Once again, East Berlin is sticking its toe into the bracing water of East-West German detente. Yesterday it eliminated what amounted to a daily visa fee for West German children visiting East Germany. And a few days before that, in an unprecedented move, it quietly allowed lay West German Lutherans to participate prominently in an East German Lutheran meeting.
The East German gestures are especially striking in view of the current Soviet-bloc interest in heightening rather than easing tensions to try to dissuade Bonn from deploying new NATO missiles as planned.
The new gestures, West German officials believe, are connected with East Germany's growing hard currency needs. Bonn's purse strings are open - if the East Germans preserve civil relations - as Bonn's loan of 1 billion deutsche marks ($400 million) to East Berlin this past summer demonstrates.
Moscow welcomes Bonn's bailing out of East Berlin, Western officials believe, because in these hard economic times it is not in a position to do so itself. Yet it sees the Eastern European standard of living as important for political stability in East Europe. In this analysis, the Soviet Union is willing to accept the price of increased East-West German chumminess at this awkward moment.
The chumminess still has distinct limits. Bonn has made no secret of its hopes that East Berlin would drop the quasi-visa fee not only for children, but also for elderly visitors to East Germany. Thus far East Berlin has declined to do so.
The fee in question is a compulsory and unrefundable currency-exchange requirement of 25 marks ($10) per day per adult visitor and 7.50 marks per day per child up to 14 years of age. The compulsory amount was raised in 1980, in an apparent effort to reduce the millions of Western visitors to East Germany. This was the period when the Polish free trade union Solidarity was at its zenith, and East Berlin feared political spillover from Poland.
East Berlin's well-publicized lifting of visiting fees for West German children is largely symbolic, of course. East Berlin's new willingness to accept closer direct contacts between East and West German Lutherans, on the contrary, is a fundamental change, even though it has gotten less attention in the media.
The most remarkable evidence of this new tolerance was the permission given to West Berlin's conservative mayor, Richard von Weizsacker, to speak at the Wittenberg regional conference of the East German Lutheran Church in late September. In his talk, von Weizsacker openly addressed religious, moral, and even political issues, and did not shy away from the West's felt need for new missiles against the Soviet-bloc threat.
The unusual East German acceptance of such plain Western speaking to an East German audience is partly explained by the government's assumption of legitimacy in embracing this year's celebration of Martin Luther's 500th anniversary. Nonetheless, the timing of such a move so close to scheduled December deployments of new NATO missiles is noteworthy.
The latest East German gestures of openness toward West Germany come after a flurry of high-level visits by West German politicians to East Germany.