Seventeen months of intricate negotiation involving the four powers responsible for Germany, the two German states and the North Atlantic and Warsaw Treaty alliances have finally yielded a Berlin agreement. It is the first major East-West accord in Europe since the Austrian State Treaty in 1955 and suggests that old-fashioned diplomacy still has its virtues. The agreement's provisions, which are far better than Western foreign offices dared hope when the negotiations began, regulate the thorniest aspects of the Berlin problem, notably the access issue. But they do not solve the problem in the sense of establishing a new status for the city. Indeed, whether the agreement holds up at all depends on whether the present détente in Europe continues. Experience with Soviet policy has taught that this is not predictable. One result is, however, certain: the agreement compels the West to come fully to terms soon with the second German state. The German Democratic Republic is becoming, as Alice might put it, permanenter and permanenter.

Not only is the G.D.R. expressly included under its formal name in the Berlin treaty, the follow-on arrangements for transit traffic which it is negotiating with West Germany are to constitute an integral part of the overall agreement. The road now is open, American and West German officials agree, to talks between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries on reducing forces and at the same time or later to an East-West conference on security in Europe. Are negotiations on troop reductions feasible without direct involvement of the state whose army is rated the most efficient in the Eastern alliance? And is a security conference conceivable without participation by the one member of the Warsaw Pact which feels itself the most insecure? It hardly seems possible, likely-or even desirable. In opening the road to these projects the Berlin agreement also virtually ensures the emergence of the German Democratic Republic as a full-fledged actor in the politics of European security.

It is a little surprising that this entrance is so belated. The reasons are to be found in Berlin's vulnerability and in the Western alliance's solidarity. As long as there was no agreement guaranteeing access to the city, the Federal Republic and its allies which occupy Berlin feared that to legitimize the G.D.R. internationally would be to reinforce its claims to sovereignty over the air, rail, highway and canal routes running from West Germany to Berlin through East German territory. Sufficient unto the day was the existing evil of the G.D.R.'s de facto control over these routes, which it demonstratively exploited at its pleasure to delay, harass and sometimes completely block traffic to the isolated city. Equally important, America, Britain and France, and with them Bonn's other NATO allies, have been pledged since 1954 to accept the West German government as the sole legitimate spokesman for all Germans, to support its objective of reunification and thus not to accord the G.D.R. formal recognition. They also have more or less willingly backed the West Germans in their campaign to keep the G.D.R. from gaining political responsibility and international status.

Underlying the allies' solidarity with the Federal Republic on this score has been the conviction that moves on their part to legitimize the G.D.R. would be interpreted in Bonn as prejudicing chances for reunification and might give birth to a new German nationalistic backlash that could undo the democratic system in West Germany and lead Bonn to combine writh Moscow in policies inimical to the alliance. Most allies, especially the United States, therefore publicly endorsed the official West German thesis of the 1950s and early 1960s that the division of Germany was inherently unstable, hence the primary cause of division and tension in Europe. These assessments weighed overwhelmingly in Western calculations until recently.

Chancellor Willy Brandt's Social Democratic-Liberal (SPD-FDP) government, which has made the German national question central to its Ostpolitik, has now fundamentally altered previous policy toward East Berlin. At the same time as the G.D.R. is becoming politically consolidated, the régime is well entrenched and its people may be developing a sense of identification with their state. Its ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) apparently encountered little trouble last spring in replacing veteran leader Walter Ulbricht with Erich Honecker, thus successfully passing that most difficult test for a communist régime, the transfer of political power. But still lacking a national base-in this sense it is a nationless state-the G.D.R. remains vulnerable to influence from the West, which focuses with peculiar intensity through the lens of the common nationality that East Germans share with their countrymen in the Federal Republic


The Grand Coalition of Kiesinger's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Brandt's Social Democrats, which assumed office in late 1966, already had begun to revise previous attitudes toward the G.D.R. by including it as an entity in policy toward Eastern Europe instead of ignoring it as predecessor administrations had done. The striking changes came with the Brandt Scheel administration in 1969. The innovative and extraordinarily sophisticated minds behind the new departure have been Herbert Wehner, the SPD's shrewd Bundestag floor leader, and Egon Bahr, Brandt's long-time personal adviser on Eastern policy matters and now State Secretary in his Chancellery. The radical break[i] with the policies of previous administrations can be found in the Brandt government's declared willingness to: (1) accept the G.D.R. as a state and the SED as its effective ruler; (2) treat with the SED leaders on the basis of full equality; (3) respect what was formerly called the "demarcation line" between East and West Germany as an inviolable frontier; (4) abandon previous claims that the Federal Republic alone is entitled to speak for all Germans; (5) conclude a binding treaty with the G.D.R. regulating mutual relations.

Where has Brandt stopped? Responding to opposition charges that national goals have been put aside, the Government says that it still adheres to the concept of one German nation, a concept that is also embodied in the G.D.R.'s constitution, thus keeping alive the emotional, cultural and perhaps eventually the political basis for unity of the "two German states." It maintains that this preserves the right of self-determination for Germans and thus the means of one day altering the status quo.

And, finally, it stresses even more than its predecessors that Four-Power (American, French, British and Soviet) responsibility for Germany, which has constituted the basis for the Berlin agreement, symbolizes that there is as yet no final settlement of the German problem, and, Bahr has argued, actually precludes West Germany from accepting, even if it should want to, the permanent division of the country.

Refusing, then, to accord the G.D.R. full recognition, Brandt's government has sought to draw a distinction that is subtle but politically vital for its present domestic position and future policy toward East Berlin. It maintains that the Federal Republic's relations with the G.D.R. are not the same as those with foreign countries but of a "special" nature, since the G.D.R. is not "foreign" to West Germany. If the G.D.R. will accept the distinction and sign satisfactory agreements with the Federal Republic on that basis, Bonn is willing to cease opposing G.D.R. relations with third countries and to agree to its membership in the United Nations. So far the Federal Republic has been successful in convincing other countries to delay recognition of the G.D.R. until the two Germanys have come to an agreement, and in withstanding pressures for early admission of both to the United Nations. But for success to last, the West Germans must be able to point to concrete progress toward settling their differences with the G.D.R. Otherwise third countries will not be long deterred. Of the 29 states that now accord East Berlin full recognition, more than half are non-communist. And public pressure for recognition is building steadily even in NATO countries such as France, Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

Brandt's government isn't saying much about its long-term objectives toward East Germany. Calling upon Germans to face at last the bitter truth that the idea of a unitary German state enjoys virtually no support abroad, the Chancellor has relegated unification to a future so distant as virtually to renounce it as a practical policy objective. Among the West German public, too, there is today little discussion of the projects and schemes for bringing the West and East Germany closer together-the joint commissions, confederations, loose federations and internationally supervised free elections-which professors and politicians proposed so plentifully until just a few years ago.

Brandt prefers to focus on the short term: a treaty that will regulate "coexistence" (ein Nebeneinander) between the two German states and will lay the basis for what can only be translated as a future "togetherness" (ein Miteinander) between them. Interpreted, these phrases seem to mean establishing a working relationship and hoping it can be used first to ameliorate conditions of life for East Germans and later to halt the steady divergence that has marked the development of the East and West German societies and political structures over the past quarter-century. One should perhaps not speculate beyond these declared aims. However, the communists surmise that Brandt and his associates also hope, through the working relationship, to develop new communities of East-West German interest, accelerate already evident trends toward embourgeoisification in East German society, moderate the SED's political behavior, and promote political pluralism in the G.D.R. (For the East German Communist Party, of course, such objectives-all unstated by Bonn-are equivalent to an effort to subvert its rule.)

It is self-evident that Bonn's new policy toward East Germany runs a high risk of perpetuating the very partition it seeks to attenuate. To accept Honecker's régime is to enhance its international status and help its domestic consolidation-a process that is already far advanced.


Honecker's apparently uncontested and untroubled takeover of power from Ulbricht last May underscores East Germany's stability and the fact that the SED régime has been in power longer-23 years-than any German government since the fall of the monarchy. For more than a decade, the G.D.R. has been more stable than other communist states: there has been no overt unrest of significance since 1953 and no known infighting among the Party leaders since Ulbricht rid himself of a rival faction in 1958.

The SED's new First Secretary himself typifies this continuity and stability as well as the now indigenous nature of the régime he heads. Fifty-nine years old and a communist since childhood-he joined the Young Pioneers at ten, the Party at 17-he became SED heir-presumptive as early as 1958, when Ulbricht made him a Politburo member. Like his predecessor, a sober, methodical and energetic manager of Party organization men, he has long watched over the armed forces and security services for the SED, handled its organizational matters and is reported to have prepared and executed its riskiest political project so far-erection of the Wall in 1961. He has been placing his people in key positions within the Party and military for over a decade, many of them officials who helped him run the communist youth organization as far back as 1946.

Tough, hard-working and experienced, this generation in their fifties or early sixties has matured in the G.D.R. and its ruling Party. Their cause is perfecting, consolidating and making both institutions run efficiently. Honecker, who was imprisoned in a Brandenburg penitentiary during the entire 12 years of Nazi rule and has spent little time abroad except for two years of political schooling in Moscow 15 years ago, operates within the framework of the East German state. He lacks the Comintern background which, it sometimes seemed, led Ulbricht to look upon the G.D.R. as the nucleus of a larger communist Germany and to aspire to influence leftists in the Federal Republic.

Under Ulbricht, Honecker and Prime Minister Willi Stoph, the SED has entrenched itself solidly since the Wall, developing into what is the archetype of a post-revolutionary communist régime as described by Richard Lowenthal: a machine strongly rational in running the economy and a highly organized government, conservative in the predictable regularity of its bureaucratic procedures, administrative rules and law; but yet authoritarian in its readiness to dispense with legal guarantees when it feels threatened from below and in its willingness to tolerate only those limited elements of pluralism which it can keep under tutelary control. At home, the régime's stability rests on three factors: (1) a socioeconomic structure that differs totally from that of the Federal Republic; (2) the unique modernized nature of the SED; and (3) an impressive economic performance, which helps the Party legitimate its rule.

The G.D.R.'s imposed revolution has restratified society, abolishing or bringing under Party control all traditional German institutions capable of commanding a separate loyalty from East Germans or linking them with their countrymen in the West Paradoxically, however, it has not at the same time destroyed traditional German-or better, Prussian-attitudes and patterns of authoritarian political behavior. Readiness to accept discipline, respect for constituted authority, and apathy toward politics have greatly assisted the communists to rule. Potential foci of opposition are lacking in G.D.R. society in any case. The literary and humanistic intelligentsia-the fount of dissidence in Russian and most East European countries-have never played a political role of that sort in Germany and do not stand high in East Germans' esteem. The managerial-technocratic élite are as apolitical as Albert Speer was in his time and cannot be expected to challenge the Party's primacy individually, much less collectively.

East German society, is, however, characterized by a high degree of social equality and of mobility, offering to personalities attuned to the demands of a technological age and industrialized communist society wide access to higher education and rapid career advancement. Since 1961 the managerial- technical élite produced by this system has come to accept and share with the Party an orientation of values toward performance and efficiency. Important, too, in giving this élite a stake in the system were East Germany's economic reforms introduced in 1963 and promoted by Ulbricht himself. East Germany has become unique among communist societies in its capacity to diffuse modern technology, maintain close coöperation between industrial and political élites, and tolerate a limited pluralism in the economic sphere without noticeable effect on the political structure. It is the model of technocratic conservatism in the communist world.

Nowhere among communist countries-except perhaps in the Soviet Union-does the Party play so prominent a role in guiding and controlling society and the economy. The SED has been successful in combining ideological orthodoxy with economic reform, centralized controls with material and career incentives, and managerial-technocratic expertise with continuing political indoctrination and rigid Party discipline. Abandoning the terror and totalitarian methods of the 1950s and early 1960s-although the Wall still stands as a repulsive symbol that these methods can, if necessary, be applied-the SED has developed a highly sophisticated system of "line" authority, formal staffs, and informal coöperation with enterprise managers that enables it to run the industrialized East German economy without diminishing Party control. It has coöpted and advanced the managers and technicians, rewarding them but granting them little political voice. Its leadership is far better educated and more science-oriented than that of other communist parties. With a membership of nearly two million in a total population of 17 million-a larger share than in any other communist country- the SED has also been able over the past decade to bring an increasing number of citizens into the political process.

With the population generally, the SED's chief means of legitimation remains its performance in running the economy so as to keep living standards rising more rapidly than in other communist countries. Despite setbacks in the last two or three years, growth over the past decade has been respectable for an economy that was already highly industrialized to begin with: between 1960 and 1969, the gross national product in real terms grew 4.5 percent annually, which was only a shade below the annual expansion in West Germany (4.8 percent). The average East German's living standard today is far ahead of that elsewhere in Eastern Europe: perhaps a third higher than in Hungary or Czechoslovakia and certainly twice as high as in the Soviet Union. In personal consumption, social welfare and education the G.D.R. also maintains its traditional lead. Simultaneously, it has been able not only to fulfill heavy export obligations to the Soviet Union but also to increase investments, so that today at about 23 percent of GNP, the East German investment ratio is nearly at the West German level but with a greater share going to industry. Their economy's performance nourishes East Germans' sense of pride and superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the G.D.R.'s eastern neighbors, thus promoting their identification with their state.

Distinctive social patterns, efficient Party control, and a rising living standard have advanced a process whereby East Germans' previous hostility toward the régime changed first into passive acceptance and now is moving toward positive loyalty and a sense of a separate East German national identity. How far the process has gone, no one can really say. The régime will not permit its citizens' loyalty to be put to a true test. Some Western observers take the popular acclaim for Willy Brandt when he visited Erfurt in 1970 as evidence that the SED cannot count on East Germans' allegiance,, All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that East Germans generally accept the G.D.R. as a separate state for the foreseeable future, approve of its social order and most aspects of its economic system, and have developed a sense of distinctiveness from both West Germany and their Slavic neighbors.

But the tie of common German nationality still retains a dynamic political potential: the Party discovered to its discomfort when it polled workers recently that 71 percent considered "Germany" rather than the G.D.R. as their fatherland. The lack of a national base will remain the greatest weakness of the G.D.R. as long as the concept of the nation-state remains the prime determinant of political attitudes in Europe, the more so since Brandt has revitalized the concept of a single German nation.


Although the SED régime has a firmer internal base for its rule than has commonly been realized in the West it is also true that linkages with the Soviet Union remain the chief guarantee of its durability and stability. Because the process of East German "nation-building" is incomplete and the pull of a common German nationality is still strong, the SED's leaders continue to feel insecure and to regard the closest possible integration with the Soviet Union as a vital self-interest for their state. They have made a deliberate policy decision to intensify that relationship in order to increase all possible fields of political, ideological and economic interaction. Ulbricht's objective, and it seems to be Honecker's as well, has been to make East Germany indispensable to the Soviets and thus to maximize its influence not only in Moscow but also in the Eastern bloc's regional organizations, COMECON and the Warsaw Pact.

For a Soviet Union whose first foreign policy priority, in times of détente as of tension, remains cohesion of its East European power sphere, the stakes in the G.D.R. are high. East Germany anchors Soviet hegemony in East Europe, as was evidenced in the military action against Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in the Polish upheavals in 1956 and perhaps again in December 1970. Although Soviet military planning may be underway for the troop cutbacks which Brezhnev has declared he is willing to discuss, it is well to remember that Moscow has considered forward deployment of 20 or more Soviet divisions in the G.D.R. essential to its military security system since the Second World War. A fundamental alteration in that deployment would be surprising. Brezhnev's offer may still be genuine enough, of course. He and his Politburo evidently have concluded that the West will not credit their talk of détente in Europe unless they also talk of troop cuts. They might decide that, with the G.D.R, consolidated, the Soviet Union's military and political positions no longer require as many as the 300,000 or more Soviet troops and 800 combat aircraft presently stationed west of the Oder.

Politically, the Kremlin has been able to count upon the consistent and outspoken support of East Berlin against polycentric tendencies in the communist movement, whether of the Maoist, West European (especially Italian communist) and East European revisionist, or Jugoslav and Rumanian nationalist varieties. In both the Warsaw Pact and COMECON, the G.D.R. acts as a centripetal force reinforcing alliance cohesion. What East German deviations there have been have taken the form of preferences for a tighter bilateral relationship with the Soviet Union. Diminished Soviet political and ideological authority in the communist world has served to confer a special role upon the G.D.R. as a staunch supporter of Soviet policies.

Over the past decade, too, the G.D.R. has become an increasing economic asset to the Soviet Union. Each has long been the other's largest foreign trade partner, East Germany accounting in 1969 for 15.3 percent of total Soviet turnover, while Soviet trade represented 41.2 percent of the G.D.R.'s total. East Germany supplies the Soviet Union with high technology output from its specialized industries: machinery, machine tools, precision and optical instruments, and a large variety of chemical and electronic products, During the past few years it has also been called upon to provide investment credits for Russian extractive industries. At the same time, because it lacks raw materials, including coal, iron and petroleum, the G.D.R, constitutes a significant market for Soviet exports of these items. In certain product fields the G.D.R. has set out to develop a symbiotic relationship with the Soviet Union. Their 1971-1975 trade agreement reflects new patterns of closer integration, notably an apparently significant political decision to make the East German economy more dependent upon Soviet machinery.

These strategic, political and economic advantages make it unlikely indeed that the Soviet Union will dispense with the G.D.R. or willingly see it weakened. The relationship between Moscow and East Berlin is no longer a one-way street, however, the G.D.R. no longer a satellite but a junior partner, at least in European matters. The greater mutuality of the relationship opens up opportunities for East German influence in the Kremlin. And this influence is directed toward keeping the territorial, ideological and political lines of division in Europe as distinct as possible. To blur them is to undermine the rationale for a G.D.R. separateness that must override an underlying bond of common nationality with West Germans. The instinctive East German approach thus has been to stress to Moscow the dangers of coexistence and insist on a rigid doctrinaire stance in dealings with the West, thus reinforcing residual ideological components in Soviet foreign policy.

As the Soviet-West German treaty of 1970 and the recent Berlin agreement suggest, G.D.R. influence in Moscow is not sufficient to deter the Kremlin when broader policy considerations dictate an emphasis on reconciliation and diminishing tensions between East and West. Neither the treaty, nor the agreement, nor closer relations between Bonn and Moscow are to East Berlin's liking, They bring the G.D.R. under new pressures. Greater stability and greater influence in Moscow, however, put the G.D.R. in a position to mitigate these pressures and to win tangible political benefits for East Berlin from the new set of international relationships that now seems to be developing in Europe.


Inclusion of the German Democratic Republic in the Berlin agreement underlines what West Germany's new policy, the G.D.R.'s stability, and Soviet interests have made inevitable. As early as 1955, when the Geneva conferences on Germany failed and the Soviet Union thereupon signed a treaty with the G.D.R. affirming its sovereignty, it became clear that Moscow had opted for two states in Germany-a choice which West Germany and its allies have been powerless to alter. Perhaps sensing this, Secretary Dulles, who in 1958 contemplated acknowledging the East German controls on access routes to Berlin, and President Kennedy, who was in 1962 and 1963 willing to countenance their participation in a Berlin access authority and their signature on the nuclear test ban and other arms-control agreements, foresaw an international role for the G.D.R.

Western statesmen have shrunk from pursuing these lines of thought too far, however, chiefly because they have feared a reaction in West Germany that might undermine its stability and its loyalty to the alliance. Perhaps such fears were always exaggerated. In any case, Brandt has been able to carry off his new approach toward the G.D.R. without provoking any such backlash so far.

The partition of Germany-a state of affairs which has been the rule not the exception in that country's history-has since 1945 coincided with a high degree of stability in both German states and in the European balance. The present reduced level of tension must cast doubt on previous policy assumptions that the partition of the country is the cause of tension, that it is necessarily unstable and unnatural.

Brandt's government has displayed realism and much political courage in questioning some of these assumptions and in facing up to the fact of two German states. It recognizes too that the G.D.R.'s full international emergence, including membership in the United Nations, cannot be forestalled much longer. It is only asking that its friends and allies bear with it and not themselves accelerate this process until the two Germanys establish a treaty relationship confirming the "special" nature of their relations. Synchronizing U.S. policy toward the G.D.R. with this request by a trusted and trustworthy ally has been no real problem so far. Nor is it likely to become one in the immediate future, notwithstanding recent urgings by many distinguished Americans that the United Nations include the two Germanys along with the two Koreas and two Vietnams.

Bonn's realism extends to acknowledging the incompatibility of a unitary Germany with the demands of European security. Equally incompatible are the exclusion of the G.D.R. régime, which is attributable to Western alliance policy, and the isolation of the East German people, for which the SED régime is responsible. A new pattern of East-West relationships in Europe could scarcely be sustained unless the G.D.R. is accorded a participatory role in developing it. For East Germany, cold-war confrontations are neither outmoded nor inexpedient It alone among European states has an interest in prolonging tensions. It has revived them often enough, and its obstructive potential remains considerable. If, however, the G.D.R. régime becomes actively involved in the East-West negotiations on European security problems that now impend, it may well gain a different and clearer perception of its interest than that which isolation has bred. Preparations for a European Security Conference, and for troop reduction talks, as well as the eventual colloquies themselves, need therefore to provide for G.D.R. participation. One may hope that this can be accomplished in a way that takes account of Bonn's position on the special nature of its relations with East Berlin. A formal declaration by West Germany, prior to the meetings, reiterating its position might suffice. So might a formal reference by the Four Powers, similar to that in the preamble to their Berlin agreement, to continuing quadripartite rights and responsibilities.

The SED régime continues to isolate its people from international life and from broader and freer exchanges with Westera countries because it fears the internal effects of such exchanges, particularly those with West Germans. But the barriers which, it has erected to them are a medieval anachronism, in the center of modern Europe. The problem before the West is to create conditions under which Honecker's régime could feel confident that dismantlement of the barriers would not jeopardize its stability. Probably the only way for the West to remove insecurities in East Berlin is to end the continuous challenges to the G.D.R.'s sovereignty and to treat it internationally on the same basis as the Federal Republic. It can then give priority to encouraging participation by East Germans in Europe-wide enterprises dealing with the many problems-from water pollution to mass tourism and from urban blight to technical education for industrial and post-industrial societies-with which European countries must deal individually in any case but could better cope with collectively. Honecker and his associates must be brought to see that a wide participation by East Germans in such projects will yield the G.D.R. greater benefits and more real security than the rigidities, tension and isolation upon which it has had to rely so far. Then the skills, talents and energies which East Germans possess in no less measure than their fellow countrymen west of the Elbe can be enlisted in Europe's cause.

[i] Helmut Schmidt, "Germany in the Era of Negotiations," Foreign Affairs, October 1970, describes certain elements of this change.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now