West Berlin citizens standing on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandeburg Gate, 1989.
(Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

On June 29, after almost five months of discussion and preparation, the East German Communist régime denounced an agreement for public debates to be held in both German states between its spokesmen and the leaders of West Germany's opposition Social Democratic Party. The plan for a high-level confrontation, the first of its kind since Germany was partitioned at the end of the Second World War, was the result of an East German initiative. It had aroused intense interest and some exaggerated hopes among Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The East German Socialist Unity, or Communist, Party (S.E.D.) had sought a "dialogue" with the West German Social Democrats (S.P.D.) with the avowed aim of causing dissension among the major parties in Bonn and splitting the S.P.D. leadership from the party rank and file. As it turned out, however, Mayor Willy Brandt of West Berlin, the S.P.D. chairman, won the support of his own party as well as Chancellor Ludwig Erhard's grudging endorsement of the proposed talks. Sixteen days before the first debate was to be held at Karl-Marx-Stadt (formerly Chemnitz) in East Germany, the Communists canceled the arrangements on the flimsy pretext that a newly adopted West German law guaranteeing S.E.D. speakers immunity from arrest in the Federal Republic infringed East German sovereignty.

There is no doubt that the S.E.D. lost prestige by backing out of the debates. But the episode still enabled the East German Communists to achieve their long-standing goal of persuading West German leaders to agree to direct talks on all-German problems. By sanctioning the plan the Bonn government tacitly abandoned its contention that it is pointless, and indeed immoral, to engage in political discussions with the Soviet- sponsored East German government. Brandt called it "the beginning of a great dialogue" when he spoke over West German television on July 14, the day the first debate was to have been held in Karl-Marx-Stadt. "There may be setbacks," he told East German viewers, "but one evening we will be with you over there, speaking to you."

West German political leaders, including Chancellor Erhard and his Foreign Minister, Dr. Gerhard Schröder, now acknowledge the need to deal directly with Walter Ulbricht's régime in order to maintain contacts with the 17 million Germans under Communist rule, although they insist that formal recognition is out of the question. Vice Chancellor Erich Mende, the Free Democratic Party leader, has gone so far as to speak of "negotiations" with the S.E.D. All parties in Bonn have come to recognize that intensified contacts are necessary to maintain a feeling of national solidarity among Germans on both sides of the Wall. Mende has recalled that as late as 1919 the Austrian parliament unanimously adopted a resolution calling for union with Germany, whereas today Austria wants no part of union. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Mende fears that the prolonged partition of Germany is fostering a similar estrangement between East and West Germans. He therefore advocates more strenuous efforts to promote trade and cultural exchanges. West German anxieties are also reflected in Bonn's insistent demands for new "initiatives" by its Western allies, primarily the United States, to win Moscow's agreement for German reunification.

The new element in the situation, which accounts for much of the present malaise in the Federal Republic, is the emergence of East Germany as a power in its own right rather than a mere pawn of Soviet policy. The self- styled German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or D.D.R.) now ranks as the second most important trading nation in the Communist world and the fifth or sixth largest industrial producer in Europe. Western economists are inclined to accept the D.D.R.'s claim that it has surpassed the highest gross industrial output of the prewar Reich, which had approximately four times East Germany's area and population. The D.D.R. is now Russia's most important trading partner, accounting for one- quarter of Soviet imports in such vital sectors as chemicals, machine tools and precision instruments. East German office machines, optical goods, railway cars and complete plants are exported today to more than one hundred countries, including many in Western Europe.

This economic advance is being accelerated by a sweeping overhaul of prices, credit policy and industrial management that goes considerably beyond the Liberman reforms adopted by the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. "The New System of Economic Planning and Directing the Economy," announced by Ulbricht in July 1963, has decentralized economic authority and created a system of monetary incentives aimed at getting factory and branch managers to produce for the market at home and abroad instead of simply fulfilling planned targets of physical output. Application of the new measures has been erratic in some cases but substantial progress is already evident. East German textile machinery is now licensed for production in the United States. Last year the D.D.R. attained an industrial growth rate of 7 percent, comparable to West Germany's. The quality of many products is now up to Western standards. Economic gains have already been translated into a marked improvement in East German living standards (now the highest in the Communist world) and more assertive behavior toward the Soviet Union and its allies as well as toward West Germany and West Berlin. The East German Communists clearly believe their "rump state" has come to stay.

II

It is ironic that the prerequisite for the régime's successes remains its worst humiliation. The wall built through Berlin on August 13, 1961, regarded as an admission of failure by the West, created the essential conditions for economic and political stabilization in the former Soviet occupation zone. It halted an epic human hemorrhage that threatened East Germany's biological survival-an outpouring of refugees in numbers as high as 2,000 a day. Before the Wall, East German officials reckoned that at least one out of every five professional school graduates would defect to the West before taking his first job. Hospitals, schools, theatres and research institutes were denuded of staff. Factory managers arrived on Monday mornings to find dozens of workbenches deserted. Entire apartment houses would be emptied of their occupants in a single weekend.

The Wall has ended all that. The era when East Germans could vote with their feet is gone. The Wall has not only stabilized the labor force; it has created a climate of acquiescence that did not exist before. For the first time Germans living between the Elbe and the Oder realize that there is no easy way out. They must face death on the Wall or come to terms with their unloved régime. Although as many as a dozen still try to crash the barriers every week, the overwhelming majority have now set to work with typical Teutonic zeal to improve their conditions and, at the same time, to remedy the D.D.R.'s still considerable economic shortcomings. The growing accommodation between population and régime is responsible at least in part for the record 6.5 percent increase in productivity reported by the government last year.

The counterpart of the East Germans' acceptance of Communist rule is their increasing alienation from West Germans. The same words no longer mean the same thing on both sides of the Wall. Disparities in living standards, although narrowed in recent years, have bred resentments among East Germans. The often patronizing attitude of West Germans toward the "poor brothers and sisters in the Zone" irks many East Germans. Official West German broadcasts to the D.D.R. now make a point of paying tribute to the "achievements" of ordinary East Germans, thereby further stimulating pride in what has been accomplished despite Soviet exactions and the S.E.D.'s own blunders. The contrast between the hectic materialism and individualism of West Germany and the officially propagated collectivism of the D.D.R. does not always make East Germans eager to leave home and take their chances in the West, even when they have the opportunity. It is significant that of the 2,000,000 pension-age East Germans whom the régime has allowed to travel west since November 1964, barely two in a thousand have chosen to remain abroad. Younger, more mobile East Germans would of course leave in large numbers if the Wall were opened, but even they increasingly identify their fortunes with the D.D.R.

Although there are at least a dozen former Nazis on the S.E.D. Central Committee and more than fifty in the D.D.R. Volkskammer (People's Chamber), Communist propaganda has convinced many East Germans that West Germany is a nest of old Nazis. Material from the Potsdam archives has enabled the D.D.R. to incriminate several highly placed Bonn officials who previously served Hitler's Reich. The belief that Bonn is indulgent toward ex-Nazis has been further strengthened by West Germany's often ambiguous policy on war-crimes trials.

The East German Communists are now seeking to create a national mystique compounded of Prussian tradition, anti-Nazism and socialist patriotism. "Red Prussia," as younger S.E.D. members like to call the D.D.R., claims to be the true heir of classical German humanism as well as the Prussian virtues of discipline and self-denial. West Germany is pictured as the bastard offspring of decadent American imperialism, a truncated "Rhine Union" manipulated from Washington and the Vatican. As Erich Mende has observed, "In the Soviet Zone pride in progress could easily turn into national pride." To foster such national pride the régime has converted Buchenwald and other former Nazi concentration camps in East Germany into shrines of the new order, whose saints are German Communist resistance fighters and "progressive" anti-Nazis. The use of wartime slave labor by firms now prominent in West Germany is emphasized in order to link the Federal Republic with Nazi barbarism.

The régime's first aim is naturally to instill the new nationalism in the 1,750,000 members of the S.E.D., equivalent to about 10 percent of the population. Many party members are pure opportunists but the number of those committed to the Prussianized version of Marxism-Leninism now being preached in East Berlin is growing. Special efforts are made to indoctrinate the 190,000-man National People's Army, almost all of whose officers and half of whose noncoms are party members. The goose-stepping young East German soldiers changing the guard with Prussian precision in front of the "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism" on Unter den Linden symbolize the disparate strands of German tradition that the régime is now trying to weave into a national ethos.

More immediately important to East Germany's viability as a state are the régime's efforts to provide more tangible economic benefits for its citizens. The impetus for these efforts comes from a remarkable group of young manager-technocrats who have virtually wrested control of the East German economy from the S.E.D.'s doctrinaire old guard. Erich Apel, former chairman of the State Planning Commission, who committed suicide last December rather than sign a discriminatory five-year trade agreement with Moscow, was the father of East Germany's economic reforms and leader of the pragmatic new generation of officials and managers. His struggle to free the economy from ideological shackles is now being carried on by such men as Dr. Guenther Mittag, 39-year-old chief of the S.E.D. Politburo's industry bureau; Dr. Werner Jarowinsky, 38 years old, who is Central Committee Secretary of Trade and Supply; and Rudi Georgi, 37-year-old Minister of Processing Machinery and Vehicle Construction, who headed the sheet-iron and metalwares industry until last December.

In their efforts to put East German industry on a profitable basis, the young technocrats have enjoyed unexpected support from Walter Ulbricht. The aging autocrat clearly regards the economic reforms as his last opportunity to win a measure of popular acceptance. But at 73 Ulbricht is unable and probably unwilling to shed all the mental habits of a Stalinist apparatchik acquired during a lifetime of service to the Communist cause. Moreover, he is subject to strong pressures from dogmatists and hardliners in the party, prominent among whom is Erich Honecker, 54-year-old heir apparent to the post of First Secretary.

Honecker joined the Communist Young Pioneers in Weimar Germany at the age of ten and has been a party member since he was seventeen. He has been in charge of defense and internal security since returning in 1957 from two years of "special training" in the Soviet Union. As a full member of the Politburo and Secretary of the Central Committee, he now regularly deputizes for Ulbricht when the party boss is ill or out of East Berlin. His wife Margot is Minister of Popular Education. Although his views are ill-defined and his personality colorless, Honecker has always been identified with doctrinaire Stalinist elements. Perhaps significantly, it was he who sent the message to Mayor Brandt last June postponing the scheduled debates, and he is believed to have played an equally important part in the later decision to scuttle the project entirely. As Ulbricht's successor, he could exploit his control of the secret police (S.S.D.) and the army to silence opposition in the party or among the population, but Honecker would lack Ulbricht's personal authority and prestige. It is also unclear how Moscow would regard him in the top position. If he does inherit the First Secretaryship, Honecker's reign is likely to be short.

In its fight against Honecker and the other hardliners in the party, the new managerial class often finds itself aligned with the restive intellectuals. The symbol of the intellectuals' revolt is Robert Havemann, a former professor of physical chemistry at Humboldt University, whose lectures on "Natural Scientific Aspects of Philosophical Problems," clandestinely reproduced, are passed from hand to hand in East Germany as if they constituted a manual on subversion. In a sense Havemann's eloquent plea for the right of dissent in a de-Stalinized D.D.R. is the most dangerous form of subversion. It is interesting that Erich Apel, shortly before his suicide, is reported to have discussed with Havemann an article in which the professor called for a parliamentary opposition in East Germany, Apel would probably not have gone that far, nor would most of his fellow technocrats who now occupy important positions. But the overlap between the objectives of the economic reformers and the intellectual liberals is obvious.

Havemann's history is impeccable. He joined the German Communist Party in the early 1930s and narrowly escaped death on a Nazi gallows during the war. After 1945 he became one of the S.E.D.'s leading theoreticians and an uncompromising foe of "revisionism." His change of heart came after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. Since delivering his heretical lectures in the winter of 1963-4, Havemann has been stripped of his teaching position, expelled from the party and barred from the East Berlin Academy of Sciences. He still refuses to recant or to take refuge in the West, as the régime would be glad to have him do. Despite intense pressure, the S.E.D. failed in March this year to muster the required three-quarters majority of the Academy of Sciences to get him expelled from that body. It was later announced that he had simply been "struck off" the membership rolls, and Academy members are forbidden to see him. But the S.E.D. is finding it difficult to forget his case. The Italian Communist Party has come to Havemann's defense, publicly warning the East German comrades that "No persecutory measures should intervene in the confrontation of opinions."

When the Politburo of the S.E.D. first denounced Havemann in February 1964, it accused him of carrying the noxious seeds of revisionism spawned in the "Prague Spring," the cultural thaw then prevalent in Czechoslovakia. For more than a decade the S.E.D. has been at odds with most of its "fraternal" socialist allies in Eastern Europe on the question of artistic freedom. The easing of East German policy toward the intellectuals has not been achieved by Bonn's clumsy attempts to intervene in their behalf, but by the pervasive winds of liberalization blowing now from Warsaw, now from Budapest and even sometimes from Moscow. One reported reason for Havemann's obstinate defiance of the party leadership is his close ties with a number of liberal Soviet academicians.

Because it is subjected to pressures from other countries in the bloc, the D.D.R.'s cultural policy has wavered. During a "soft" phase in 1963 the party sanctioned the publication of "Der geteilte Himmel" ("The Divided Sky"), the first East German novel to deal honestly with the reasons that prompted more than five million East Germans to flee to the West before the Wall was built. For many months the book was the leading best seller and its 34-year-old author, Christa Wolf, achieved a unique position among the country's writers. "The Divided Sky" is the story of a young East German engineer who is driven to despair by obtuse Communist bureaucracy and finally decides to escape to West Berlin. His fiancée follows him there in a vain effort to persuade him to return. After only one day in the West, where she feels completely foreign, she decides to go back alone to her East German collective. The girl's decision fits the party line but the rest of the novel is a signal departure from the canons of "socialist realism."

As a successful writer and candidate member of the Central Committee, Christa Wolf has been allowed to make frequent trips to West Germany and to enjoy other privileges denied ordinary citizens. But, like many other intellectuals who have received the régime's favors, she has not accepted the party's narrow notion of artistic freedom. Last December she clashed with the powerful Margot Honecker at a Central Committee meeting called to reassert party control over wayward writers and artists. Despite the current crackdown on intellectuals, neither Christa Wolf nor Robert Havemann nor even the iconoclastic balladeer, Wolfgang Biermann, is about to go on trial on charges of "undermining the workers' and peasants' power." In the not so distant past a telephone call by the Minister of State Security would have disposed of such troublemakers. Now the worst that happens is that they are denied the right to publish or practice their chosen profession.

III

East Germany is changing because the rest of the Soviet bloc is changing and because the S.E.D. leadership feels secure enough to permit some relaxation of control, even in the highly sensitive area of political science and sociology. Since the brief wave of terror that followed the building of the Wall in 1961, the régime has amnestied so many political prisoners that it risks losing a lucrative source of ransom money from the West German government. The S.E.D. has also relaxed its pressure on the churches, inaugurated a five-day work-week every other week and lifted restrictions on receiving Western radio and television broadcasts. To listen in private is now permitted. To disseminate what one hears or invite others to listen is considered spreading "imperialist propaganda." Even if the party outlawed all reception of Western broadcasts, most East Germans would continue listening avidly, not because they always like what they hear from West Germany or West Berlin, but because the programs lessen their feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world. Nothing vexes East Germans more than the régime's refusal to let them travel abroad, even to other Communist countries.

One of the most striking changes that a visitor notes in East Germany today is the readiness with which complete strangers, including S.E.D. members, criticize the régime. Pride in what has been accomplished makes many people more impatient than ever with bureaucratic obstacles and ideological cant. East Germans are somewhat more restrained in their comments on foreign affairs, but they no longer fear to express friendly feelings toward the United States. Candles were lighted in thousands of windows in East Berlin and other cities the night President Kennedy was assassinated. Communist propaganda about the Viet Nam war has made little impression; even party members often privately express understanding for American efforts to contain Chinese expansionism. In fact, fear of Communist China runs very deep in the D.D.R. as elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Popular attitudes toward the Soviet Union range from apathetic to hostile, although there is little animosity toward individual Russians. After holding up Soviet experience as the model of perfection in every field for almost twenty years, the S.E.D. is now assuming a more critical stance toward its mentors in Moscow. The Russians are now often disparaged at closed party meetings. After Khrushchev's overthrow in October 1964, Ulbricht boasted that the D.D.R. had not adopted "a single one" of the Soviet leader's nostrums in the field of agriculture. (In fact, it had slavishly copied the Khrushchevian cult of corn although much of East Germany is unsuited to growing corn.) Peter Florin, head of the Central Committee department dealing with foreign Communist parties, adopted a coolly superior tone at a meeting last year of the U.S.S.R.-D.D.R. Friendship Society:

The Soviet Union has not yet reached world standards in all sectors, for example, in agriculture. Our Soviet friends have to overcome a series of difficulties in agriculture. . . . How can we show our friendship in the realm of agriculture? We have decided to increase our agricultural production even faster. We are doing this also in order to be able to reduce agricultural imports from the Soviet Union. At the same time we would like to impart to our Soviet friends our experiences in agriculture in order to enable them with the help of these experiences-together with their own-to solve their problems more rapidly. ... At present the Soviet people are trying to improve the management of their entire economy. In this context they are interested in the experiences of the D.D.R. . . . The German comrades have worked out many new solutions for complex problems in managing the economy. . . .

S.E.D. members now remind Western visitors that they never split their party according to the "production principle" applied by Khrushchev and most East European Communist leaders. The East Germans also boast that they are ahead in carrying out economic reforms. They scorn suggestions that their "agricultural production coöperatives" are anything like Russian kolkhozi. Party theoreticians privately insist that the D.D.R. completed the transition from the dictatorship of the proletariat to "socialist democracy" in fifteen years whereas it took the Russians forty.

Like other East European Communist parties, the S.E.D. is exploiting the opportunities for tactical man?uvre provided by the Sino-Soviet rift. Some East German functionaries have shown partiality to Peking's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, but the majority in the party, including the leadership, prudently opts for Moscow. The presence of 300,000 Soviet troops in their country makes it unlikely that the East German Communists will ever allow themselves to fall into China's embrace, however much unsolicited political support Peking offers them.

Nevertheless, the S.E.D. now ostentatiously asserts its equality in the Marxist-Leninist fraternity, and has let it be known that the price of its allegiance in the endless doctrinal broils engaging the Communist world is going up. When the Soviet leaders visit East Berlin these days, they are received with no more fanfare than any other Communist potentates. In April 1965, the S.E.D. brought pressure on the Russians to retaliate against the Allies' decision to allow the West German Bundestag to meet in West Berlin. After bitter behind-the-scenes wrangling, the Soviets briefly interfered with Allied traffic on the Berlin autobahn, and the East Germans demonstrated that they could wage their own war of nerves against West Berlin by sending military helicopters over the Allied sectors of the city. Last fall for the first time East German officers commanded a Soviet division in joint Warsaw Pact war games.

The East German leadership professes to be reconciled to Moscow's refusal to sign a separate peace treaty with the D.D.R., giving Ulbricht control over Allied access to West Berlin. But the S.E.D. has repeatedly and publicly reminded the Russians of their obligations under their 1964 Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Coöperation to defend East Germany against any Western attack. The credibility of Moscow's commitment to its German ally has not been enhanced by the lagging Soviet response to American bombing of North Viet Nam, as S.E.D. members now freely admit to Western visitors.

Russian tanks still wield the ultimate sanction in East Germany, but they are largely powerless against the kind of evolutionary change now taking place within the S.E.D., Moscow's chosen instrument for ruling the D.D.R. The Russians can afford neither to write off East Germany as a lost cause nor to reassert dictatorial control over their proconsuls there. The latter course would involve a disastrous loss of prestige for Moscow in the eyes of the world Communist movement. The Russians are further hamstrung by the fact that many of the changes in East Germany today are inspired by liberalizing tendencies in the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. Moreover, there is now no leader in Moscow who exercises Stalin's or Khrushchev's authority in the D.D.R. or elsewhere in the former Soviet empire. The result is fragmentation throughout the onetime monolith and a loosening of Russian control everywhere, including East Germany. Moscow's overwhelming military power is a diminishing and often unusable asset in keeping the former satellites in line, as the Rumanian example demonstrates. The S.E.D. is now often able to improve its image at home by championing East German interests in Comecon (the East's economic and technical coöperation organization) and the Warsaw Pact, even when they conflict with Russia's.

IV

Developments in Eastern Europe have already prompted Bonn to revise its policy toward all the former satellite states except East Germany. The Federal German Government still professes to believe it can isolate the D.D.R. from other East European states and eventually persuade the Russians to liquidate their stake in East Germany in return for promises of good behavior from a future all-German government. In fact, however, West German officials no longer believe that time is on their side. They concede that a process of consolidation is under way on the far side of the Wall. In any case the policy of isolation overlooks the fact that an East Germany deriving its existence solely from the Soviet Union is more likely to be ready to do Moscow's bidding and, therefore, more valuable to the Russians than a state with alternative outlets for its trade and with developed relations with the rest of the world.

Despite Bonn's approval of S.P.D. participation in the abortive scheme for debates, the Federal Republic remains officially committed to the doctrine that the D.D.R. is nothing more than a disguised Soviet occupation zone. It continues to return official communications from East Berlin unopened. It still insists that other countries, especially its NATO allies, should boycott the D.D.R., although trade between the two German states is now running at an annual rate of more than $600,000,000. Unfortunately for Bonn, this commerce can no longer be used to extract political concessions from Ulbricht because it now accounts for less than 10 percent of the D.D.R.'s total foreign trade.

The changing outlook has exacerbated differences in the coalition government of the Federal Republic on how best to deal with the D.D.R. Chancellor Erhard's Christian Democrats are generally hesitant to break new ground in this or any other field. The Free Democrats advocate a "contact offensive." As a result, Bonn's policy on trade and cultural contacts has vacillated. Erhard first rejected Ulbricht's proposals for a limited exchange of newspapers between East and West Germany; now legislation has been approved permitting the import of Communist publications into the Federal Republic. In the past, West Germans visiting the D.D.R. have been prohibited by West German law from engaging in "political discussions" with S.E.D. functionaries, and official East German visitors have often been arrested by the West German police on what proved to be trumped-up charges of endangering the "constitutional order"; now the Federal Republic is trying to promote a two-way traffic in persons and ideas despite recent signs that the East German régime is in a regressive phase.

The proposal made in Washington last June by Dr. Rainer Barzel, majority floor leader in the Bundestag, to allow Moscow to station troops in a reunited Germany and obtain preferential trading rights from a future all- German government, represented a notable departure from Bonn's official policy on reunification. Although Erhard and the Christian Democratic parliamentary group formally dissociated themselves from Barzel's suggestions, the reaction in the West German press and public was surprisingly favorable. There is a widespread realization in the Federal Republic today that the old dream of German reunification by free all- German elections has been fatally impaled on the Wall and that alternative solutions must be found. The first step seems to be some sort of continuing dialogue between the two German states aimed at keeping alive the concept of a single German nation.

Bonn's dilemma is also Washington's. The United States must sooner or later answer the question whether it should seek to expand its contacts with the D.D.R. or continue officially to ignore it. Washington has sold wheat to East Germany (for dollars) and licensed the export of synthetic fiber manufacturing technology and medical isotopes there, but has hitherto shied away from broader exchanges for fear of offending Bonn. Britain, France and other NATO countries have been less squeamish, although they too have withheld diplomatic recognition.

Recognition would severely impair Washington's relations with Bonn without yielding significant advantages for the United States. But if one grants that the D.D.R. cannot simply be wished out of existence and that its Communist rulers will not allow themselves to be voted out of power, it follows that a policy of liberalized trade and cultural exchanges could effectively promote present tendencies toward a more independent form of Communism. Given East Germany's pivotal economic role in the Communist world and its strategic position in the heart of central Europe, American policy-makers would be foolhardy to assume that the present and future leaders of the S.E.D. are simply Soviet puppets immune to the heady currents of self-assertion now flowing through Eastern Europe.

Whatever policy the United States and other Western countries pursue, it is now clear that the D.D.R.-a state that has already outlasted the Weimar Republic and Hitler's "thousand-year" Reich-will not easily be swept away.