In a still uncertain time in East-West relations as well as Soviet-East European relations, Willy Brandt is helping to keep inter-German dialogue alive. At the same time he is keeping up his party's bid to be the special representative of Ostpolitik -- the ``East policy,'' or d'etente that Mr. Brandt introduced as West German chancellor in the early 1970s.
For the moment the longer-term effect is overshadowed by the sheer drama of Brandt's first meeting with Erich Honecker, the man whose spy toppled Brandt from the chancellery a decade ago. In a kind of belated amends, East German party and state chief Honecker gave Social Democrat Brandt the red-carpet welcome usually reserved for heads of government.
No throngs turned out for Brandt's Sept. 18 to 20 visit, of course. The authorities wanted no repetition of Brandt's trip to Erfurt in the early 1970s, when crowds of East Germans spontaneously chanted ``Wil-ly, Wil-ly'' for the West German leader. But there were well-wishers on the sidewalks of Weimar to applaud discreetly when Brandt appeared. There was elaborate hospitality, with an official guest house at Brandt's disposal. And there were five hours of conversation between Brandt and Honecker.
No, the West Germans told reporters, the subject of G"unter Guillaume -- the East German spy on chancellor Brandt's staff whose discovery precipitated Brandt's resignation in 1974 -- never came up. Nor, apparently, did the embarrassing current mass migration of East German spies from West Germany back to their country of origin.
What did come up were the kinds of things that West and East German leaders always talk about, whether the visiting politicians are Franz Josef Strauss from the right or Willy Brandt from the left.
These topics include above all the perennial Western request for freer travel between East and West Germany; West Germans would like to pay less head tax for every day they spend in East Germany, and they would like to see more East Germans under retirement age being allowed to visit the West. After their talks, Brandt told the press, he now expects the East Germans to loosen their travel restrictions somewhat.
Brandt and Honecker also discussed making a joint party proposal for a Central European zone free of tactical nuclear weapons, along the lines of the chemical weapons-free zone proposed a few months ago by their two parties.
For the East Germans the contact with the West German Social Democrats serves both as a lever on official policy in Bonn and as a kind of protective coloring (toward a sometimes suspicious Moscow) for continued inter-German contact. Pending the outcome of the Soviet-American summit in November, no German seems to be clear what policy toward Eastern Europe is actually going to prevail in the new Moscow leadership. Mixed signals have come from a hard-line Pravda article last June, preaching that there mus t not be major East European deviations from the Soviet model, and from the Soviet magazines Kommunist and New Times, which wrote more tolerantly in August.
Evidence of East Berlin's holding operation in inter-German relations include top news-media play to the visit to East Germany earlier this month by Bavarian leader Strauss; permission granted to a prospective 20,000 East Germans to emigrate to West Germany this year (half of last year's extraordinary number but well above the more normal 1983 figures); reduction in the numbers of Tamils who pour into West Berlin from the East Berlin airport seeking asylum; and flexibility in negotiations on a long-stal led cultural agreement, on the environment, and other issues.