Mikhail Gorbachev's consolidation of power in the Kremlin appears to be clearing the way for the emergence of a new generation of political leaders in East Germany and other communist nations in Eastern Europe.
A sequence of carefully orchestrated events involving the assumption of more prominent duties by those who claim proximity to Gorbachev's views and the elimination of some leaders who have supported Gorbachev's rivals has confirmed Egon Krenz, 49, as the undisputed heir apparent of East Germany's septuagenarian leader Erich Honecker.
Krenz's growing clout has stirred speculation that he may be anointed officially as Honecker's successor at the next party congress in April. The event is designed to chart the course of the country for the next five years.
Honecker, who grew up in a united German nation and hails from what is today West Germany, has ruled the postwar German communist state for more than 14 years. Krenz has known only the rigidly totalitarian state of East Germany.
This contrast suggests that the passage of power to the postwar leaders may carry more significance in East Germany than elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact. While sharing perspectives with East European peers who are relatively unscathed by the nightmares of the Nazi era, Krenz and the new crop of German communists are unique because they grew up within a divided homeland, without the emotional experience of witnessing in their youth a nation being torn asunder.
Unlike his patron Honecker, who was born in the Saarland and still has relatives there, Krenz was raised and trained in the communist state. Such roots in the system have led some analysts to surmise that Krenz and other young East Germans may have a less visceral attachment to pan-German notions, or even the desirability of closer political and economic links with Bonn, than their elders.
"Krenz comes from a different generation that grew up feeling a divided Germany was normal and part of everyday life," said Ronald Asmus, a specialist on East Germany at Radio Free Europe in Munich. "He probably is unaffected by the days when it looked like East Germany might not make it as a distinct state."
Honecker's background, including a decade in Nazi prisons and an arduous political struggle to win recognition for the German Democratic Republic, is thought to motivate his efforts to be the first East German leader to visit West Germany.
A planned trip to the Federal Republic was canceled a year ago because of Soviet disgruntlement, but it may soon be rescheduled as a consequence of the improved East-West atmosphere following the U.S.-Soviet summit in Geneva.
As a loyal lieutenant, Krenz has adhered scrupulously to Honecker's quest for better relations with West Germany. East Germany's Westpolitik has yielded greater political contacts and economic benefits, but analysts say it is still uncertain whether Krenz would be as devoted as Honecker to dialogue with the West.
"A lot of people in Bonn believe that East Germany is obliged to work for rapprochement because of the economic stakes involved," remarked a senior diplomat in East Berlin. "But they should recognize that Honecker, because of his past, may represent an opportunity that may not be there in the future."
Because he is perceived to have a strong grip on power, Honecker is able to concentrate on a task generally regarded as a luxury for communist leaders. According to western analysts, he is preparing the transition of power to a new generation by grooming a handpicked crown prince.
The relative success of the East German economy, aided by credit and technology gleaned from the West, has fortified Honecker's personal stature and enhanced his country's position as Moscow's most valuable ally.
The East German leader recently dismissed one of the Politburo's strongest opponents of economic links with the West, Konrad Naumann, the hard-line East Berlin district party boss who was known for his hostility toward intellectuals and church leaders.
Naumann was thought to be close to Grigory Romanov, the Soviet Politburo rival of Gorbachev who was dumped almost as soon as the Soviet leader gained power. As long as he enjoyed the protection of Romanov, Naumann retained a major voice in the East Germany's Socialist Unity Party as well as credibility as Krenz's chief rival to succeed Honecker. The loss of his patron in Moscow, however, clearly opened the way for Naumann's purge, according to knowledgeable sources in East Berlin.
Krenz dutifully has pursued the same career path as Honecker. He has served as head of the Free German Youth, the communist state youth organization that inculcates party dogma and dispenses privileges to future leaders. Last year he took over the important party job of internal security chief, which Honecker also managed under his predecessor, Walter Ulbricht.
A member of the Politburo and secretary of the party Central Committee, Krenz also is deputy chairman of the Council of State, which gives him duties roughly equivalent to those of a vice president.
Krenz also speaks fluent Russian, acquired during his three years of study in Moscow during the 1960s. There he is believed to have met Gorbachev, whom he now claims to know rather well.
Born into a tailor's family in the Pomeranian town of Kohlberg, Krenz was only 8 years old when the war ended. He has made his political career by doggedly hewing to the prevailing party line ever since he left the Army nearly three decades ago to become a full-time party apparatchik.
As his authority has evolved, Krenz has developed a colorful speaking style and an ebullient personality that sets him apart from party hacks. Yet he has been careful to subordinate his ambitions to the will of his father figure in the party.