UNLIKE Poland's Solidarity, the East German opposition still dreams of socialism with a human face. Not socialism's end, but rather its improvement appears to be the major objective. Far from being limited to the regime's critics, this thirst for reform is shared by large social groups, including many among the ruling Communist Party's rank and file. Ironically, instead of exploiting this unique situation, when even the dissidents support the regime's professed goals, the East German leaders remain committed to the ideal of the perfect police state.
As a result, thousands of East Germans have grown disaffected and have chosen to leave their country. Others have withdrawn into internal exile or joined the rising, though less visible, counterculture of drugs and violence. The regime's refusal to embark on reforms has thus created widespread frustration.
At age 77, President Erich Honecker is a symbol of rigidity and orthodoxy. He is in poor health and his days in power may be numbered. But if his successors will not abandon Stalinism, the opposition will radicalize and prospects for domestic unrest will only heighten. After all, the first major anti-Stalinist rebellion took place in East Berlin in 1953.
Nothing better illustrates this predicament than the current flow of East Germans to the West. Many of the more than 15,000 refugees who recently fled across the Hungarian-Austrian border or sought refuge in West German embassies in Eastern-bloc capitals have declared that they acted in political despair. It is not that the West German prosperity magnetizes them, but rather that the political torpor in their own country repels them. Since East Germany is still faring the best of all the Warsaw Pact countries, these are not economic refugees. They complain of the compulsory ideological rituals, the false enthusiasm, and the lack of political debate in East Germany. ``Not by bread alone'' captures the idealistic ethos of the East German search for renewal.
With growing boldness, religious and human rights activists call for a new social contract. They gather in parishes where they print small underground journals, but they remain loyal to the socialist creed. Even the predominant Evangelical Church shuns total rejection of the system. The opposition's program does not exalt the free market. Its vision of a parliamentary democracy does not include a program of gradual political transformation into a liberal democracy. Instead, the radical traditions associated with the names of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are cherished by many who favor change.
True, as a result of the government's stick-and-carrot policy, no independent trade-union movement has been initiated in East Germany. All hopes are pinned on the emergence of a reformist faction within the party. East Germans yearn for a home-grown Gorbachev to set free the forces of domestic change.
Symptomatically, in July a Central Committee plenum criticized Hans Modrow, the Dresden party boss, for alleged liberalism. For many within the opposition, dialogue with the ruling party is a sine qua non to solve the country's problems. The legitimacy of the constitutionally enshrined leading role of the party is seldom openly denied. The regime treats such questioning as a political crime; dissenters must choose between jail and exile in the West. The opposition must thus focus on single issues like the environment or the growing militarization of public life. Unification with the Federal Republic is not on the opposition's agenda, and many activists support the notion of a distinct East German national identity.
Glasnost has put new pressure on the aging East German leadership. Satisfied with their country's economic performance, the communist leaders see no rationale for engaging in reforms. On more then one occasion, Mr. Honecker voiced his displeasure with the current Soviet attacks on Stalinism. Whereas Polish and Hungarian communists have publicly deplored their countries' involvement in the crushing of the Prague Spring, the East German leaders have reasserted their pride in this participation. Soviet liberal publications are banned in East Germany - quite bizarre considering the 400,000 Soviet troops stationed there.
To appease critics and avert social turmoil, nothing would be more logical for the Honecker regime than to relax its stiff policies. Both the religious and the cultural dissenters would happily participate in an East German version of perestroika. A political thaw would not entail any danger of instability. Rather, stubborn persecution of those who advocate change generates distrust and shows the leadership's alienation from the population. The growing chasm between rulers and ruled threatens the country's political equilibrium.
Lately, the regime's ideologues have invented the concept of ``socialism in the colors of the GDR.'' Like Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, they try to manipulate nationalist symbols, including Prussian militarism, rather than begin de-Stalinization. But the leadership seems divided and the reformist temptation may soon infect the country's elite.