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How one woman made a difference in West German politics

Probably the most beloved candidate in West Germany's current election campaign is a woman with 35 years of experience in public office. Unusual as this adjective might seem for a politician, it suits Hildegard Hamm-Brucher.

The then Hildegard Brucher cut her teeth on negative politics when she studied chemistry at the University of Munich during World War II. From medical students who had done service on the eastern front she heard whispered tales of trainloads of people being hauled off to somewhere.

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She was on the edge of the White Rose Society of students, a group whose members were executed after they scattered anti-Hitler leaflets at the university. She was spared, because she was ill in the hospital at the time of the arrests, and because her professor, a Nobel Prize chemist, protected her.

Dr. Brucher's activism began as soon as the occupation authorities allowed politics to resume in Germany. In 1948 she was elected to the Munich City Council. The next year she went to Harvard for two semesters as part of that remarkable generation of young Germans who absorbed American democracy with every fiber of their being and vowed to reproduce it in their homeland.

In the United States she studied political theory and urban administration. She attended League of Women Voters and PTA meetings. She joined in the campaign to kick out Boston's notorious Mayor James M. Curley.

When Dr. Brucher returned to Munich, she made education her top political priority. Her Free Democratic Party - the small, classically liberal party (in the European rather than the American sense) that is always teetering on the verge of extinction - backed her in her quest.

Her conviction was that another Hitler could be prevented only if the Germans' traditional elitism could be supplanted by a more egalitarian attitude - and that this must begin in the schools. Only if children received an education that embodied faith in the worth of every individual and gave every child full opportunity, she thought, could democratic values be instilled in the young.

It was one thing to promote this concept in liberal Munich, with its Social Democratic government. It was quite another to promote it in Bavaria, the most traditional and conservative state in West Germany. There was no way she could get the Bavarian state legislature, in which she won a seat in 1950, to agree to her first, very modest reform: integrating Roman Catholic and Protestant schools.

The problem - apart from the whole question of perpetuating segregation of the two confessions - was that in the Roman Catholic communities in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Bavaria, the few Protestant children got very second-class resources, facilities, and instruction. (By the same token, in predominantly Protestant localities in some cities, Catholic children endured similar disadvantages.)

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Faced with an impasse, Dr. Hamm-Brucher (by now she was married and had two children) used a new device the occupation had introduced: the referendum. She toured town and country in her Volkswagen outfitted with loudspeaker. And she won. A constitutional amendment was passed. The schools were integrated.

In this period Hamm-Brucher developed a lifestyle that combined politics and family. She organized her work so that she could always be home for lunch with her children - and could have her office in the house. She simply skipped many nonessential meetings.

By the mid-1960s - with her family's consent - she was seconded to the left-liberal government in the state of Hesse to institute educational reform there. This time reform meant US-type comprehensive schools for children of parents who chose this in preference to having pupils split off at the age of 10 into separate schools for the university-bound and the factory-bound.

In this attempt Hamm-Brucher was only partially successful. Postwar West Germany turned out to be far less receptive to new ideas in education than that other bastion of elite education, Britain. To this day even the few voluntary comprehensive schools in West Germany remain highly controversial, despite all of Hamm-Brucher's proselytizing in more than half a dozen books and in three years (1969-1972) in the federal Education Ministry.

Hamm-Brucher took something of a breather in the early '70s: She returned to the Bavarian legislature to become the country's only woman party floor leader. This had the advantage that she could then live at home while her children were teen-agers, rather than commuting home every weekend. (Throughout their marriage her husband, Dr. Erwin Hamm, has kept his own position as a professional administrator in the Munich city government.)

In 1976 Hamm-Brucher returned to Bonn, this time as an MP and state secretary in the Foreign Ministry in charge of cultural relations with other countries. Typically, she considered cultural relations not as some stepchild of diplomacy, but as the essential ''third dimension'' of foreign policy. Among her proudest accomplishments here is the German-funded program to preserve in tape libraries native music and traditions that might be dying out in various third-world countries.

In the Northern Hemisphere Hamm-Brucher's duties in recent years also included the thankless job of trying to improve the West German image in the US (and the American image in West Germany). In a period when young Germans have entertained growing suspicion that Washington is trigger-happy with its nuclear weapons, Hamm-Brucher has been one of the few government officials who has been accepted as a respected partner in dialogue.

Her impassioned defense of America's good intentions and openness (and her warnings about the need to protect West Germany against the Soviet threat abroad and against extremism of both left and right at home) have often fallen on deaf ears. Yet her own manifest integrity and dedication to Christian values - she is an active participant in the Protestant lay movement here - guarantee she is at least heard out.

Most recently Hamm-Brucher's own sense of integrity and loyalty led her to a bitter break with the party that for decades had embodied for her the ideals of civic, social, and economic freedom. Last fall the Free Democrat chairman (and West German Foreign Minister) Hans-Dietrich Genscher -- a close political ally whom Hamm-Brucher deputized for in the cabinet -- broke the party's 13-year coalition with the Social Democrats to form an alliance with the Conservatives and put Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl in the chancellory.

Hamm-Brucher, an admirer of then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, could not go along with this. She told the Bundestag it violated her sense of ethics for the Free Democrats -- who had campaigned in 1980 as allies of Schmidt and the Social Democrats -- to betray their promise to the voters. Her brief comments about Christian ideals in politics, thought 1,600 voters who wrote her to say so, were the highlight of the whole emotion-packed day's debate.

Hamm-Brucher resigned her Foreign Ministry post immediately. She was unceremoniously dropped from the Free Democrats' executive committee. She did not quit the party, however, as many of her more leftist colleagues did. She is campaigning as a Free Democrat this year largely to show that liberal social and not just conservative economic ideas can still find a home in the Free Democratic Party.

Hamm-Brucher's chances of getting reelected in the March 6 vote are slim. In public opinion polls the Free Democrats are polling well below the 5 percent minimum required for parliamentary representation.

It could perhaps be said that Hamm-Brucher never was a real politician. Politics was always a means, not an end to her. Her heart broke far too easily. She wasn't willing to be dehumanized by politics.

For a politician, she was too tolerant of others, and at the same time too unwilling to compromise her principles.

She was congenitally unsuited, it seems, to the profession she chose. And yet , if democratic politics have succeeded to an unimaginable extent in this successor state to Hitler's Germany, this remarkable feat must surely be attributed to the likes of Hildegard Hamm-Brucher.

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