Six months have passed since the last major public demonstration in West Germany against the planned stationing of U.S. Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles in this country.
Newspapers carry reports not of street protests but of U.S.-Soviet arms reduction talks in Geneva. And Bonn's new conservative government has put to rest doubts among its Western allies of West Germany's flinching officially if the projected installation of the new missiles is eventually ordered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization late next year.
But here, off the beaten path of East-West relations, where the hills of the German Eifel roll softly under clumps of pine forests, opponents of the NATO project quietly press their cause.
Committed as ever to stopping the deployment, protest organizers have been knocking on local doors, distributing nuclear fact sheets and arranging military information seminars. Recently, they staged a silent march through this town's tidy center, laying the groundwork for a major assault when the weather warms next summer.
Such grass-roots efforts, under way across the country, took on particular earnestness in this village following reports by two national magazines that the 96 U.S. cruise missiles that Bonn has agreed to accept will be set up somewhere around here.
Senior West German government sources say the articles were off the mark. Bonn, in contrast to Britain and Italy, which also are committed to deploying some cruise missiles on their soil, have declined to announce just where the weapons will go.
This secrecy is justified officially on grounds that to name the cities would provide protesters specific targets and would spark unrest in the neighborhoods concerned.
So, for lack of a definitive site, Bitburg -- whose previous claim to fame has been the delicious beer made here -- has become at least the symbolic missile town.
It also happens to be home of the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force, already a dominant American military presence in the area.
"The magazine articles disturbed lots of people here," said Werner Schneider, a furniture maker who belongs to the citizens' initiative opposed to the new missiles. "It is not that people here are against all weapons. But they say we have so many already; why more?"
Several hundred of Bitburg's 12,000 residents endured a chilly evening last month to parade against the NATO plan. The small turnout gave heart to the conservative Christian Democratic officials who run the town and tend to explain away local opposition to the missiles as the work of outside agitators.
But area organizers claim they wanted only a limited gathering. "We didn't put out a regional call," said Detlef Enge-Bastian, a medical doctor who is head of Bitburg's antimissile group. "We didn't want a big demonstration here yet."
Outlining his group's general strategy, Enge said, "This is a very conservative town. People are not very political. These people would turn against us if we moved too fast and brought in well-known national figures. We think it's better if we just talk among ourselves first."
Having a large U.S. military base in the vicinity would seem to provide a natural target for the peace protesters. Instead, it complicates their aims.
The American base is Bitburg's largest employer, and after 30 years of working and living together, Germans and Americans are tied closely here. In weekly welcome talks to arriving U.S. soldiers, Mayor Theo Hallet takes a certain delight in noting that 16,000 children of U.S. servicemen have been born in Bitburg and 3,000 U.S.-German marriages have been performed at city hall.
Tensions do exist. Some in town blame American troops for introducing local high school students to hashish and other drugs. But there is a deep reluctance to turn against the United States.
In line with cautionary measures being taken at U.S. installations throughout West Germany, the Air Force has tightened security at Bitburg following a recent increase in violent acts and harassment against Americans.
"Many here have profited because of the Americans," Enge said. "They draw income from the base by working there or renting their homes to Americans or doing business with them. That creates a problem for us now because these people don't want to do anything that would be seen as anti-American."
Trying to avoid direct anti-U.S. attacks, Bitburg's peace movement organizers focus on the general horror of nuclear weapons. Billboards in the city's downtown marketplace on the day of the protest march showed the wide destructive radius of a 20 megaton bomb dropped on Bitburg.
"We grieve for the dead of World War III," said one board, which was covered with pages torn from the telephone directory of nearby Trier.
The keynote speaker at the rally, West German military affairs expert Alfred Mechtersheimer, sounded what have become standard arguments in this country against the new missiles: The Soviet threat is less than portrayed by NATO; the introduction of new medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe would be a destablizing act in East-West relations; West Germany has a duty to resist the deployment and, doing so, can point to a third way between the world's two colliding superpowers.
Mixed in lately with the fright over nuclear weapons are efforts to call attention to chemical gas depots maintained by the U.S. military in West Germany.
Julius Lehlbach, chief in this region of the Federal Trade Union Association, is leading a court challenge against the Bonn government alleging that the secret storage of chemical weapons violates the West German constitution -- specifically, the constitutional guarantee for each German citizen of "the right to life and to inviolability of his person."
Lehlbach, who has brought his campaign to Bitburg, also charges that West German national sovereignty is being violated by the storage of chemical weapons, the release of which is an American decision. The Bonn government has responded by reiterating a call at the United Nations for a worldwide ban on the production, storage and use of chemical weapons.