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West Germans puzzle over Honecker's hint of less hostile border. E. German press's full report of key remark seen as positive sign

As political life settles back to normal after last week's visit by East German state and party chief Erich Honecker, West Germans are still abuzz with Mr. Honecker's tantalizing last-minute hint about a less hostile border. Departing from his prepared text, Honecker startled listeners in his hometown of Neunkirchen by admitting that the German-German ``borders are not as they should be.''

If the two states cooperate as agreed in their joint communiqu'e of Sept. 8, Honecker suggested, then ``the day will indeed come in which the borders will not separate us, but the borders will unite us, just as the border between the [East] German Democratic Republic and the People's Republic of Poland unites us.''

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His words are still reverberating in West Germany, where reactions are in turn hopeful, reserved, and skeptical.

If West German officials had one theme song during Honecker's visit, it was that the order to border guards to shoot and kill anyone trying to flee East Germany triggers revulsion in the West.

Honecker's remarks are taken as a response to the repeated pleas that he end this practice, just as he recently dismantled the automatic shooting devices and mine fields at the border.

``We will take Honecker at his word, and we will do everything to promote and achieve fulfillment of these words,'' Minister for Inner-German Relations Dorothee Wilms commented.

In German, the phrase to ``take someone at his word'' comes close to meaning ``hold someone to his word.''

Government spokesman Friedhelm Ost, conscious of East German hypersensitivity about outside interference in its sovereign decisions, was more reserved in his reaction.

Honecker's words were a step in the right direction, Mr. Ost said, and confirmed a ``tendency'' that was apparent in the East German leader's conversations in West Germany.

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Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss was even more cautious in warning that West Germans must not ``overburden'' Honecker's remarks with ``utopian expectations.''

As for the skeptics, they are conveying their doubts in part by spelling out just what the still far from open border between East Germany and Poland is like.

The East German government effectively sealed this border to individual travel in 1980, when it feared political influence from Solidarity, the now-banned independent Polish trade union. (It also feared that eager Polish shoppers might empty East German stores of their wares.)

For six years the East German government allowed only very limited group travel across the border, plus individual travel in those rare cases in which a written letter of invitation from a Pole to an East German or vice versa was submitted for approval to local East German police.

Restrictions concerning individual tourism were relaxed slightly last year, but overall numbers still dropped from the 3.5 million East German visitors to Poland and 5.5 million Poles in East Germany in 1979 to last year's total 245,000 in each direction.

This figure is far below the 1.2 million working-age East Germans who will visit West Germany this year, along with millions more pensioners.

Skeptics also stress that East German spokesmen are now explaining that a change can come only when West Germany accepts the present German-Polish border as final.

Bonn, although it acknowledged this border politically 15 years ago, says final legal settlement awaits a formal peace treaty ending World War II, which the Soviets have been unwilling to conclude.

Optimists, by contrast, note that Honecker did not set full legal West German recognition of the present Polish border as a precondition. Instead, the East German leader set only fulfillment of planned cooperation between East and West Germany as a precondition for borders which ``unite us.''

Optimists further take some heart from Honecker's choice of the East-German Polish border as a model for the German-German one.

They hope that, if nothing else, the East German leader will be shamed into stopping the shooting.

On the East German-Polish border, the optimists point out, there is at least no no-man's zone, no wall. Nor is there any known case of someone having been shot and killed there. These sources also acknowledge that there is no occasion to shoot, since it is highly unlikely that an East German would try to flee to Poland.

Optimists think, however, that Honecker may very well have been signaling an intention to rescind at some point the shoot-to-kill order on the German-German border.

Various West German observers take it as a positive sign that Honecker's key comment was reported in full in the heavily censored East German press.

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