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How the East Was Won

In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent

by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House, 680 pp., $27.50

A Polish friend used to lecture me at length about the tragic complexities of her country’s past. Occasionally I would interpolate a comment, in a doomed effort to show that I had understood. No, she would insist, you don’t get it. At one point, I became somewhat exasperated and suggested resentfully that, for her, these were things that only a Pole could appreciate. “Not quite,” she replied. “Garton Ash—he understands.”

Indeed he does, and not just Poland. A recognized authority on contemporary Polish affairs, Timothy Garton Ash established himself during the Eighties as the leading English-language commentator on developments throughout East Central Europe. What is less widely known is that he began his career as a student of contemporary German history, a subject to which he has returned in his new book.

Timothy Garton Ash brings to the study of the recent German past unusual linguistic, analytical, and descriptive talents that have been sharpened by close acquaintance with the lands to its east. He combines the very best of the qualities that historians and journalists typically admire, or envy, in each other’s work: he has used a remarkable variety of secondary and primary sources to reconstruct events, including the recently opened Central Party Archives of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), the ruling party of East Germany. (His book has 183 pages of notes.) But he has also talked with most of the leaders involved in recent German history, East and West alike, from Erich Honecker to Edvard Shevardnadze, from Willy Brandt to Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, from Henry Kissinger to virtually the entire former East German Politburo. The result is a subtle account of German policy toward the East over the past quarter century, elegantly written and suffused with (mostly) gentle irony and original insights. It also has something urgent and important to say about the present and the future of both Germany and Europe and repays close reading.

The story Garton Ash tells is that of Ostpolitik, the opening to the East in West German foreign policy which began in 1969 when Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) won a majority at the elections of that year and took office in a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, pushing the conservative Christian Democrats into opposition for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic (FRG). Until then West German foreign policy had been dominated by Konrad Adenauer, who took the view that the new republic should be firmly tied to the West through the West European Union, the European Economic Community, and NATO, and that it must be unwavering in its refusal to recognize the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to its east. Claiming that the FRG alone represented Germany, Adenauer also refused to accord recognition to states that had diplomatic relations with the GDR, with the understandable exception of the Soviet Union, with which formal relations were established in 1955. Strictly speaking, the first breach of this principle came in 1967, when Brandt’s Christian Democratic predecessor, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, established diplomatic relations with Romania, followed a year later by Yugoslavia. But Willy Brandt is deservedly credited with having made the breakthrough that led to new relations with the regimes to the East.

Brandt’s Ostpolitik consisted of two parallel undertakings. Between 1970 and 1974, Brandt and his foreign minister, Walter Scheel of the Free Democratic Party, negotiated and signed a series of commercial and diplomatic accords: treaties with Moscow and Warsaw (1970); a quadripartite agreement over Berlin in 1971, followed by a Basic Treaty with the GDR, ratified by the Bundestag in 1973; a treaty with Prague (1973); and the exchange of “Permanent Representatives” with the GDR in May 1974. For his contribution to these achievements Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. But despite the dramatic impact of these diplomatic accords it was the second strand of the new Ostpolitik which mattered more, and to which Garton Ash devotes his attention.

Willy Brandt and his éminence grise Egon Bahr, head of the West German Foreign Office planning staff, devised their approach to the East in order to achieve what Bahr called “Wandel durch Annäherung“—change through rapprochement. The aim was to “overcome Yalta” through a multitude of contacts—diplomatic, institutional, human—and in so doing to “normalize” relations between the two Germanies and within Europe, relations frozen ever since the end of the war and further chilled by the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. To this end Brandt made his famous visit in 1970 to the East German city of Erfurt, where he was greeted by rapturous crowds; in the same year he undertook his even better-known pilgrimage to Warsaw, where he knelt in homage to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto. He conceded de facto the Russians’ claim of both the Oder-Neisse line separating Poland from Germany and the frontier on the Elbe dividing Germany itself. After the signing of the Moscow Treaty he spoke of a new relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbors “on the basis of the political situation as it exists in Europe.” Alluding to the price Germany must pay for Hitler, he insisted that “with this Treaty, nothing is lost that had not long since been gambled away.”

After Brandt was forced out of office by a political scandal in 1974 his successors in the Chancellery—the Socialist Helmut Schmidt and the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl—never deviated from this general line, pursuing it not only in public diplomacy but also, and more significantly for Garton Ash’s story, in multiple links with the GDR, official and unofficial, all designed to facilitate human contacts, smooth relations, and alleviate fears of West German “revanchism.”

Ostpolitik was addressed to a variety of audiences, not all of them compatible in their interests and expectations. In West Germany itself, Adenauer’s motives in anchoring himself to the West had not been entirely unmixed. In its early years, some 20 percent of the Federal Republic’s population consisted of Germans expelled from the east—from East Prussia, Silesia, Bohemia, and other regions. Many of these people had settled in Bavaria and were a crucial electoral constituency for the Christian Democrats’ sister-party there, the Christian Social Union. They harbored bitter memories of their lost homelands and opposed any acknowledgment of the permanence of the new frontiers. They did not share Adenauer’s instinctive preference for the West,1 but on the contrary represented in its extreme form a widespread West German feeling that the Germans “to the east,” whether in the GDR or in the remaining German-speaking communities of Eastern Europe, must not be abandoned to their fate. Accordingly, it was an article of faith for West German politicians and constitutional lawyers that no final settlement of frontiers and peoples had been reached, that the Yalta divisions had no de jure status, and that the legal fiction of the continuity of the December 1937 frontiers of Germany must be maintained.

This legal fiction and the emotional issues surrounding it account for the Christian Democrats’ initial reluctance to sign the Basic Treaty which established relations with East Germany in 1973 without formally recognizing it—and their own continuing emphasis upon keeping open the issue of the eastern frontiers. By the 1980s many of the expelled people were old and their children thoroughly integrated into West German society, but even so many of the West German political leaders were reluctant to take the risk of openly acknowledging the finality of the postwar divisions, even after the Helsinki Accords of 1975. That is one reason why the FRG never formally recognized East Germany as an independent state, and it explains Helmut Kohl’s embarrassing procrastination over accepting the eastern frontiers as late as 1989. Garton Ash acknowledges that Adenauer’s strategy of keeping open the eastern issue in order to secure his domestic base while pursuing a policy of international alliances with the NATO countries probably paid off. If he had not followed this dual policy his successors’ “opening to the East” might not have been possible. But as Garton Ash notes, “some” would say that Adenauer paid the price of keeping dangerous illusions alive and poisoning the international sphere.

If Willy Brandt was willing to risk a breach with the conventions of West German politics it was in large measure because of his experience as mayor of West Berlin. Indeed it is probably no coincidence that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of Ostpolitik in all its forms were former mayors of Berlin—Brandt, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Hans-Jochen Vogel, Brandt’s successor at the head of the SPD. To those who lived in Berlin it had been clear since August 1961 that the West (read the US) would take no untoward risks in an effort to overcome the division of the city, and that any improvement in the condition of Germans on both sides of the Wall could only be brought about by Germans themselves dealing directly with the authorities in the East. This Berlin-centered perspective explains, in Garton Ash’s view, why détente (Entspannung) for Germans meant something rather different from what it did for the rest of the West. For Brandt, for his Berlin constituents, and eventually for many West Germans, it meant breaking down the barriers—psychological, political, physical—which divided families and communities, and also separated Germans from their past. In short, it meant working to build connections, while avoiding the appearance of seeking to reunify the divided nation.

The need to avoid such appearances derived not only from a desire to appease the fears of the Soviet Union, but also from the wish to make Ostpolitik acceptable to another foreign audience, that of the West. Brandt, like Adenauer, was committed to “Europapolitik,” the need to maintain and further secure West Germany’s place in the European Community. Moreover he, like his successors, could hardly have been unaware that for many Western statesmen and politicians, whatever they said in public, the division of Europe was not a bad thing. Indeed, the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, was disarmingly honest on the subject. As he watched the old order crumble in December 1989, he commented ruefully that this was a system “under which we’ve lived quite happily for forty years.” The division of Europe, Germany, and Berlin had not served Western Europe ill—the French in particular were not well pleased to see it overcome. The US, on the other hand, was more consistently committed to maintaining a critical position toward the Soviet bloc, paying lip service and something more to the need to address human rights violations there. To keep good relations with Washington, German politicians could not be seen to press too enthusiastically for improved interstate relations with the East at any price.

The proponents of Ostpolitik had thus to walk a fine line. West Germany needed the continued support of its allies, and could not risk being thought to be slipping out of the Western alliance and into a more neutral, middle position between East and West. At the same time Brandt and his heirs were ever more deeply committed to détente and loath to risk a breach in their dealings with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Hence German anxiety following the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the Bonn government’s near-panic at the time of the international crisis precipitated by the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981. To compensate for his manifest desire to maintain the momentum of the eastern policy, Helmut Schmidt, Social Democratic chancellor between 1974 and 1983, was willing to accept the December 1979 NATO proposal to follow a “two track” policy, under which new intermediate range missiles in West Germany were to be deployed if disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union broke down. This reassured Americans about Schmidt’s continued loyalty to his Western alliances, but it provoked deep misgivings in Schmidt’s own party and cost him vital domestic political support. Worst of all, it threatened his efforts to continue improving the Federal Republic’s relations with Moscow and the GDR.2

  1. 1

    Konrad Adenauer had been mayor of Cologne. According to Arnulf Baring, Adenauer thought Europe “from Cologne out”—in contrast to Bismarck who, in Friedrich Naumann’s words, “thought Europe from Prussia out.” Arnulf Baring, Im Anfang war Adenauer. Die Entstehung der Kanzlerdemokratie (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1971), quoted by Garton Ash on page 67.

  2. 2

    On December 13 1981, the day martial law was declared in Poland, Schmidt was in the GDR holding “summit talks” with Erich Honecker and was somewhat put out by the “destabilizing” impact of events to the east. On the missile debate in German domestic politics see Jeffrey Herf, War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles (Free Press, 1991).

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