No one can deny that relations between the two German states have taken a remarkable and largely unexpected turn for the better in recent years. At least since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, the two states have sought to preserve a sheltered island of détente amid the high tensions between the superpowers. For onlookers in the West long accustomed to clichés about East Berlin’s hostility to the whole détente process, it was altogether startling in September 1983 to find General Secretary Erich Honecker calling for the formation of a "coalition of reason" with his old enemies in the Federal Republic (FRG), even after Bonn had signaled its support for the modernization of NATO’s European missile system. But it was equally striking to find in West Germany a new coalition government led by Christian Democrats, formed in the fall of 1982, that was unabashedly receptive to Honecker’s overtures. Certainly, few observers had anticipated Bonn’s negotiation of two enormous bank loans to East Germany in 1983 and 1984, let alone the scarcely concealed enthusiasm of conservative leaders like Chancellor Helmut Kohl for Honecker’s plans to make an official visit to West Germany in the near future.

Was there emerging, as many Western analysts began to suggest, a new attitude toward the old German question? Commentators on the sidelines were quick to point out what was not happening between the two Germanies: the maintenance of good relations between the two countries had nothing to do with an ideological rapprochement of socialism and capitalism; nor was either of the Germanies motivated by the prospect of an imminent reunification. By all accounts, the present generation of West German leaders, more realistic than its predecessor, seems to have accepted the fact that national reunification is at best a very distant possibility.

Most explanations of what has been transpiring between the Germanies have tended to be single-factor accounts, pointing out the increasing role of economic benefits in motivating the two sides, or their mutual concern to minimize the chances of nuclear conflict in central Europe. But we may be able to make much bolder claims about the significance of recent developments if we view the evolution of East German-West German relations from a broad historical perspective. From this vantage point, there is good reason to think that a deep change in the structure of the inter-German relationship itself may now be under way. It may well be time to rethink our understanding of the logic according to which the two states interact.

This need not mean that the basic and, by now, well-known interests of either Germany have themselves been altered. As much as in the past, Bonn’s policy toward the German Democratic Republic (GDR) appears consistently motivated by a desire to preserve the "openness" of the German question, so as not to preclude the possibility of eventual national reunification. In contrast, East Berlin’s principal objectives still center upon its demands for full recognition and its claims that it alone is entitled to represent the sovereign interests of the East German state.

What appears to have changed fundamentally, however, is the relative strength of each of the Germanies in pursuing these interests. For most of the two countries’ history, the Federal Republic seemed well ahead of its rival. But, with the emergence of a much stronger, more self-confident East German state, this advantage may now—exactly 25 years after the erection of the Berlin Wall—have slipped out of the West Germans’ grasp. This shift brings us to the point where the bargaining relationship between East Berlin and Bonn can for the first time be characterized as symmetrical, if not inclined in East Germany’s favor. Once this is understood, it becomes easier to comprehend the two states’ concern to preserve inter-German détente. But at the same time, this change also raises serious questions about the ability of the formerly predominant power, West Germany, to continue realizing its aims.


For the first 20 years of their existence, the two Germanies essentially enjoyed a non-relationship. In their few interactions, the FRG held most of the advantages. Although it is generally taken for granted, the last word has yet to be written about why Bonn’s position during this time was so much stronger than that of its communist counterpart. One of the factors was the more secure economic base of the West German state; another was the pervasive perception that its citizens had a higher standard of living than their fellow Germans in the East. But the greatest contribution to West Germany’s strength and East Germany’s weakness was the latter’s direct association with the Soviet Union. The circumstances of the communist state’s founding created the popular conviction that East Germany was little more than an artificial outpost of Soviet hegemony. As a consequence, Bonn hardly had to campaign for sole possession of the mantle of German sovereignty; in the eyes of most onlookers, in both the East and the West, it was Germany.

Accordingly, Bonn claimed an exclusive prerogative to represent German interests, refusing almost any official contact with East Berlin that might serve to legitimize the East German state. This policy not only prevented formal recognition of East Germany by any non-communist government, but it also meant that the country’s leaders at the time, such as party chief Walter Ulbricht, were hard pressed to convince the East German population that a socialist German state was deserving of the same respect as West Germany. Even the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 failed to confirm the communist regime’s claims to legitimacy.

Only later, however, would it become apparent that this barrier did provide the East Germans with one advantage over the West. Not only did the wall keep the country’s citizens confined to the East but, more important, it granted the communist leaders a dependable lever with which to control Western access to East German society. At the same time that it insulated the East German population from the corrupting "swamp" of the West (to use Ulbricht’s forceful image from the early 1960s), it also severely restricted the potential for influence that the stronger West German state had enjoyed in earlier years of open borders. This shift first became evident soon after the barrier’s erection, when West Berlin government representatives sought to gain access to East Berlin for their zone’s residents and encountered great difficulty. But only later, as West Germany’s policy emphasis switched from isolating East Germany to influencing it, would East Berlin’s advantage in controlling its borders become fully evident.


It would probably be unfair to maintain that this turnaround in Bonn’s Ostpolitik toward East Germany and the U.S.S.R. came only with the accession to power of Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic-Free Democratic coalition in 1969, as is commonly supposed. Even before that time, some leaders in the formerly predominant Christian Democratic Union had become aware that their policy of isolating East Germany had the unintended consequence of restricting West German access to the entire Eastern bloc. The inclusion of the Social Democrats in Kurt-Georg Kiesinger’s "grand coalition" government in 1966 increased pressure in Bonn to develop a policy that would be more responsive to the needs and interests of fellow Germans in the East.

The stumbling block to any improvement in relations between the Germanies was Bonn’s insistence that it alone was entitled to represent German interests. This claim prevented movement on the German question because it ran up against East Berlin’s demands for recognition of its full sovereignty over East German territory and its jurisdiction over attendant issues like the status of Berlin and transit to and from the city. What made Brandt’s response to this impasse so distinctive, however, was his government’s success in devising a formula to revamp relations between East and West Germany that, for all intents and purposes, allowed Bonn to have its cake and eat it too. The German question was kept open, but simultaneously, the West Germans were allowed greater access than ever before to the East.

According to the new formula, "two German states in one nation," the Social Democratic regime conceded that the GDR should be considered a legitimate German state, and therefore deserving of de facto recognition. But at the same time the emphasis that Brandt’s government placed on the existence of an overarching German nation underscored the "special" character of any inter-German ties that would result. While Ulbricht was quick to reply that the Federal Republic had hardly met his regime’s demands for full, de jure recognition, Bonn’s implicit agreement to respect the territorial integrity of the East German state—expressed in its 1970 agreement with Moscow renouncing the use of force in challenging European borders—was sufficient to bring Soviet pressure for détente to bear upon East Berlin. The result was not simply Ulbricht’s ouster in 1971, because of his outspoken opposition to the developments around him, but the eventual achievement of accords treating both the city of Berlin and relations between the two Germanies themselves.

West Germany was indisputably the major beneficiary of these agreements. In their Basic Treaty of 1972, for example, both Germanies agreed to exchange official representatives, but despite East Berlin’s protestations, these were not to be full ambassadors. In the four-power accord of 1971 on Berlin, Western access to the city was vouchsafed by Soviet guarantees. Not only did this step deny East German claims to full sovereignty over the city, but it also seemed to bring to an end the communist state’s ability to interfere with the transit routes into West Berlin—long one of Ulbricht’s favorite tactics. The West Germans’ greatest gains, however, came in the area of expanded contacts with East Germany and, above all, in the new permeability of East German borders that included the loosening of travel restrictions between the two countries. The routinization of inter-German relations meant that a limited "reunification" of the nation—in the form of restored contacts between long-separated families and friends—was now possible. These gains were matched by greater freedom for journalists, vast improvements in telecommunications and postal services, and even occasional visits between East and West German officials. In a symbolic if not also practical sense, this brought the two states back to the status quo that existed before 1961. A new era of at least partly opened borders seemed to signify that it would be that much easier for Bonn to give substance to its claims of inter-German commonality and, in effect, keep the German question alive and open to debate.

Of course, East Germany also benefited from certain aspects of this process of inter-German accommodation. Bonn’s acceptance of the country’s existence was enough to break the logjam that had prevented the GDR’s formal recognition by the non-communist world. This recognition brought with it countless economic advantages, and offered the leaders of East Germany unprecedented opportunities for making known their country’s sovereignty on an international basis.

Nevertheless, East Berlin’s early reaction to these changes was never really as jubilant as one might have expected. Far from celebrating their achievements, the East Germans’ immediate response was defensive. When Honecker succeeded Ulbricht, no one in the leadership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) could have known for sure what the domestic consequences of even partly reopened borders might be. Would average East German citizens suddenly be reminded of all that they shared with their cousins in the West? And would that recognition inject new turbulence into the tranquility of East German society? Because of these uncertainties, East Germany’s main efforts lay in redirecting its citizens’ attention inward, through intensified ideological campaigns and such mundane activities as the construction of apartment buildings. Only later, when the success of such efforts could be adequately weighed, was it possible for East Berlin to turn its primary attention outward to take full advantage of newfound conditions.


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a turning point in East-West affairs, exacerbating the already deteriorating state of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it had a far different effect upon the equally precarious set of understandings that had bound the Germanies together in the 1970s. In effect, the Afghanistan invasion forced all of the powers involved in East-West détente to clarify their interests to themselves and to weigh consciously the costs and benefits of a continuation of the foreign policy of the previous decade. While both German states deliberately undertook to shield their common relationship from the rising hostilities around them, this period of inter-German relations signaled something far more important than the continuation of business as usual. In a qualitative sense, the aftermath of the Afghanistan invasion showed that the structure of the relationship had changed, and that East Germany was now in a much stronger position than ever before.

At first, the significance of this shift was not apparent to most observers. From Bonn’s standpoint West German interests remained essentially unchanged and, accordingly, it made perfect sense for the Federal Republic to try to preserve a spirit of inter-German accommodation. But the new element that entered into play at this time was the recognition that Bonn’s dependence upon détente had now become painfully acute. As the state that had gained the most from the regularization of relations with East Germany, did not West Germany also stand to lose the most with the onslaught of a new cold war?

Few West Germans actually feared that their East German adversaries would use the new chill in interbloc relations as an excuse to renege on the inter-German agreements of the 1970s. But those accords, of course, had always been open to either favorable or unfavorable interpretation by their signatories; under adverse circumstances, Western journalists could find their coverage of stories impeded by excessive police scrutiny, visa applications could be delayed, and East German emigrés to the Federal Republic could find their requests for return visits to their homeland permanently obstructed. Perhaps most consequential, progress in the inter-German relationship had become largely taken for granted by the West German public. No West German politician wanted to be held responsible for its deterioration. As a result, decision-makers in Bonn were predictably concerned to assure continued Western access to the country and a semblance of continuity in the inter-German dialogue. It was not surprising that Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, labored to safeguard his country’s vested interests in détente in 1980 by assiduously cultivating contacts with both East Berlin and Moscow, even as the Solidarity crisis was unfolding in the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland.

While growing international tensions clearly threatened West German interests, these difficulties put East Germany’s leaders in a very different position. Events in Afghanistan and Poland could have allowed them the perfect opportunity to reject the relationship with the Federal Republic that they had regarded so ambivalently in the early 1970s. Such a step was easily consistent with prevailing Soviet policy at the time. But something seemed to have changed in the East Germans’ calculation of their interests. Indeed, the crises of the early 1980s may have taught the East German leaders a lesson about their own progress in the decade following Ulbricht’s ouster.

For one thing, by 1980 Honecker and his colleagues were no longer novices in the conduct of détente. Whereas they had once viewed the prospect of opening their country to the West with considerable uncertainty, they now had the advantage of knowing that East Germany had survived détente with its social order relatively unscathed. So long as a limited détente with West Germany served their state’s interests, therefore, there was now no question that its disadvantageous aspects could be managed.

This may have been one of the reasons that the East Germans began at this time to reassess much of their own history and to attempt selectively to rehabilitate controversial figures from the German past, like Martin Luther and Frederick the Great. When the latter’s statue was returned to its historic position on Unter den Linden in East Berlin, and when Luther was ceremoniously rescued from the place of socialist infamy to which he had been consigned for opposing the sixteenth-century German peasants’ uprising, Western analysts were quick to conclude that either a new German nationalism was rearing its head or a weak East German regime was once again seeking feebly to legitimate itself before a cynical populace. Both conclusions were somewhat off the mark. One would look in vain for anything resembling fervent nationalist sentiment among average East Germans today. Rather, the real significance of these developments lay in the fact that the SED leadership no longer feared addressing itself to German issues. In the early days of détente, the country’s leaders had been so afraid of rekindling nationalist feeling among its citizens that many party members had been reluctant even to refer to the country’s "Germanness." In this sense, in contrast, the more recent attempts to synchronize the East German present with Germany’s past (which by 1986 had led even to an as-yet-unresolved inner party debate about the tricky historical significance of Otto von Bismarck) were really a sign of newfound strength and self-assurance.

In addition to feeling more comfortable about invoking their national identity, East Germany’s leaders also found the crises of the early 1980s enlightening in another, more telling sense. Considering that these events revealed to the West Germans the strength of their interest in a perpetuation of the inter-German dialogue, how could the leaders of East Germany have failed to see that, precisely because of détente, their country’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the Federal Republic was thereby strengthened? Unlike the old days, Bonn no longer enjoyed the luxury of simply choosing between ignoring or recognizing its neighbor; its commitments locked West Germany into the logic of inter-German détente. Correspondingly, because Bonn could no longer freely withdraw from this relationship, the old leverage that the West Germans had long exercised over East Germany was significantly reduced.

This shift in the two states’ positions relative to one another could be seen quite clearly in the fall of 1980 when, in response to escalating tensions over Poland, East Berlin drastically increased the amount of currency that Westerners were required to change into East German marks when entering the GDR; in subsequent months, this move led to a dramatic decline in the number of West German visitors to the East. At first, Schmidt’s government was indignant, announcing that it would not tolerate the new exchange requirement. Nevertheless, the limitations on Bonn’s room for maneuver quickly became apparent. When the West Germans hinted that an easing of the requirement might be a precondition to successful future negotiation of trade credits between the two countries, the East Germans effectively called their adversaries’ bluff by feigning a total lack of interest in increasing the credits. As a result, over the next few years, Bonn was able to extract only the most limited concessions (for senior citizens, for children) on the exchange requirement issue. Even today, the strength of the East German economy means that West Germany’s ability to apply economic pressure on its neighbor is not as great as it was in the past.

This is not to say, of course, that only the West Germans had strong reasons for sheltering the inter-German relationship from its turbulent surroundings. Had that been the case, East Berlin could simply have refused to participate in the process. However, East Germany’s leaders had their own set of interests in continuing the dialogue, if only for purposes of self-legitimization. So long as it could be shown that West Germany took the GDR seriously, the East Germans had every reason to favor further contacts. Thus, Honecker went out of his way to welcome Chancellor Schmidt during the latter’s visit to East Germany in late 1981, and to play up the appearance of, in his words, "two independent German states" carrying on "peaceful, good-neighborly relations according to international norms." For his part, Schmidt was so concerned not to ruin the occasion that when martial law was imposed in Poland on the last day of his stay with the East German general secretary, he refrained from denouncing the action and merely joined Honecker in calling upon the Poles to solve their problems without outside interference. In this atmosphere, Honecker needed no convincing that his country’s interests would be well served by his own plans to visit West Germany in the near future.


The vested interests of both German states in détente help to explain why the two countries’ leaders have consistently chosen to pursue something less than their maximal goals in structuring their relations. Although Bonn might wish to lay the foundation for an eventual reunification, it would, in retrospect, have been foolhardy to stress only the ideal goal of a single German nation, for such an uncompromising condition would make negotiations impossible for East Germany. Similarly, though East German leaders may frequently argue that there is no special German question still to be discussed, their actions are often quite different than their rhetoric about "closing" the German question might suggest. Somehow the leaders of the two Germanies have been able to avoid the classic "prisoners’ dilemma": a situation in which the temptation to win propaganda victories might have ultimately stalemated each state’s chances of obtaining even its minimal goals.

The primacy of such considerations has been nowhere more apparent than in the fluctuating policies of Helmut Kohl’s coalition government. While Kohl’s regime came to power promising to restore the issue of eventual German reunification to a central place in the Federal Republic’s Ostpolitik, the new government in Bonn quickly found that there were distinct limits to the kind of discourse on the national question that East Berlin would tolerate. Then, too, as the new government participated in NATO’s missile deployment schedule, it found that the necessity of maintaining good inter-German relations was perforce tied to domestic considerations as well: popular support for the missile decision was contingent upon convincing the West German citizenry that inter-German détente would not be sacrificed in the process. In this case, ironically, the Christian Democrats were even more vulnerable to public pressure than their rivals in the Social Democratic Party, since both the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, operated under the electoral disadvantage of having once included among their numbers some of the greatest opponents of the inter-German agreements of the early 1970s.

For this reason, and because of the presence in the governing coalition of pro-détente members of the Free Democratic Party, Kohl’s party has on several occasions been forced to qualify some of its hard-line stands. When the chancellor agreed in early 1985 to address a controversial organization of West German expellees from Silesia, he touched off an emotionally charged debate in both German states about the implications of such a move for the Federal Republic’s recognition of postwar German (and Polish) borders. As a consequence, when he finally met with the Silesians in June 1985, Kohl’s speech was punctuated with references to his government’s respect for the territories of its eastern neighbors, much to the dismay of those in the West who had expected a far-reaching reassessment of West Germany’s acceptance of the status quo.

The East Germans, too, have often gone beyond paying mere tribute to the virtues of détente in their efforts to sustain the rudiments of the bargaining process between the Germanies. In recent years, this has been evident in East Germany’s deemphasized demand for absolute recognition of its citizenship. Particularly after the Polish crisis, East Berlin has conspicuously toned down its old preconditions for good relations, to the point of requiring from Bonn only a basic "respect" for what East German citizenship entails. Of course, this is still an important demand, and when one talks with SED officials about it today, they will often insist that it represents no real change in their position. But at least for the moment, the open-endedness of such a policy is sufficient to provide room for maneuver between the two sides.

It is one thing to recognize that both German states have an interest in favorable ties. However, if something really has changed in the nature of their relations, and if one wants to know how their relationship might develop in the future, the important question to ask is: who now wants inter-German détente the most? And which of the parties will be most willing to pay the price to assure that the two countries’ relations will actually improve in coming years?

Bonn’s undeniably strong interest in holding open channels of communication with East Germany and its citizens has seemed to make it almost impossible to be tough with East Berlin or impose preconditions upon a continuation of ties. The risks of offending the East German leadership and provoking countermeasures, such as a further tightening of the East German borders, have become too great. In contrast, East Berlin has shown itself to be unexpectedly skillful in reminding its adversary of the benefits of amicable relations; Bonn found this in 1984 when over 30,000 East German citizens were allowed to emigrate to the West, quadrupling the previous year’s number. As a result, there has been an almost unanimous consensus generated among all of the major parties in the Federal Republic that nothing should be done to jeopardize inter-German détente.

This means that in even the worst of times, East Berlin can rest easy with the thought that the West Germans will labor to solidify inter-German contacts. When Honecker finally decides to make his official visit to West Germany, he can confidently anticipate an enthusiastic Western response. If his country’s economy should need any assistance, experience suggests that such aid will be readily forthcoming; witness Bonn’s decision in 1985 to boost its interest-free trade credit to East Berlin, practically without reciprocal conditions.

In such opportune circumstances, the only real uncertainty is how long the East Germans will choose to resist the temptation to raise the ante in their negotiations with Bonn. Is it not high time, GDR leaders may be asking themselves, to press for ever greater qualitative concessions on questions that have long been out of their reach: e.g., the abandonment of the monitoring station in Salzgitter, which West Germany uses to record human rights violations on the German-German border; the upgrading of the two countries’ official representatives; even a partial recognition of the citizenship of the German Democratic Republic?

East German expectations may already be rising. While the postponement in September 1984 of Honecker’s trip to West Germany was widely attributed solely to Soviet misgivings about the timing of the visit, coming as it did just after the deployment of NATO’s new missiles, we should give some credence to East Berlin’s assertions that the trip was doomed almost from the outset. Partly to make convincing to Moscow their case for a perpetuation of inter-German détente, the East Germans had been lobbying Bonn for a sign that the special relationship between the Germanies would contribute to a lessening of tensions between the blocs. But because of Bonn’s inability to demonstrate that concrete progress between the two states would have been assured (specifically, on East German proposals for a mutual renunciation-of-force pact), Honecker’s visit became that much harder to justify. The trip’s postponement carried with it another equally salient message for the West Germans. Honecker was eager to show—as he did by making subsequent excursions to other West European states—that a visit to West Germany was not imperative in his estimation. He could afford to wait.

Significantly, even in the wake of the rather positive outcome of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva in November 1985, the story still seemed to be the same. Political observers were quick to predict a Honecker trip to the West in December 1985, as if a Soviet green light were all that was needed to spur the East Germans along. And, once again, Chancellor Kohl was outspoken in his readiness to receive the East German general secretary. But to the surprise of most observers, the East German leader preferred to remain at home, even at that seemingly opportune time. Despite Honecker’s advanced age of 73 years, the sense of urgency and expectation that one might have expected was just not to be found in East Germany.


A visitor to East Berlin these days is immediately struck by an air of quiet self-satisfaction among party officials that was not present only a few years ago. After a lean period at the beginning of the decade, the East German economy is now growing at a perceptibly healthy rate—conservative economists put the figure at 2.5 percent, while others go as high as five percent annually—and the government has simultaneously proved itself to be adept at reducing the country’s foreign debt. Even Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, during his visit to the SED’s 11th Party Congress in April 1986, found that the East German leadership was not moved to engage in rounds of self-criticism and calls for economic reform such as those heard elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. Instead, the party congress proved to be a convenient vehicle for charting the country’s domestic accomplishments in everything from apartment construction to consumer goods production and the development of high technology. Honecker himself showed that this was hardly a time for modesty. As he declared before his party’s assembled delegates, the East German social system may not "yet [have] reached a state of perfection," but it had made "good headway."

Some Western analysts may have gone a little too far in interpreting Honecker’s markedly self-confident pose as an implicit challenge to the new Soviet leader. Before the congress some observers had even erred in the opposite direction, going so far as to predict Honecker’s removal as general secretary under pressure from the Soviet leadership. But while there were no signs of real conflict between the East Germans and the Soviets at the meeting, it was hard to deny that relations between the two countries had changed appreciably from the years when the East German state had been Moscow’s most subservient ally and had repeatedly found itself susceptible to its patron’s whim. In Ulbricht’s era, the East Germans may have occasionally raised annoying barriers to Soviet foreign policy initiatives, as Ulbricht did when he challenged Moscow’s efforts to regularize relations with West Germany. But Ulbricht never had much influence in the Kremlin, was disliked by his East European neighbors and, toward the end of his rule, had even lost the support of his own Politburo.

The contrast with East Germany in 1986 could not be greater. For the Soviets, Honecker has become not merely a senior statesman within the Warsaw Pact, but also the leader of the U.S.S.R.’s most important ideological, economic and strategic ally. East Germany epitomizes the successful construction of socialism outside of the Soviet Union’s borders. In 15 years in office, partly due to the success of his Westpolitik, Honecker has managed to build a level of domestic support for his regime that would have been unimaginable in the past. He has coupled this accomplishment with a firm grip on the SED leadership, even to the point, apparently, of designating his future successor: Egon Krenz, 49, the former head (as was Honecker himself) of the Free German Youth organization. Moreover, however enviously the Soviets may at times regard their subordinates’ manifest economic achievements, there can be little doubt that if Moscow is to refashion its own economy under Gorbachev, the Soviets are likely to turn to the centralized East German model, and not, as so many Westerners believe, to the Hungarian reform experiments.

This does not mean that there will be no tensions in Soviet-East German relations, particularly on the question of inter-German relations. Just as the cultivation of inter-German détente became an issue of controversy surrounding Honecker’s planned visit to the Federal Republic in 1984, one can expect that further disputes over appropriate policy toward West Germany will recur in the future. Moscow’s own policies, however, make it difficult to object to the continuation of strong ties between East Berlin and Bonn, no matter how ambivalently some observers in the Kremlin view any movement on the historically troublesome German question. Despite growing Soviet skepticism about the U.S.S.R.’s ability to influence West German security policy, for example, Gorbachev has nonetheless attempted to hold open channels of communication to Bonn. To this end, the special relationship between the Germanies provides the Soviets with an unequaled degree of access to the West, an avenue that Moscow will be reluctant to imperil and that East Berlin, with the explicit support of allies like Hungary and Romania, is ready to exploit for its own purposes.

East Berlin’s growing sense of its own importance assuredly does not mean that the East Germans will go so far as to challenge Soviet authority within the socialist alliance—not deliberately, at any rate. But it is not hard to see why the East German elite may at times feel tempted to pursue initiatives that serve its immediate interests. For example, in late May 1986 the East Germans cited West Berlin’s counterterrorist measures as a pretext to require Western diplomats to produce passports, not merely diplomatic identification cards, when crossing into East Berlin. This incident served to confirm what the GDR had always asserted about the Berlin Wall, that it marked an internationally recognized border, which itself demonstrated East Germany’s legitimacy and the permanence of the inter-German divide.

The East Germans were ultimately unable to enforce the new passport requirement because of opposition from the city’s Western occupying powers, France, Britain and the United States. But this small setback probably says more about the complexities of the Berlin situation, and perhaps even more about the mixed emotions with which the Soviet Union regards its own occupation rights in the city, than it does about East Germany’s newfound bargaining strength. In fact, it is exactly this aspect that makes one wonder what might happen should the East Germans choose in like fashion to raise the stakes in their relations with Bonn. After all, the inter-German relationship is a far more precarious enterprise than the maintenance of stability in the Berlin question.


No one, not even in East Germany, seriously expects Bonn to abandon its fundamental objectives, especially the pursuit of eventual national reunification. Rather, the real issue is how the West Germans will choose to pursue their goals in the future. In this case, conditions may be propitious for the kind of rethinking of the country’s Eastern policies that occurred under Willy Brandt’s leadership. Who is to say that the two Germanies cannot finally choose to exchange real ambassadors? And, why should a renunciation-of-force agreement be so hard to achieve? The point is that if Bonn wants to encourage new levels of East German cooperation on any number of pressing issues, ranging from the lessening of border controls to the increase of emigration permits, West Germany’s leaders may have no alternative but to begin reassessing their old tactics.

Indeed, a debate about these questions has been under way for several years now within the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, and was underscored when, amid a storm of Christian Democratic protest, the Bundestag’s deputy opposition leader, Jürgen Schmude, called for a revamping of the Federal Republic’s constitution to provide for more realistic forms of German reunion. Similarly, in a November 1985 visit to East Berlin, the Saarland’s Social Democratic premier, Oskar Lafontaine, expressed the opinion that the FRG would probably eventually have to recognize East German citizenship in the interest of facilitating inter-German travel. In early 1986, this controversy even extended into the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union, when the conservative state secretary for Inner-German Relations, Ottfried Hennig, proposed the abolition of the Salzgitter monitoring center in exchange for East German guarantees not to shoot "border-crossers."

Yet a larger question, from the perspective of the Atlantic alliance, is whether the inter-German dialogue will remain limited to strictly German concerns or be extended to broader issues. One hears frequently from East German officials today that Kohl’s governing coalition can scarcely afford to preach détente to the East while simultaneously subscribing to an American policy of "armed escalation" and "star wars." If the Federal Republic is really interested in peace, it is said in the East, its leaders need to prove it by distancing themselves from the Reagan Administration. Indeed, the idea of expanding the parameters of inter-German dialogue to include security questions has begun to win favor in some circles in West Germany, particularly in the Social Democratic Party, where prominent intellectuals and politicians have argued that the discussion of such common concerns might at least help to enhance the two countries’ relationship. Not surprisingly, this development has met with Soviet approval. Notably, Gorbachev spoke favorably at the East German party congress in April about discussions that have already taken place between the Social Democratic Party and the East German SED concerning the establishment of a chemical weapons free zone in Europe.

Naturally, no one can reliably predict just how open to compromise the West Germans will choose to be in any of their future dealings with East Berlin. Just as there are limits on the willingness of all major West German parties to sacrifice their country’s commitment to national reunification, there seem also to be clear limits on the kinds of intercourse they are willing to entertain with the Eastern bloc. Not only does this maxim apply to a conservative Christian Democratic government, but the majority of the Social Democratic Party’s current leadership is vocally opposed to taking any steps toward the East that might impair the Federal Republic’s responsibilities to the Western alliance. Thus, even the Social Democratic advocates of joint security talks with East Germany have been careful to emphasize that they wish only to facilitate discussion and exchange information, and not to negotiate matters that are best left to NATO and the superpowers. Nevertheless, given the sensitivity of such questions within the alliance, it seems probable that even such limited discussions will be a subject of future controversy.

In addition, the Federal Republic’s openness to bargaining with East Berlin will also depend upon how intensely West Germany’s future leaders feel the need to maintain close inter-German ties. Surveys of younger West Germans suggest that the old spiritual and psychological bonds that once held Germans together are now fading with the passage of time; thus the coming generation of leaders may feel less disposed to concern itself with the fortunes of distant relatives in East Germany. Ironically, this sort of generational change could produce a situation that might redound to the East Germans’ benefit but also change the nature of the present inter-German bargaining relationship by making it less predictable. The East German party leadership might find new governments in Bonn more open to a radical rethinking of their country’s Deutschlandpolitik. Yet, if West Germany’s stakes in the inter-German relationship also declined, the East Germans would then have to look for new levers for exerting pressure on the West.

Another development that might add a new dimension to inter-German negotiations would be a deterioration in East Germany’s economic fortunes, an eventuality that some economists foresee happening in the next decade. Much of the current domestic stability of the communist state is directly attributable to its high rates of growth in the past five years. Should the East German economic upswing falter, East Berlin would not only be hard pressed to finance current rates of consumer spending, but might also find itself more dependent upon an infusion of additional credits from the Federal Republic. In this event, the West Germans might be able to drive tougher bargains in their negotiations with East Berlin, which would in turn reestablish a closer trade-off between the economic benefits that they can offer the East and the political concessions that they desire.

For the moment, however, we can hardly afford to underestimate the historical significance of the recent realignment of the inter-German relationship. We are witnessing a reversal of the old inter-German balance. Future progress between the Germanies seems to be more and more contingent upon the interests and goodwill of policymakers in East Berlin. Since both sides have an interest in perpetuating the basic relationship and maintaining the inter-German accords of the early 1970s, at least the rudiments of inter-German détente will probably last long beyond Honecker’s passing from the leadership. But so long as East Germany enjoys the advantage in negotiations and so long as West Germany persists in its desire to hold the German question open, East Berlin will likely drive harder bargains for inter-German détente.

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  • A. James McAdams is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, specializing in Soviet, East European and German affairs. He would like to thank Richard H. Ullman and the Princeton International Relations Study Group for their helpful comments.
  • More By A. James McAdams