ERICH HONECKER, the communist boss of East Germany, made a welcome announcement this week. East Germany, he said, will cut its military budget by 10 percent and reduce its armed forces by 10,000 men in the next two years. About 600 tanks are to be scrapped or ``adapted to civilian use.'' Some 50 planes will go too.
Mr. Honecker said the cuts would give East German armed forces a ``defensive character.'' All this parallels the military cutbacks the Soviets are themselves planning in Eastern Europe. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has promised to withdraw 50,000 Soviet troops and 5,000 tanks from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary over two years.
Clearly, East Germany would not be making its own cuts without the signal from Moscow.
We must watch carefully the quality, as well as the quantity, of the military cuts the communists are making.
If front-line units are being withdrawn and disbanded, that is one thing. If rusty, old equipment and second-rate troops are being phased out, that is quite different.
But still, one must welcome even a gesture in the direction of reducing East-West tensions and building East-West confidence.
The gesture that would do more than most anything else to convince the West of real change in communist hearts, however, would be the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, that monstrous affront to humanity that cleaves Berlin in two.
Gaunt and forbidding, straddled by barbed wire, floodlit at night, patrolled by armed East German border guards, it keeps imprisoned those servants of communism who would flee to freedom if they could. In the 27 years since the wall went up, 77 who attempted escape have been killed as they tried to claw their way over the 13-foot wall. It went up crudely and quickly in 1961 to halt a swarm of refugees from East to West. The stream was so intense that it threatened to denude East Germany and destroy its economy.
Over the years the wall has been rebuilt, and straightened, and whitewashed, and prettified. But still its purpose is clear; to keep in those East Germans who want out. We do not see an exodus from West Germany, seeking economic and ideological nirvana in the communist East.
The East German regime, clinging to communist doublespeak despite the advent of glasnost, says the wall is a contribution to world peace. It says the wall was built to stave off the ``plunder'' of East Germany by West Germany, and to prevent a military attack from the West. The attack was rehearsed, according to the East German regime, in a series of NATO maneuvers. West Berlin was a base for ``espionage, sabotage, currency speculation, targeted recruitment of technical skills and shifting of material assets.'' Thus the East Germans had, of necessity, to throw up that defensive wall.
The regime has rejected recent calls by Western leaders for the dismantling of the wall. East German leaders say the reasons for its construction remain. Soviet leaders say East Germany is a sovereign state and can guard its borders as it will.
But if the wall must remain for fear of the West, why are the East Germans and the Soviets cutting back their troops in East Germany?
Is it not unwise to be retrenching if the aggressive West stands poised to seize East Berlin and sweep on into East Germany?
The argument is ridiculous.
The wall is testimony not to the menace of the West, but to the failure of communism in the East - the failure of a restrictive system to win the fealty of citizens who yearn for freedom.
If the communist leaders who promise their citizens a better way of life and more freedom are serious about it, the wall must come down. Despite the embarrassed, hands-off position of the Soviets in public, a phone call from Mr. Gorbachev would do the trick.
It would be the story of the year.