U.S. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters declared Sunday that the current flight of East Germans to the West indicates that East and West Germany might be united in the near future.
It marked the first time that a senior allied diplomat has spoken of the possibility of German reunification in the short term--rather than in the distant future.
And it underscored a new feeling among West German analysts that the exodus of East Germans from the Communist state, and the illness of East German leader Erich Honecker, might lead to dramatic changes in the East Berlin regime sooner rather than later.
Interviewed in German by West German radio, Walters was asked whether he could "foresee a united Germany in the near future," and the veteran American diplomat answered: "Yes."
"It is not normal with two Germanies," added the 72-year-old Walters. "We must live with realities. We have an embassy in East Germany. But I believe that this stream of people coming out shows that Germans are concerned about the division."
About 90,000 East Germans are expected to obtain legal visas to leave the Communist state this year. Many of them are young and in their most productive working years.
About 6,000 more have fled from East Germany by way of Hungary since May when the Budapest regime began dismantling fences along its border with Austria.
Currently, several thousand East Germans are in Hungary awaiting a possible deal between Bonn and Budapest that would allow them to emigrate to West Germany via Austria.
Hungarian diplomats were in East Berlin last week reportedly seeking East Germany's approval for Budapest to let the East Germans leave, in what is said to be a one-of-a-kind deal.
While it has been the policy of the United States and its European allies to support eventual German reunification, most Western officials have privately been chary about seeing a massive, reunited Germany in the middle of Europe.
The 'German Question'
Thus, in the past the "German question"--reunification--has been kept on the diplomatic back burner in order not to arouse hopes and passions on both sides of the frontier.
Not long ago, senior officials such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl believed that reunification was a distant goal, but now with the influx of East Germans, Kohl and others have been urged to make contingency plans for rapid developments in East Germany.
In his remarks Sunday, Walters said, "President Bush has said that we are for such a development, if it were to be achieved peacefully and through free elections by the population."
Walters, who took up his post here in April, said that Eastern Europe could be helped by a new Marshall-type plan, with financial credits earmarked for specific projects that would aid the economies of East Bloc nations.
The American diplomat made his remarks on the same day that East Germany opened its semi-annual Trade Fair in Leipzig, where the top West German official based in East Berlin, Franz Bertele, declared bluntly of the massive exodus: "The problems started in the DDR (East Germany), and they must be solved here too."
The East German regime, which has resisted Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's call for reform and liberalization, seems at a loss to devise a workable policy to keep its young citizens from fleeing to the West.
Honecker, at 77, is recuperating from a mysterious operation on his gall bladder, and the East German leader did not make a scheduled appearance in Leipzig.
Instead, he was represented by Prime Minister Willi Stoph, 75, who replied to Bertele's remarks by declaring that East and West Germany must "proceed by mutually respecting sovereignty and without interfering in internal affairs."
The Leipzig fair is the showcase for East German products and a major source of foreign exchange from the business deals that are signed there.
Currently, 116 East Germans have sought refuge in the West German mission compound in East Berlin, hoping to get accelerated permission to emigrate.
Others are in the West German embassies in Budapest and Prague waiting for the chance to head to West Germany.
Today, many of the East Germans vacationing in Hungary and other Eastern European countries are due back at work and school. Some authorities in Budapest believe there will be a rush for the Austrian border if word comes that the frontier will be opened this week.