Right-wing overtones in various conservative appeals in the West German election campaign can be read in two contradictory ways. The first interpretation, articulated especially by the Social Democrats and to some extent the Liberals, sounds the alarm about danger signals.
The second interpretation, espoused by some senior journalists, basically regards the implied German claims to Polish territory, the calculated bashing of East Germany, and bids to shut the door on the Nazi past as transitory efforts to mobilize voters on the fringe far right.
The manifestations themselves are not disputed. They include Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss's call for the Germans to ``stand tall'' again and not be troubled any longer by the Hitler past; the suggestion by Theodor Waigel, the leader of Strauss's Christian Social Union faction in the federal Parliament, that the Germans might have claims on Polish territory after all; Chancellor Helmut Kohl's casual use of Nazi parallels to criticize the Soviet bloc in comparing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Adolf Hitler's propagandist Josef Goebbels and talking of East German ``concentration camps;'' and a West Berlin Christian Democrat's initial praise (in a Berlin anniversary booklet) for Goebbels' ``courage'' in staying in the capital through all the Allied bombings to the bitter end of World War II.
For Willy Brandt, Social Democratic chairman, ex-chancellor, and ex-Nazi resister, these remarks are all cause for ``deep concern.'' In a recent press conference, he expressed concern that Bonn's policy of d'etente could fall victim to tactical electioneering. He asserted further that West Germany's reputation in the world depends on clearly renouncing the Nazi heritage and not ``retreating from a merciless facing up to the effects of the murderous Nazi dictatorship.'' But ``utterances from government circles,'' he charged, ``could give the impression'' of a desire to ``retract the unambiguous break with the Nazi past and patch together a view of history that is dangerous for the future of German democracy.''
In the last phrase he was referring to political echoes of the nine-month-old dispute between historians about treatment of the World War II period. The left and some of the center see in that debate efforts to belittle the importance of Nazi crimes.
For some Liberals, too - even though they are allied with Dr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Dr. Strauss's CSU in the center-right government that is expected to be reelected Jan. 25 - the various conservative remarks are serious enough to warrant rebuttal. Liberal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in particular has dissociated himself and West German foreign policy from the polemics aimed at the Soviet Union and East Germany.
Social Democrats warn further that even though the intent of various CDU spokesmen may be harmless (they are less trusting of Strauss's CSU), the appeals could reactivate some ugly German assertiveness and self-justification that in the postwar years have been subordinated to a more democratic tolerance. As evidence they cite a flurry of letters to newspapers cheering the Gorbachev-Goebbels comparison, and the amount of hate mail some conservative politicians have received who have supported permanent West German recognition of post-World War II boundaries.
In the less alarmed reading of current conservative polemics, the right-wing overtones mean nothing in terms of actual policy. In this interpretation, the real intentions of the CDU at least are best measured not in campaign speeches, but in the party's refusal to name as a candidate for Bundestag reelection the arch-conservative Herbert Hupka, chairman of the Silesian branch of the Society of Expellees (from former German territory now in Poland). Moreover, a certain CDU restraint can be observed in the absence of the kind of xenophobia that threatened to well up last fall before the flood of third-world refugees entering West Germany through East Berlin was stopped.
In this more benign view, the conservative appeals are being made not to stir up passions, but just to dissuade the 2 or 3 percent of West Germans on the far right from casting protest votes for the more nationalistic splinter groups like the Republicans - or from staying home altogether on Jan. 25 and thus reducing the expected conservative victory.
In line with this analysis, Christoph Bertram, diplomatic correspondent of the weekly Die Zeit, notes the issues that are uppermost in the minds of voters and the CDU are in any case domestic rather than foreign. He also suggests that Chancellor Kohl may not be unhappy to let the junior coalition party of the Liberals profile themselves against the conservatives as the guardians of middle-of-the-road foreign policy - and thus increase both their own vote and Kohl's ability to use them after the election as a counterweight to Strauss.
So far East Germany itself seems to be taking a fairly relaxed view of the conservatives' campaign. The East German press is critical of Kohl's allegation about ``concentration camps.'' And the Communist Party newspaper Neues Deutschland has reprinted Radio Moscow's condemnation of West German conservatives' attempts ``to give themselves airs as supernationalists.'' But East German leader Erich Honecker has only said, in an interview with the Japanese newspaper Asahi, that while East-West German relations have been ``somewhat affected'' by the West German election campaign, their general direction shows a ``good development.''
Kohl himself has also played down his ``concentration camp'' comment since he made it, partly because open polemics between the two Germanies could endanger the quiet periodic West German purchase of the freedom of East German political prisoners.
Over the years this trade has transplanted some 50,000 from East German jails to emigration in West Germany.
Given East Berlin's mild reaction to the West German conservatives' campaign, the main diplomatic cost could turn out to be paid in the West.
It took decades of clear West German denunciation of Nazi crimes - and the Eastern treaties' understood forfeiture of claims to former German territories - for Bonn to be fully trusted as an equal partner by its Western European allies.
Now Mr. Bertram expresses some concern, however, that West Germany's anti-Nazi image could be tarnished in the West.