Willy Brandt
Willy Brandt; drawing by David Levine

The Bundestag in Bonn does not look like a theater for tragedy. Outside, stout green policemen stand and yawn, lulled by the pulse of diesel barges passing up and down the Rhine. Inside there are highly polished corridors and a promising scent of thick pea soup. But inside this pale building, which used to be a teachers’ training college, a European tragedy is being rehearsed.

Since he took office in 1969, Willy Brandt’s main accomplishment has been his “Ostpolitik“—his steady efforts to work out agreements with East Germany, Eastern Europe, and the USSR, leading to a détente—and here, in the Bundestag, this policy may be murdered. It would be a long, messy death, lasting through May into June, as his tiny parliamentary majority for the ratification of the Moscow and Warsaw treaties on which the Ostpolitik is based crumbles away.

Some men are leaving his ranks on principle, but more—if a fatal flight from the government coalition of Brandt’s SPD and the smaller Free Democratic Party does develop—will be scuttling across to the Christian Democrat benches for the sake of secretly promised places in office. There is still a fair chance that this will not happen, that the Christian Democrats will become frightened by the wreckage and confusion they will inherit if the treaties are rejected. But at the time of writing, with senior civil servants taking out Christian Democrat party cards in their lunch hour and Rainer Barzel, the Christian Democrat leader, rubbing his hands at the prospect of becoming Brandt’s successor, there are good grounds for pessimism.

The Ostpolitik is like an enormous chandelier. Over Europe there dangles a glittering cluster of interconnected agreements and treaties and understandings, all perilously suspended from a single link at the top. This link is ratification of the Moscow and Warsaw treaties of 1970 by which West Germany recognized the status quo in Central Europe and renounced the use of force against her eastern neighbors.

If this link snaps, the chandelier of provisional détente, which depends upon the positive Bundestag vote in order to come into force, will collapse on the statesmen below. Brandt himself will fall and have to face new elections in Germany. The four-power agreement on new relations between East and West Berlin will collapse and with it bring down the prospective treaty between East and West Germany and the inter-German and East-West agreements on transit and contacts. The admission of both German states to the United Nations shatters. The proposed treaties with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Warsaw Pact states—already at the discussion stage—are wrecked. The talks between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries on mutual balanced force reduction, the Soviet promise not to operate the “Hostile State” clause of the UN charter against West Germany, and even the prospects of a European Security Conference in the near future might disintegrate too. Some isolated pieces might survive intact, and be stored away against a later reconstruction. Most would not.

It is small comfort to remember that the wreckage will fall also on the heads of those in the West who have tried to discredit Brandt. Barzel and Franz-Josef Strauss, the dominant CDU leaders, will draw no benefit from it. Nor will General Clay and John McCloy, who (with the late Thomas E. Dewey and Dean Acheson) told President Nixon that Brandt was shifting West Germany’s center of gravity to the east in a “mad race to Moscow.” Nor is it much more cheering to foresee the panic of those who have insisted that the whole grotesque structure of détente hangs on the single link of ratification: Nixon, who was largely responsible for making ratification dependent on the prior working out of the Berlin settlement, and the Russians, who made the link more fragile still by denying the Berlin accord force until the Bundestag had ratified the Warsaw and Moscow treaties.

The fact is that everyone, East and West, will lose by the defeat of the Ostpolitik. The last time that a national parliament stopped a European process in its tracks was in 1954, when the French assembly refused to ratify the European Defense Community. Then the Russians and their allies could rejoice. This time, nobody can.

For the Federal Republic itself, the Ostpolitik means in the first place recognition of its own statehood. According to Ostpolitik West Germany accepts its own “Staatlichkeit” and no longer behaves as the free zone of the Reich of those lost 1937 frontiers. This acceptance means that Bonn can contemplate talking on equal terms with the other German state. It also means that Bonn can follow the traditional interest of all states: to achieve as much independence as possible. Here the “nationalist” (not necessarily pejorative) meaning of the Ostpolitik appears.

In the West, the Federal Republic’s policies have been carefully strapped down by her Western allies: NATO and the EEC offer little room for movement. To the East, however, once the taboos of the Adenauer era had been demolished, the way lay open for West Germany to develop her own foreign policy. It was this side of the Ostpolitik that the West did not at once appreciate. From Gerhard Schröder’s first efforts in the mid-Sixties to the more ambitious schemes of the Franco-Germans Grand Coalition, the West Germans appeared merely to be making their own belated but indispensable contribution to the armistice in Europe which the United States and Britain, especially, hoped to create. Only when Brandt came to power and began in earnest to open discussion with Poland and the Soviet Union did the thought occur in Washington and London that West Germany “was getting away from us.”


Lawrence Whetten in his book on Ostpolitik has seen something else which, so far, has also attracted little notice. He records that the Ostpolitik was a two-way process, that a West German policy toward the East encountered and interacted with an East European policy toward West Germany. It can even be argued—though Mr. Whetten doesn’t—that it was the “Westpolitik” of countries like Poland, in particular, that evoked and steered the new ideas in Bonn. He is mainly interested in the development of attitudes toward West Germany within the Warsaw Pact nations, and the way in which general interest among Pact members in making some more flexible approach to Bonn produced a situation in which Rumania and East Germany were able to gain increased independence.

When Rumania broke away and exchanged diplomatic relations with West Germany in early 1967, East Germany temporarily established her “right” to slow down and even control the pace of the Eastern response to the Ostpolitik. The Soviet Union, disliking both extremes, felt unable to totally suppress one in favor of the other and was reduced to uneasy tolerance.

There are many sound and interesting chapters here on various episodes in the story. Mr. Whetten uses the Polish press as a source, which is illuminating, and he is good on Czechoslovakia and on the slow gestation of the idea of a European Security Conference at which East and West would attempt to guarantee their political and economic coexistence in the future. But one can compile a long list of petty criticisms of Whetten’s book: one no longer says “Breslau” for Wroclaw; one can’t discuss the Munich Treaty of 1938 at length without mentioning that both France and Italy found ways of repudiating it since the moment of signature; the Multilateral Force was dead and buried by 1966, not still a factor in Soviet calculations; the four-power agreements are about West Berlin in fact and all of Berlin only in fiction; metaphors like “injecting more latitude” are depressing.

Mr. Whetten may overestimate Rumania’s importance in this period because he underestimates the shrewdness of the East Europeans. He admires the Rumanian example in “probing the limits of Soviet tolerance on the German question.” This seems to suggest that other Eastern European countries longed to fall uncritically into the arms of Kiesinger and Brandt. Few, in fact, did. The Rumanian march to Bonn in 1967 led to a dead end—fortunately so, because it taught Brandt that an Ostpolitik that sought to isolate East Germany would not work. This lesson was driven home by the obstinacy and cunning of men like Gomulka, who saw that the application of a little more delay and unpleasantness would eventually force West Germany to surrender all the claims that were making a European settlement impossible.

In his last pages, Mr. Whetten offers the dismal suggestion of a new European Nuclear Force, a merging of the British and French nuclear deterrents with the West Germans paying a large part of the costs. This sort of idea is all too popular with Anglo-Saxon politologues and politicians, and not only with Anglo-Saxons. M. Pompidou, as well as Mr. Heath, probably thinks happily about it in bed at night. It is a dismal suggestion because it underestimates the national significance of the Ostpolitik to West Germans. The time when Bonn might have paid good money to fatten an Anglo-French bomb, and might have swallowed the fairy tale that this amounts to full participation in a “European” deterrent, is long past. Any version of such an idea would outrage West Germans. Indeed, their resentment of a Paris-London hegemony in Western Europe might well give Ostpolitik a new aspect of reinsurance against Western pressure, a step toward the old eastward orientation of traditional German nationalism.

Professor Grosser is one of the few foreign experts who find the weakness of the West German sense of national tradition distressing. It offends him, perhaps, as a Frenchman. At the end of Germany in Our Time, he remarks uneasily that West Germany


…is normal to excess. In other countries, such as France and Britain, it is impossible to explain everything in terms of factors common to all nations of the same type, whereas in the Federal Republic the transnational elements are so strong that one is tempted to ignore the existence of specifically German features…no other country is so completely divorced from its own history before 1945.

It is a pity, but an occupational risk for anyone who writes books about contemporary German affairs, that since this book was published in France in 1970 Grosser was unable to include events as important and fascinating as the signing of the Moscow and Warsaw treaties or the retirement of Ulbricht. He might have tempered his laments about Bonn’s passivity and lack of historical sense, and his observation that West Germany’s “state of tutelage has turned out to be a permanent one.” But the book remains a splendid successor to the series of works on the history and society of the Federal Republic which has made Professor Grosser the emperor of West German studies in Europe.

Germany in Our Time is not a mere updating of Grosser’s last book, but in effect a new work, and his style, always elegant, has lost none of its Gibbonian moralizing. The Nuremburg trials were “long, meticulous, yet confused proceedings.” The horde of French camp followers in the French zone of occupation gets it memorably in the neck:

Prone to make confiscations on their own account, accessible to the temptations of the black market, arrogant and exacting toward the Germans and meanly seeking to enjoy the fruits of a victory toward which most of them had contributed nothing whatever, these lazy and parasitic hangers-on were the scandal of the French occupation regime.

The book is long, meticulous, yet lucid. Grosser follows his usual method of chopping up his subject into topics rather than grinding chronologically through nearly thirty years. Not everything, in such a mass of fact and judgment, will pass without criticism: he underestimates the profound political legacy of the “student movement” of 1967-68, for example, and gives too little space to the problems of West Berlin. But the current edition of Grosser’s book, like its predecessors, remains the best single handbook to West Germany.

Few of the essays in Britain and West Germany share Grosser’s distress about the Federal Republic’s deficiencies in nationhood. The theme of the book is the possibility of “transnational” politics developing between the two countries, of a “new diplomacy” in which old-fashioned state-to-state foreign relations will be supplanted by the permissive intercourse of civil servants from every ministry. Several contributors feel that British insularity, reinforced by the British tradition of great-power aloofness, is the main obstacle.

No doubt, but West Germany is a less docile partner in “European integration” than she used to be. An excellent and faintly ominous chapter by the late Waldemar Besson speaks of how the Adenauer tradition of western orientation must now be “assimilated…into the context of German history in Central Europe.” He is clear about the national “will to independence” which the Ostpolitik represents, and betrays a yearning for the old “Mitteleuropa” vision (which amounted, though he does not spell it out, to German economic and political domination of Central Europe and the Balkans).

Arnulf Baring’s essay defines the role of a West German chancellor as that of a foreign policy leader, whose task it is to manipulate interest groups and political parties and keep them out of the process of decision on foreign affairs—hardly a promising basis for “transnational” politics. An acid chapter by Wolf-Dieter Narr analyzes this manipulative process in the Adenauer period: the Christian Democrats succeeded “with Church support” in combining their pro-NATO and EEC policies and the “social market economy” with anti-communism, until the two West German parties, “both pro-West and anti-Communist, could only deal with each other through charges of treason.”

Baring and Narr are discharging their spleen on the recent past: Bonn under the Social Democrats has been a more realistic place. But the chapters on British foreign policy and its authors remain all too relevant. Philip Abrams, Anthony Sampson, and Joseph Frankel reflect pessimistically on the elitism of the British Foreign Office and the profound boredom, verging now on disgust, with which the British public greets issues of foreign policy. Abrams produced poll statistics to show how a figure of between 30 and 40 percent of the British electorate who regarded foreign policy issues as important in the 1955 elections sank to 20 percent in 1959, 13 percent in 1964, and an appalling 2 percent in 1968. This is not unrelated to the “secluded way in which British foreign policy can be formed,” as Sampson puts it, remarking that the Common Market was not even mentioned in the election campaign that preceded the first British application to join.

British entry into the market is not diminishing this provincialism. The conservative reaction to the perils of the Ostpolitik has been one of frivolous indifference; articles in the right-wing Economist and the pert speech to astonished West Germans by a junior foreign office minister in late March argued that the treaties did not matter anyway and that peace in Europe was safe enough to require no special attention. Public opinion regards the Ostpolitik as a remote and exclusively German affair, whose failure is little or no concern of Britain’s. A certain double-speak about European affairs persists, originating in that “secluded” if not deceitful way in which entry into the community was proposed to the British ten years ago: “Europe” means only Western Europe; “political integration and common foreign policy for the community” means dragging France back into NATO.

Sampson, while politely congratulating the Foreign Office on recent efforts to recruit from beyond the upper-middle class and to raise the status of commercial diplomacy, concludes that it is still too corporate and too remote from the changing needs of domestic policy. He is sad that the British Council, which purveys British culture abroad, has gone respectable and no longer hires that necessary “certain number of drunkards, misfits, deviants, and lechers” which once enlivened its poky outstations.

The drunkards and lechers belonged to a departed greatness, when Britain—without much justification—still considered herself a Victor Power entitled to mediate European settlements between the uncouth monsters of Washington and Moscow. Roger Morgan’s closing essay shows how far disillusion has spread since then. Britain, in his view, must reduce her role to one of accommodating superpower relationships, relieved by the pallid excitements of independent moves to help the UN agencies or reorganize development aid; her “new diplomacy” would be to coordinate her social, economic, and educational policies with those of her neighbors. Harmless and constructive pastimes for a retired colonel.

The colonels of Eastern Europe may be younger, but their frustrations are comparable. Miss Remington has written the first book about the Eastern European Warsaw Pact that is clever, original, and readable, and one of her themes is the tension between military and political uses of the alliance. Soldiers, for a start, have been allowed to command but never to decide its purpose. It is worth recalling that there is no communist country that has not at some time been described by Western journalists as “run by the Marshals” and no country where that has ever turned out to be true. The Russians say it about China, and are as wrong as anyone else.

Founded in 1955, the Pact began as a mere neologism for the Soviet Union’s existing control of the bloc’s armies. Perhaps it was intended as a dummy to be burned at the Geneva conference that summer in return for the dismantling of NATO. The Russian leaders had two views of its function. For Khrushchev, the Pact was meant “to gain another asset in the Cold War,” as Miss Remington puts it, to be a counter in the game to halt Western rearmament. Molotov and some of the senior officers, in contrast, considered it an organization for defense, and also as “a vehicle for socialist consolidation,” i.e., to maintain Russian control. Molotov lost his argument at the time. But his view prevailed later: one of Miss Remington’s central insights is that “the Warsaw Pact, born of Moscow’s attempt to block the rearming of West Germany…acquired substance largely in relation to Soviet policy towards Eastern Europe and the socialist commonwealth.”

In the years leading up to 1968, the Pact became less and less soldierly and more of an Imperial Diet in which the members of the alliance haggled out their differences and settled their conflicts. Rumania’s disputes with the Soviet Union, which once would have been settled bilaterally by treating the man from Bucharest to champagne and threats in Stalin’s dacha, were now negotiated in the presence of the other Pact leaders in decaying palaces all over Eastern Europe.

This is not to say that the Russians did not get most of what they wanted. But they had to bargain for it. The more polycentrism infected the alliance, the more frequent and “parliamentary” the meetings of the Pact became. Only over Czechoslovakia did the Pact fail to resolve conflict, when it reverted to Molotov’s formula of an instrument using armed force to defend and consolidate the “socialist commonwealth.” Miss Remington, in some telling pages at the end, compares the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to that of the Dominican Republic in 1967, both crimes of the great powers as irrational as they were illegal, into which the Warsaw Pact and the OAS members were dragged as accomplices for the sake of “token multilateralization.”

It was largely Brandt’s Ostpolitik, undeterred by the Prague catastrophe, which helped the “Diet” aspect of the Pact to re-emerge. Today the Pact functions again as the forum in which the Soviet Union bargains with and sometimes concedes to its allies over the tactics of approaching the German question and over the wider prospect of a European Security Conference. Collapse of the Ostpolitik would break the pattern in which East European nations have found their zigzag way to greater independence.

There is no such leeway in times of tension, and Jack Schick’s book about the last Berlin crisis is a well-timed reminder of how abominable and frightening those times were. Between 1958, when Khrushchev delivered his ultimatum for Western evacuation of Berlin, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the human race traversed the most dangerous moment in its history. Both sides were determined over Berlin; each thought the other had complex, hidden motives which made its Berlin position negotiable. Schick’s account of these years is cool and a trifle superior; it is an extremely competent study in mutual misperception. To read it, however, is to congratulate oneself on being alive.

Mr. Schick’s judgment on how the Berlin crisis was handled is logical but unappealing. He takes the “Caesarian,” scientific view of handling a threat, the modern version of “si vis pacem, para bellum.” He believes that those who showed at the outset of the confrontation that they were prepared to talk as well as to fight merely encouraged their enemy to suppose that they would talk about almost any concession rather than fight. To “start down the negotiations track,” as Schick puts it, was wrong. To set off down the “mobilization track,” to set in motion the time-clock of successive processes leading up to the final explosion, would have been right because at some stage in that process the adversary will recognize that the will to fight is genuine and—being, of course, a rational actor—he will back down. Or will he?

It was not John Foster Dulles who took us to the brink over Berlin. Schick records with disapproval how Dulles set off at once down that unsatisfactory negotiations track. He believed in convergence, in the inevitable transformation of the inwardly rotten, immoral, collective Soviet system into a giant suburb of individualists and consumers. He and other primitive Republican elders believed that the options were either peace or war. They had no idea of the “science” of gradating terror, of letting the fuse of the bomb burn down just so far. It was others, Democrats like Truman and Acheson in the first generation and then the confident technicians of fear like McNamara and Rostow, who practiced the “undiluted high-risk approach.” It was Acheson who, when Kennedy became President and faced Khrushchev over Berlin, urged him to make only military preparations, to avoid any signal of negotiation, to assemble behind Helmstedt the armored column which would “punch” its way across East Germany toward the city.

“Basically the administration had decided, if necessary, to go to war….” But Kennedy, against Acheson’s advice, had already revealed that he also wanted to talk. So when Khrushchev called off his ultimatum in October, 1961, he did so, according to Schick, in the mistaken view that his own “crisis posturing” had forced the Americans to negotiate. Each side thought that the other was using a bluff of war over Berlin to achieve broad changes in the European balance. Neither saw—here Schick seems quite correct—that both had very limited objectives for which they were genuinely prepared to fight. America wanted security for the access routes to Berlin. The Russians wanted security for East Germany, which Khrushchev eventually achieved by letting Ulbricht wall off West Berlin completely. The thing was solved in the end neither by negotiation nor by war.

In all this, the Germans in west and east had little part. Adenauer was able to castrate and even assassinate several American and British plans for a compromise on Berlin, but Schick—characteristically—overestimates Adenauer’s rationality and that of his nation when he says that West Germany “would have understood a mobilization track.” Adenauer feared parleys but was none the less terrified of war, and if the fuse had burned down a little further in 1958-61, the Germans might well have panicked. It is after all Germany that has the most to lose from “undiluted high-risk” strategy. None knew this better than the 190 inhabitants of Steinstücken.

Mr. Catudal has written a short but touching book about Steinstücken, an “exclave” or island of West Berlin territory floating some twelve hundred meters offshore in the midst of the German Democratic Republic. He takes a slightly heroic tone about beleaguered defenders of a fortlet of freedom. This contrasts nicely with the actual behavior of the inhabitants who, tossed in the politics of the cold war, behaved with indomitable opportunism. When they were issued East German money, they bought Western marks on the black market. When a wounded refugee scrambled into the exclave screaming for help, they locked their doors and refused to help him (a West Berlin move to try them for treachery collapsed because no judges could get to the island). Culture was supplied by a student, known as “the filthy artist,” who dealt in unlawful car registrations.

Two great events mark the cold war annals of Steinstücken. One was the Annexation of 1951, when for a few awful days the exclave was incorporated into the East German borough of Potsdam. The other was the Refrigerator Blockade of 1956, when communist refusal to allow a mechanic in to mend the icebox that kept their beer cold produced a minor European crisis. In 1961, Lucius Clay stepped out of a helicopter in which he had made the perilous journey from West Berlin, shook everybody’s hand, and presented them with a television set with an inscribed brass plate.

The 1971 four-power agreement on West Berlin, and the ancillary agreement between the West Berlin senate and East Germany, finally settled the status of the exclave and guaranteed its inhabitants free passage to and from the “mainland” of the city. And yet, perhaps, not finally. For if the treaties fall in Bonn this June, so may that tiny piece of the chandelier which is the right of the people of Steinstücken to lead the petty, craven, human lives that they want.

This Issue

April 20, 1972