Soul-Searching Over Barschel Case : West German Scandal Tests Faith in Politics

Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, Uwe Barschel, the energetic, 43-year-old premier of the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein, was a popular politician campaigning for what appeared to be easy reelection.

Today he is dead, probably a suicide, and what has come to be known as the Barschel affair has touched off perhaps the greatest outpouring of public and private political soul-searching in West Germany since World War II.

Newspapers and television news programs are crammed with accounts of what happened before and after the death of Barschel, who had stepped down as premier on the heels of charges about dirty tricks in the Sept. 13 state election.

For many Germans, of virtually every political stripe, the scandal has raised questions about the health of West Germany's 40-year-old democratic institutions.

Angelika Volle, a research institute analyst, commented: "Everyone has heard about the Barschel affair and formed an opinion. People are appalled to find out what a dirty game politics is, particularly when Barschel seemed so young, promising and brilliant. But all the parties seem to be involved."

Thomas Kielinger, editor of the Rheinischer Merkur, said: "This case has poisoned the well of public trust in politics. The amount of attention is absolutely unprecedented."

And Philipp Jenninger, president of the federal Parliament, warned that "the credibility of our democracy is experiencing one of its most serious crises at the moment."

To outsiders, the scandal may not seem to be particularly horrendous, certainly nothing worse than incidents that have been weathered with equanimity, if not aplomb, elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. But Germans appear to have set a higher standard for themselves.

As a Frankfurt banker observed: "This affair taints the political process. It seems to impugn all the political parties. It makes you feel like not voting, and we Germans have always had one of the best records for going to the polls."

Barschel was the premier, or governor, of the northern farming state of Schleswig-Holstein and a rising star in the ruling Christian Democratic Party, which is headed at the national level by Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Lean and well-dressed, Barschel was married to a descendant of Prince Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor who unified Germany in the 19th Century. He had doctorates in law and in political science, and he was the father of four children.

He also had risen fast in politics. At age 25, he was deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Party in his state, at 35 the state's interior minister and, at 38--in 1982--he became state premier. Clearly, he was headed for higher office in the federal government.

As premier, Barschel had a reputation as a no-nonsense administrator who took quick and effective action. But, in May, his career almost ended when a small plane bringing him back from Bonn crashed near the airport at Kiel, the state capital. The plane's three other occupants died, and Barschel was hospitalized for two months.

Fully recovered, he entered the election campaign with apparent confidence. After all, the state had been solidly Christian Democratic since 1949. And he had added to his staff Reiner Pfeiffer, a sort of political gun-for-hire.

On the eve of the election in September, Der Spiegel, a news magazine, published a sensational article in which Pfeiffer charged that Barschel had instructed him to hire private detectives to shadow the Social Democratic opposition candidate, Bjoern Engholm, in an effort to find evidence of homosexuality, and to leak a report that Engholm was in tax trouble.

The headline on the magazine's cover announced: "Barschel's Dirty Tricks: Watergate in Kiel." The article contained no proof, only Pfeiffer's unsubstantiated charges. At least in part because of the article, Barschel's party lost its majority in the state legislature and was forced into coalition talks with the liberal Free Democrats.

Barschel heatedly denied Pfeiffer's account, yet the scandal became a national issue. At first, Chancellor Kohl stood by Barschel, describing the magazine article as "ugly and disgraceful," but state party leaders began to cool on the premier, as did the Free Democrats, with whom he was seeking to form a coalition.

Under pressure, Barschel resigned Sept. 25, declaring on his "word of honor" that he was innocent of conspiring with Pfeiffer and promising to clear his name through a parliamentary inquiry. He set off with his wife on a Canary Islands vacation, and while he was gone, aides of the Social Democrat Engholm admitted that they had been in touch with Pfeiffer several weeks before the Der Spiegel article appeared and presumably knew what he was doing.

This led some Barschel supporters to argue that the former premier had been framed by the opposition through Pfeiffer.

On Oct. 10, Barschel left for Geneva, telling his wife he planned to meet someone in Switzerland who had proof that would exonerate him. The next day, he was found dead, fully clothed, in the half-filled bathtub in his room at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva.

His death was a shocking development for the country, and the circumstances surrounding it did not help. His body was found by a reporter for the West German magazine Stern. Swiss authorities were slow to make public the official version of what they concluded from their investigation and autopsy, but they said that an autopsy showed that Barschel's death was caused by tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

No suicide note was found, but neither were there any signs of violence in the hotel room. In personal papers found in his room, Barschel described an upcoming meeting with a mysterious informer. In a telex addressed to a state panel of inquiry in West Germany, he announced he would soon have important information to present.

West Germany's sensationalist press had a field day: Was it suicide? Murder? Perhaps a heart attack?

Barschel's wife and a brother called it murder, though they advanced no motive and suggested no killer. The family at first demanded a second autopsy, then withdrew the request Oct. 21.

In Geneva, police spokesman Marcel Vaudroz said that "suicide was the most probable one of all hypotheses." But the police admit that there are some unanswered questions, including the disappearance of a bottle of red wine that Barschel had ordered from room service and the issue of how he spent the 17 hours between his arrival in Geneva and the assumed time of his death.

Der Spiegel has cited speculation, including that of experts on suicide cases, that Barschel took his own life but made it look like murder to save his honor.

"It was a strange, unsavory end for this cool north German Protestant," editor Kielinger observed. "It is like some awful third-rate crime novel. It is too, too sad.

"There is also a mystic quality about the case. A senior political figure survives an air crash. Should not that have been a warning from the Almighty? Yet he continues doing business as usual. Why? There are various levels to this case."

Not everyone is worried about the state of democracy in West Germany. Michael Stuermer, a historian and political consultant, commented: "Let's not overdo this concern about our future. Democracy is not about perfection. It is about imperfection. We've got to get away from looking at Germany as if it were a patient being psychoanalyzed."

But other commentators note the deep-seated German penchant for analyzing themselves and their institutions and philosophizing about them.

Kielinger said: "This affair justifies the attention given to it by the media and others. It shows that an important Western state with a cool, northern, Protestant work ethic is currently incapable of establishing a properly functioning political government.

"The public has a right to ask: 'Is there anybody we can trust?' And the Barschel affair forces us to ask: 'What price political careerism? What price political power? Where are we heading?' "

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