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NEWS ANALYSIS : Among Germans, Angst Over Gulf War Is Pervasive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the urging of French President Francois Mitterrand, member states of the European Community a few years ago all began issuing look-alike red passports--a symbolic, yet important step, he said, in building a common European identity.

But amid all the uncertainty in the present crisis, one thing is clear: The stress of the Gulf War has caused the peoples of Europe to revert to type.

The British have been steady and stoic. During the first week of the war, the French aimed to carve their own, special position in the crisis by limiting attacks by their aircraft only to targets in Kuwait. France later reversed the decision, but not before former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing wryly likened it to the World War II Allies deciding that the best way to defeat Hitler was by bombing only France.

No response, however, has been more dramatic, or for outsiders more puzzling, than that of the Germans, who have been seized by an especially acute case of angst --a crippling fear so intense it blurs reason.

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“Whatever the Germans do, they always go to extremes,” commented Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, director of the Allensbach Institute and a respected social commentator. “They are either in excessively high spirits or gripped by a deep pessimism and depression. They are really different from other Europeans.”

At present, the depressive angst dominates.

In the first days of the Gulf War, this depression paralyzed national decision-making, blurred rational thought and unleashed a tidal wave of pessimism that still grips the nation.

For many, the intensity of this emotion helps explain the sluggish, uncertain, response to events from a government the Bush Administration had initially chosen as its most important European ally.

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This powerful fear, coupled with a deep-seated belief in the country that Germans have had enough of war this century, also helps explain the country’s extreme reluctance to participate in any way militarily in the conflict.

Indeed, as the war moves into its second week, Germans have begun debating whether they should pull back the lone, token contribution to the military effort--18 anti-infantry jets dispatched earlier this month to a base in eastern Turkey, about 250 miles from the Iraqi border.

Constitutionally blocked from sending ground troops out of the NATO alliance area, German political leaders now argue about narrowing the conditions in which Germany might have to assist Turkey, should NATO’s southernmost partner be attacked.

This initial response has confused and annoyed many of Germany’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and dismayed the Israelis, who believe that Germany has a special responsibility to them.

“The Germans are not weapons-happy, as was so often said in earlier times,” Chancellor Helmut Kohl commented at a news conference earlier this week.

Although not directly involved in a war thousands of miles away, they are still deeply worried.

In Berlin, city authorities consider installing a special hot line to deal with worried residents’ questions about what to do should they come under a gas attack, while students in the city last week distributed leaflets charting a war scenario that included thousands of dead German ground troops--even though German forces are not part of the American-led coalition deployed against those of Iraq. The sales of canned food, rice and bottled water are up sharply, while in Bonn, an office secretary said she and her husband discussed fleeing with their child to the Portuguese west coast, where the winds are more favorable in clearing the black clouds of pollution that both of them believe could descend over the Continent as a result of bombed oil wells.

Much of this mood has been stoked by the media, seemingly transfixed by the prospect of Armageddon.

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Klaus Bednarz, presenter of the nationally televised current affairs program “Monitor,” began his program last week by showing his viewers first some gruesome archive footage from previous conflicts and then body bags.

“Irresistibly, so it seems, the Middle East and perhaps the entire world is headed at this hour toward a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions,” said Bednarz, ladling more angst into the living rooms of millions of defenseless Germans.

The daily Bild Zeitung, with a circulation of more than 5 million, has offered up a series of screaming headlines, including “Hussein Tests Super Bomb on Living People: All Dead,” “The Way Iraqis Torture in Kuwait” and--after the first American planes were shot down over Baghdad--"U.S. Pilot Lynched and Hacked to Pieces.”

Having contributed to the darkened mood, Bild quickly published a follow-up story, headlined, “Why War Angst Makes Germans Sick.” The article recommended practicing yoga and going for walks as possible antidotes.


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