, than there were in his grandfather's time in the Weimar Republic. There are many more ordinary questioners, like Fraulein Ihnen, who rebel at making a foreign minority the scapegoat for Germans' economic hardships.

There is, now, a vast majority of citizens who do not despise politicians - and a vocal minority that is ready to take politics into its own hands, not through violence, but through petitions. There are courts that throw out assembly-line arrests in the absence of individual proof of illegal acts. There is as well a cautionary memory of what happened 50 years ago.

There is, for all the conformity and gaps and lurches, a capacity to acknowledge political and social rigidities and to move to correct them.

Perhaps the best conclusion then, is that of the Hamburg campaign worker: The West Germans are not perfect democrats. But there are enough of them who worry about this fact to offer the hope that Bonn will not become Weimar.

Next: What happened to the economic miracle?

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