THE flow of East Germans to the West has become a flood that threatens to erode the repressive regime of Erich Honecker. By itself, that might be viewed as more good news than bad: proof that even the most well-off country in the Soviet bloc holds little promise for the best and the brightest, those willing to risk uncertain refugee status for a future of greater freedom and opportunity. But the heart-rending scene of thousands of young Germans, some with children in their arms, tussling with Czech police to get into the West German Embassy in Prague is also an ominous sign. Is it the last straw before Herr Honecker cracks down? (He has predicted that the Berlin Wall ``will be standing in 50 or even 100 years.'') Will it be one test too many for Mikhail Gorbachev, trying to disassemble the Soviet empire as far as possible without having the whole thing fall apart?
The problem for Honecker and the state he has presided over for 17 years is not only that everything is changing around it, but that many Germans living in the East want to go with that change. True, the country has the best standard of living, the most productivity, and the strongest economic growth rate in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. But East Germans watch their brothers and sisters in West Germany (80 percent get West German television) and realize they're falling behind.
Then there's the Wall, representing a political stifling which even the main man in Moscow now argues against.
``The fundamental dilemma for the regime is that, in the new global economy, economic development cannot be commanded from above,'' writes Daniel Hamilton of the Aspen Institute Berlin in the current issue of Foreign Policy. ``Creativity, information flows, modern communications, and technological innovation have become the keys to the GDR's own goals of intensive and extensive growth. Yet these factors presume a degree of openness and decentralized authority the regime is unwilling to tolerate. ... Glasnost is viewed as a Pandora's box which, if opened, would release all sorts of uncontrollable demons and shake the regime to its foundations.''
The box is already unsealed, and Honecker and Gorbachev - between whom no love is lost - are having to lean on the lid together. Their job now is to let enough steam vent to prevent the hinges from blowing off just as East Germany commemorates 40 years of existence.
That is mere damage control, of course. Meanwhile, the picture in East Germany - just as it is in Poland and other parts of the East Bloc - is shifting in ways that are fundamental.