Does Honecker's historic homecoming highlight easing of German tensions?
``Ten o'clock, right on time,'' were the first recorded words of East German leader Erich Honecker as he began his historic maiden visit to West Germany Monday morning. Amid saturation TV coverage in both East and West Germany, he received a huge bouquet of flowers from young East German Pioneers at the Bonn airport, was accorded military honors at the West German Chancellery, lunched with West German President Richard von Weizs"acker, and dined with Chancellor Helmut Kohl as part of a total nine hours of talks between the two East and West German political leaders.
After 38 long years in which such a visit was impossible, the utter normality of it all was what most struck observers here.
For Mr. Honecker, chairman of the Council of State and General Secretary of the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party, the five-day visit marks the political recognition from Bonn that the (East) German Democratic Republic has For Dr. Kohl, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, the visit rewards recent East German moves to make the Berlin Wall ``more permeable'' and encourages more gestures expanding human contact between East and West Germans.
After years of striving for more maximalist aims, both leaders finally have settled on this modest deal as a fair trade.
Back in the early 1980s, Dr. Kohl's conservatives still were fighting the Social Democrats' 10-year-old d'etente with East Germany as a betrayal of the ideal of a reunified Germany in the future (with the dominance of West Germans understood).
Back in the early 1980s, Honecker still was insisting on his four ``Gera demands:'' West German recognition of separate East German citizenship, upgrading of the ``missions'' each maintains in the other's capital to embassies, settlement of the Elbe River border in midstream, and dismantling of the Salzgitter Center that records violence by East German officials against East Germans trying to flee the country.
The West German conservatives began to shift when they took power in 1982 after a dozen years in opposition. They first pledged continuity and honoring of the existing d'etente treaties. Then Bavarian Premier and leader of the conservatives' right wing Franz Josef Strauss set the seal on this by personally arranging for a million Deutsche mark ($600,000) credit to East Germany in 1983.
But even as late as 1984, when Honecker originally was scheduled to visit West Germany, the right wing vigorously protested the visit. Some politicians threatened to haul Honecker into court if he set foot on West German soil on the charge he ordered his border guards to shoot to kill East Germans who attempt to flee the country. And Kohl resorted to elaborate arrangements to avoid welcoming Honecker in the capital of Bonn.
Now, by contrast, Dr. Strauss is himself hosting Honecker in Munich with even more elaborate protocol than that offered in Bonn. Right-wing demonstrations against Honecker's visit have been sparse, and Kohl long since has toned down the rhetoric about a future united Germany. Honicker was invited only for a ``working,'' not a ``state,'' visit, but both West and East West Germany have now realistically accepted the other's existence and differing priorities.
What has become much more important for the West Germans than proving the illegitimacy of the Soviet-imposed government in East Germany is Honecker's willingness to take practical steps to make the wall more ``permeable,'' especially in allowing an unprecedented 1 million East Germans under retirement age to travel to West Germany this year.
The West German government also hopes to pressure Honecker to retract the shoot-to-kill order against East Germans who attempt to flee to the West.
The order has been relaxed in the weeks prior to Honecker's visit, as on other occasions when East Germany has wanted to make an especially good impression in West Germany. But, Bonn would like to see this restraint become the rule rather than the exception.
On the other hand, Honecker quietly has dropped his ``Gera demands.'' East Germany asks only that West Germany ``respect'' East German citizenship at this point.
West Germany is quite willing to do this, as long as it can still hold open the option of immediate West German citizenship for any East German who asks for it and wants to surrender his East German passport.
On the other three demands a compromise has been worked out, and East Germany now is saying very little about these demands.