Germany Has Its Own Priorities

<i> Michael H. Haltzel is secretary of the West European Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. </i>

Most commentary on this month’s 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall emphasized the stability made possible by the gruesome edifice. This static view neglects the dynamic ties between East and West Germany--and how preservation of those ties plays an increasingly important role in Bonn’s foreign policy. Dramatic events of last spring--including Libya, Chernobyl and U.S. renunciation of Salt II--demonstrate how this concern, combined with the widespread deterioration of the U.S. image in the federal republic, threaten to damage future relations with our most powerful European ally.

In many ways West Germany remains our most reliable ally on the Continent. West Germany’s military units are the core of the North American Treaty Organization’s ground forces. The government successfully overcame strong domestic opposition to NATO nuclear modernization. And generally worded public-opinion surveys continue to show a strong majority of West Germans in favor of continued membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Disputes between Bonn and Washington have tended to be in a European-American framework rather than bilateral.

Response to the American raid on Libya also followed the general European pattern: condemnation by the majority of the populace, including street demonstrations, and disapproval from all political parties. Chancellor Helmut Kohl did, however, express “understanding” for the U.S. action. Strong disagreement still exists between U.S. and West German diplomats as to the degree to which the Germans, particularly Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, should have been surprised by the attack.

More remarkable and idiosyncratic has been the debate on nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl. The initial outrage over Soviet irresponsibility quickly gave way to a reaction that many German commentators have called hysterical. Government ineptitude in failing quickly to establish national radioactivity safety norms allowed party politics to interfere with objectivity. As part of a process of “equidistancing” from the superpowers that has accelerated over the past few years, Chernobyl is routinely equated with Three Mile Island (the Greens’ campaign slogan in June state elections was “Chernobyl is everywhere”).


Politicians who know better were seemingly afraid to point out the fundamental differences. A nationally televised debate on nuclear power in May featured the Social Democratic prime minister of the Saarland and a Greens leader bullying the federal minister of science and technology. In a style crude even by rough-and-tumble German standards, the Greens’ man and the Social Democrat glossed over or denied Soviet errors and said America was the real nuclear threat to Germany via the Strategic Defense Initiative. Similarly, U.S. involvement in Central America is offered as a parallel to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

The theory of “equidistance,” while not held by a majority of the West Germany electorate or decision-makers, nonetheless has become increasingly fashionable, especially on the left. A basic tenet of this thinking is that the Soviets and Americans both pursue amoral worldwide power games and that the United States is at least as dangerous to the peace as the Soviet Union. The respected weekly newspaper Die Zeit is a case in point. Countess Marion Doenhoff, the paper’s publisher, recently wrote, “We are not threatened by communism or by the Warsaw Pact.” An article in the same edition satirized the U.S. world view: “The world is white or black. America is white and good. Russia is red, therefore black and evil. The rest of the world is gray, therefore black, if not already red.”

Of course images do not arise in a vacuum, and American actions often dismay our closest friends in Germany and elsewhere. The clumsy handling of the SALT II issue irritated usually sympathetic leaders in the Bonn government’s center-right coalition, and they were quick to respond publicly. Moreover, the universal tendency of politicians to play to perceived public opinion has special significance in the German context. Foreign Minister Genscher, until recently the leader of the junior coalition partner Free Democrats, seems to take positions critical of the United States just before elections as his party fights to stay above the 5% level necessary to remain in state parliaments or the federal Bundestag. Constant rhetoric from the Greens and other leftists has had a noticeable impact on West Germans’ opinion of America and of their country’s relations with it. Public debate has become emotional, larded with terms such as “lackey” and “vassal state.” Chancellor Kohl has felt the need to warn against letting legitimate criticism of United States policies slide into crude anti-Americanism.

The growing inclination of many Germans to distance themselves from American policies stems less from hackneyed criticisms of a “cowboy President” than from deeply felt, yet often insufficiently articulated, national goals that often diverge from those of the United States.


Much has been written about how West Europeans, particularly West Germans, benefited more than the United States from the detente of the 1970s. Some American observers focused on the greatly increased volume of West German trade with Eastern Europe as evidence of a selfish attitude that was willing to give a blind eye to Soviet-induced repression in Poland or to genocide in Afghanistan. Without wholly discounting economic motivation, I believe this argument has been overdone.

A more fundamental explanation lies in the trauma of recent German history, of total defeat and the division of the nation symbolized by the Berlin Wall. It is essential to remember that the constitution of West Germany is defined as a charter only “for a transitional period” and binds every West German government to restoring German national and constitutional unity.

Moreover, Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris of 1955, which integrated the federal republic into the Western Alliance, committed the United States, Great Britain and France to strive for a peacefully reunified Germany, integrated within the European community of nations.

Meanwhile, Bonn recognized that its one-time policy of trying to isolate East Germany politically was a failure. At the end of the 1960s, the Socialist-Liberal coalition under Chancellor Willy Brandt inaugurated a new policy of Ostpolitik that culminated in the creation of ties to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), though maintaining the fiction of internal relations by having a West German “permanent representation,” not embassy, in East Berlin and by not recognizing a separate East German citizenship. Despite periodic espionage scandals and grievances such as the current “dumping” of Asian refugees onto West Berlin via East Berlin, relations between the two German states have in the last 15 years proliferated in the economic, cultural, religious and--above all--human contact spheres.

Cultural exchanges between East and West Germany have expanded and promise to increase even more following a new agreement signed last spring. The GDR plans to install cable television, apparently with access to West German channels, in areas of East Germany that cannot routinely receive Western television signals. City partnerships have been set up and, most important, the number of visits by West Germans of all ages to the GDR has gone up sizably.

East Germany still strictly regulates visits of its citizens to the federal republic, largely limiting travel rights to pensioners and official delegations. Still, an impression of movement in relations has been created, augmented by increasingly frequent meetings of prominent Bonn politicians with their East German counterparts. The ultimate fascination is reserved for intra-German summits: For the last two years the West German news media have been infatuated with the will-he-or-won’t-he question of the once-postponed, projected visit of GDR leader Erich Honecker to his boyhood home in the Saarland.

For its part the GDR regime, tacitly admitting the minimal popular appeal of its “socialist state of workers and peasants,” has made a decision to become “more German.” Visitors to East Berlin will notice the new statue of Frederick the Great on Unter den Linden, the city’s main boulevard in what was once the heart of the Imperial German capital.

What role have the three Western Allies been playing in this intra-German rapprochement? Neither Britain nor France has ever evinced much enthusiasm for German reunification. Some would even assert that keeping Germany divided has been a key, if undeclared element in French foreign policy. While the United States has had fewer inhibitions regarding German unity, Washington’s acquiescence to erection of the Berlin Wall demonstrated that its commitment to unification did not extend to risking war with the Soviet Union. America was initially skeptical at the end of the 1960s about Bonn’s Ostpolitik , but as long as the West Germans followed Konrad Adenauer’s earlier decision to put Freiheit (liberty) before Einheit (unity), then Washington was content to give Bonn a free hand in intra-German relations.


Detente’s souring at the end of the 1970s brought indications of different priorities in Bonn and Washington. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drew a sterner response from America than from the federal republic. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 was not deemed by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as sufficient cause to cut short his meeting with Honecker in East Germany. As U.S.-Soviet relations continued to worsen, Bonn and East Berlin have worked to improve ties with each other--to isolate themselves as much as possible from the superpower conflict while remaining loyal members of their respective alliances.

Current divisions in the federal republic on the German question run more within the political parties than strictly along party lines. Within the Social Democratic Party (SPD), relations with East Germany have been most extensively cultivated. Contacts with the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) have become so close that GDR officials were included last spring in the meeting of the SPD’s commission that drafted a new Grundsatzprogramm , the overall policy program for the party to be voted upon in 1988. Most galling to the Bonn government and troubling to its allies was a draft treaty of June, 1985, between the SPD and SED on a chemical weapons-free zone in Europe--an “alternative foreign policy” that serves to undermine NATO policy.

The problem with the various kinds of bilateralism, however, is that--as Hamburg Prof. Wolf Gruner has aptly put it--"the German question has been internationalized, whether it agrees with the Germans or not.” This fact was driven home in the fall of 1984 when Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, perturbed by agitation among the German-speaking minority of Alto Adige Province, publicly warned about the dangers of “Pan-Germanism” and concluded: “There are two German states now, and there should be two in the future.”

The French have been nervously eyeing the rise of the Greens’ neutralist sympathies and are fearful of a possible “Red-Green” coalition government in Bonn after the 1987 national elections. Ever pragmatic, however, France recently concluded its own cultural agreement with East Germany and allowed a GDR cultural institute in Paris. The Soviets, while publicly supporting East Germany in disputes over Berlin, nevertheless pointedly refer to their rights in Germany as a World War II victor.

Behind the fear of a reunification between the two German states is the realization of what that would mean. Unlike the two great 19th Century European “questions"--Turkey and Russia--the German question is one of strength, not weakness. A reunified Germany would instantly become a continental giant in political, economic and military terms. While West Germans repeatedly stress that any eventual reunification would only come about as part of a united Europe, the European historical memory is strong and imagination fertile.

Politicians in Bonn are not oblivious to the growing unease abroad. In response they emphasize that a divided Germany in the middle of Europe constitutes a threat to peace, not a guarantee of it. Representatives of all the major parties except the Greens frequently warn that if they do not respond to popular feelings about relations with East Germany, the more radical forces on the extreme Right and Left will take center stage and push for reunification and neutralism on Soviet terms. Herein lies the kernel of the problem. Increasing numbers of mainstream West Germans see their role in the alliance through the romantic prism of their relations to the GDR, wanting to isolate these improved ties as much as possible from international tensions. This frame of mind threatens to consign the international dirty-work to the United States while Germans and other Europeans “strive for peace”; West German reaction to the Libyan raid is but one example.

Recently I asked a senior Bonn official a hypothetical question: In the event of another “Afghanistan"--a clearly aggressive Soviet act outside Europe but with international importance--would he advocate West German participation in moves against the Soviets even if it would likely damage Bonn’s relations with East Germany in the short-run? His response was immediate: “No. Why should we?”

What can Germans and Americans do to prevent this kind of West German Absonderung or going its own way? First, the United States should do nothing to indicate a backing down from its commitment to an eventual, peaceful German reunification. Second, however, the United States must make clear that this support is not a blank check. If Freiheit really does come before Einheit , then America has a right to expect a modicum of support for actions that serve European and German interests elsewhere in the world. Finally, American and Germans must realize that intra-German ties are not a strictly German affair. If Soviet-American strategic relations are too important to peace to be left to the superpowers, as some prominent Bonn politicians asserted after Reagan’s SALT II declaration, then developing relations between the two Germanys surely are too important to be left solely to the Germans. We are entering a critical period when the enormous U.S. budget deficit may necessitate some reduction of American troop strength in Europe. Any such necessity must be handled with delicacy, without misperceptions between the two strongest NATO powers.


On Aug. 13 the Berlin Wall was 25 years old. In 1961 many people in the East and West thought its construction had definitively put an end to the German question. History has proved them wrong.