East German leader Erich Honecker is due to arrive today in West Germany on a long-awaited and momentous visit that marks a triumph for him personally and for his once-shunned nation.
Full of confidence for his own and his nation's accomplishments, Honecker will be received by Chancellor Helmut Kohl as the leader of a nation that has built the most successful economy in the Communist Bloc.
"Erich Honecker travels to West Germany as the head of a stable state," an official at the East German Foreign Ministry said. "We have had steady economic development, full employment, all the social benefits, and we are now among the 10 leading industrialized countries in the world. And all this with only 17 million people."
More important, Honecker, as chairman of the East German state council, will be received as a head of government, even though West Germany does not officially recognize East Germany as a separate country but as part of a nation temporarily divided after World War II.
The five-day visit is officially being billed in West Germany as a working--not a state--visit, a distinction that will be lost amid ceremony and courtesies that will be extended to the East German leader. A West German band will play the East German national anthem upon his arrival at the Cologne-Bonn airport.
Such treatment will affirm Honecker's insistence that East Germany is a permanent socialist state, not a postwar aberration that eventually will fade away.
As part of his visit, Honecker, 75, will return to his childhood home of Wiebelskirchen in the Saarland near the French border for the first time in more than 40 years. He was born in the nearby town of Neunkirchen.
Photographers hoping for a show of emotion from him, or a gesture such as Pope John Paul II makes on landing in a new country--kneeling to kiss the earth--are likely to be disappointed, seasoned observers say.
They expect Honecker to comport himself in the cool style that has characterized his public appearances since he became leader of East Germany in 1971.
His one surviving sister, who still lives in Wiebelskirchen, and other relatives have visited him in East Berlin since the partitioning of Germany.
It was Honecker's upbringing in Wiebelskirchen, as a Communist coal miner's son, that formed his character and ideological views.
10 Years in Prison
Early on, these led him to oppose the 1935 plebiscite that incorporated the Saar into Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. For his Communist activities, he was jailed by the Nazis for the next 10 years. He was released only after the Soviet army moved into Germany in 1945.
Honecker quickly became a Communist Party functionary in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany that became the German Democratic Republic. He rose through the ranks to take over all security responsibilities, including the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Ten years later he replaced the old Communist warhorse, Walter Ulbricht, as head of the party and strongman of East Germany.
Honecker is determined, people familiar with his views say, to see East Germany recognized as a major player on the world scene, with a strong role in preventing a war in Europe. Toward that end, he supports the nuclear arms control agreement being negotiated in Geneva by the United States and the Soviet Union, and he favors the removal of all nuclear weapons from both West and East Germany.
In foreign policy, he tends to support the initiatives of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, particularly the reduction of nuclear weapons in Central Europe. But on the domestic front, he has taken a cool view of Gorbachev's exhortations for economic reform.
"Honecker's view," a Western envoy said, "is that East Germany has already gone through its reform period and that its 'command economy' is sound and working along proper socialist lines.
"Honecker also wants to trade with the West to get foreign exchange for more high-technology items and not be forced to ship everything east to help the Russians out. He doesn't want to see the East German economy diluted.
"This has created a certain amount of tension between Honecker and Gorbachev, along with the fact that Honecker is of an older generation, and fairly dogmatic, while Gorbachev is more down to earth, less self-satisfied and less theoretical."
Still, diplomats suggest, Gorbachev does not wish to impose his will on a leader whose country is the industrial showplace of the Communist world. It was Gorbachev who finally approved Honecker's trip to West Germany, a visit that has been on and off for years because of changing moods in the Kremlin.
As much as Soviet leaders want stability on their Western flank, they do not want to see East and West Germany get too cozy.
"I think Gorbachev approved the visit to see what kind of new policies might be developed with West Germany," a diplomatic specialist in East Berlin said. "Soviet policy vis-a-vis Bonn has been on hold for some time. We should be seeing some new initiatives."
From the official West German point of view, the Honecker visit is welcomed as a means of lightening the burden of the East German people, who are recognized as fellow German citizens.
"The East Germans have no free elections or press, and there is shooting at people trying to cross the border," a West German official in Bonn said. "Human rights violations are part of the East German system. We in Bonn are the only ones who can give them a little help.
"We want to encourage the East German regime to have more flexibility. But none of this is possible without the cooperation of East Berlin, and that's why we welcome a personal visit such as this. We will be raising plenty of questions about human rights, but we will also plan to sign some agreements in the field of environmental protection, nuclear plant safety and cooperation in science and technology."
To improve its human rights image, East Germany recently abolished the death penalty, the only East Bloc state to do so. It has reportedly also lifted the shoot-to-kill order to border guards to stop East Germans from fleeing to the West, a move that may be only temporary to avoid any embarrassing incident during Honecker's visit.
"We insist that the shoot-to-kill order be abolished once and for all, and not just suspended for special occasions," Kohl told a meeting of his conservative Christian Democratic Union on Saturday.
Since the Berlin Wall went up and border fortifications were erected, 188 people have been killed trying to cross the barriers.
The West Germans hope to increase the number of Germans on both sides who are allowed to cross the border. This year more than twice as many East Germans have been permitted to visit the West as last year. The total is expected to exceed 1 million.
Honecker's problem in relaxing travel curbs, according to Westerners, is that visiting East Germans will succumb to the economic and other lures of the West and refuse to go home.
"East Germans tend not to see how much better off they are than their Communist neighbors to the east," one observer here said. "They compare themselves to their German neighbors to the west, and they can see West German television every night from (West) Berlin."
In exchange for East German flexibility, West Germany is expected to offer to finance improvements in East Germany's highways, its rail lines and the electrical grid that connects East and West.
Contributes $1 Billion Yearly
In all, West Germany already contributes more than $1 billion a year in hard currency to East Germany in one form or another. That will increase if there are further trade agreements, officials say.
During the Honecker visit, which will be given extensive coverage by the German media, a certain amount of attention will be focused on the perennial question of German reunification. Informed diplomats--East and West Germans and Westerners based in both countries--agree that reunification is simply not in the cards as a subject of serious talks between Honecker and Kohl.
An official in East Berlin said that "whether one likes it or not, the situation after the war developed into two German states, with different social systems, belonging to different alliances--so what sense does talk about reunification make?"
'Reunification Makes No Sense'
"We do not wish to abandon our system. Neither would the Federal Republic. Reunification makes no sense. The key question is living together side by side in peace."
A West German official said: "Reunification, despite what it says in our constitution, is really not a current issue. Self-determination would be a better word to use. We believe that Germans in East Germany must have the right to self-determination in free elections."
Added a Western diplomat: "Sure, we pay lip service to reunification. But I don't think the United States, the Soviet Union or any other country in Europe would want a reunited German powerhouse of nearly 80 million people--after what we've been through in the past."
In Moscow, the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda on Saturday reminded both East and West German officials of the Kremlin's opposition to reunification.
"Political realities demand that Bonn should throw away the ballast of obsolete ideas and unconditionally build relations with East Germany as international law envisions," Pravda said. "This means full mutual respect of independence and sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs."
Thus, the Honecker visit is not expected to bring about any dramatic changes, any spectacular breakthroughs. But it may reduce tensions on the frontier between East and West, between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact countries.
"Due to our history and exposed geography," an East German diplomat said, "the two Germanys face each other across a border dividing the world's two greatest concentrations of military power. I think there is plenty of room for Mr. Honecker and Mr. Kohl to talk about what things could ensure that another war does not originate on German soil."