The German Problem Transformed: Institutions, Politics, and Foreign Policy, 1945-1995

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The German Problem Transformed:
Institutions, Politics, and Foreign Policy, 1945-1995

Thomas Banchoff, The German Problem Transformed: Institutions, Politics, and Foreign Policy, 1945-1995. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. 232 pp. $47.50.

Over the past five decades an astonishing transformation of German foreign policy has taken place. When Konrad Adenauer became the first postwar chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949, he did not resume pursuing the traditional "national interest," which had dominated German politics since 1871. Instead West German leaders from Adenauer to Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder agreed to embed the Federal Republic in a complex web of multilateral and even supranational structures and to pursue German interests within this framework. Such an approach precluded a more nationalist and assertive foreign policy on the model of Wilhelm II's empire. Despite many heated discussions about alternative policy options in the early to mid-1950s and the 1970s, a political consensus gradually developed. After the debate in the 1960s surrounding Fritz Fischer's book on Germany's responsibility for World War I, the old realist framework for assessing a country's foreign policy with reference to its power-oriented "national interests" was largely dismissed as inappropriate. The majority of West German foreign policy makers and the German electorate have viewed a distinction between international collective interests and German national interests as obsolete and counterproductive. Instead, integration and multilateralism are the watchwords for Germany's real "national interests" in an ever more interdependent world.

Thomas Banchoff sets out in this excellent book to trace, analyze, and explain the development and transformation of West German foreign policy from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s. In an accessible and very readable text, Banchoff combines a succinct overview of the development of West German foreign policy from Adenauer to Kohl with a stimulating though not unproblematic conceptual framework.

Banchoff's overview of German foreign policy from 1949 to 1995 is exemplary. Despite occasional lapses, he offers a well-structured account ofthe turning points of West German foreign policy, of which he cites four: (1) Adenauer's effort to integrate the FRG with the West; (2) Willy Brandt's pursuit of Ostpolitik; (3) the debate over the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF); and (4) the decision to continue emphasizing integration with Europe after Germany was reunified.

Adenauer's policy of integrating the FRG into the West, and his attempt to deemphasize the reunification question while consenting to West German rearmament, were crucial for establishing the foundations of West German foreign policy. [End Page 113] Banchoff convincingly analyzes Adenauer's political strategies and tactics, and he stresses the immense support that Adenauer enjoyed among the allied powers and the political and personal battles with his more nationalist competitors like Kurt Schumacher of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and his inner-party rival, Jakob Kaiser. Banchoff also outlines Adenauer's policy toward German unification and Germany's relations with both the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Nonetheless, Banchoff makes no mention at all of the nationwide uprising in the GDR in June 1953. This omission is very peculiar, since the uprising (combined with internal developments in the Soviet Union) was decisive in shaping the Soviet Union's Deutschlandpolitik (German policy) after Josif Stalin's death. A considerable number of scholars believe that the events in the GDR were crucial in persuading Moscow to abandon its tentative plans to sacrifice the GDR in return for a reunited but neutral Germany. Such thinking was highly popular in West Germany, France, and Britain. The uprising was also of great importance for Adenauer's and the Western allies' efforts to fend off pressure to hold a summit conference with the post-Stalin leaders in Moscow to overcome the Cold War and solve the German question.

Moreover, it was not so much the case, as Banchoff argues, that Adenauer suddenly arrived at different political insights and "temporarily" changed his mind to agree to a foreign ministers' conference in Berlin in early 1954. Instead, it was formidable pressure from his American ally that led to this volte-face. Washington feared that the chancellor's refusal to meet with his Soviet counterparts might lose him the general election in September 1953 if the West German public came to believe that Adenauer was opposed to reunification. It was only when the Americans assured Adenauer that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would do his best to obstruct the Berlin four-powers conference that Adenauer was willing to relinquish his opposition to the meeting. (Incidentally, Banchoff is incorrect in saying that West German and East German observers were present at the Berlin conference in early 1954. He undoubtedly is confusing this with the Geneva conference of 1959.) Still, on the whole Banchoff's account of Adenauer's policy of integration with the West is sound.

The same is true of the second turning point cited by Banchoff: Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik of the early 1970s. Banchoff convincingly analyzes Brandt's reasoning, sets his policy in the international framework of superpower détente, and recounts the strong domestic opposition to Brandt's policy, culminating in a vote of no confidence in April 1972. Brandt won this vote, but only by the narrowest of margins and under suspicious circumstances.

Banchoff also describes the enduring institutional aspects of Ostpolitik and the difficult balancing act that Brandt's successor, Helmut Schmidt, attempted between East and West. Schmidt wanted to preserve harmonious relations with the Communist states, especially the GDR and Poland. But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Schmidt had to deal with two American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who embarked on a renewed hardline course toward the Soviet Union. The Americans' expectation that the Federal Republic and the other [End Page 114] Western allies ought to support this more confrontational policy produced a deep crisis in transatlantic relations.

The third turning point in West German foreign policy identified by Banchoff is the INF struggle of the early 1980s. The FRG was pitched between the country's loyalty to and military dependence on the United States and the desire to continue European détente while preventing an ever more vocal peace movement from causing turbulence at home. Banchoff argues, quite rightly, that with regard to the deployment of new American and Soviet missiles in Europe and the Polish crisis of the early 1980s, Schmidt attempted to assume a West German mediating role between Moscow and Washington. The chancellor clearly overestimated his own and his country's importance. After Schmidt's forced resignation in late 1982, Kohl unambiguously came down on the side of the United States. He thus reinforced Atlantic solidarity and gained the enthusiastic support of the Reagan administration, including Vice President George Bush. This support became important toward the end of the decade when the United States under Bush initially was the only power that came out in favor of German unification.

Banchoff locates a fourth turning point in the 1990s, after unification, when it became clear that the new Germany did not intend to embark on a foreign policy oriented toward the pursuit of traditional "national interests." Instead, the Kohl government continued its policy of firm support for ever deeper European integration and also persevered with an active Ostpolitik. Despite a greater peacekeeping role for Germany in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, the FRG remained firmly embedded in the multilateral institutions established prior to 1990 and, on the whole, did not embark on a more independent foreign policy.

The only major exception was Germany's unilaterally announced intention to recognize Croatia and Slovenia in December 1991. This caused an outcry among some of the country's Western allies and ensured that no similar independent German actions took place subsequently. Banchoff convincingly argues that Germany's post-1990 integration in multilateral institutions "demonstrated not change but continuity" (p.136); therefore, any postunification fear about German unilateralism soon disappeared. The unified German state was still fully anchored in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and, through the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, an ever more thoroughly integrated European Union (EU). Although Banchoff should have devoted greater attention to French President François Mitterrand's important role in pushing Kohl toward a deal involving French consent for reunification in exchange for Kohl's acceptance of a Germany embedded in European institutions, the book's well-structured narrative of the four turning points in the transformation of FRG foreign policy makes a lot of sense.

Less convincing, however, are some aspects of the conceptual framework in which Banchoff has embedded his account. His argument that "path dependence"—that is, political decisions taken at certain key points—"shaped institutional and political constellations, which in turn constrained subsequent choices" (p.165) is [End Page 115] uncontroversial. But his emphasis on the alleged availability of other choices and policy options for West German leaders, particularly during the first two turning points, is unconvincing.

In reality, the West Germans had no choice in the matter of adopting a cooperative political approach and signing up to international interdependence as the guiding principle of German foreign policy. Although, as Banchoff rightly states, "there was nothing inevitable about the postwar path of German foreign policy," there was much less "choice amid constraint" than the author believes (pp.13, 21-22). Wolfram Hanrieder's cogent notion of American "double containment" of both the USSR and the FRG is still a useful explanatory construct. It was precisely because Adenauer recognized that voluntary cooperation and integration into the West was the only possible way to establish good relations with the Western allies, develop a degree of political independence, and obtain the sovereignty of the West German state that his policies were rewarded with success. Banchoff's argument that West German leaders had a considerable choice between the pursuit of Adenauer's integrationist policy and Schumacher's reunification policy is not substantiated by any documentary evidence that has come to light over the last few decades.

Once the West German state was founded in 1949 and the war in Korea broke out a year later, the three Western allied powers concurred that the FRG had to be firmly and irreversibly integrated into the West. The Stalin note of March 1952, Winston Churchill's 1953 reunification attempt, the 1954 Berlin conference, the 1955 East-West conferences, and any number of other proposals for a reunited Germany that was not fully integrated into the West—floated by Schumacher, Kaiser, Pfleiderer, and George Kennan, among others—never stood any serious chance of being realized. The official British view, expressed in mid-1953, reflected the consensus in the Western world:

Germany is the key to the peace of Europe. A divided Europe has meant a divided Germany. To unite Germany while Europe is divided, even if practicable, is fraught with danger for all. Therefore everyone—Dr.Adenauer, the Russians, the Americans, the French and ourselves—feel in our hearts that a divided Germany is safer for the time being. But none of us dare say so openly because of the effect upon German public opinion. Therefore we all publicly support a united Germany, each on his own terms. (Cited from "Memorandum of Selwyn Lloyd to Prime Minister Churchill," PM/MS/53/254. 22 June 1953, in Public Record Office, London, U.K. PREM 11/673.)

After 1949-1950 the Western powers were not prepared to offer the Germans a choice between reunification and Western integration. Unlike Schumacher, Adenauer recognized this at an early stage. It is one of the main reasons that the former failed and the latter succeeded.

Similarly, Brandt did not have a real choice about whether to continue Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger's policy of gradual rapprochement with the countries of Eastern Europe while more or less ignoring the existence of the GDR. In both East and West [End Page 116] great dissatisfaction had already been voiced about this approach, which was paralyzing not only West Germany's but also the whole Western world's external relations with the East as well as the Federal Republic's trade relations with the outside world. Moreover, an increasing number of states, European as well as a great number of African and Asian countries, were about to recognize the GDR, a step that would have threatened to isolate the FRG and circumscribe its room for maneuver. Domestic German opinion, spurred on by the 1968 student revolution, also viewed the policy of simply trying to ignore the existence of the GDR as unrealistic. Thus, Brandt had to offer an alternative, more modern policy. He had no choice but to recognize the GDR in the near to medium term.

Other factors reinforced this situation. Brandt needed to compensate for his decision to form a fragile SPD coalition government with the Free Democrats by undertaking initiatives in foreign policy as well as domestic affairs. Moreover, in view of his past declarations about the need for a new foreign policy, it was highly unlikely that Brandt would have been able to get away with merely continuing Kiesinger's obsolescent policies.

Banchoff recognizes that although Schmidt and Kohl had different policy preferences regarding NATO's dual-track INF deployments in the early 1980s, it was unlikely that if Schmidt had remained in power his policies would have been very different from the ones pursued by Kohl. There would have been some differences of degree (e.g., with respect to the warmth of U.S.-West German relations), but in practical political terms there would not have been any major changes in West German foreign policy. After all, despite Kohl's more tolerant (or some would say more opportunistic) attitude toward the United States, he did not shrink from receiving the East German leader, Erich Honecker, in Bonn—a highly controversial policy that had been envisaged earlier by Helmut Schmidt. The same also applied to the post-1990 situation. By then the Federal Republic had been so firmly enmeshed in "an ever more intricate institutional framework" (p.170) that it was extremely unlikely that a government led by the SPD candidate, Rudolf Scharping, would have pursued a foreign policy markedly different from that of the Kohl government if Scharping had won the 1994 election.

It is true, as Banchoff writes, that both Adenauer and Brandt managed to shape a crucial new domestic foreign policy consensus, which contributed decisively to the establishment of a stable, democratic society in West Germany. However, the impetus to embark on new foreign-policy initiatives almost always came predominantly from outside. Domestic pressures were less important than external constraints and imperatives (including external economic constraints and imperatives) in shaping German foreign relations after World War II. With respect to the turning points in (West) German foreign policy since 1945, one can still speak of a certain "primacy of foreign policy"—though not in the traditional sense of this phrase, which is usually understood as the pursuit of the "national interest" in fierce competition with other states. Pressure on Bonn to embark on a different foreign policy paradigm (Adenauer's pro-Western integration, Brandt's Ostpolitik, to some extent also Kohl's INF deployment policy) tended to come from the Western allies and not so much from inside Germany. [End Page 117]

To a considerable extent this also applies to the subtle pressure on the Kohl government after 1990 to uphold the dominant integrationist paradigm of Germany's foreign policy. Banchoff's belief that "German leaders might have embarked on a more independent foreign policy after 1990" if they had been sufficiently "determined" is implausible. The international reaction to Germany's unilateral recognition of Croatia and Slovenia and the great caution of the Kohl and Schröder governments to avoid embarking on any similar activities point clearly to the externally imposed limits of German independence in foreign policy. This is hardly surprising; after all, it is an inherent part of the logic of international multilateralism and the EU's supranationalism.

Still, Banchoff is surely right in maintaining that the FRG's "embrace [of] multilateralism and supranationalism" (p.22) was also due to the great importance attached by the vast majority of West German politicians and by the German public to the preservation of historical memory. The lessons drawn from the country's ongoing interpretation of the Nazi past has clearly influenced German policy making. This dimension of the FRG's foreign policy has often been neglected, and Banchoff rightly stresses its importance. Yet external pressure from the Western allies, Poland, Israel, and many others was not entirely absent from this dimension either.

Despite these caveats, Banchoff has produced a most valuable and interesting study that offers a sound, well-structured overview of the turning points in the transformation of (West) German foreign policy since 1949. Not least, the book provides many stimulating ideas to pursue on German postwar history and politics.


Klaus Larres, Queen's University of Belfast

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