Upstaged by Soviets, East German leader reverts to hard line
East Berlin — The man who didn't come West to dinner stayed home here this week - and watched from afar as the guest who did travel shook hands with President Reagan. If all had gone according to plan, East German leader Erich Honecker would be in West Germany right now getting virtually all the honors of a visiting head of state.
But all didn't go according to plan. Moscow made clear its unhappiness over what would have been a first visit in the two Germanys' 35-year history. Mr. Honecker postponed his trip indefinitely - and then Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko announced he would see Mr. Reagan.
If Mr. Honecker was disappointed that he couldn't travel West this week while Mr. Gromyko could, he was far too disciplined to show it. Instead he praised the graduates of various military academies for fulfilling their duty in forming an ''insurmountable barrier ... against all anticommunist and revanchist adventurers.''
His echoing of Moscow was all vintage stuff. There wasn't a whiff of his earlier claim to a special ''coalition of reason'' between the two German states - despite the superpower impasse.
Today's sterner language comes naturally to Honecker. Throughout his long political career he has been a pillar of communist orthodoxy. The son of a coal miner, Honecker joined the party-sponsored Pioneers at the age of 10, the Communist Youth at the age of 19.
Imprisoned as a communist in Hitler Germany, he was released 10 years later as Soviet troops captured Berlin in 1945. After the war Honecker directed the party's youth organization in East Germany, was soon selected for the party Central Committee, and by 1950 was a candidate member of the Politburo. He willingly carried out, with others, the hard-line policy implemented in the 1950 s before and after the workers' uprising of 1953.
When the Hungarians revolted and the Poles liberalized in 1956, Honecker was in Moscow for political training. He returned to East Germany to become a full Politburo member overseeing the armed forces and security service. He was still in charge when these forces erected the Berlin Wall overnight in 1961.
In the '60s Honecker was groomed to succeed founding father Walter Ulbricht. And when Ulbricht resisted the Soviet move toward detente in the '70s, Honecker replaced his mentor. On becoming party first secretary, he pledged East Germany's full loyalty to Soviet leadership.
It could have been a risky time. But Honecker managed brilliantly.
With a policy of ''abgrenzung'' (delimitation) he contained the impact of the new Western influences: the millions of West German visitors talking to East German relatives and friends each year; the invasion of West German TV, now visible by some 90 percent of East Germans; firsthand reports of the consumer paradise just across the wall brought back by the stream of East German pensioners now allowed to visit the West.
Despite all the Soviet suspicions, this Western influence never came close to ''destabilizing'' East Germany.
Honecker's initial cultural liberalization was ''delimited'' by depriving bal-ladeer Wolf Biermann of East German citizenship while he was in West Germany in 1976, then expelling other writers and intellectual experimenters.
Rising consumer expectations were kept within bounds by giving East German citizens the highest standard of living in the Soviet bloc - while still making it clear there would be no imitation of West Germany's conspicuous affluence.
Honecker went beyond ''abgrenzung'' to build a certain grass-roots pride in the German Democratic Republic.
Diplomatic recognition by 121 nations by 1976 (in 1971 only 26 states had so recognized the GDR) signaled a welcome end to East Germany's international ostracism. The single-minded sports program that nourished a highly disproportionate number of Olympic winners probably caught public imagination.
The rehabilitation of Prussian and German history was even more popular. Most popular of all was the special intra-German relationship of recent years. When Honecker said last November - within two days of the final West German decision to station NATO missiles - that the task now was to limit the damage to East-West relations, the relief of the East German man in the street was palpable.
This mood increased this year as Honecker became something of a spokesman for East Europe as a whole in seeking to prolong European detente, despite Soviet-US tensions and Soviet pressure for more militancy toward the West.
Honecker's motives in taking an uncharacteristically different public line from Moscow in the month before he finally turned down the West German invitation earlier this month are a matter of conjecture. One West German view is that he wants to assure his own place in the German history he has recently shown such regard for: He wants to be remembered a making a contribution to peace.
Whatever the reasons for Honecker's policy, he has had the backing of his own Politburo, especially since the promotion of a number of his allies to the Politburo this past spring. There seems to have been a collective judgment that East Germany's interests lie in rapprochement with West Germany and in the prestige and continued access to Western trade and credits that such association assures.
There seems to have been enough self-confidence as well for a collective judgment that this was possible without undermining political stability in the GDR.
Just how durable this opinion will be now that Gromyko is in the West and Honecker isn't remains to be seen. The level and quality of Soviet participation in next week's 35th anniversary celebration of the founding of the GDR will provide one test of the Kremlin's current view.
The US election will then open a new stage in Moscow and East Berlin's long-term adjustment. Only in the new year perhaps will the last word be heard from the Saar native who'd still like to visit his birthplace, now in West Germany.