West German peace activists start losing their public - and MPs

The West German peace movement is losing its cohesion and its chic - only a short six weeks after the first controversial deployment of new NATO Euromissiles:

* On Thursday, the counterculture newspaper Die Tageszeitung carried not a single article about the antimissile movement.

* On Monday, Green party cofounder Petra Kelly and ex-Gen. Gert Bastian withdrew from the grand-daddy antinuclear manifesto, the Krefeld Appeal, charging communist takeover of it.

* On Sunday, the Peace Movement Action Conference, after yet another row, voted down resolutions condemning both new Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe and the jailing of 20 named East German peace activists. Advocates of the resolutions warned the assembly in vain that they would thereby lose middle-class support.

* Throughout this snowy month of February, the colony of permanent protesters at West Germany's lone Pershing II missile site at Mutlangen has dwindled to one or two dozen people. Many local shopkeepers have sarcastically declared their premises ''demonstration-free zones.''

The list of examples could go on. Bastian, a Green member of Parliament, also quit the Green caucus, accusing the ''antiparty party'' of rigid anti-Americanism and of running a ''dictatorship of incompetence'' with its radical ''basis democracy,'' its lack of professional staff, and the constant scolding of pragmatists like himself by ''fundamentalists'' who seek total confrontation with the political system.

He refuses to surrender his seat to the Green ''backer up'' who is supposed to succeed him on the rotation principle. (The Greens entered Parliament with an expectation that each of their MPs would resign his seat in two years to make way for other party members.)

Bastian's exasperation with the Greens and the antinuclear moderates' exasperation with the radical left aren't yet critical for the counterculture. The parliamentary Greens could lose one more MP before they would lose their caucus minimum and the public funding and access to the Bundestag dais that go with that status.

The Krefeld Appeal against NATO missiles (but not against Soviet missiles) that Bastian has now rejected has probably already reached its saturation point anyway, with a claimed 5 million signatures.

Furthermore, formal unity is still so important to the peace movement that it will put up with a lot of steering by its communist participants before accepting an open split. The umbrella Coordination Committee that organizes demonstrations is not dominated by communists by any means, but the periodic grass-roots conferences that set overall goals and tactics are highly susceptible to the communists' organizational skills.

At the Cologne conference Feb. 11 and 12, the participants were self-selected - anyone who paid 5 deutsche marks ($2) at the door was a delegate - and the communists guided, in the journalistic guesstimate, a disproportionate 40 percent of the thousand-odd delegates.

The first clear reckoning of what this partisanship may cost the peace movement in public support will come with the East European antinuclear marches and the unofficial referendum on the new NATO missiles in June. The events of the past week augur a thinning of the ranks, however, and some disappointed peace activists are already searching for the reasons.

A preliminary tally suggests two related causes: a lessening of war fears since the first NATO Euromissiles were installed in December, and the inherent centrifugal tendencies of the many fractious protest groups.

The diminishing of nuclear angst results in turn from President Reagan's adoption of moderate language toward Moscow, from current Kremlin disarray after failure to block NATO deployments through European public opinion, and from the routine way in which the NATO deployments are proceeding.

What glued the heterogeneous protest groups together for the past two or three years was an existential fear of nuclear war - and of what was perceived as a trigger-happy US willingness to risk nuclear war in Europe.

Reagan's shift away from berating the Soviet Union and the administration's dropping of its previous talks about nuclear war-fighting have helped calm those fears. So has Moscow's hesitation after its counterproductive heightening of tension as NATO deployments began.

This combination has led to a public perception in West Germany that things are no more dangerous now than they were before the deployments - and therefore to a certain boredom with the peace movement's excitement about the subject. There is also a feeling that the peace movement isn't playing fair when it condemns the new NATO missiles but not the new Soviet missiles currently going into East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

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