NICKELSDORF, AUSTRIA — THE likes of this had not been seen since 1956, said the Austrian police official as he surveyed the swarm of jubilant young East Germans streaming across the Austro-Hungarian border here just after midnight Monday. Dancing, singing, laughing, and crying, the new arrivals were incredulous that they had finally made it legally to the West, after weeks in refugee camps in Hungary and, for many, multiple failed attempts to cross the frontier illegally.
The new arrivals are headed to West Germany, where they are able to take advantage of their constitutional entitlement to West German citizenship.
In 1956, the mass exodus was of Hungarians, fleeing repression at home following the Soviet Army's crushing of a national uprising. This time it was Budapest that threw open its borders to the West. The unilateral move was aimed at resolving the crisis posed by the influx of thousands of East Germans fleeing Eastern Europe's most orthodox communist state.
``Hungary cannot be turned into a refugee camp,'' said Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn in justifying his government's decision.
``The decision was not completely unexpected, but no one thought it would be so dramatic,'' said a Western diplomat in Budapest.
Some 10,000 had crossed over within 36 hours of the border opening, the Austrian Interior Ministry reported Tuesday. But after the initial deluge and despite statements by Hungarian and West German officials that another 50,000 could join them, the flow appeared to be subsiding by yesterday evening.
Hungarian authorities said yesterday about 5,000 East Germans crossed into Hungary from Czechoslovakia over the past 24 hours, but they denied the figure was as high as 16,000, as earlier reported.
Diplomatic circles in Budapest say that the Hungarian move is the most convincing statement to date of the reformist leadership's desire to forge a new Westward-looking identify.
``This is a huge decision. Its repercussions for the whole of the region are immense,'' said one Western diplomat. ``It is a massive boost for the reformers and for those who want closer ties with the West.''
But the apparent price for these closer ties is the country's deeper isolation within the Warsaw Pact. Hungary is already embroiled in ugly rows with Romania over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, with Czechoslovakia over a controversial Danube power project, and now with East Germany, which branded the decision as ``organized trading in human beings.''
Ondrasz Gulyas of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry says that the primary yardstick for current policy trends is the observance of human and civil rights.
``We want to maintain friendly relations with the neighboring countries, but at the same time the basic principle of human rights that we are introducing has to direct our policy,'' he said.
Foreign Minister Horn accused East German authorities of failing to defuse the crisis, citing this as the reason Hungary had taken the unusual step of ``temporarily suspending'' a 20-year-old agreement with East Germany on the repatriation of each other's nationals.
But it is unclear how long the borders will remain open and when, if at all, the repatriation agreement will regain its force. ``I do not know when the old regulations will be reapplied,'' Mr. Horn said.
But if the Hungarian decision is the most graphic example yet of the country's new foreign policy, it also colors the power struggle gripping the ruling Communist Party as it prepares for a key emergency congress next month.
The reformers appear to be in the saddle and are seeking to engender a new ``attractive'' vote-winning image ahead of entirely free elections scheduled for next year.
But Communist Party fundamentalists are fighting a strong rear-guard action - a battle intensified by the fact that 10,000 members a month are deserting the party.