Neunkirchen, West Germany — ``He is a Wiebelskirchen boy, and his family are all very nice people,'' commented Horst Koble in his hairdressers' salon on the main shopping street in the town of Neunkirchen in the district of Wiebelskirchen. He was speaking of Erich Honecker, East German state and party chief, due to visit his home town a few hours later for the first time since Germany was divided at the end of World War II. Mr. Koble saw the visit as milestone in East-West German relations that probably would not bring down the Berlin Wall, but could help make it gradually become ``more permeable.''
Koble's wife, Irmgard, herself an immigrant from East Germany, said she hoped that through progressive easing of restrictions on East Germans' contact with the outside world like those announced by Mr. Honecker this week, the feeling of East Germans that they are ``locked in'' might diminish.
An opposing view was voiced by Siegvard Sch"one, a former East German ransomed by West Germany in 1980 after he had been jailed in East Germany for publicizing his efforts to leave the country. ``To have (Honecker) received as a statesman in Bonn, with [East Germany's] anthem, flag, and red carpet treatment, even though he has no legitimacy from the people - something is out of whack here!'' exclaimed Sch"one as he distributed anti-Honecker leaflets.
A third, bored point of view was expressed by a middle-aged man who walked away when a reporter broached a question about the visit, snorting, ``All that song and dance gets on my nerves!'' But for every German who remains indifferent to the ``song and dance'' surrounding what has been billed all week as the ``historic'' first-ever visit by an East German head of state to West Germany, there are more Germans who have been deeply moved by it.
After the confrontation of the Berlin blockade in 1948, the cruel division of Berlin by the wall in 1961, and a decade in which West Germans were unable to visit, telephone, or often even write family and friends in East Germany, the sheer normality of Honecker's visit this week is breathtaking. So, too, is the unprecedented normality of official permission granted this year to 1.2 million working-age East Germans to travel to West Germany.
That Honecker can now return to his home town after decades, be welcomed by a conservative West German Chancellor with military honors, and hobnob with capitalist captains of industry (as well as, briefly, with rock star Udo Lindenberg), leaves many West Germans tearful. For a few - their number is dwindling - these are tears of rage at the recognition accorded an arch enemy. For many more, they are tears of relief that human beings can now aspire to more ordinary contact across the formidable German-German border.
It's no longer a question of reunification. If Honecker's visit demonstrates anything, it is that the old nationalist drive for a united Germany has yielded to a new pragmatism and, in West Germany, priority on individual freedom. West German polls regularly show broad approval of reunification in the abstract.
But few Germans expect reunification in the near future. Even West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for all his rhetorical references to the unity of the German nation, says a unified German state is something for the distant future and is not on the immediate political agenda.
What Germans want, and do see within reach, is the kind of apolitical unity displayed last week as West Germans cheered the victories of East German athletes in Rome's track-and-field championship. The unity was also on display this week with the first joint live broadcast by East and West German TV from discos, factories, and streets in Schwerin and West Berlin, Leipzig and Schwarze Pumpe.
In terms of ``the German question,'' then, Honecker's visit this week finally vindicates the gamble both he and West German Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt made when they began their respective det'ente policies of ``Westpolitik'' and ``Ostpolitik'' in 1971.
For Brandt, the risk was that he might be deposed by West German conservatives. They considered him a traitor for abandoning ostracism of the hated East German regime and replacing the goal of a unified Germany with that of a compromise between the two German states.
For 11 years the conservatives fought him and his successor, Helmut Schmidt, on this issue. They shifted to a more pragmatic course when they came to power in 1982. By now they have left their former position so far behind that the far-right National Newspaper is trumpeting ``betrayal by the CDU'' in its coverage of the Honecker visit. The ``CDU'' is Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, the main conservative party.
For Honecker, the gamble of gradually opening up East Germany to more contacts with the West has so far paid off in modest popular support that gives him a certain legitimacy beyond the raw power he acquired when the Soviets installed him as East German leader in 1971. But his risk still is, as Brandt's architect of Ostpolitik, Egon Bahr, succinctly phrased it, that det'ente may build momentum for ``change through rapprochement'' in East Germany.
A gradual increase in openness could build public pressures for more openness, even among the extraordinarily self-disciplined East Germans. The question for Honecker is how much further he can go in letting West German influences into his closed society without threatening his Communist party's monopoly on political control.
So far he has been strikingly successful. Only a tiny percentage of those million-plus East German visitors to West Germany this year are failing to return home. And the general inclination of East Germans dissatisfied with the strictures of the political system continues to be not to rebel as Poles tend to do. They are inclined rather to retreat into a ``niche society'' of rendering work hours unto Caesar, but watching West German TV and living mentally in the West every evening and weekend.
There are signs this passivity may be changing somewhat. Last summer, East German rock fans gathered near the Berlin Wall to protest being shooed away by East German police from hearing a West Berlin concert on the other side of the wall. And last weekend, the first unofficial peace demonstration that was not broken up by the authorities took place in East Berlin.
The participants were Christians who are asking for a right of consciencious objection to military service as well as an end to nuclear weapons in East and West Germany.