Chapter 2 -- or 3 or 4 -- of the troubled East-West German relationship has opened. Egon Bahr, the West German Social Democrat who negotiated the original detente between the two states almost a decade ago, has had a cordial two-hour chat with East German party and state chief Erich Honecker.
The ultimate aim, West German journalists suspect, is to reschedule the twice-aborted East-West German summit. After his surprise meeting in the East Berlin Communist Party Central Committee headquarters Sept. 4, Bahr denied having spoken about a summit, however, and said that his discussions had concerned "almost exclusively questions of disarmament and arms control."
Certainly it's as unpropitious a time as ever for a tete-a-tete between Honecker and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. East-West relations are still frigid. Poland is still held in suspense. The Soviets are still occupying Afghanistan, and have just flouted the Helsinki agreement by mounting their largest military exercise since World War II without prior notification of the West.
Moreover, East Germany still extracts last year's doubled (for some categories quadrupled) visa fees from West Germans going to see East German relatives or friends. The Soviet press has just attacked Schmidt more bitterly than ever -- despite the forthcoming Soviet-West German summit -- over Schmidt's support for new NATO nuclear missiles. And Honecker has just one-upped Schmidt by getting invited by Mexico for an official visit this week (during his first trip to South America) after Schmidt was denied such an invitation.
Nonetheless, both West and East Germany are uneasy about the current limbo in their own relations and fear it could lead beyond stagnation to serious deterioration. Hence Schmidt's confidential but apparently friendly letter to Honecker a month ago. Hence Honecker's confidential by apparently friendly reply to Schmidt a few days before the Honecker-Bahr meeting. Hence the hints in the East German press of continued interest in a summit -- and Bahr's stressing to journalists that both sides want to avoid a worsening of relations.
Might a summit be the vehicle for improved East-West German relations? Schmidt has raised the possibility of an all-German summit after Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev visits Bonn in November.
Previously planned German summits have evaporated with embarrassing regularity, however, and both sides are now hypercautious about setting a new date. The first scheduled meeting was canceled by East Berlin as East-West relations plummeted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Schmidt and Honecker did get together for an hour at Yugoslav President Tito's funeral in Belgrade. But then the second planned formal summit fell apart as the outbreak of Polish labor unrest seemed to risk Soviet invasion of Poland. East Germany subsequently took a frostier line toward West Germany and raised its fees for West German visitors to the East.
East Berlin officials and press have since eased up a bit on Bonn, but the high visa fees remain. And up to now it has not been politically possible for either side to revive the summit. The East Germans would have undermined their own lobbying for a tough Soviet line on Poland if they showed themselves too chummy with their Western cousins. Schmidt could have drawn even sharper domestic criticism for rewarding East Berlin's jacking up of visa charges.
By now time may have dulled some of these political considerations. Turmoil in Poland has graduated from an emergency to a habit, and its danger to party authority in East Germany seems much less urgent than a year ago since East German workers have displayed more contempt for than envy of the Polish experiment. Besides, by now it is apparent that East German importunings have only a marginal effect on Kremlin decisions about disciplining Poland.
On the West German side, antipathy toward a summit remains strong among conservatives and even among some Liberals in Schmidt's Social Democratic-Liberal coalition. In these quarters there is a widespread feeling that West Germany would be confering considerable legitimacy in East Germany in the first real summit of the two -- and that this step should be postponed until East Germany is more forthcoming.
On the other hand, public West German indignation about higher visa fees may have weakened as people have become accustomed to them. Schmidt may feel that he could neutralize left-wing domestic protests against his NATO nuclear policy by advertising cordial relations with Honecker.