West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt today called off a planned meeting with East Germany's Communist Party chief Erich Honecker on the ground that the "time was not right," given the crisis in Poland.
A west German spokesman in Hamburg, where Schmidt has been staying, said the chancellor had telephoned Honecker personally to request a postponement of the talks in East Germany. The spokesman said Honecker had shown "understanding."
The postponement, coming four days after the Polish communist leader, Edward Gierek, was himself forced to put off a scheduled visit to West Germany, clearly signaled that the events in Poland had spilled over into a renewal of East-West tensions.
Bonn's relations with Eastern Europe, especially with East Germany, are considered a barometer of detente in Europe.
The Soviet Union pays particularly close attention to the inter-German relationship, appearing either to encourage or discourage moves by the East Berlin leadership as part of Moscow's overall strategy to woo Bonn.
A recent meeting by Honecker with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev seemed to be a predlude to the German-German encounter and Schmidt himself appeared to have to go to Moscow to see Brezhnev in June before receiving a formal invitation from Honecker to visit.
Moscow is likely to take Schmidt's abrupt decision not to make the visit, therefore, as a serious sign of Western concern over Poland and a veiled warning that the price of an ugly solution would be an end to Soviet detente with the West Europeans.
The meeting would have been the first visit to East Germany by a West German chancellor since Willy Brandt's pioneering visit to Erfurt 10 years ago -- the symbolic beginning of normal relations between the two Germanys.
This is now the second time the meeting has been postponed. Originally planned for early this year, it was tabled following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December. Its rescheduling for this month was seen as helping Schmidt's image as the "peace chancellor" in his campaign for reelection in October.
But Schmidt came under pressure this week from the opposition Christian Democrat and Christian Social Union parties and the West German press for saying he would go ahead with the visit east in the face of the Polish strike.
Critics charged that he was heading for a public embarrassment if he allowed himself to be pictured on television standing next to Honecker, whose troops conceivably could be used against the Polish strikers and who is aligened with the communist leadership now negotiating with strikers.
In announcing the postponement, government spokesman Klaus Boelling did not specifically mention Poland.
"The developments in Europe as they have occurred in the past few days," he said, "make it appear to the federal government that next week is not the right time" for the meeting to take place. He added that the meeting "should take place at a time that would be more favorable to progress in [East-West] German relations."
East German reluctance to grant Schmidt the broad travel program in that country he wanted also is said to have contributed to his decision not to go.
The meeting was to have taken place next Thursday and Friday in a hunting lodge at Werbellinsee, a lake resort 25 miles northeast of Berlin. Following the talks, Schmidt had expected to travel through the East German cities of Rostock and Guestrow as a dramatic indication of the more relaxed nature of relations between the two Germanys.
But communist officials from the start were nervous that Schmidt would draw large, cheering crowds, reminiscent of the spontaneous -- and, for the east German leadership, embarrasing -- reception Willy Brandt received during his visit.
As the crisis in Poland worsened, heightening East German concerns of the unrest spreading across the border to their country, East Berlin officials reportedly were balking at allowing Schmidt his tour away from the isolated site of the talks.
With the strike wave in Poland within six miles of East Germany and with many Poles crossing into East Germany to buy food, gasoline and other necessities -- the worry in East Berlin is understandable.
It is aggravated by the fact that many East Germans can pick up uncensored televised news broadcasts from West Germany, which undercut efforts by Honeckers's government to control information about what is going on in Poland.
Still, in recent weeks East Berlin has shown itself as eager as Bonn to pursue better relations, in large part because of the growing need for hard Western currency in East Germany. Despite the chill in East-West relations that followed the Soviet move into Afghanistan, the two Germanys have been making what seems to be an extra effort even to go on with business as usual.
Bonn's Economics Ministry announced this week that trade between the two Germanys zoomed by more than 34 percent in the first half of this year over the same period last year, to the equivalent of $3.1 billion.
While no breakthroughs were expected, the meeting was seen by Schmidt's aides as important preparation for the same sort of "small steps" that have marked the rapprochement between Bonn and East Berlin in the past decade. These include primarily a steady increase in trade, development of transportation and communication from West Germany to Berlin, and more liberal visitation rights by West Germans to friends and relatives in East Germany.