The Lure of Western Europe

Berlin Wall, November 1989
Magnum Photos
The Berlin Wall, November 1989; photograph by Raymond Depardon

By the spring of 1952, the “iron curtain” that Winston Churchill had described as descending on the eastern half of Europe—“from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”—already felt impenetrable, even permanent. In that year, Czech courts condemned to death Rudolf Slansky, the secretary-general of the Czech Communist Party, for alleged participation in a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist” conspiracy. The East German Communist Party adopted a new economic policy, the “Planned Construction of Socialism.” Harry Truman warned the US Congress of the “terrible threat of aggression” from the Soviet Union; across the Atlantic, the brand-new NATO alliance was preparing to accept a rearmed West Germany.

But 1952 was also the moment when the concept of “the West”—the liberal democratic bloc, unified by economic ties and a military alliance, staunchly opposed to the Communist regimes—came the closest to collapse. In March 1952 Stalin made a final attempt to set West Germany on an alternative course. Unexpectedly, he made a peace offer to America, France, and Britain, the powers then occupying Germany along with the Soviet Union. He proposed to unify Germany—and to keep it neutral. He declared that this unified, nonallied Germany could be open to the “free activity of democratic parties.” A few days later, he suggested that a neutral Germany might also have free elections, and even its own army.

Kurt Schumacher, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, was tempted: he wanted to accept Stalin’s offer, as did many other Germans. But the man who was then West Germany’s chancellor, the Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer, refused. He had good reasons: by 1952, it was already clear that “elections,” for Stalin, were a charade, a public relations exercise that could be manipulated or ignored. The West German economy was also several years into a boom of historic proportions, while the East German economy was falling behind. The deep contrast between the two halves of Germany—one prosperous and free, the other a poor dictatorship—was already visible. Thousands of Germans were moving across the border from east to west in larger numbers every year, an exodus that would end only in 1961, with the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The memory of Hitler, and of the recent war, haunted Adenauer and his compatriots too. The chancellor was afraid that West Germany’s new democracy might prove fragile, especially if it were put under direct pressure from the USSR. He thought that its survival required it to be bound tightly to the other nations of the West. And so Adenauer rejected the Soviet offer of unification. This decision, writes Ian Kershaw, was “highly controversial since it had a direct corollary: accepting that for the indefinite future there could be no expectation of East and West Germany uniting.” Adenauer not only accepted the division of his country, he also…

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