EAST BERLIN -- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking" has begun to arouse subtle pressures for reform within East Germany's doctrinaire communist party, and the resulting internal debate could influence selection of the successor for 75-year-old chief of state Erich Honecker, western diplomats and other specialists say.
As Honecker and other members of the World War II generation approach the end of their careers, the Soviet example has raised expectations that the transfer of power to a younger generation could lead to more flexible policies in one of Eastern Europe's most conservative societies, they say.
One sign of a shift in thinking was an unusually strong set of appeals for an end to censorship at the government-backed Writers' Congress in November.
Another indication was an active ideological debate in the autumn in which some party members asserted that it was possible for communist states to live peacefully with the West on a permanent basis.
Western specialists on East Germany said they now believe that the battle to succeed Honecker is much more open than they previously had thought.
Security chief Egon Krenz, long considered Honecker's heir apparent, now is believed to have at least two major rivals who might benefit if Gorbachev's programs succeed in the Soviet Union.
The judgment that Krenz no longer is a shoo-in is based primarily on his failure to establish a dominant profile in the official media, and on the view that he has a lackluster personality.
One potential rival, East Berlin party leader Guenter Schabowski, is considered an ambitious candidate with an outgoing manner and skills as a communicator that are similar to Gorbachev's.
The party's agriculture chief, Werner Felfe, who had contact with Gorbachev when the Soviet leader was in charge of agriculture in his country, also is rated as having a good chance of winning the top job. He is considered a potential compromise candidate, as he is respected throughout the leadership.
A fourth candidate, although considered a long shot, is Dresden party leader Hans Modrow. He is rated as the strongest supporter of reforms, and most similar to Gorbachev.
Honecker reportedly is healthy, and it is uncertain whether he plans to retire soon. Some western experts here said he will stay on through 1989, the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the East German state, and then step down.
The East German leadership is one of the most secretive in the Soviet Bloc, and western diplomats and analysts stressed that any judgments about it are speculative. Middle-ranking East German officials tell western diplomats here that even they are unaware of most of what happens within the top party echelons.
Nevertheless, diplomats here said there are indications that the changes under way in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries have had an impact in East Germany even though little of the fallout has become public.
"I think there's a lot of debate going on. The Russians are horsing around with their economy. The world is changing. There's a lot moving here," an experienced western diplomat said.
While even a new generation of leaders will not bring about "a sea change," he said, "I think it's a mistake to think that this place is embedded in ice."
Publicly, the East Germans are rivaled only by the Romanians in the Eastern Bloc in their opposition to adopting Gorbachev's programs.
On a personal level, Honecker has the worst relationship with Gorbachev of any Warsaw Pact leader, according to a senior West German official in Bonn.
The East Germans contend, with some justification, that the Soviets' planned economic reforms are just copies of changes begun here in the 1970s. The East Germans are particularly opposed to Gorbachev's policy of increased glasnost, or openness, in political affairs, because of concern that it could be destabilizing.
The age and historic experience of the East German leadership contributes to its skepticism about Gorbachev.
"They would have to renounce their life's work" to embrace the Soviet programs, a West German government specialist on East Germany said.
"In addition, they have witnessed several reforms in the Soviet Union, starting with Khrushchev's, which didn't work. So they sit back on their haunches and say, 'Let's see how far this goes,' " he said.
But younger East German party members view Gorbachev as an idol, the West German official said.
"They are fascinated by his ideas, which are seen as a way to change a petrified society," he said.
There is no consensus on who has become the leading candidate to succeed Honecker, but events in the Soviet Union are viewed as likely to affect the outcome. The Soviets are believed to have the power to veto any choice.
"If Gorbachev is successful, then a candidate who has qualifications like him could stand a better chance," a western diplomat said. That would tend to boost prospects for Schabowski and Felfe, he said.
There are signs of strains between generations in the ideological debate over relations with the West. The cause was a joint statement issued in August by the Socialist Unity Party, East Germany's communist party, and West Germany's opposition, left-of-center Social Democratic Party.
The document called for "a new approach in international affairs" and said the "controversy" between social systems "can take one form, the form of peaceful competition."
The paper appeared to reflect a backing off from the Marxist position that western imperialism is inherently hostile to the socialist bloc, although the document fit in well with the improved overall climate of East-West relations.
Party elders later issued statements reaffirming past harsh criticism of western imperialism, in an apparent attempt to bolster ideological conformity.
At the Writers' Congress, East German intellectuals unleashed some of the strongest criticism ever of restrictions on freedom of expression. Prominent novelist Christoph Hein made a bitter attack on censorship, saying it was "illegal," "outdated" and "hostile to the people."