Bonn and its allies are not the only ones at odds over German reunification. Bonn and East Berlin, too, have very different views, as the latest go-around shows.
At this point Bonn is for, East Berlin against, reunification. Back 30 years ago both capitals favored reunification - on condition that the other state give up its political system.
East German leaders still restate this position pro forma every few years, but they no longer have any real hope that West Germany might turn Communist. Over the past decade they have therefore dropped the rhetoric of reunification. To Bonn ''the German question'' is still open. To East Berlin it is closed.
Nonetheless, West Germany remains - politically, economically, and psychologically - East Germany's second most important partner after the Soviet Union. And conversations between East Germans and the millions of visiting West Germans suggest that nostalgia for German unity is far more widespread among East than West Germans.
Normally, East-West German quarrels about the remote possibility of reunification don't make much difference. Any merger is so far off that officials go about their more mundane (and more urgent) business without giving much thought to such hopes for the future.
About once every five or six years there is a reunification flurry, however, and the principals have to declare themselves anew. Such was the case when East German state and party chief Erich Honecker planned, then ''postponed,'' his first visit to West Germany last month - and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti took the occasion to welcome the division of Germany in perpetuity.
In the case of West Germany, conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl has welcomed the opportunity to repeat his stance. Although he has conducted the same practical policy toward East Germany as did his Social Democratic predecessors, he has devoted much more rhetoric than they to possible reunification. He has sometimes done so even in forums that have offended East Germany - as a month ago, when he became the first chancellor in two decades to address the Refugee Association.
The association consists of Germans (and their offspring) who were expelled at war's end from former German territories now belonging to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. Their right-wing politics focuses on the claim that these territories are still rightfully Germany's.
It was in accord with this position that the culture ministers of the conservative-ruled states in West Germany decided two years ago that textbooks should show the map of Germany with its 1937 borders.
All this is perfectly proper, Dr. Kohl and the conservatives maintain. Germany's old borders (which run down the middle of present-day Poland) legally hold until Moscow is willing to sign a peace treaty ending World War II, they say. Moreover, the West German Constitution, and supreme court decisions based on it, commit the Bonn government to the goal of eventual German unity.
These are legal positions, Kohl continues, not political demands. The Bonn government has pledged itself not to seek any except peaceful change in Europe's borders. Moreover, Kohl says, German ''unity'' does not necessarily have to take the form of a single national state. Therefore, the rest of the world need not worry.
East German officials tacitly accept this explanation and dismiss the rhetoric of Kohl government supporters as ''Sunday speeches'' for domestic consumption. Poles, both official and unofficial, are more suspicious - especially since West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is virtually the only top Bonn official who repeatedly stresses that West Germany does respect existing borders.
East Germany's reaction to the most recent reunification flap, of course, has been quite different. If Mr. Honecker had been able to make his West German visit, he would have had a strong incentive to play down differences on the German question. But since he wasn't, he doesn't.
East German officials have subsequently been highlighting the differences and insisting in particular that Bonn ''respect'' East German citizenship.
A government and party official in East Berlin who asked that his name not be used in fact called this ''the decisive question'' in East-West German relations. As explained by the official, East Germany's view of inter-German ties and the reunification issue following the cancellation of Honecker's visit looks like this:
First, he believed that East-West German relations would not only proceed but ''develop.'' Such a continuation of bilateral dialogue, he suggested, would have advantages ''not only for the two German states, but for Europe as a whole.'' In this sensitive area in the heart of Europe, he contended, everything that leads to greater understanding will have a positive effect on Europe as a whole.
When asked, he said flatly that he had no fear that East Germany might be destabilized by cooperation with West Germany.
In this general context the official mentioned problems that do ''burden'' the relationship. After the West German stationing of American missiles this past year, some West Germans adopted a less friendly tone of voice toward East Germany, he said. His mention of a ''poisoned atmosphere caused by voices denigrating'' Honecker as head of state was an implicit reference to the sarcastic comment a month ago by Bundestag conservative leader Alfred Dregger that West Germany's future did not depend on whether Honecker ''does us the honor'' of visiting.
The official's remarks presumed that ''ultras'' - as Honecker has been calling those West Germans who oppose improved relations and stress the issue of the 1937 borders - do not have the upper hand in Bonn. He added, however, that ''within the government, too, some interpretations are very questionable.''
When someone says he recognizes the Polish borders but does not accept their validity in international law and doesn't think they should bind a future reunited Germany, the official went on, this is a ''very dangerous'' statement: It encourages those who want to challenge these borders someday. Today's West German leaders are ''not immortal,'' he said. Today's leaders may say they would not use force to change European boundaries, but what will happen tomorrow?
The official did not stress such risks, but he said he hoped ''responsible circles'' in West Germany would see things ''realistically and sensibly.'' He defined such a viewpoint as including the mutual resolve that war never again spring from German soil - and acceptance that there is ''no open German question as is maintained here and there.''
''History has spoken its judgment'' on the German question in the form of two fully sovereign, independent states with different social orders. Any merger would be impossible, because it would require either that East Germany become ''imperialist'' or that West Germany become ''socialist'' - which would not happen ''from one day to the next.''
The official repeated the demands Honecker made in his Gera speech of 1980: ( 1) that the Elbe border be settled in midstream (as East Berlin wants) rather than on the East German bank of the river (as Bonn wants); (2) that Bonn ''respect'' East German citizenship (a more moderate term than the original ''recognize''); (3) that the East-West German representatives change their ''technical terminology'' - i.e., be designated as full ambassadors; and (4) that Bonn close the Salzgitter center that records border shootings of would-be East German escapees with the intent of prosecuting any person who shoots, should that person at some point go to West Germany.
The official specified that the Gera demands are not conditions for the further improvement of relations, however. And he mentioned his impression that more West Germans than before are ready to be more forthcoming on these demands.
The interview on which this piece is based was conducted before the Oct. 7 statement by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that ''the socialist countries will neither tolerate nor allow'' attempts by the West at ''rolling back socialism.''m