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NATO missiles damaging W. German democracy?

The government sees it as a test of resolve and loyalty to the West. The antinuclear demonstrators see it as a test of moral conscience - one the Germans failed under Hitler and must not fail now.

The government will win, observers agree, and the new NATO Euromissiles will be deployed here starting in December.

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But, as the expected ''hot fall'' of protests gets under way with the Sept. 1 -3 blockade of potential Euromissile and other sites, the question is:

What will be the cost of the government victory?

For those celebrities joining in the blockade - like Nobel prize novelist Heinrich Boell, futurologist Robert Jungk (''The Atom State''), and various Greens and Social Democrats - the answer is clear: a diminishing of democracy.

They view the 70 percent of the public that polls show as opposing the new missile deployment as a clear voice of West German citizens that should not be overridden by the government.

They fear an erosion of civil rights as the conservative government introduces new legislation holding a person's mere presence at a demonstration where there is violence as participation in that violence unless the person can prove that he tried to stop the violence.

And, most fundamentally, they view the introduction of the new NATO missiles into West Germany as an immoral act that will heighten the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The government sees things differently.

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It is committed to the new deployments if there is no prior arms control agreement in the superpower Euromissile talks that next week begin their final session before the planned stationing. It believes that, at this point, unilateral Western renunciation of a type of weapons the Soviets have already deployed would:

1. Be interpreted by the Kremlin as weakness and lack of resolve.

2. Make mutually agreed arms control less rather than more likely.

3. Add to nuclear instability in the world and increase rather than decrease the risk of eventual East-West nuclear confrontation.

Somewhat acerbicly, the government coalition notes that it received a decisive majority vote in last March's election, on a platform that included a determination to station the new missiles if necessary. Democracy functions by elections, the government argues, not by opinion polls. All that is needed (and is now being launched) is a $3 million public relations campaign to convince citizens that the government policy is best and that emotional antinuclear sentiment should yield to rational political analysis.

In line with this, the government, especially under the law-and-order interior minister, Friedrich Zimmermann, has no intention of softening its new legislation on demonstrations (though this legislation as now planned would take effect only after the Sept. 1 to Oct. 22 high season of protest). Nor does it intend to instruct the police to be soft on demonstrators whom it regards as exercising illegal ''coercion'' in blocking military bases.

At the Sept. 1 kickoff the West German police were notably restrained, however. In a sort of domestic analogy to the arms control negotiations - in which both East and West portray their own side as forthcoming and the other side as belligerent - both police and demonstrators were ready for violence from the other side but did not initiate it themselves.

Thus, a silent march of an estimated 2,500 antinuclear activists that began at dawn outside Mutlangen airfield Sept. 1 proceeded without incident. So did the sit-in of an estimated 400 demonstrators on the road outside Mutlangen, the planned US Army site of December deployment of NATO's first nine Pershing II missiles.

The US armed forces, which learned their lesson after reaping much bad publicity when members of parliament trussed up demonstrators at the Ramstein air show in the summer - stayed well out of things.

For their part, the demonstrators lived up to their summer training in civil disobedience as fully as the police lived up to their summer training in dealing with civil disobedience. As of this writing, the model deportment of both had not been marred by the violent ''chaotics'' who often attach themselves to various demonstrations in order to battle with the police.

As a result, the Greens had not been faced with anything more than abstract decisions about whether to endorse violence or not. In a fierce intraparty controversy, the pragmatists want to dissociate the Greens clearly from violence. The fundamentalists want to approve violence against the state as a justified response to what they charge is violence by the state.

On the same occasion of the Sept. 1 ''Anti-War Day'' - the day Hitler started World War II 44 years ago - the Lutheran Church in West and East Germany sent letters to both West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East German state and party chief Erich Honecker appealing to both East and West to strive for arms control.

In East Berlin a small peace demonstration of 50 people with candles was broken up by police. There were conflicting reports about whether ringleaders were arrested.

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