E. Germany lets out some malcontents - but not all, as one theologian found

Wolf Quassdorf has thrown a small monkey wrench into East German government plans. And the government has thrown a large monkey wrench into Wolf Quassdorf's plans.

The East Berlin theologian and peace activist, it seems, got encouraged by the unprecedented number of East Germans being allowed to emigrate. Some 23,000 have left so far this year, with no sign of a slowdown. This is a higher figure than at any other time since the Berlin wall went up in 1961 to block just such emigration.

Mr. Quassdorf wanted to join the flow. So he filed his application to leave in early March, then dropped in on the West German mission in East Berlin on March 14 to talk about going West. On March 15 he was arrested, and on April 18 he was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

The official grounds for the sentence were that the ''trained machine builder'' Quassdorf had given information to foreigners that ''damages the interests of the GDR (the (East) German Democratic Republic).''

There was no public mention in East Germany that Quassdorf had any church link or that he had visited the West German mission to discuss emigration.

Nonetheless, to West Germans the real reasons for the court verdict look at least ambiguous. As the incident became known in late April, the Bonn government protested to East Berlin. Any punishment of East Germans who simply enter Western missions, Bonn pointed out, would violate the 1975 Helsinki Agreement's guarantee of free access to diplomatic or quasi-diplomatic offices.

The West German news media regard the Quassdorf incident as a clear-cut case of such violation. According to the news magazine Der Spiegel, some 50 such cases have accumulated by now.

Spokesman Josef Dolezal of Bonn's Ministry of Inner-German Relations is more cautious. He says only that the ministry has not been able to confirm rumors of such incidents. He described Bonn's protest more in terms of a preventive move to make it clear that any East German action would be viewed with concern.

East Germany is understood to have told Bonn that Quassdorf's trial had nothing to do with his visit to the West German mission, but rather with his passing of papers to friends in the West.

Bonn's appeal to the Helsinki Agreement should carry some weight with East Berlin. East German leader Erich Honecker wants East-West German relations to remain good, and he wants to ensure that his first visit to West Germany takes place as scheduled next fall.

In terms of prestige, East Berlin has based its current relative liberalism in emigration on a growing domestic self-confidence - and on expressed adherence to the Helsinki endorsement of free movement of people. Whether these considerations will help Quassdorf is another question.

This year's surge of emigration was intended to get rid of peace activists and a backlog of malcontents. It was not supposed to stimulate others to leave, as the current press campaign makes clear. The media describe the rising standard of living and the overfulfilling of this year's East German economic plan. At the same time they warn any emigrants that they can't return home.

But the emigration applications of Quassdorf and others flout the wish to keep emigration limited. And the would-be emigrants' appeal to West German officials over the heads of East German officials adds insult to injury. For a few months, East Berlin was lenient with those who sat in Western embassies and let them quietly go West. For a while it did nothing more drastic than check the identity cards of those entering the embassies.

Now the authorities appear to think things are going too far. Certainly they would be happy if the jailing of Quassdorf and company deterred others.

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