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Honecker Begins Historic Visit to Bonn Today

September 07, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

EAST BERLIN — East German leader Erich Honecker is due to arrive today in West Germany on a long-awaited and momentous visit that marks a triumph for him personally and for his once-shunned nation.

Full of confidence for his own and his nation's accomplishments, Honecker will be received by Chancellor Helmut Kohl as the leader of a nation that has built the most successful economy in the Communist Bloc.

"Erich Honecker travels to West Germany as the head of a stable state," an official at the East German Foreign Ministry said. "We have had steady economic development, full employment, all the social benefits, and we are now among the 10 leading industrialized countries in the world. And all this with only 17 million people."

More important, Honecker, as chairman of the East German state council, will be received as a head of government, even though West Germany does not officially recognize East Germany as a separate country but as part of a nation temporarily divided after World War II.

The five-day visit is officially being billed in West Germany as a working--not a state--visit, a distinction that will be lost amid ceremony and courtesies that will be extended to the East German leader. A West German band will play the East German national anthem upon his arrival at the Cologne-Bonn airport.

Such treatment will affirm Honecker's insistence that East Germany is a permanent socialist state, not a postwar aberration that eventually will fade away.

As part of his visit, Honecker, 75, will return to his childhood home of Wiebelskirchen in the Saarland near the French border for the first time in more than 40 years. He was born in the nearby town of Neunkirchen.

Photographers hoping for a show of emotion from him, or a gesture such as Pope John Paul II makes on landing in a new country--kneeling to kiss the earth--are likely to be disappointed, seasoned observers say.

They expect Honecker to comport himself in the cool style that has characterized his public appearances since he became leader of East Germany in 1971.

His one surviving sister, who still lives in Wiebelskirchen, and other relatives have visited him in East Berlin since the partitioning of Germany.

It was Honecker's upbringing in Wiebelskirchen, as a Communist coal miner's son, that formed his character and ideological views.

10 Years in Prison

Early on, these led him to oppose the 1935 plebiscite that incorporated the Saar into Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. For his Communist activities, he was jailed by the Nazis for the next 10 years. He was released only after the Soviet army moved into Germany in 1945.

Honecker quickly became a Communist Party functionary in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany that became the German Democratic Republic. He rose through the ranks to take over all security responsibilities, including the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Ten years later he replaced the old Communist warhorse, Walter Ulbricht, as head of the party and strongman of East Germany.

Honecker is determined, people familiar with his views say, to see East Germany recognized as a major player on the world scene, with a strong role in preventing a war in Europe. Toward that end, he supports the nuclear arms control agreement being negotiated in Geneva by the United States and the Soviet Union, and he favors the removal of all nuclear weapons from both West and East Germany.

In foreign policy, he tends to support the initiatives of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, particularly the reduction of nuclear weapons in Central Europe. But on the domestic front, he has taken a cool view of Gorbachev's exhortations for economic reform.

"Honecker's view," a Western envoy said, "is that East Germany has already gone through its reform period and that its 'command economy' is sound and working along proper socialist lines.

"Honecker also wants to trade with the West to get foreign exchange for more high-technology items and not be forced to ship everything east to help the Russians out. He doesn't want to see the East German economy diluted.

"This has created a certain amount of tension between Honecker and Gorbachev, along with the fact that Honecker is of an older generation, and fairly dogmatic, while Gorbachev is more down to earth, less self-satisfied and less theoretical."

Still, diplomats suggest, Gorbachev does not wish to impose his will on a leader whose country is the industrial showplace of the Communist world. It was Gorbachev who finally approved Honecker's trip to West Germany, a visit that has been on and off for years because of changing moods in the Kremlin.

As much as Soviet leaders want stability on their Western flank, they do not want to see East and West Germany get too cozy.

"I think Gorbachev approved the visit to see what kind of new policies might be developed with West Germany," a diplomatic specialist in East Berlin said. "Soviet policy vis-a-vis Bonn has been on hold for some time. We should be seeing some new initiatives."

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