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…

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