As affairs of this sort go, it hardly ranks with the daily revelations about the Iran fiasco in Washington. But the discovery that the West German shipbuilders sent submarine blueprints to South Africa two years ago has fluttered the political dovecotes here. The news magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) senior engineer Gerd Rademann quit his job in Kiel, on the northwestern coast here, early this year and is now in Durban supervising construction of U-209 submarines from his company's blueprints.
The Social Democrats are making the most of the incident in the run-up to next month's election and yesterday, with the help of the Greens, voted to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry. But Conservative champion and Premier of Bavaria Franz Josef Strauss is using the opportunity to argue once again for looser restrictions on arms exports from West German manufacturers.
The controversy over arms exports is at its most heated when the potential buyers are Saudi Arabia and South Africa. For six years, strenuous Israeli protests and reminders about Hitler's genocide of the Jews have blocked Bonn's weapons sales to Riyadh. South Africa is equally unwelcome as an arms purchaser because of the UN condemnation of apartheid and embargo on weapons deliveries to Pretoria - and because of suspicions aroused over the years about South African hospitality toward old Nazis.
The Social Democrats are trying to implicate the government in the sending of submarine blueprints to Pretoria. For its part, the center-right government has been saying that while it looked into the possibility of a hardware deal in 1984 in order to build jobs in an industry wracked with unemployment, it never issued a permit for export of submarines or blueprints to Pretoria. Nor did it know about transfer of the blueprints in 1985. Nor would it have approved the sale of submarines had a deal progressed far enough to require government permission.
By contrast, Dr. Strauss, a highly vocal friend of South Africa, has freely talked of having told Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl three years ago that Pretoria wanted to acquire the blueprints - and said that Dr. Kohl gave a positive answer.
One of Strauss's aids has been arguing for making West German weapons sales abroad as unconstrained as French, British, and Italian arms exports. He contends this would enable Bonn to help stabilize moderate Arabs in the Mideast, and would also bring West German manufacturers billions of marks in contracts.