West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl refused to cater to his right wing Sunday on one delicate aspect of the German reunification question. To an audience that would have preferred a hint of a German claim to what is now Polish territory, he repeated a pledge instead to the ``inviolability of borders and respect of territorial integrity and the sovereignty of all states in Europe in their present borders.'' He specified that this pledge is valid for the future and said ``the German question'' (of reunification) can be resolved only in agreement with Bonn's ``eastern'' as well as ``western'' neighbors.
This is not new. It is a quote from the Polish-West German treaty of the early 1970s. But it does contrast sharply with the emphasis of Dr. Kohl's hosts, the German Silesians, in saying the treaty is binding only on present-day West Germany, and not on any future reunified Germany.
Typically, Herbet Hupka, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Silesian State Association, asserted again at the Silesian Biennial in Hannover Friday through Sunday that, pending a peace treaty formally ending World War II, Germany's legal borders remain those of 1937 -- i.e., of prewar Germany, including parts of what is now Polish, Czechoslovak, and Soviet territory.
Less typically, a young writer in the group's magazine, The Silesian, fantasized a few months ago about German reunification brought about by an unopposed march of the West German Army to the Soviet borders.
The Soviets gleefully cite claims like these to prove their charge of West German attempts to roll back Soviet-bloc borders. West German Social Democrats cite such claims in saying that Christian Democrat Kohl should never have agreed to address the Silesian biennial.
The Silesians have shown Dr. Kohl scant gratitude for the new attention and prominence he has given them. A few days ago The Silesian attacked Kohl personally.
And Dr. Hupka played a cat-and-mouse game with Kohl after the chancellor first agreed to attend the conference -- initially springing the conference motto ``Silesia Remains Ours'' on Kohl, then negotiating publicly with Kohl before changing the motto to ``Silesia Remains Our Future.''
Despite the Silesians' last-minute criticism of him, Kohl did not cancel his appearance at the biennial. But he did restrain some of his enthusiasm for a reunited Germany.
As usual he couched his discussion of reunification in terms of a united Europe, not a lone-wolf Germany. He praised the Silesians for renouncing force in international affairs back in 1950. And he called for reconciliation with Poland, including establishment of a Polish-West German youth exchange.
In calling for reconciliation, Kohl did not go as far as President Richard von Weizs"acker or Christian Democratic deputy parliamentary leader Volker R"uhe. On May 8, the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, von Weizs"acker called for understanding to supersede legal territorial claims.
Well before that, Mr. R"uhe said that however unsettled the legal situation might be pending a final peace treaty ending World War II, the Polish-West German treaty has ``a politically binding effect'' for any future German government as well as for today's West Germany.
Kohl's position is still stronger in recognizing existing borders, however, than that of his long-time conservative rival, Franz Josef Strauss. A few days ago Dr. Strauss, speaking as premier of Bavaria, contradicted R"uhe for the third time and said that the only part of the Polish-West German treaty that is ``politically binding'' for the future is the renunciation of the use of force to change borders.