Is, or is not, East Germany dismantling its automatic firing devices which kill or maim would-be escapees to West Germany? The argument about what is actually going on now simmers in West Germany in the wake of grudging moves by East Berlin toward more normal relations between the two German states. Removal of these guns may or may not be part of the normalization gestures.
The dismantling has been proceeding along some 12 miles of the 845-mile-long border between East and West Germany. There's no doubt about that.
The doubt rests in whether the pulling down of these weapons is simply cosmetic - and whether they are being replaced by worse weapons at the inner edge of the border strip nearly half a mile farther back. West German border guards in Bavaria have reported observation of such substitution.
The original shrapnel firers were installed in the early 1970s over some 285 miles at intervals along the border. They completed the eerie East German no-man's land with high cement walls, mesh fences, barbed wire, plowed fields, and soldier-and-dog patrols that have led many West Germans to view their fellow German state as a vast prison.
East Germany has made no public announcement of its intentions on the border. Various spokesmen for West Germany have indicated that East Berlin has given private assurances that the automatic firing devices would be done away with, however. Their ranks include West Berlin Mayor Richard von Weizsacker - who got this personal promise from East German party and state chief Erich Honecker in East Berlin - and Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss.
Federal government spokesman Peter Boenisch minimizes the significance of the Bavarian sightings, which he says occurred along only about three of the 13 miles where dismantling has been observed. He asserts further that the substitution there involves only repair of the devices at the border, and that at the inner line of the East German no-man's land there are only optical and acoustical alarms, and no shooting devices.
The West German minister for inner-German relations, Heinrich Windelen, has publicly warned East Berlin, however, that Bonn could consider any substitution of new automatic weapons for old as a breach of East Germany's promises.
And Chancellor Helmut Kohl has reserved judgment on whether East Germany actually is getting rid of the devices altogether. Here Honecker's ardent wish to visit West Germany next year could give Bonn some leverage.