Did Ostpolitik Work?

In one of his last public speeches, at the Christian Democratic Union party congress in 1966, former West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer delivered a defense of the "policy of strength" that had been the hallmark of his long tenure in office. Arguing by implication against détente and "change by rapprochement," then being advocated by the Social Democratic Party, which would soon be known as the new "Ostpolitik," Adenauer declared that the West must remain armed and vigilant. "We remain convinced," he said, "that Germany must be reunited in peace...I will not give up hope that one day the Soviet Union will realize that the division of Germany and, with it, the division of Europe, is not to its advantage. We must watch to see when the moment comes, and when a time nears, or seems to near, that presents a favorable opportunity, then we must not leave it unused."

That moment came in 1989, when it dawned on Mikhail Gorbachev that his country was no longer capable of maintaining the European status quo. What brought him to that realization? Timothy Garton Ash tells us in his new book that when that question was put to the veteran Soviet diplomat, Valentin Falin, he answered, "Without Ostpolitik, no Gorbachev." But in an interview with the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, Falin also said that the West had arms-raced the Soviets to death. Similarly, former West German chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl and former Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher told the author that they believed that the crucial factor in forcing a revision of Soviet policy was the deployment of the Pershing and cruise missiles, and Kohl added that Gorbachev had told him that he agreed. But former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, in his memoirs in 1989, also claimed Gorbachev's endorsement of his thesis that Ostpolitik was the crucial influence on his new thinking.

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