The Polish strikes have presented East and West European leaders with a situation that is potentially more damaging to improved relations between them than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan eight months ago.
It has already put a crimp in Helmut Schmidt's designs, spoiling a pair of summit meetings this month planned by the West German chancellor with Polish party chief Edward Gierek and East German leader Erich Honecker.
The longer the crisis in Poland persists, the more questions are raised about Western governments continuing to seek stronger trade and diplomatic ties with Soviet Bloc states. This debate is especially fierce at the moment in West Germany.
In the midst of a national election campaign, West Germany's opposition Christian Democrat and Christian Social parties have sought to use the events in Poland to debunk the policy of gradual reconciliation wit Eastern Europe promoted by Schmidt's Social Democratic Party for the last 11 years.
Proclaiming solidarity with Poland's striking workers, the Bonn opposition charged that the West German government's Eastern policy has led it to support repressive and financially mismanaged communist regimes such as that in Warsaw.
Franz Josef Strauss, the opposition candidate running against Schmidt, at first urged West German banks to withhold their new credit of about $700 million for Poland until the demands of the strikers were met. This week, he proposed that the money be spent only on emergency food supplies for Poland, suggesting that the West send food parcels "in grand style" to Poland as the United States did to war-shattered Germany after World War II.
According to a spokesman for the Dresdner Bank, which has the lead in the consortium lending to Poland, the loan is still expected to go through, although bankers are said to be watching the situation in Poland very closely. aAnother Western consortium led by the Bank of America last week gave Poland an additional $325 million to help Warsaw finance its $20 billion deficit.
But the crisis in Poland spotlights a central question for Western governments and financial institutions -- namely, how best to aid those people who live under Soviet rule.
"The West must examine the question whether economic aid for East Bloc countries helps the people or whether it contributes to stabilizing communist systems there," declared the conservative West German daily Die Welt.
The Bonn government has defended its thickening web of trade and diplomatic links with the East as fostering economic development, humanitarian gains and overall stability in Europe. But in a sharply worded editorial this week, the moderate West German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine attacked Bonn's Eastern policy for being based on "the false belief one can deal with totalitarian state leaders in the same sensible way as with others."
For West Germany, reexamining its conduct of detente is not simply a foreign policy matter, since improved relations with the communist East involve the future unity of the German people. West Germans no longer harbor the high hopes of a dismantling of the Berlin Wall or even of greatly relaxed east-west travel, which many did at the time Bonn's current eastern policy was launched. But most still seem dedicated to the concept that the key to the German question can lie only in peaceful removal of barriers and tensions across the whole of Europe.
In recent months, part of the Bonn government's strategy has been to try to broaden detente from the political and economic fields to the military -- something also desired by the Soviets, who currently hold an edge in Europe's military balance. To this end, Bonn and other European capitals have been hoping to use the conference review of the 1975 Helsinki accords, scheduled to begin in November in Madrid, to launch some sort of European disarmament conference.
Any use of force to crush the Polish strike could easily scuttle the Madrid review, European diplomats say. A more long-term effect would be to shatter confidence in the Helsinki agreement's guarantee of self-determination and full freedom for all people to pursue political and economic development.
On the other hand, diplomats here note, if the situation in Poland is solved peacefully through economic and political concessions by the Warsaw government to the strikers, it would surely be hailed as a great victory for European detente, thus pushing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan even further into a dark diplomatic corner.
The Helsinki Final Act, signed by 35 nations including the United States and the Soviet Union, is the document on which today's era of European detente rests.
At the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, various foreign ministries in Western Europe discussed canceling the Madrid conference as a harsh signal to Moscow that detente could not be broken in one part of the world and still enjoyed in Europe.
This course was eventually rejected when it was judged better to go ahead with the Madrid meeting and use it to scold the Soviet Union for its behavior. Moreover, West European officials appeared reluctant to give up detente and its trade and humanitarian benefits for the sake of rescuing the distant Asian land of Afghanistan.
But if Poland blows up, Europe's own yard would be under storm. So, far, Bonn and other Western governments have been reserved in their official public comments about the situation in Poland, going only so far as to voice the hope that the unrest will be resolved without the use of force.
The rationale here seems to be to avoid giving the Soviet Union any excuse in level charges of interference in Poland's internal affairs -- charges that could then be used as a pretext for using military force against the strikers. The Soviet Union's government-controlled news agency Tass this week attacked the West for launching a slanderous propaganda campaign that it said amounted to an attempt to interfere in Poland.
Meanwhile, coverage of the Polish strike by the Eastern European press has varied as it usually does with sensitive topics. Hungary has provided the most complete coverage, freely using the word "strike" in its dispatches and reporting on worker actions all over Poland. In contrast, Romania and Bulgaria, which geographically are the most distant of Soviet Bloc states from Poland and which have restrictive regimes, have carried news only rarely of the Polish crisis.
The most forthright news coverage occurred in East Germany, which borders on Poland. Reports about the Polish unrest escalated in importance and completeness in the EastGerman media last week, becoming front-page news in the government-controlled daily Neues Deutschland on Friday.
Because many East Germans can receive uncensored West German television broadcasts, the East Berlin communist leadership suffers a credibility problem when the news is blocked.Evidently deciding to meet this pressure head on, East German television Sunday night carried Gierek's speech live from Warsaw, with a simultaneous translation, allowing East Germans to hear firsthand of the Polish shakeup and of the Polish government's concessions to allow free elections for trade unions.
Still, none of the East European press has reported in full the demands of the strikers, nor have there been any official party declarations about their situation from Poland's Warsaw Pact partners.