We are the allies of the United States, not their vassals." These words were spoken in late September 1984 by the Minister of the Interior of the West German state of Hesse, a Social Democrat. He was responding to an American corps commander who had called German demonstrators at an American military training area "anarchists and criminals," and demanded their full prosecution under German law. According to the U.S. officer, the demonstrators had "damaged military vehicles, sprayed paint and thrown rocks at soldiers." German police arrested 188 demonstrators, charged them with disturbing the peace, trespassing and damaging property, and then released them.

Reading about this incident in the American press during a prolonged absence from the Federal Republic of Germany, I have no means to judge whether the corps commander overdramatized a certainly illegal, but otherwise peaceful demonstration, or whether the police and the minister ignored the rocks thrown at American soldiers. What concerns me is the tone of the minister's sentence. It expresses a mood which is, I believe, typical of large numbers of West Germans today.

With a slight variation, it could be typical of many East German leaders as well. The East German party chief, Erich Honecker, and many of the men around him would no doubt like to say that they are "the allies of the Soviet Union, not its vassals." Only they cannot afford to say it-that is the little difference.

The mood of many people in responsible positions is comparable in both German states today. Each is determined to stick to its alliance-the West Germans because the Atlantic Alliance is the ultimate protection of their political freedom against Soviet blackmail, the East German leaders because the Warsaw Pact is the ultimate guarantee of their own rule. But both have a more conscious sense of their national identity, not to say of their national dignity than, say, 15 years ago-and it is a common national identity.

This is the new form the German Question has gradually assumed in the course of those 15 years-the period of the success of Ostpolitik within the framework of superpower détente and of the effort to preserve the fruits of Ostpolitik after the collapse of that framework. This new form does not turn, as people outside Germany often still believe, on the idea of German reunification in a single national state. The immense majority of Germans have long realized that such reunification could only happen if all Europe were reunited by the release of the East European nations from Soviet control. While the East German leaders and their Communist followers are not even permitted to wish for that, the West Germans and the non-Communist majority of East Germans see no foreseeable prospect of it, nor any realistic course of action for bringing it about.

While the sense of common history and culture has grown among Germans in East and West since human contact and mutual knowledge were made easier with the Basic Treaty of 1972, there is also greater awareness even in the East that not all the differences of institutions and customs have been imposed from above and outside. Large numbers of East Germans, for instance, would prefer to keep their system of public education rather than adopt the West German system, if the elements of political indoctrination and political preference could be eliminated. Generally speaking, the longing for a return to a German national state, so natural to the generation that experienced the partition of Germany, has gradually faded, first in the West and more recently in the East. At the same time, the awareness of being drawn together by a common history, including both common cultural achievements and common horrors and sufferings, has revived, particularly in the West where the early postwar generation had tended to turn away from it.

It is the purpose of this article to suggest how changes in the political situation during the rise and decline of détente have contributed to the change in German attitudes. In doing so, I shall deal in greater detail with West Germany, where I live, than with East Germany, of which my knowledge is necessarily much more limited.


The Ostpolitik of the Federal Republic was begun at a time when the Western powers, with the United States and France in the vanguard, felt that an improvement of relations with their Soviet antagonists was both possible and necessary. President Lyndon Johnson was convinced that the Soviet Union had become a satisfied power, and that serious danger to peace came only from Communist China, which he believed had started the war in Vietnam as the first stage of a major offensive in Southeast Asia. President Charles de Gaulle, while taking a different view of China and Vietnam, hoped that improved relations between France and the Soviet Union could open the way to the revival of a traditional European balance and thus reduce the dependence of postwar Western Europe on the United States.

The NATO Council, without generally sharing the illusions of either Johnson or de Gaulle, had adopted the thesis of the 1967 Harmel Report that only defense and détente together could ensure lasting peace on the divided continent. As American and French policies competed to belittle the importance of the Soviet-led intervention of the Warsaw Pact armies in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet leaders were confirmed in perceiving their chance to isolate the German Federal Republic as the only Western country refusing to recognize the territorial outcome of Hitler's war.

To avoid such isolation, the Grand Coalition formed by Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Bonn in 1966 sought both diplomatic relations with East European states, which previous governments had avoided, and an agreement with Russia on the renunciation of force. But the Soviets, after a brief initial hesitation, insisted on formal recognition of the territorial status quo, including both the German partition and the Oder-Neisse frontier with Poland.

The Christian Democrats, the stronger party in that coalition, saw no way to negotiate the hurdle-due both to a rigid interpretation of the West German constitutional obstacles and to the presumed continuing importance of the votes of expellees from the former German territories in east-central Europe and refugees from the German Democratic Republic. When Moscow published documents of the stagnant negotiations, and thereby broke them off in the middle of the Czechoslovak crisis, the Social Democrats, with Willy Brandt as Foreign Minister, were confirmed in their view that the Federal Republic's inclusion in the normalization of East-West relations could be achieved, and its isolation avoided, only if a legal form could be negotiated for de facto acceptance of the territorial status quo.

Such was the stake in the West German elections of 1969, which led to the end of 20 years of Christian Democratic rule and the formation of a Social Democratic and Free Democratic-"social-liberal"-government headed by Willy Brandt. The issue of an Eastern policy had figured in the campaign, but had by no means been fully understood by the voters. The difficult negotiations that Brandt began had to reconcile de facto recognition of the status quo with the Federal Republic's constitutional commitment to the goal of reunification. They had also to assure the status of and access to West Berlin before opening the way for any international recognition of the German Democratic Republic, and to establish a degree of normality between the two German states and an assured form of contact between their peoples. The Berlin negotiations could only be conducted between the four powers responsible for the former German capital under the wartime and postwar agreements. At the same time, both these and the "inter-German" negotiations would require the East German leaders to take risks they had carefully avoided for many years. As a result, the complex international negotiations which were to assure a new stability in the heart of Europe could finally succeed only after serious internal opposition had been overcome in both German states.

In the Federal Republic, the draft treaties negotiated with the U.S.S.R. and Poland in 1970 were attacked by most of the Christian Democratic opposition and a large part of the press as a betrayal of the constitution. By the middle of 1972, Brandt no longer had a working parliamentary majority and arranged for new elections. His most effective campaign argument was that 20 years of nonrecognition of the East German state had not only failed to bring reunification a single step nearer, but allowed the G.D.R. to raise ever higher the barriers between the Germans in East and West-of which the Berlin Wall was the most abhorrent symbol. The new Eastern treaties and the Berlin Agreement would at last begin to lower those barriers. That argument won a safe majority for the social-liberal coalition and made Brandt's Social Democrats the strongest party in the Federal Republic for the first time. The voters made a clear decision: from the point of view of their national feelings, the resumption of a measure of human contact with their East German kin had become more important than the dream of political reunification.


The leaders of the G.D.R., headed since Stalin's time by Walter Ulbricht, saw the popular uprising of June 1953 as proof of the danger inherent in any contact between their subjects and the West Germans. They raised the Berlin Wall in August 1961 as a vital protection against that danger. Physical barriers and deathtraps along the borders were supplemented by the ideological doctrine that one single German nation no longer existed, but rather two, one capitalist, the other socialist. While the physical barriers were effective, the ideological doctrine was not; the separation of eastern Germany from the larger western part was stubbornly resented by the large majority of its inhabitants as having been imposed by Soviet force. Consequently, Ulbricht opposed all negotiations with the Federal Republic from Bonn's first overtures in 1966. When the negotiations became serious after the formation of the Brandt government, he was not so much pleased by the prospect of international recognition for the G.D.R. as he was worried by the danger of new guarantees for the status of West Berlin and of increased contact between the Germans on both sides of the border.

It became clear that success of the whole package of negotiations depended on the outcome of the Four-Power talks on Berlin. As the latter began to make progress in the spring of 1971, Ulbricht seems to have tried to mobilize some of his personal friends in the Soviet leadership against the policy pursued by Leonid Brezhnev. He failed-and was pensioned off in the summer.

His successor, Erich Honecker, was naturally no less concerned to preserve a Communist-controlled East Germany than were Ulbricht and, indeed, the Soviet leaders. But like the Soviets, Honecker was more eager to win international recognition for the G.D.R., and with it for the borders along which Europe had been partitioned a quarter-century earlier, than he was worried about the price-guarantees for the status of West Berlin and for Western access to it, and permission for West Germans and West Berliners to visit the G.D.R. for a limited time-or even the effect of West German media with correspondents in East Berlin broadcasting across the border. Thus, after the Moscow and Warsaw treaties and the Four-Power agreement on Berlin had been signed and ratified, the Basic Treaty between the two German states went through. Both nations simultaneously entered the United Nations and took their seats at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki.

Honecker's calculation proved correct from the viewpoints of both the international status and the internal security of the East German state. The millions of West German visitors who would now enter the G.D.R. year after year, and the West German radio and television programs to which East Germans came to listen quite legally as a matter of course, caused no unrest among their hosts or their audience. On the other hand, the new worldwide recognition made it easier for the citizens of the G.D.R. to develop some pride in their state, even if they were critical of many of its features. But there were subtle changes as the atmosphere of irreconcilable mutual hostility could no longer be maintained. The long-developed language of hatred had to be damped down in the East German press, and where it was kept up, as in military education, it must have lost in effectiveness even among the young. Many East German listeners and viewers took a critical view of much that they heard and saw in Western programs, but the official line of two separate states had gradually to be toned down as human contacts did their work. The official G.D.R. picture of German history, built up to treat all "progressive" movements as forerunners of the G.D.R. and all "reactionary" rulers as ancestors of Hitler and the Federal Republic, was quietly revised.

The cultural contact between writers and artists on both sides and the increasing publication of censored East German works in the Federal Republic made the waves of expulsion of East German writers for ideological reasons appear all the more absurd. In addition, the revival of contact between the Protestant churches, most impressive in the prominent West German participation in the East German Luther Year, made a special contribution to the sense of a common German nationhood.

Meanwhile, in the Federal Republic, most Christian Democrats, including a number of outstanding leaders, gradually came to accept the results of the Ostpolitik treaties in general, and of the Basic Treaty with the G.D.R. in particular, as not only binding in law, but as an important step forward in inter-German relations. National consciousness and national history, neglected by two generations of postwar youth, both revived in the new climate-but not in the spirit of the nationalism of Imperial or Hitlerite Germany. Rather, the phraseology of "reunification" faded in the West as that of "two German nations" faded in the East. They gave way to a common acceptance of both the achievements and the recognized horrors of a common past and, finally, to a growing pride in a common contribution to détente and peace-expressed in the phrase, used equally on both sides of the border, that "no war must ever arise again from German soil."


This slogan was, in fact, developed after the crisis of détente had already begun. But to understand the impact of that crisis on the two Germanys, we must first take a look at the time lag between its real beginning and its general perception in Europe.

The crisis became manifest to all at the end of 1979, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and NATO's double-track decision on intermediate-range missiles. Its real beginning dates from 1975, when the Soviet leadership started its series of proxy advances in the Third World by organizing Cuban intervention in Angola, and also prepared new pressures on Western Europe by beginning production of the SS-20 missiles to be used primarily, though not exclusively, in Europe. Under Brezhnev's leadership, the Soviets had gained an unprecedented, peaceful foreign policy success when the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement of 1972 recognized the principle of an approximate nuclear balance between the superpowers as the basis of détente. Moscow now demonstrated that it accepted such a balance only in direct relations with the United States, not with America's European allies or even with nonaligned nations.

There was no danger that might have justified such an attempt to expand Soviet power in several directions at once-only the apparent opportunity offered by the weakened capacity of American presidents for either negotiation or action in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. The opportunity also seems to have coincided with the beginning of the decline of Brezhnev's effective control of Soviet policy; at any rate, at the 1976 Party Congress, the aging leader cheerfully and publicly welcomed the Angolan "success," which was the first blow against the détente he had helped to bring about.

The importance of the new intermediate-range SS-20 missiles, though no less significant than the new Soviet expansionism in the Third World, was less quickly recognized by international opinion and even by the U.S. Administration. In Europe, the Soviet deployment caused little immediate concern to the second-rank nuclear powers, though it was at once seen as a potential threat to exposed and non-nuclear West Germany. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt reacted first with confidential representations to the Soviets and an equally private suggestion to the Carter Administration that it include the problem of intermediate-range missiles in its resumed negotiations for the second SALT agreement. Only after both moves failed to bear fruit did Schmidt raise the matter publicly in his 1977 London speech, which alerted American and West European opinion and eventually resulted in NATO's double-track decision.

When Schmidt took that initiative, he saw détente as threatened, but by no means lost: neither the acceptance of Soviet nuclear superiority in the European theater nor an arms race in intermediate-range missiles would save it; only a negotiated balance could help. To achieve that, the production of the American "Euromissiles" had to be started alongside the negotiation. But this view, based on the remarkable success of détente in Europe, and of Ostpolitik and inter-German relations in particular, was no longer shared by the leadership of the Soviet Union or by the leadership and public opinion in the United States. America had been profoundly shocked by the Soviet-organized military actions in Africa and the Near East, and many regarded the very concept of détente as a fraudulent Soviet trick. President Reagan's call for a prolonged effort to increase and modernize the U.S. weapons arsenal to restore American security won widespread support even before his election to the presidency.

The Soviets, whose brutal and shortsighted exploitation of a passing period of American indecision had provoked that reaction, now began to fear the consequences-an arms race against an economically and technologically superior opponent in general, and the deployment in the heart of Europe of modern American intermediate-range missiles targeted on their country in particular. They wished to maintain and even increase their SS-20s and hoped to prevent the deployment of new American Euromissiles-not by negotiation, but by frightening the West Europeans and particularly the West Germans. Meanwhile, the military experts in the Reagan Administration saw the deployment of new missiles in Europe not as a bargaining asset in negotiations, but as an important addition to their overall strength.

During his Moscow visit in 1980, Helmut Schmidt succeeded with great effort in getting his Soviet hosts to agree in principle to take part in what became the Geneva negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). He and other European allies finally convinced President Reagan, after a long delay for preparations, to appoint negotiators for Geneva. To most West German observers today it seems clear that while Schmidt succeeded in bringing those horses to the water, he could not make them drink. As they see it, the Soviets made no substantial concessions at all during the negotiations, while the Americans adopted the "zero option" proposed by Bonn for new intermediate-range missiles as a starting position that they could be sure the Soviets would not accept. But the Americans showed little interest in further negotiating moves. In particular, they did not suggest merging the INF and START negotiations, which might have offered a way to discuss the French and British missiles, regarded by the Soviets as "strategic" weapons, without making them direct objects of superpower negotiation. The one serious effort to advance toward a compromise was the famous "walk-in-the-woods" proposal, in which Paul Nitze had a major role; but not only were the European allies of the United States, including the Federal Republic, not consulted about the proposal, they learned of it only months after it had been rejected by both Washington and Moscow.

It was this impression of the course of the negotiations, skillfully exploited by both Soviet and pacifist propaganda, which for a time gave the West German peace movement its extraordinary strength. The bulk of the demonstrators, whose numbers reached into the millions on the eve of the Bundestag vote on deployment, were in no way pro-Soviet, and in their great majority not neutralist either. Most among them were moved by an acute fear of nuclear war, fed as much by loose talk from important American officials as by Soviet threats. Many of them came from the ranks of church activists, many more from the Social Democratic Party, which was no longer part of the federal government and now overwhelmingly rejected the deployment part of the double-track decision (which Helmut Schmidt had accepted and to which he stuck). Yet at the same time, Willy Brandt confirmed the Social Democrats' allegiance to the Atlantic Alliance and their rejection of neutralism, and this decision was endorsed again without substantial opposition at the party's next regular congress in May 1984. In the meantime, the federal elections of March 1983 had approved the policy of the new federal government under the Christian Democratic leadership of Helmut Kohl, and the strength of the peace movement had seriously declined-even though not only had the deployment of American missiles proceeded on West German soil, but new Soviet missiles directed at West German targets had been deployed in East Germany and the U.S.S.R.

While the movement to prevent deployment has failed and the fear of imminent catastrophe faded, the sense that the replacement of détente by confrontation between the superpowers spelled permanent danger for the Europeans in West and East, and for the Germans in particular, has remained and, indeed, become generalized. If I am not mistaken, it is shared to a considerable extent by the current West German government, which has been steadily, if quietly, urging its American allies to work for a normalization of relations with the Soviets and for a resumption of arms control negotiations.

Most remarkably, there has been a parallel development in the G.D.R. Its leaders had accompanied their campaign to prevent the deployment of American missiles in West Germany not with threats, as did the Soviets, but with increasingly emphatic appeals to the common interests of all Germans. It was in this period that the Luther Year was deliberately used to attract a maximum number of Western visitors, and that the earlier doctrine of two German nations with two different histories was visibly disavowed. But even when Soviet threats and East German appeals to common interests alike had proved unable to prevent Bonn's decision for deployment, the East German leaders were not willing to abandon their new "national" approach. While criticizing the West German decision, they announced at the same time a policy of "limiting the damage" to inter-German relations; while dutifully accepting the deployment of Soviet countermissiles on their soil, they did so without any sign of enthusiasm.

The Kohl government in Bonn, in turn, has eagerly welcomed the idea that the damage to inter-German relations should be limited, and stressed the common special responsibility of the West and East Germans for the preservation of peace. It has shown its readiness to make such a policy economically worthwhile for its East German partners.

As a result, what appeared to Moscow and Warsaw, and to some extent also to Paris and Rome, as a dangerous flirtation between the two Germanys-in the middle of the confrontation between the leading powers of the alliances to which they belonged-nevertheless continued until mid-September 1984.

It would be entirely mistaken to see this move toward rapprochement in the context of past hopes for reunification in a national state, let alone of dreams of pan-Germanism. It is equally wrong to see it as mainly the fruit of West German economic bribes, as the Soviets pretend. Honecker is a Communist, and Communists are not inclined to make political concessions in return for economic favors, gladly though they may accept the latter. Rather, what has created the striking sense of a common political interest between two German states of very different political structures and ideologies has been, first, the revival of a sense of common nationhood during the period of détente, and second, the rising sense that they face a common threat as détente has given way to confrontation between the superpowers.

The resulting effort by their governments to "limit the damage" has been highly popular in both the G.D.R. and the Federal Republic-where only a few traditionalists in the Christian Democratic Union thought it was going too far and only a small neutralist party, the Greens, thought it did not go far enough, while the official Social Democratic opposition welcomed it. But the reactions of the two superpowers have been very different.

The U.S. Administration has shown a well-founded trust in the Kohl government's loyalty to the Alliance, and a corresponding degree of understanding for its efforts to preserve some of the fruits of Ostpolitik. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has shown increasing irritation with Erich Honecker's policy during 1984. It has opened a campaign against the alleged revival of "revanchism" in the Federal Republic, against Bonn's role in the deployment of American missiles, and finally against the F.R.G.'s alleged attempts to influence the East European states, including the G.D.R., by economic ties. Moscow attacked even Honecker's formula of "damage limitation" by ascribing it to a West German attempt to hide its own share in causing the damage. As a result, Honecker was forced first, after considerable resistance, to call off an imminent visit to the Federal Republic, and then increasingly to justify his retreat by some of the very Soviet reproaches against the Federal Republic that he had at first refused to copy. It remains to be seen whether this reluctant about-turn will be the prelude to Honecker's loss of his position as Party leader.


For all we can know at this stage, the old form of the German Question, a longing for reunification in a single national state, is dead. A future revival is difficult to imagine. But the transformed German Question, which began to emerge with a revived consciousness of a common German nationhood during the period of détente, has given greater self-confidence to the leaders and peoples of both German states within their respective alliances. Under the impact of the competitive deployment of new nuclear weapons in Germany, it has produced common, if separate, pressure by Germans in East and West, including their governments, for ending the confrontation. For with the newly deployed missiles before their eyes, the crucial common factor in the minds of Germans in West and East is the certainty that they, at any rate, will not survive a nuclear war.

For the first time in modern history, then, what appears as the German Question has taken the form of an almost desperate desire for peace by the German people in West and East-a desire strong enough to exert major pressure on the foreign policies of both governments. It is not a pressure for leaving their respective alliances, but rather for attempting to influence the superpowers that lead them. But it is a pressure that, due both to the limited power behind it and to the German heritage, is likely to have a constructive effect only if it is presented as an expression not just of unique German interests, but of a common and vital interest of all Europeans.

The chances of European attempts to influence the superpowers succeeding are even more doubtful on the Soviet than on the American side. The reason lies in the different structures of the two alliances, and in the fact that the inner structure of the Warsaw Pact is more vulnerable precisely because it is based on the Soviets' much narrower concept of leadership. The Soviet leaders have started to talk of an alleged revival of German revanchism, not because they believe in it, but because they have found that the desire of East Germans to overcome the present East-West confrontation is shared by the self-willed Romanians, the cautious Hungarians and even the Bulgarians. Moscow's attempt during the summer to get all these countries to reduce their economic relations with the West was largely unsuccessful, and reviving the ghost of German revanchism was their best means to get at least the Polish and Czech governments to toe the line. What appears to the Soviets as the insecurity of their control over their own bloc, combined with the image of the instability of their aging leadership, is likely to make it doubly difficult for them to take any initiative to get out of the blind alley of confrontation with the United States which they first entered in 1975-even though they must be aware by now that it is a blind alley.

The United States in my view has entered a similar blind alley in the opposite direction, albeit at a later date and in response to Soviet provocation. Washington has greater freedom of movement to escape by taking a new negotiating initiative if it wants to; it is in a stronger position, but unlikely to take the initiative just to please the Germans, whose concerns are little understood in the United States, and actively misunderstood by some West Europeans, notably in France and Italy.

Not only has the German peace movement greatly contributed to those misunderstandings, which vastly overestimate the strength of neutralist or even nationalist tendencies in the Federal Republic; the present West German government too, for all its incontestable loyalty to the Western Alliance, has caused misunderstandings as well by overstressing, in temporary harmony with the East German leaders, the special responsibility of the two German states for the preservation of peace. Of course, in view of the past, such a special responsibility does exist in a moral sense, and its recognition should be welcomed in this context. But, in a political sense and with a view to the present and future, the responsibility should be recognized as common to all those who feel, and are, immediately threatened by a continuation of the nuclear arms race-the Europeans in West and East. The Germans will therefore be well advised not to present their legitimate concern for surviving the superpower confrontation as the new German Question: it is the new European question-and it should be the common responsibility of the West European allies to convince the American leaders of the Alliance of the urgent need for steps to overcome the confrontation.

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  • Richard Lowenthal, Professor Emeritus for International Relations at the University of Berlin, is at present spending a research year at Harvard University. He has written widely on East-West relations and communist affairs; his latest book, Social Change and Cultural Crisis, has just been published by Columbia University Press.
  • More By Richard Lowenthal