In one of his last public speeches, at the Christian Democratic Union party congress in 1966, former West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer delivered a defense of the "policy of strength" that had been the hallmark of his long tenure in office. Arguing by implication against détente and "change by rapprochement," then being advocated by the Social Democratic Party, which would soon be known as the new "Ostpolitik," Adenauer declared that the West must remain armed and vigilant. "We remain convinced," he said, "that Germany must be reunited in peace...I will not give up hope that one day the Soviet Union will realize that the division of Germany and, with it, the division of Europe, is not to its advantage. We must watch to see when the moment comes, and when a time nears, or seems to near, that presents a favorable opportunity, then we must not leave it unused."

That moment came in 1989, when it dawned on Mikhail Gorbachev that his country was no longer capable of maintaining the European status quo. What brought him to that realization? Timothy Garton Ash tells us in his new book that when that question was put to the veteran Soviet diplomat, Valentin Falin, he answered, "Without Ostpolitik, no Gorbachev." But in an interview with the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, Falin also said that the West had arms-raced the Soviets to death. Similarly, former West German chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl and former Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher told the author that they believed that the crucial factor in forcing a revision of Soviet policy was the deployment of the Pershing and cruise missiles, and Kohl added that Gorbachev had told him that he agreed. But former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, in his memoirs in 1989, also claimed Gorbachev's endorsement of his thesis that Ostpolitik was the crucial influence on his new thinking.

This will not be settled definitively until official files have been opened and analyzed by scholars, but until that time Timothy Garton Ash has performed a laudable service by enabling us to make at least a tentative judgment of the claims of the champions of Ostpolitik. On the basis of materials drawn from the papers of Brandt, Schmidt, Egon Bahr and such critics of Ostpolitik as Alois Mertes and Werner Marx, as well as his own intimate knowledge of the countries with which he deals, he has written what he describes as a book "that looks at the West German approach to reducing or overcoming the 'Yalta' division of Germany and Europe-Ostpolitik--in the light of other Western, East European, and Soviet approaches." This work concentrates on the words and deeds of those who were in power between the public proclamation of Ostpolitik in 1969-70 and the unification of Germany in 1989-90, and also on the activities of the Social Democrats when they were in opposition after 1982.


There was, of course, a German Ostpolitik before 1969. Leaving aside Adolf Hitler, who used the term to describe his efforts to create Lebensraum in the east for the Thousand-Year Reich, it must be remembered that Adenauer inaugurated an eastern policy when he went to Moscow in 1955 and signed a treaty that established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and that Gerhard Schroder, foreign minister under Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, sought to promote normalization (a perhaps overused word in the East-West dialogue of the 1970s) by concluding trade agreements throughout Eastern Europe. Kurt Georg Kiesinger, chancellor of the so-called Grand Coalition of the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and Social Democratic parties from 1966 to 1969, was also proud of his Ostpolitik, which indeed anticipated certain features of the later policy. It recognized that German reunification could not be an end in itself but must be seen as the product of the overcoming or reducing of the division of Europe. But these early ventures were tentative and abortive, and the Grand Coalition's attempts to establish diplomatic relations with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were blocked by the East Germans and Poles with the backing of the Soviet Union.

When we talk about Ostpolitik, therefore, we think automatically of the dramatic initiatives of Brandt. The policies of his government led to the negotiation of the whole complex of Eastern treaties in 1969-70, the dramatic struggle in the West German Bundestag to secure their ratification, and the West German elections of 1972, which were a kind of plebiscite on what was then called the new Ostpolitik. It was distinguished from earlier experiments by the idealistic rhetoric and the flair for theater of its chief spokesman, who captured the imagination of the world, winning the Nobel peace prize in 1971. Its energetic and consistent strategy was to seek German unification by lowering the barriers between East and West and by pursuing a European peace order by way of full recognition of the sovereignty and frontiers of existing East European states, including, paradoxically, the German Democratic Republic.

The chief strategist for the new Ostpolitik was Egon Bahr, Brandt's chief advisor on foreign affairs, about whom Garton Ash has many interesting things to say. This Metternich of détente, a title that he shares in Garton Ash's opinion with Henry Kissinger, saw that the failures of Schröder's and Kiesinger's original Ostpolitik demonstrated that no improvement of relations with the GDR or the states of Eastern Europe was possible without the support of the Soviet Union. Bahr's strategy was, he suggests, a kind of judo in which he sought, with considerable success, to use the weight of the Soviet Union to bring the GDR into diplomatic contact with the FRG. He realized, however, that as relations between the two German states improved, the Soviet Union and the Eastern states might, sooner or later, feel threatened unless they were compensated by an enhancement of their own relationships with Bonn. This would involve a delicate process of synchronization, which would have to be balanced, in view of Bonn's continued ties with the West, with better relations in that direction as well. Even before it was fully implemented, therefore, Bahr's policy was so complicated that there was danger that the continual tactical improvisation that it required would blur or obscure the ends sought. This turned out in the end to be true.

Throughout the years 1969-89, the centrality of Moscow was never doubted by the advocates of Ostpolitik. They were willing to pay dearly for Soviet collaboration, with economic aid, increased trade and recognition of all state frontiers in Europe, including the Oder-Neisse line as the western border of Poland. It seems clear enough that Soviet collaboration in détente was economically motivated from the start. This mutual interest was even strong enough to withstand military buildups during the 1970s--from 1970 to 1980 Bonn's military budget doubled--and a spate of missile jockeying during the early 1980s, in which Soviet multiple warhead SS-20 missiles were countered by Kohl's contentious deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles.


In East Germany, the apparent aim of the Ostpolitik of the governments of Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl was reform that would improve the liberties of GDR citizens and would be sustained by ever-increasing collaboration between what Brandt had called the "two states in one nation." The East German government tolerated the pressures for this because it wanted two things in return. The first was a substantive recognition of the communist regime. The second was hard currency. There was never any difficulty about the latter. The FRG was nothing if not generous, and it often seemed as if Ostpolitik was a system of outdoor relief for Eastern bureaucrats. The tendency in Bonn in the 1970s and 1980s was to take an idealistic view of the GDR, and politicians there closed their eyes to the political and economic realities of a bankrupt regime. (Western illusions, Garton Ash suggests, reinforced Honecker's own.) This being so, there was little inclination to resist the pressure for an enhanced degree of recognition. When Honecker made his visit to Bonn in September 1987, it was difficult to distinguish between the honors and ceremony of his reception and what would have been accorded the ruler of a completely sovereign foreign state.

This excessive eagerness to satisfy GDR wishes was consonant with the general tendency of Bonn to seek liberalization of the regime by assuring it of understanding and sympathy, as if the best way to change the status quo was to recognize it. From Brandt to Kohl, Western leaders seemed intent on doing nothing that might encourage another uprising like that of June 17, 1953, when Soviet troops were brought in to crush riots over work quotas in East Berlin. Indeed, they were so bent on accommodating the wishes of the GDR rulers that they paid too little attention to their citizens, who surprised them in the end by staging another June 17th in Leipzig in November 1989. For their success in transforming the GDR from below, the revolutionaries received no gratitude from those who had believed so intensely in reform from above, and the present Kleinkrieg between Ossis and Wessis in the new Federal Republic derives in some part from that fact.

The same pattern was discernible in the Federal Republic's policy toward Eastern Europe. This was probably one of the undeniable successes of Ostpolitik, which with pressure and cash secured exit visas for 40,000 Germans in 1986, 80,000 in 1987 and 200,000 in 1988. Ironically, however, when new emigration policies in Poland and the Soviet Union brought those numbers to 377,000 in 1989 and 400,000 in 1990, public opinion in the Federal Republic became far less happy about the influx, which contributed to the success of right-wing parties and the attacks on foreigners that have characterized German politics since 1990.


For the rest of the expatriate Germans, the instruments of Ostpolitik in Eastern Europe were foreign trade and what was called Verflechtung, or weaving. The latter, which involved "developing almost every possible sort of tie: political, social, cultural, touristic, sporting, academic, technological, scientific, environmental, road or rail, animal, vegetable or mineral," was the special interest of Genscher and was pursued zealously in the belief that the more inclusive the network, the greater the possibility that those enclosed in it would begin to act like the net-makers. Similarly, as Eastern Europe became increasingly dependent upon West German trade, Bonn's use of government-guaranteed credits for debt-relief arrangements could be expected, it was thought, to promote economic and eventually political reform in the Eastern countries and a peaceful world order.

Unfortunately, aside from the profits from the Ostpolitik trade, none of this worked well on the political level. As Garton Ash writes:

Western trade, credits and technology transfer were overwhelmingly channeled through organs under the central control of the party-state. They were used less to facilitate economic reform than as a substitute for such reform. As a result of this systematic misapplication, the Western 'carrots,' far from setting these states on the path of sustained growth, with political modernization following economic modernization, instead helped them down the path to economic crisis.

Pressure to force the pace of reform in the form of sanctions, as advocated by the United States, was reprobated by the West Germans as being destabilizing and self-defeating. Their identification with the Eastern regimes was so complete that in the Helsinki negotiations they took a more active interest than their Western allies in the economic, technological and environmental cooperation mapped out in the treaty but took virtually no interest in the human rights issues. They were generally disapproving of protest movements from below. The Polish revolution of 1980-81, for example, shocked and embarrassed them. Fearing a Soviet intervention that, coming on the heels of the invasion of Afghanistan, might put a definite end to détente, they distanced themselves from Solidarity, which got most of its political, financial and moral support from the United States. When Genscher visited Warsaw in March 1981, talks with Solidarity were not on his schedule, and when Polish defense minister Wojciech Jaruzelski carried out his coup and martial law was declared in December 1981, leading members of the social-liberal coalition expressed relief, and Egon Bahr wrote that preserving world peace was more important than Poland.


When Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in October 1982, he continued to follow the principles of Ostpolitik as laid down in 1969-1970, combining it, however, with a "Westpolitik" that placed a stronger emphasis on relations with the European Community and the United States and on the question of security. Leaving the center stage and going into opposition, the Social Democrats almost immediately set about recasting the doctrine that they had originally devised. Influenced by the crisis of détente caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the wounding debate over the regional deployment of nuclear missiles by NATO and the Warsaw bloc, their efforts had from the beginning an anti-American and anti-ideological cast, with much talk about the Europeanization of Europe, a renaissance of Mitteleuropa, and the subordination of differences in values between East and West to the overarching principle of peace. Nothing much was said about freedom or human rights violations in Eastern Europe.

In general, the drafts for a new détente policy had a quaint and musty air, and they were in any case irrelevant, for now the great revolution in the East, the collapse of the GDR, and the unification of Germany made Ostpolitik a dead issue. The astonishing thing about its last days is that none of its advocates expected what happened, and all of them had long since stopped believing in the unification of their country as anything more than the remotest of possibilities, if they thought of it at all. Thus, in the course of two decades, the increasing doctrinarism of the Ostpolitik process had eaten away its substance.

It is undeniable that, as Garton Ash points out in a rather involved chapter called "Findings," Ostpolitik brought some important benefits to people in East Berlin and East Germany (one thinks, for example, of the relaxation of travel standards). Through its strategy of weaving, it also did a great deal to bring the attractions of the West home to the peoples of Eastern Europe. It was even more successful in persuading the Soviet Union that Germany was no longer a threat, and that in fact Germany was its most promising and important economic partner. This doubtless influenced Gorbachev's behavior during the crisis of German unification (although surely no more than George Bush's unwavering support of unification and his insistence on the new Germany's right to belong to NATO). But in view of the things that Ostpolitik did not do, surely the salient issue is whether over the long haul the more differentiated policy of the United States, with its readiness to use sanctions as well as economic incentives, its public support of human rights and those fighting for them, and the higher priority it placed upon the element of force in diplomacy, did not after all contribute more to what happened in 1989-90 than all the maneuvers and compromises of Genscherism. The author raises this question but makes rather heavy weather of it, saying in effect that it is too complicated to be answered plainly.

Garton Ash does not make it easy for his readers. The book's title is imprecise and misleading, and its theme is defined only after 47 pages of distracting maneuvering around it. The decision to discuss in separate sections the development of Ostpolitik in the Soviet Union, East Germany and Eastern Europe ("the three intersecting circles of direct German Ostpolitik") causes repetition and some chronological confusion. Reference is sometimes made to things that are never properly identified or explained (the Palme Commission, for example, and the Harmel Report), which is irritating. There is perhaps too much rumination in this book, and consequently too many longueurs. While one cannot but admire the author's ingenuity in discovering ever-new aspects of the problems he discusses and ever-new objections to what one thought were his conclusions, one longs for the clean and unclotted prose of his earlier books. In view of the new material presented here and the sharpness of the author's insights, this is a pity.

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