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Bundestag Opens on Moderate Note : Germany: Socialist Stefan Heym, 81, delivers conciliatory address to Parliament. Speech gets applause from some, silence from Kohl and his party.

November 11, 1994|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — The former best-selling American novelist Stefan Heym opened Germany's 13th Bundestag on Thursday on an uncharacteristically conciliatory note, calling on fellow members of Parliament to "quarrel calmly" about their "widely divergent visions" of Germany.

"I hope that we can concur on one thing: that chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism and Stalinist methods should be forever banned from our country," said Heym, who at 81 is the oldest member of the lower house of the German Parliament, and thus empowered to conduct the opening session.

His call for moderation brought spontaneous applause from some leftist and centrist Parliament members, but stony silence from members of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Heym, a German-born Jew who fled Hitler in 1933 and became a U.S. citizen, fled Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunts in the early 1950s and returned to live and write in East Germany.

He is a committed--though unaffiliated--socialist, and he ran for the Bundestag on the ticket of the reconstituted East German Communist Party.

Although the party has a new name--the Party of Democratic Socialism--and insists that it has broken with the past, many Germans deeply distrust it and consider it improper that such an unrepentant leftist as Heym should have the opening-day honors in Germany's all-powerful Bundestag.

On the eve of Heym's nationally televised speech, allegations were raised that he had gone so far as to volunteer information to East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi, in 1958.

Heym, who was himself the subject of extensive Stasi spying and state harassment, has promised to address the allegations in a statement today.

Until Thursday, there had been suggestions that mainstream members of Parliament might either heckle Heym when he opened the Bundestag or walk out on his speech.

Instead, they sat in a somber hush as the hunched, white-haired novelist recalled the events of the early 1930s, some of which he had witnessed personally: the election of Nazi leader Hermann Goering as president of the Reichstag, or legislature; the election of Adolf Hitler as Germany's chancellor; the dispatch of almost 200 members of the Reichstag to jails and concentration camps, and the burning of the Reichstag building in central Berlin.

Deputies from most of the other parties applauded Heym when he finished, but the Christian Democrats did not, and Kohl, a famously tough and unforgiving party leader, sat looking sharply around, making sure no one in his ranks had made the mistake of clapping.

Kohl, who since October's national elections has been negotiating the terms of the new government with the two parties that were his coalition partners in the last Bundestag, has come under sharp criticism in Germany lately for his perceived failure to bring any clear new vision to Germany's economic and political problems.

Officially, 4.7 million Germans are unemployed or in state-subsidized unemployment-prevention programs, though social activists say the real figure is more like 6 million.

Economists worry that even as the economy grows, new jobs are not being created fast enough. German business leaders are crying for an overhaul of their country's tax and regulatory structures. Taxed-to-death western Germans are bitter about the unexpectedly high cost of national unification, while easterners feel patronized by the west.

Addressing such problems "will be no less demanding a task than it was to bring a defeated Germany into the community of free nations in 1949," says Walter Stuetzle, a senior editor of Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily.

And Kohl will be facing the problems from a seriously weakened position, once he is reelected chancellor, as expected, on Tuesday.

The 134-seat majority his three-party coalition government enjoyed after the last general election, in 1990, was whittled to 10 seats in October's voting.

One of Kohl's traditional coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party, was all but annihilated at the state level in a string of elections earlier this year. Newspapers here have been tallying up the number of potential dissidents within the Christian Democrats.

But no matter how weak he may be, Kohl still managed to demonstrate Thursday that he is stronger than his political enemies. In a surprise move, his Christian Democrats voted to give a member of the left-of-center Greens a Bundestag vice presidency--something the Greens have sought for more than a decade--stripping Kohl's top rivals, the Social Democrats, of the position.

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