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

November 02, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

BONN — 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.

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