An angry backlash is developing in West Germany over the furor about President Reagan's planned visit to the Bitburg war cemetery, with Germans of all ages and political persuasions questioning whether they can ever be accepted as postwar democratic allies shorn of the Nazi stigma.
The growing outrage, obscured by recriminations over who bears responsibility for turning an act of reconciliation into a fiasco, has given fresh impulse to transforming collective German guilt into a sense of hopeless victimization.
West German politicians, academics and journalists are becoming increasingly troubled by signs that anti-American sentiment, usually confined to the radical left, is being fanned among conservatives by the prolonged uproar over Reagan's scheduled stop May 5 at a cemetery where 49 SS troops are buried along with 2,000 other German soldiers.
"The fallen soldiers of a nation are also part of its identity," said Alois Mertes, the Christian Democratic member of the Bundestag who represents Bitburg. "Those who still treat us Germans as a nation of guilty people despite the past 35 years are undermining the trust of many who are loyal to the United States. They are sowing a bad seed to the damage of the West."
"The laughing party in this whole discussion is the Soviet Union," Mertes continued. "If Germans believe less in the fairness and farsightedness of their allies, it helps the Soviet goal to isolate and estrange the Germans from the West."
The emotional conflict over the Bitburg ceremony, climaxing months of anguished discussion in West Germany over how to observe the Nazi surrender May 8, has seemingly snapped the patience of a country where more than 60 percent of the population was either unborn or too young to be involved in the war.
"We have had enough of the bad and revolting game, after weeks of embarrassing and painful haggling about the U.S. president's state visit," wrote Dietrich Strothmann in the lead editorial of the respected political weekly Die Zeit.
"Behind all this there is the demand that is gaining more and more support in West Germany, that is: Forty years are enough. Nobody wants to be blackmailed with Auschwitz anymore," the editorial continued.
Many West Germans have been shocked and perplexed by what they see as the hysterical nature of the U.S. debate, including the depiction of ugly anti-German caricatures that have received widespread coverage in the news media here.
"How many Germans sleep today on mattresses filled with the hair of Jews?" Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering group, was quoted as saying in a front-page report by the daily newspaper Die Welt.
The vitriol heard across the Atlantic has left some advisers of Chancellor Helmut Kohl angry and frustrated because they had labored to make Reagan's visit, and the concurrent seven-nation economic summit, a ringing affirmation that West Germany is a welcome partner in an alliance based on peace, freedom and democracy.
"The whole tone of the American debate makes you wonder how we can convince our voters that we are full and equal members of the western alliance," an aide to Kohl said. "At some point it has to be made clear whether we are considered children of Nazis or, above all, friends and allies."
Kohl has told Reagan that any cancellation of the Bitburg visit could trigger a hostile political reaction that might inflict irreparable harm on U.S.-West German relations. Kohl's Christian Democrats already are concerned about the controversy's impact on a key election May 12 in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state. The opposition Social Democrats are expected to win handily.
Kohl's government is now seeking agreement among summit participants for the strongest possible declaration underscoring West Germany's important role in the western alliance and its embrace of democratic values.
To avoid distracting from the emphasis on this theme, Bonn has asked that other proposed declarations on political topics, such as cooperation in fighting terrorism and an allied position on Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, be minimized or dropped altogether at the summit.
In a speech to the Bundestag Thursday, Kohl indicated how deeply the U.S. debate has affected him and what kind of approach he hopes his country's allies will be prepared to take in treating the sensitive themes of guilt and reconciliation.
"Who, if not we Germans, appreciates the feelings of those who survived the Nazi atrocities and cannot forget or forgive?" the chancellor said.
"We ask our friends, especially our American friends, to consider the reconciliation across the graves as a desire rooted in our hearts and minds because our meeting . . . will be above all a common pledge that our nations never again must be exposed to such barbarity, that war and violence are not a means of pursuing political goals and that we are committed to the principle that peace must emanate from German soil."
Some commentators here have expressed hope that this 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe could represent the final spasm of torment for the country as the generation of wartime participants slowly passes away. Many of the veterans are likely to be dead when the war's 50th anniverary arrives in 1995.
But others believe that the uproar surrounding Bitburg and the May 8 anniversary, when Germans confront the dilemma that defeat signaled the end of Nazi tyranny but also the division of their nation, will deepen alienation between Germans and Americans.
The Bitburg ceremony, which will follow an appearance by Kohl and Reagan at the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, is expected to attract left-wing protesters against U.S. policies on arms spending and Central America along with demonstrators opposed to holding a commemoration for war dead near the graves of SS troops.
"The plague of anti-Semitism must not be replaced by an irresponsible anti-Germanism," said Mertes. "If it should come to a de facto cooperation of anti-American and anti-German demonstrations in Bitburg, the damage for the U.S. and the free part of Germany cannot be foretold."
The left-wing Greens party, whose leaders played an influential role in the campaign against the Reagan administration's deployment of new missiles in Europe, endorsed U.S. congressional resolutions that the Bitburg visit should be dropped.
But the major West German parties, including the governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats, joined Thursday to vote down 398-24 the Greens' resolution calling for Bitburg to be dropped from Reagan's itinerary.
The Bonn government spokesman, Peter Boenisch, called on the U.S. Congress to respect the desire of the West German parliament to uphold the graveside ceremony in keeping with the traditions of the western alliance.