A border incident in which a West German died in East German custody is unintentionally roiling East-West German relations. Both West and East Germany want to maintain correct relations this year. On the Western side, conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl wants to keep East-West relations as relaxed as possible during a period in which new NATO missiles will probably be stationed in West Germany - in order to make it clear to the public that any worsening of relations comes not from the West, but only at Soviet-bloc initiative.
On the Eastern side, state and party chief Erich Honecker very much wants to reap the prestige of carrying out - finally - his long-hoped-for visit to West Germany. (Heinrich Windelen, West Germany's inter-German affairs minister, said on television the border incident might prevent a planned Honecker visit here later this year, reports Reuters.)
The next step for both sides in demonstrating smooth relations, then, was to be a chat between Dr. Kohl and East German economic overseer and Socialist Unity (communist) Party Politburo member Gunter Mittag on April 18 following Mr. Mittag's visit to the just-opened Hanover Trade Fair.
Mittag's visit coincided, however, with news about the mysterious death of a West German traveler April 10 at the Drewitz crossing point between East Germany and West Berlin. According to East Berlin officials, Rudolf Burkert died of heart failure while he was being questioned by East German police about tariff evasion. The officials said Burkert injured his head in falling to the floor.
An autopsy by West German doctors, though, showed head injuries that seemed to have resulted from something more violent than a fall. Bonn formally protested to East Berlin, and Kohl canceled his appointment with Mittag. Both sides did signal their basic interest in pursuing Mittag's meeting with West German Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff, as well as with officials of West Germany's three main parties.
There is no suspicion here that Mr. Burkert was deliberately killed by the East German border guards - or even that they wanted to create an incident that would worsen East-West German relations. Nonetheless, the incident is very troubling to the West German government, which deems protection of the safety of its citizens a prime responsibility. The incident also seems to be troubling the East German government, because of East Berlin's sensitivity to questions of face.
In this context, Kohl phoned Honecker personally April 18 and, according to the West German press spokesman, got Honecker's promise to investigate the incident thoroughly and share the resulting information with Bonn. The East German government formally protested to Bonn April 19, charging the West German government with condoning a West German press ''harassment campaign'' falsely suspecting East German officials of violence.
The official East German news agency ADN further accused the West German government spokesman of misrepresenting Honecker's position and supporting a West German media ''defamation campaign'' of East Germany over Burkert's death.