In the romance of the cold war, Berlin has occupied a unique place. Debate continues on whether postwar Europe would have been different if American and British forces had raced to the capital of the German Reich ahead of the Soviets. The Berlin blockade in 1948-49 seemed to settle a key dispute between European and American supporters of the Marshall Plan about whether the Soviet Union had aggressive ambitions toward the West; and the blockade's end, agreed to by Moscow 30 days after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in April 1949, validated the need for this far-reaching commitment to mutual security. The drawn-out Berlin crisis of 1958-61 brought the world closer to cataclysm than any other event of the era save the Cuban missile crisis; it ended only with the construction of the Berlin Wall, which remains the most poignant symbol of East-West confrontation, of Europe's division and of human aspirations blunted by the communist system. By contrast, Berlin also became the focus of the first comprehensive East-West agreement produced by the Ostpolitik and détente that began in the 1960s-an agreement essential to the Federal Republic of Germany's later treaties with Eastern states, the Helsinki Final Act, and talks on mutual and balanced force reductions.


With this heady and consequential history in the cold war, it may seem remarkable that Berlin now commands so little attention in the West. That fact cannot derive simply from the details of the Quadripartite Agreement of 1971. On its face, this accord tidied up some provisions regarding life in, and access to, West Berlin that had not been adequately dealt with by the Western occupying powers during the 1940s. It gave mutual pledges that "disputes shall be settled solely by peaceful means," and it provided some reassurance about customs and Western rights, in the words that "the situation which has developed in the area . . . shall not be changed unilaterally." The unresolved issues of a divided Berlin, however, did not go away. They remain frozen more or less where the diplomacy of 1971 left off, although there has been amelioration of some human problems related to the city, its status and West Berlin's relations with others, especially the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.).

The symbolism of the Quadripartite Agreement counted for much more: the Soviet Union was implicitly declaring its interest in developing a form of relations with the West that was not likely to be fostered through Moscow's periodically holding West Berlin hostage. And in doing so, the Soviets were placing a higher value on pursuing a broad East-West agenda than on pressing East German interests (although, in part because of the Quadripartite Agreement, the Democratic Republic was soon accorded added international legitimacy and in 1972 signed a basic treaty with the Federal Republic, which normalized relations between the two Germanies).

Through the succeeding years-even during the return of deep hostility to East-West relations-Berlin remained relatively calm. Despite occasional nibbling around the edges of the agreement, by both the Soviets and the East Germans, the basic understandings held. Indeed, had the Soviet Union returned to its old ways regarding Berlin after the invasion of Afghanistan, erosion of Soviet relations with the United States would no doubt have had a far greater impact in Western Europe. As it was, "cold war II" never bit as hard in Europe as it did in America.

With a reduction in Berlin's active role in shaping East-West relations-for good or ill-it was not surprising that its symbolism also became less compelling. In 1963, John F. Kennedy could in four words-"Ich bin ein Berliner"-encapsulate the entire postwar struggle in Europe, underscoring its problems and perils, as well as the possibilities that might come from Western solidarity. Fifteen years later, the phrase chosen by Jimmy Carter to follow suit-"Was immer sei, Berlin bleibt frei" ("Whatever will be, Berlin will stay free")-unconsciously depersonalized the significance of Berlin even as it sought to reinforce Western political and spiritual unity regarding this city-symbol. By the time of Ronald Reagan's visit to the Berlin Wall in 1987, words had become ritual-"Es gibt nur ein Berlin" ("There is only one Berlin")-almost an exercise in nostalgia, although one still well appreciated by the city's residents.

By the same token, West Berlin has become less critical to the Federal Republic's definition of its own legitimacy and aspirations to a wholeness of the German nation. The city has always been heavily subsidized by the Federal Republic, through both direct subventions and financial inducements for West Germans to live there. But time has taken its toll: once heralded as a show-window on the West, its neon lights glittering in the sky next to drab East Berlin, the western part of the city now seems a bit shabby compared to any bustling metropolis in the Federal Republic; even the comparison with the city across the wall is no longer quite as stark. Meanwhile, money from Bonn is harder to come by. Indeed, last year the Christian Democratic Union-led federal government reduced its payment to Berlin, although the CDU then controlled the city government.

In recent years there have been fewer efforts by Bonn to take practical steps to strengthen ties to Berlin. Several times between October 1955 and April 1965 the Bundestag met there, and four times, until 1969, the federal president was chosen there-often provoking loud Soviet and East German protests. These practices were ended by the Quadripartite Agreement. Yet today, when actions to enhance Berlin's role in West German life would cause fewer ripples, there is both less need to engage in such symbolism and greater resistance to causing any ripples with the East. Nor has there been much follow-up to Reagan's ambitious proposal to turn Berlin into a major center for "U.N. meetings, or world conferences on human rights and arms control, or other issues that call for international cooperation." The decided preference among West Germans of virtually all political stripes is to preserve the status quo in Berlin and to keep it from again becoming an issue in East-West relations.


Recent political developments in Berlin may have strengthened the reluctance of Bonn to continue subsidizing Berlin at the same rate. The surprising electoral defeat on January 29 of Governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen's CDU government has led to the creation of a "Red-Green" government-a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Alternativen (West Berlin's "Green" party). The election also resulted in the emergence of the new right-wing Republican Party. It gained 7.5 percent of the total vote (and 11 seats in the Berlin House of Representatives), thus surpassing the five percent needed to acquire seats, while the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) fell beneath this critical level.

With these political developments, West Berlin has become less a harbinger of change in East-West politics-from deteriorating relations in the 1940s to the onset of détente-than of trends in domestic German politics. Within a month, similar results emerged from municipal elections in Hesse: major slippage by the CDU and the rise of the Republicans, showing that the first serious incursion by the political right in West Germany in two decades was not just a phenomenon peculiar to Berlin.

Both sets of election results, and particularly those in Berlin, were most significant because of an element that went beyond the usual cycles to be expected in politics, with a government in Bonn that is starting to outlive its mandate. That element was the major influx of ethnic Germans from the East (i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). An estimated 200,000 migrated to the Federal Republic in 1988, and half again as many are expected in 1989. In the main, these newcomers have been most unlike immigrants from the G.D.R., who clearly share German culture, language and collective experience, even if they have been separated for 40 years by the inner-German border. By contrast, the new immigrants come predominately from Poland and from areas in the Soviet Union-such as the Volga River basin, to which many skilled Germans emigrated two centuries ago at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Yet these ethnic Germans are treated the same as immigrants from the Democratic Republic who, upon setting foot in any part of West Germany, Berlin included, are accepted as full citizens on the basis of the contention in the Preamble of the West German Basic Law that there is only one German nation.

Few of these immigrants, however, share German culture or even understand the language. For all practical purposes, they are Poles and Russians; yet, on reaching the Federal Republic, they become eligible for all rights and privileges of native-born West Germans, including the benefits of an extensive welfare-state system. In Berlin, in particular, preferences given to these strangers have produced a backlash-which, ironically, has applied less to Turkish "guest workers" (Gastarbeiter), who largely keep to themselves in particular parts of West Berlin, perform jobs that most Germans do not want and receive no special preferences in public housing or other state services.

In two senses, this new form of Berlin's avant-garde role is important for the phase of East-West relations that is just beginning. The tensions created by the influx of ethnic Germans arise directly from steps taken by the Soviet government as part of Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking." Indeed, rates of emigration from the Soviet Union have neared record highs as Gorbachev has attempted to cultivate opinion in the West. As an example of what can ironically be called a "law of unintended consequences," long-standing West German efforts to gain freedom of emigration for ethnic Germans have led to unwelcome social and political consequences (though probably short-lived), as the wish is fulfilled.

More important from the standpoint of West Germany's allies, the possibility that Berlin's "Red-Green" politics will be duplicated elsewhere in the Federal Republic-perhaps even in the Bundestag after the autumn 1990 elections-has fueled concerns about the country's future orientation, especially the continuation of defense and foreign policies firmly tied to the West. No less worrisome are the possibilities that the Republicans' fortunes will continue to wax, especially following the death of Bavaria's moderator of the right, Franz-Josef Strauss, and that the FDP-long the holder of the vigorous center in West German politics-will be excluded from the next Bundestag.

Apprehensions about a loosening of West Germany's ties to the West-which some observers have taken to the extreme of musing about "another Rapallo," in reference to the Soviet-German understanding concluded in 1922-are surely unworthy, as they betray a lack of understanding about the history and evolution of the Federal Republic. Nevertheless, there is clearly a new assertion of West German identity-a form of nationalism, but quite remote from that which has bedeviled Germany and its neighbors in the past. It is reflected in discussions, initiated by the SPD but with broader backing, about asserting full sovereignty in the Federal Republic, especially as the activities of foreign military forces have come under closer public scrutiny in an age in which war seems remote. Intense public reaction to the crash at an air show last year at the U.S. Air Force Base at Ramstein-a base closed to the Federal Republic's civil powers-was a particularly good example: in addition to underscoring the burdens of military activity, it dramatically reminded West Germans that their nation still lacks a peace treaty and thus juridically, though not in practice, remains subject to the ultimate authority of the World War II victors. The West German assertion of its identity is also evident in the growing resistance to continued U.S. tutelage in a wide range of security issues, the hardly concealed disdain for the economic mismanagement reflected in U.S. budget and trade deficits, and a determination to show some independence in dealing with East European states.

It is striking, however, that even among those West German leaders who most emphasize the need for the Federal Republic to extend "sovereignty" over all its territory, Berlin is treated as an exception. West Germans who concern themselves with the status of the city seem as devoted to maintaining the occupation regime as are the four powers, and there is an appreciation that this regime makes Berlin a legitimate place for inner-German contacts that might not otherwise be possible. There is grumbling about the lack of control over aspects of daily life, as happened when British authorities recently cut down trees to improve flight safety at the small Gatow airport, and there is some aversion to the national-day parades conducted by the occupying forces. Yet the broad consensus among West Berliners is that nothing must be permitted to reduce the rights of the three powers, at least in any manner that would compromise their standing with regard to the Soviet Union and East Germany. Thus, for example, successive governments in Bonn have been willing to live, though grudgingly, with a four-power agreement that, since 1945, has banned all German aircraft from greater Berlin (at first, including kites and model airplanes). Because East Germany will not relent, this preserves a monopoly of the West Berlin traffic for airlines of the three Western occupying powers, plus a new Franco-German carrier-Euro-Berlin-in which Lufthansa has only a minority interest that preserves the legal niceties. Yet despite a desire for a more "normal" air regime for Berlin, few West Germans would like to change it at the price of compromising allied authority there.

This particular West German sensitivity for Berlin's legal status was underscored during bargaining to form the new government. One of the demands that the SPD's new governing mayor, Walter Momper, imposed on leaders of the Alternativen as the price of coalition was full support for the city's occupied status and the rights of the allied powers. At the same time-in a step that only in Berlin would not seem paradoxical-the SPD also demanded full acceptance of the practice, created by the Berlin Constitution of 1950, under which all legislation of the Federal Republic is routinely adopted through passage of a "cover law" by Berlin's House of Representatives-a practice developed to deal with the legal technicality that West Berlin cannot be considered a Land (state) of the Federal Republic.


For their part, the Western allied powers continue to observe the ritual of protecting their sovereign rights, which, collectively, make Berlin the world's most complex international issue, save perhaps for Jerusalem. Words count, as do diplomatic formalities-the allied powers will deal only with Soviet officials, not East German-plus the repetitive exercise of allied rights, throughout both parts of the city, such as the daily flag patrols of uniformed Western soldiers through East Berlin that assert the city's unity. Keeping track of the legal lore of Berlin-considered critical to preserving Western rights-is a special craft in the British, French and U.S. foreign services, and these highly trained officials coordinate with the West Germans in Bonn (not Berlin) through the so-called Bonn Group.

To an outsider, these rituals seem anachronistic. But for each of the four powers, the scrupulous preservation of its special rights, status and functions in Berlin clearly serves political purposes, which have changed over time and, indeed, are acquiring more significance now than they have had in many years. For France, its presence in Berlin is increasingly tied to the development of Franco-German cooperation, which, in significant part, is a reaction to fears in Paris that Washington will progressively reduce its military presence in, and political commitment to, Western Europe. For Britain, presence in Berlin adds symbolic weight to the relatively modest military contribution of the British Army of the Rhine. And it continues to be evidence of British ambitions to be part of great power bargaining over the future of Europe-a lingering means of securing a place that is analogous to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's assertion that Britain's nuclear deterrent bought it a place at the "top table."

Most important among the Western powers is the leading role played in Berlin by the United States, both because of its central significance in East-West relations and because of the vital importance the Federal Republic attaches to U.S. political and security commitments. By resolutely remaining in Berlin, the United States shows common cause with its West German allies, thus helping to shore up confidence in broader undertakings and, in the bargain, both providing international legitimacy to the Basic Law's assertions about the continued existence of one German nation and-less important-seeming to preserve the possibility of Berlin's again serving as Germany's capital. Nor is it necessary for any West German to desire reunification to appreciate the value of keeping open these options or-through the continuation of the Berlin occupation regime-reminding everyone that the German question remains unresolved.

From the U.S. point of view, Berlin serves a special purpose. Since the end of World War II, in times fair and foul, it has provided a recognized and regular point of contact-symbolically and substantively-between the United States and the Soviet Union, between East and West. At times of crisis, Berlin and the rules enveloping it have provided a safety valve, in the form of challenge and counter-challenge within the diplomatic rather than military realm. And at times of improving relations, it has provided a well-known set of problems and difficulties that could be dealt with in a recognized and accepted setting, as evidence of what else could become possible.

The U.S. role in Berlin has taken on added significance as change beckons in East-West relations in Europe. The United States (along with Britain and France) is legitimately present and engaged deep inside the most important of the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact allies-a position based on original rights deriving from the defeat of the German Reich. In a way and to a degree that could not otherwise be possible, the United States' presence in Berlin makes it a central European power, with a legitimate interest in the evolution of events.

Nor is this point lost on the Soviet Union. While from time to time it has stood stoutly with the G.D.R. in asserting the latter's claims to be sovereign in East Berlin, it is as sedulous as the Western powers in preserving and demonstrating its rights as an occupying power in all parts of Berlin; essentially for that reason it drew out to the end the drama of Rudolf Hess in the British sector's Spandau prison. Today the Soviet position in East Germany is secure. But this might not always be the case, particularly after a generational change in the East German leadership, perhaps significant reductions in the Soviet forces based in East Germany and unforeseen internal developments there. Then the Soviets, too, could find added political and diplomatic value as an occupying power in Berlin, especially well placed to make assertions regarding the legitimacy and interests of the G.D.R.

Berlin's significance in relations within the communist bloc has again been demonstrated by the G.D.R.'s stiff response to the Gorbachev agenda. Last year, demonstrators in East Berlin who were shouting support for Gorbachev were taken in hand; an East German Politburo member wondered "If your neighbor changes his wallpaper, does that mean you also have to do so?" (The comment prompted the papering of part of the wall on the Western side!) And the East Germans have recently been policing the wall with renewed brutality, including some killings. The target for this last message is probably not so much the West or the East German population as the Kremlin: "Watch your step, Comrade Gorbachev."

Indeed, few observers of Berlin believe that the East German regime could tolerate the wall's coming down. With increased living standards in the G.D.R. (though still far behind the Federal Republic's) and with a progressive liberalization of family visits from East to West, there would not likely be the kind of outpouring of East Germans that prompted the Berlin Wall's erection in 1961. But many skilled workers and professionals would want to leave. The embarrassment to Erich Honecker's government would be all the greater because of the comparison with Gorbachev's ambitions for glasnost and perestroika.

In terms of calling renewed attention to the inhumanity represented by the Berlin Wall and demonstrating the U.S. commitment to change in Europe, President Reagan was right during his 1987 visit to taunt: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." But in practical terms, his message was misaddressed. So long as the G.D.R. needs the Berlin Wall it will remain standing. The Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, commented cryptically on the subject last January, "When the Berlin Wall was set up, there really were reasons for it. One will have to consider whether these reasons still exist." He then dryly suggested that any further questions be directed to the foreign ministers of the two Germanies.


What happens in Europe and what happens in the two Germanies is the key to Berlin's future. It is no longer the central focus of East-West tensions or the place where change begins. Because its status cannot be altered without calling into question other, more important, arrangements regarding the full range of East-West relations in Europe, Berlin cannot be the beginning of a transformation of the political and security structure of the continent.

The "onion" must be peeled from the outside in. Though various steps can be taken in tandem, broader arrangements for reducing or ending the division of Europe must be the prerequisite for altering the condition of the German states-certainly in any formal way, beyond the progressive amelioration of human problems and the strengthening of economic and political ties. And determining the fate of the Germanies must precede any final resolution of the Berlin question. To reverse the process would be simply to invite trouble, by raising imponderables-Who owns Berlin? What place for Germany?-without a ready-made, encompassing answer that is Europe-wide.

There is little doubt that the outcome of this sequence of events is still many years off. Before current developments could provide a basis for decisive change in Europe, many things must happen. These include: major progress in reducing the military dimension of confrontation, both in its own terms and for its impact on political relations; the completion of a form of political, social and economic revolution in the key East European states, so that stability will be possible without occupation troops, foreign or domestic; an implicit acknowledgment by the Soviet Union of its ideological bankruptcy and its explicit acceptance of a security regime in Eastern Europe quite different from today's; the development of a means for retaining a viable U.S. presence on the European continent and America's continued engagement as a "European" power; and-perhaps most daunting-a widely accepted answer to the "German problem," whether in the form of two states, as now, or a new unity.

Neither Germany nor Berlin can be ignored. Indeed, in face of the Gorbachev revolution, it is obviously becoming more difficult for the Western allies to maintain robust conventional defenses, plus acceptance of a doctrine that involves nuclear weapons, especially deployments on West German soil. There is a risk that the Soviet promise of change will lead to a lessening of effort in the West before actual military developments or the results of arms control negotiations warrant such reductions in the Western military posture. This spring's squabble between the Federal Republic and, principally, the United States over the modernization of short-range nuclear forces has dramatized this problem but by no means exhausted it. With war so remote, containment of the Soviet Union is no longer adequate as an objective around which to rally the support of the West German population-or that of several other West European countries. And with a rising role for the "Greens" and the possibility that the SPD will return to power in Bonn by the end of 1990, there is added reason not to be laggard in considering issues of change in Europe.

For the United States, however, the possible restructuring of the European political order poses a special problem of exercising leadership. Its independence of action in dealing with the Soviets must be modified; it must not act on the future of Europe without the close involvement of its allies and a direct role for the East Europeans-not another Yalta.

The best first step is for the Western allies to create and then to present their own vision-looking toward the day when the continent will again be undivided. That will require the development of various alternative schemes for security-each as stable as today's, but more productive, less expensive and more humane. In the past, there have been legitimate arguments against developing and advancing such ideas, for fear that discussion would lead to reduced Western defense efforts before some viable alternative could be constructed. Today, however, the reverse risk is evident: without a sense of long-range purpose, the alliance could progressively erode from within, the victim of Soviet diplomacy and Western economic difficulty or inaction.

There is particular need for the allies to develop and present such a vision for the Federal Republic, and to recognize that any West German government will profit from being able to offer some hope that conditions within the G.D.R., between the two Germanies and in Berlin will improve. It takes nothing away from West German integration within the West and its institutions to see the value in presenting the scope of an alternative, its prospects and the problems to be resolved.

Here, Berlin can play a central role as a focus for testing Soviet intentions, for illuminating the consequences of continuing Eastern bloc actions-reflected in Western demands for the Berlin Wall to come down-and for exploring the willingness of the G.D.R. to seek greater legitimacy through improving human conditions and inner-German contacts. Berlin symbolizes the close interaction of four levels of diplomacy: U.S.-Soviet, East-West (with Britain and France standing in for their European partners), inner-German and the single city itself. Thus what is permitted to happen there-and the discussions that take place within Berlin and about Berlin-can become a means of both calibrating and fostering progress toward a larger and precedent purpose: the slow but steady march toward ending the division of Europe.

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  • Robert E. Hunter is Vice President for Regional Programs and Director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. From 1977 to 1979, he was Director of West European Affairs at the National Security Council.
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