Document created: 11 December 03
Air University Review, March-April 1973

Germany and European Détente

Lieutenant Colonel E. W. Giesecke

 I prefer the most unjust peace to the justest war that was ever waged.

During the past several years, there has been a relaxing of tensions in Central Europe. Concurrently, the use of force to achieve political objectives has been avoided. The invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968 marked the last low point in relations. Conversely, the ratification of the “renunciation of force” agreement between West Germany and the Soviet Union in 1972 set the recent high level of European détente.

As diplomatic exchanges increased, it remained evident that the problem was—and still is—Germany. As a powerful nation, comprising two separate states, Germany holds the key to détente in Europe. In today’s world, a constructive relationship between East and West requires the active involvement of Germany.

An important and scholarly book has appeared recently that presents a crisp analysis of East-West relations. In Détente in Europe, Professor Josef Korbel gives special attention to the role of Germany in world power relations.* At the same time, however, he recognizes that a lasting détente in Europe is interlocked with developments between the United States and the Soviet Union. These developments, he says, though sometimes encouraging, are often foreboding, and he forecasts the same fluctuations for the lessening of tensions in Europe.

*Josef Korbel, Détente in Europe: Real or Imaginary? (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972, $10.00), 302 pages.

Many studies such as Korbel’s do not include a summary as to why Europe is so important today in the struggle for world power—power in the sense of ability to influence the behavior of others in accordance with one’s own ends.

Any listing of the readily apparent reasons for Europe’s current significance would include the following:

·  It is now widely held that total or large-scale nuclear war is unacceptable. The stated goals of the Soviet Union and of the United States do not encompass the expected cost of a nuclear war. Thus the emphasis shifts to conventional forces and to political, economic, and other forms of power. Here, Western Europe is strong. The defense capabilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are considerable, and this is not a question here. In terms of overall power, Western Europe has been gaining rapidly and now ranks in the top three or four new power centers that have evolved in a multipolar world. Accordingly, what happens to this “pole” becomes more critical to world stability.

·  West European strength lies in unity, and the expansion of the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market from six to nine nations, as decided in 1972, was followed later in the year by the agreement of sixteen West European states to create among themselves a single economic region. This agreement, signed in Brussels between the members of the EEC and the European Free Trade Association, marked that region as the world’s largest trading group, accounting for fifty percent of global trade.

·  A new, all-European culture is growing, replacing the nationalism of the individual states. Western politics, culture, and economies are showing a propensity to spread. These ideas are finding ready takers among the East European states; and while this was expected as a by-product of détente, the Soviets have maintained a close control over the extent of this influence. They have negotiated the first few years of détente carefully, so as to guard against any erosion in the posture of their Warsaw Pact allies.

background to détente

Korbel has traced the changes in mood and practices between East and West since World War II. Gone are the tensions of the Stalin era; the strategy became rapprochement. This matured gradually in West Germany from Adenauer to Brandt. Under the latter’s tenure, some of the Soviet overtures were accepted and implemented as Bonn’s current Ospolitik

To a lesser extent, Korbel has reviewed the trend toward rapprochement among some of the other Western allies. Trade between the EEC members and the Eastern bloc gradually increased in the 1960s. While the Federal Republic of Germany (F.R.G.) consistently led the Big Four in the overall value of trade between East and West, Great Britain often led in the value of imports from Russia and Poland. Italy was also high on the list of Eastern traders, and France generally placed fourth. While the French cultural détente was impressive, having included the exchange of students, tourists, scientific information, and publications, it did not appear to have exceeded the efforts of other Western powers in the East. Nonetheless, President Charles de Gaulle had made a bold attempt to blend the mutual interests of France with the Eastern states into resurrection of the grand old Continent. His vision of l’Europe des patries saw the Continent completely free of the hegemony of the two superpowers, U.S. and U.S.S.R. (As is well known, de Gaulle’s policies led to the withdrawal of France from her military role in NATO, though politically she remains as one of the fifteen members.) Acting independently, France created its own nuclear deterrent, called the force de dissuasion. Though not under NATO supervision, this force could well be a deep thorn in the paw of any aggressor upon the West.

West Germany’s course to Ostpolitik can best be charted by reviewing the policies of her chancellors. World War II in Europe ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945. The decisions at Yalta and Potsdam left Germany divided into four zones of occupation, with Berlin receiving special status under four-power rule. The Sovietization of the eastern zone and the blockade of West Berlin in 1948 and 1949, as episodes in the cold war, precluded agreement on a general peace treaty. The constitution of the F.R.G. was adopted in 1949, the same year that Konrad Adenauer was elected chancellor. In his fourteen years of leadership, West Germany became solidly aligned with the Western states as well as a leading member of NATO and EEC. Adenauer felt that the reunification of the east and west halves of his divided nation could best be negotiated by strong support from the West. He hoped that with this backing the U.S.S.R. could be persuaded to agree to reunification in return for a peace treaty that would legitimize the Soviet’s westward expansion into what was formerly Polish territory. In retrospect, it is now apparent that the West gave more than this but received less in exchange.

Adenauer resigned in 1963, favoring Foreign Minister Schroeder as his successor. However, Ludwig Erhard was elected instead by a majority of the Bundestag. Erhard’s reputation was built upon creating the “German economic miracle”; he maintained the close ties with the U.S. and supported the expansion of the Common Market.

Kurt Georg Kiesinger next served as Federal Chancellor, from 1966 to 1969. He was noted as the author of the Grand Coalition, a merger of the then governing Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), its former opposition. Under the coalition, Willy Brandt, chairman of the Social Democrats, became Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister. The rise of the Socialists was the major event leading to the softening of Bonn’s policy toward the East.

As a prelude to his Ostpolitik, Brandt began corresponding with Moscow in 1967 concerning a nonaggression declaration. This contact was broken off, however, in mid-1968 after Soviet insistence that such an agreement must be accompanied by the Federal Republic’s acceptance of two separate German states. Under no condition was Bonn—at that time—willing to concede on a single point leading to international acceptance of the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) as a sovereign state.

When Willy Brandt assumed the chancellorship in October 1969, his Social Democratic Party came into power and dropped the coalition with the Christian Democrats. As Professor Korbel has written, “By the end of 1969 the majority of West Germans, if not reconciled, could see no viable alternative to an indefinite existence of two German states and, for the benefit to a détente in Europe, they were not willing to press for reunification. At the same time, however, an even larger majority was not yet ready to go as far as full recognition of East Germany as a state.”

Western interest in Germany

The SPD (in coalition with the Free Democrats) was not to govern with an illusory dream of reunification when it inaugurated its new version of Ostpolitik. It was at this juncture that Willy Brandt advanced the idea of “two German states of one German nation.” He was backed by a majority of West Germans, who no longer believed that the Western big powers would support reunification. Korbel lists polls taken in November 1969 showing that 37 percent of the German respondents thought “the United States favored reunification and 42 percent thought it did not. As to Great Britain, the percentages were 32 and 43; as to France. . . , 28 and 50, respectively.”

Korbel suggests that the U.S. was increasingly torn by the war in Vietnam and accorded less concern to European problems: “As NATO’S homogeneity was weakening and its strategy constantly changing, [as some members of Congress] pressed for a partial and unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from West Europe, the Bonn government felt compelled to prepare itself for the possibly grave consequences of this American neo-isolationism. Brandt’s gambit was to accelerate the FRG Ostpolitik and to seek an understanding with the Soviet Union.

In May 1972, the West German parliament voted to approve the nonaggression treaties with Russia and Poland which Chancellor Brandt had negotiated in 1970. The voting in the Bundestag seesawed on a razor’s edge, nearly carrying Dr. Rainer Barzel, the CDU party leader, into power, for Brandt had placed his ruling SPD/FDP coalition on the line in support of Ostpolitik. Though Brandt received almost no support from the CDU, the treaties won by a slim margin.

The treaties renounced the use of force by all sides and recognized German territorial losses from World War II. It gave to Poland all former German territory east of the Oder-Neisse Line, and it legitimized the present borders of the German Democratic Republic (formerly the Soviet zone). The meaning was clear: reunification was a past issue, and Bonn was preparing to recognize the existence of two separate German states—one of them a Communist regime with a population of 17 million, the other a republic with 60 million inhabitants.

Agreeing with most analysts, Korbel wrote that “the treaty brings a sense of immediate relief to West Germany and to the whole of Europe. It has opened the door. . .  to settling Bonn’s relations” with Eastern Europe as well as removing the “principal source of tension—Bonn’s quest for reunification.”

“However,” he added, “all these short-term achievements and expectations carry far-reaching, long-term connotations that are at best uncertain and that inescapably hinge upon the Soviet’s real intentions and Bonn’s perception of Soviet goals in Europe.”

objectives of Ostpolitik

As reported by Korbel, “Only a few months after the treaty had been signed in May 1970, Kosygin appealed to the West European nations to seek independence from the United States.” The Soviets had achieved their initial goal and were following through. On the chessboard of Europe, they had played masterfully and received recognition of Soviet control over East Europe and legitimacy for the East German regime. A secondary goal of  “full recognition of the GDR” was well on its way to fruition, for by late 1972 several Scandinavian states and India were planning initial diplomatic relations with the G.D.R. Additionally, membership in the United Nations for both the G.D.R. and the Bonn government was being actively discussed.

The chief concession by the Soviets was the Berlin agreement of September 1971. They agreed to preserve Western access into West Berlin, to Bonn’s right to conduct government business and meetings in the divided city, and, in general, to the existing ties between the F.R.G. and West Berlin.

West Europe, since 1945 casting an anxious eye on the East, accepted Soviet professions of détente in good faith and with visible relief. Korbel added, however, that “it is exactly this West European mood of relaxation, which approaches complacency, that is the grave danger accompanying any further progress beyond détente.” One could expect “Moscow to probe into any avenue that could weaken the West,” as evidenced by her changing and sinuous policy toward individual Western states, “to the question of European security, and her continuing attempts to weaken or eliminate the American presence in Europe—[which] indicates that Moscow will miss no opportunity to use détente to strengthen its own position toward the West and to exploit fully any indication of the West’s own weakness.”

Détente in the West, from the Soviet view, has also served to give the U.S.S.R. a greater position of strength in her dealings with China. This marks a significant easing of her geopolitical stance since Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the China border conflicts, when she was agonizing over problems on two “fronts.”

According to Korbel’s analysis, as détente in Europe progressed and the European members of the Atlantic alliance saw in it “an opportunity to foster their individual national interests, the thrust of NATO was quickly weakened.” The acute concern of the West should be that our “experience tells us that democracies rarely foresee or plan against crises until they face them directly and irrevocably.”

For the F.R.G., Ostpolitik has gained new markets for trade and commerce in the East, expanded diplomatic exchanges, and, above all, fostered an easing of concern over Soviet intentions. The SPD/FDP government carried out talks with the G.D.R. in 1972 leading to formal recognition of each other’s sovereignty. A liberal article in the Frankfurter Rundschau (August 19, 1972) mentioned the problem of “human rights in Germany as a whole. . .” and said that “people in both parts of Germany harbor hopes of deriving personal advantage” from the intra-German talks. It was apparent that Bonn, by recognizing an independent G.D.R., hoped that the latter would be able of its own accord to draw closer to the West, resulting in increased contact between the two German peoples.

The final solution to the problem of a divided German “nation” has been pushed into the future by some German writers, at a point following Ostpolitik’s “third stage”—the development of a lasting and peaceful order in Central Europe. They have reasoned that the F.R.G. and the G.D.R., each independent, should be able to achieve rapprochement in an environment of a stable peace, the absence of a Big Four military presence, and cooperation between the two coexistent groups of the German people.

Author Korbel, too, expresses concern that a permanent and total division could, with the fluctuations of Central European politics and the emotional potential of the people, produce serious conflicts. Chancellor Brandt, in his State of the Union address in January 1970, referring to the concept of “two German states in one German nation,” described a nation as

more than a common language or culture, more than state and society. The nation is rooted in the peoples’ lasting sense of solidarity…. As long as the Germans do not abandon this political will … the hope remains that future generations will live in a Germany in whose political structure all Germans can take part.

European security conference

For years the Soviet Union had been proposing a conference on security and cooperation in Europe (CSCE), to meet just this type of need for self-realization and stability. The U.S. has wisely opted to participate, and the 34-country conference was given substantial support by the Nixon-Brezhnev talks of 1972. U.S. participation is extremely essential, even if one does not accept the critics’ view that this long-term Russian proposal is aimed at “Finlandization” of Western Europe. This term has unfortunately been too widely used to describe a status of neutrality in Europe resulting from the active pursuit of détente by both the East and the West.

Some conservative leaders have feared that even a status of collective semi-neutrality would give the Russians an end-position of political supremacy over Western Europe. However, Western statesmen have been alert to such a possibility, realizing that maintenance of a strong NATO is required to preclude such a trend. The U.S. and its allies have resisted unilateral force reductions and have pushed for talks on mutual and balanced force reduction to be held concurrently with the CSCE at Helsinki.

Despite the current success of détente in Europe, the U.S. should maintain a high level of forces there, at least until gradual reductions can be made under a mutual and balanced force reduction. The Ostpolitik conducted by Bonn promises many benefits in international goodwill. For the present, however, it is best carried out with strong support from a Western Europe that is rapidly uniting, politically as well as economically, and is backed up by a determined and viable NATO.

Robins AFB, Georgia


Lieutenant Colonel Eberhard E. Giesecke (M.P.S., Auburn University) is Chief of Programs Division, DCS/Plans, Hq Air Force Reserve. As an Air Force officer, he was assigned in Germany for three years in analysis work. In civilian capacity, he was with the State of Washington in government analysis functions for a dozen years. Colonel Giesecke teaches Political Science part-time at Middle Georgia College. He is a graduate of the Air War College.



The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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