The Berlin Crisis

The Berlin Crisis

In November 1958, the fi ery new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), ordered the Western Allies to leave Berlin, threatening that if they did not agree to the establishment of a free city in Berlin, the Russians would seize the city on behalf of the GDR. In December, NATO refused the Soviet demands, setting the stage for the Berlin Crisis. In response, Khrushchev offered an alternative solution: a per-manent division of Germany with Berlin as a demilitarized free city.

The West also refused this proposal, and the Berlin issue remained a sim-mering point of contention. By 1961, the GDR was becoming increas-ingly irritated by the fl ow of defectors from East Berlin into West Berlin. While the frontier between East and West Germany was a fortifi ed military frontier, impeding the fl ow of defectors, the boundary between the two halves of Berlin had been porous, and more than 2 million enterprising East Germans had fl ed to the prosperity and opportunity of the West during the 1950s. In 1953 alone, as many as 400,000 East Germans fl owed into the West, escaping economic stagnation, ideologi-cal indoctrination, and political oppression.

The oppressive nature of East Germany’s communist regime is exemplifi ed by the activities of the Ministry for State Security, the secret police force known as the Stasi. Founded in 1950, the Stasi was led initially by Wilhelm Zaisser, before he was ousted in favor of his subordinate, Erich Mielke (1909–2000) in 1957. Mielke would run the Stasi until the fall of the Berlin Wall, building it into a dreaded instrument of repression and intimidation. Under Mielke, the Stasi recruited an extensive network of agents, with tens of thousands of informants reporting on the speech and activities of their coworkers, neighbors, and associates.

In the early 1960s, as cold war tensions mounted and the GDR clamped down on dissent, the activities of the Stasi became more repressive and the fl ow of defectors increased dramatically, embarrassing the East German government and draining the country of many of its most promising young citizens. In response, Khrushchev authorized the East Germans to build the Berlin Wall, a barrier that would separate East and West Berlin for almost three decades.

The Berlin Wall, symbol of the oppressive nature of East German communism, separated families. More than 100 people, mostly young men trying to fi nd opportunity by escaping to West Berlin, were killed by the East German border police guarding the Berlin Wall. When the East Germans also fortifi ed the frontier around West Berlin, the mayor of the surrounded western enclave, Willy Brandt (1913–92), fearing that his city would be cut off from the outside world, appealed to the United States for help. After the Soviets delivered an aggressive ultimatum, ordering the Western Allies to leave Berlin, tense Soviet and U.S. soldiers confronted each other across the barrier for 22 months, on the brink of war.

The American president John F. Kennedy (1917–63) fl ew to Berlin, and on June 23, 1963, delivered a famous speech, declar-ing “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “I am a Berliner,” a moving promise of support for West Berlin. While the Soviets, convinced that the United States was determined fi ght to remain in West Berlin and guarantee the freedom of the West Berliners, chose not to send their tanks into the western enclave, the crisis accentuated the increasing rift between East and West Germany and doomed any plans for the immediate reunifi ca-tion of Germany.

Konrad Adenauer retired the same year as Kennedy’s speech in Berlin, on the heels of the Spiegel Affair, which split the coalition that had reelected him in 1961. To win the 1961 election, Adenauer had consolidated his power by negotiating an uneasy alliance of the con-servatives of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union with the liberals of the Free Democratic Party. Soon after his reelection, however, the Adenauer government was rocked by a major scandal involving the German magazine, Der Spiegel.

In October 1962, with cold war fears rampant, the magazine exposed weaknesses within the German military, criticizing Adenauer’s security policies. The gov-ernment response was heavy-handed. The West German police raided the magazine’s offi ces, and the publisher, media tycoon Axel Springer (1912–85), was charged with treason. The public was outraged by the Adenauer government’s lack of restraint and its disregard for constitu-tional protections of the press. Shocked, the liberal FDP ministers on Adenauer’s cabinet abruptly resigned, which threatened to break the coalition that secured the chancellor’s power.

In the face of rising criti-cism, the chancellor later apologized for breaching the freedom of the press, but the damage was done. While Adenauer’s long tenure as chan-cellor would end with an important diplomatic coup, by the time he left offi ce, his public support was waning. In January 1963, Adenauer’s gov-ernment signed a historic accord, the Élysée Treaty, with France. The agreement brought the two nations, once the bitterest of enemies, into close cooperation in matters of diplomacy, trade, and security.

Strongly linking Western Europe’s two largest states—serving as a counterweight to both the Atlantic and Soviet powers—the treaty aimed to tie West Germany securely to its European neighbors and strengthen German democracy, which would in turn enhance the economic and military power of Western Europe. While it helped pave the way for Europe’s future integration, the alliance between West Germany and France was soon threatened by France’s withdrawal from NATO in 1966. The aged Adenauer retired on October 15, 1963, having dominated the West German political scene since the new nation’s inception.

With the East German economy faltering, and failing to meet the production quotas stipulated by the government’s Five-Year Plans, the Ulbricht regime changed course in 1963. As in the Soviet Union, East German economic planners abandoned the rigid Five-Year Plan struc-ture and adopted a less centralized system. Based upon more fl exible annual production quotas, the implementation of the government’s economic plans was to be carried out at the regional level with produc-tion incentives for local managers.

By the end of the decade, however, the East German economy’s performance was still anemic by Western standards, and the SED reversed its policies once again, reverting to more centralized planning.In the Federal Republic, Adenauer’s retirement left a political void that the Christian Democratic Union’s coalition government fi lled with the former chancellor’s trusted economic advisor, Ludwig Erhard (1897–1977), whom they tapped to be his successor. Erhard immedi-ately began working to thaw relations with the eastern bloc.

While he was able to gain some concessions in Berlin, namely easing restrictions on border crossings for West Berliners, he proved incapable of repairing the damage done by the Adenauer government’s Hallstein Doctrine of the 1950s. Erhard’s tenure was also complicated in February 1966 by a growing rift within the ranks of the Western powers when President Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) pulled France out of NATO, forcing West Germany to choose between fulfi lling its obligations to its alliance partners or to pursue its burgeoning partnership with France.

Erhard resigned in November 1966, amid a worsening economic recession that led to the dissolution of the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition when the FDP fi nally withdrew from the political alliance. By the beginning of December, West Germany had a new chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger (1904–88), the leader of an unlikely “Grand Coalition” between his own Christian Democratic Union and the SPD.

Kiesinger was a former Nazi Party member who had worked in the radio propaganda division of the German foreign ministry during World War II. Detained by the occupation authorities after the war, he had been released and acquitted of war crimes charges. A staunch Catholic, Kiesinger rose quickly through the ranks of the CDU during the postwar period, but when he was appointed chancellor, his Nazi past came back to haunt him.

His political allies in the SPD were branded traitors for associating with him, and leftist intellectuals demanded his ouster throughout his tenure. Meanwhile, his chancellorship provided a propaganda bonanza for the East Germans, who had long excori-ated West Germany for abandoning stringent denazifi cation and for the infl uence of former Nazis in West German politics and industry.

Despite the endur-ing controversy, Kiesinger proved an able administrator, and he managed to reduce tensions with several Warsaw Pact countries, including Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, despite the lingering impasse with East Germany. On the economic front, his cabinet ministers enacted a series of measures that brought West Germany out of its recession by 1968. Later that year, however, West Germany was wracked by waves of radical revolt, protests that began on the nation’s university campuses.

The radical student protest movement that erupted in 1968 had its origins in earlier outbursts of campus unrest in the United States and France. These student protests were sparked by outrage at the United States’s increasing military involvement in Vietnam and its carpet-bombing campaign, code-named “Operation Rolling Thunder,” that pounded communist North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968.

In West Germany, however, leftist discontent with the perceived oppression and hypocrisy of West German society also fueled the movement. Outraged by events such as the Speigel Affair and the election of the former Nazi, Kiesinger, leftist student organizations organized violent demonstra-tions throughout West Germany, raging against what they perceived to be the defects of German society.

For the protesters, these included its hidebound, authoritarian nature, its failure to confront and atone for its Nazi past, and its smug faith in a capitalist economic system they saw as morally bankrupt. The students demanded democratic reforms in the political system and on university campuses, arguing for a greater say in policy making in both arenas. As in France and the United States, German student demonstrators and police often met in increasingly violent clashes during the late 1960s, horrifying the public.

Hoping to quell the disturbance, in May 1968, the government passed the Emergency Acts, an amendment to the West German constitution that permitted the executive branch to operate without legislative approval, to suspend certain constitutional rights, and even to use the military to restore order during periods of crisis. Evoking memories of Hitler’s use of Article 48 and realizing the left’s worst fears about the seemingly “fascist” nature of Germany’s conservative government, the amendment was fi ercely resisted to no avail by the FDP, the student movement, and the trade unions and went into effect in June.

Amid the rising unrest in West Germany, the leftist outrage fostered by the student movement spawned other reactions, both violent and peaceful. The fi rst was domestic terrorism. Elements of the student movement had been radicalized in June 1967, when an unarmed 26-year-old graduate student protester, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot and killed by police.

This act of brutal violence—interpreted from an ideological perspective informed by the writings of radical dissidents and intellectuals like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, the Chinese com-munist Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), and the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979)—helped spark the formation in 1970 of an “urban guerrilla” organization known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after its two cofounders, the left-ist activists Andreas Baader (1943–77) and Ulrike Meinhof (1943–76).

Garnering signifi cant support from West German liberals and students, the Red Army Faction staged a series of bank robberies, arson attacks, bombings, and assassinations in the 1970s and 1980s, claiming 34 lives in the name of the armed struggle against “fascist imperialism.”

A more peaceful, and lasting, manifestation of the leftist agitation of the late 1960s was the foundation of the Green Party, an organization committed to environmental causes. The Greens gained seats in West Germany’s state governments and even formed a national party in the late 1970s, as Germany’s increasing investment in nuclear power raised environmental concerns. As environmental issues gained prominence in West Germany in the decades after its formation, the party gained sup-porters and drew attention to the perils of destroying the ecosystem.

The growing infl uence of the left in West Germany at the close of the 1960s helped to bring an end to the CDU/CSU monopoly on political power in Bonn. In the September 1969 Bundestag elections, the SPD ran a close second behind the conservative coalition, but the liberals of the FDP joined with the Social Democrats in a new coalition that gave the chancellorship to the SPD leader Willy Brandt. Brandt, the former mayor of West Berlin, had become a socialist as a young man and escaped Nazi persecution in 1933 by fl eeing to Norway and later Sweden.

Returning to Germany in 1946, Brandt settled in West Berlin, serving as that city’s mayor from 1957 until 1966. Brandt had served as head of the SPD since 1964 and had been appointed foreign minister and vice chancellor in 1966, after a failed bid for the chancellorship. Under Brandt’s leadership, West Germany abandoned the Hallstein Doctrine and instead vigorously pursued the policy of Ostpolitik, seeking to engage the GDR and its Warsaw Pact allies in fruitful dialogue and diplomacy.

Ostpolitik was a controversial reversal of the conservative policies of the Adenauer era, when the West German government refused even to recognize the sovereignty of East Germany. Brandt’s fi rst move came in early 1970 when he met with the GDR’s minister president in the fi rst direct diplomatic talks between the two German states since the late 1940s, talks that helped pave the way for the two Germanies to reestab-lish formal relations.

By August 1970, Brandt had also forged an agree-ment with the Soviets, the Moscow Treaty, which stated the partners’ intention to avoid military confl ict and to respect Europe’s existing territorial borders. In a second treaty, known as the Warsaw Treaty, signed in December 1970, Brandt and the leader of Poland resolved the postwar dispute over the German-Polish border, eschewed the use of military force between the signatories, and established ongoing dip-lomatic relations in an effort to work past the painful legacy of World War II.

On the heels of this dramatic rapprochement, Brandt negotiated a settlement with the Soviets that guaranteed free access between West Germany and West Berlin but maintained the four-power administra-tion of the city. When Walter Ulbricht opposed these accommodations, the Soviets arranged for his ouster. Ulbricht’s Stalinist policies were no longer acceptable, and in May 1971, Erich Honecker (1912–94) replaced him as SED chairman.

Erich Honecker came from a humble background: His father was a coal miner, and he trained as a roofer. From his early teens, Honecker was an ardent communist, joining the youth wing of the KPD when he was just 14 years old. Once he joined the KPD, in 1929, his ardor impressed party offi cials, and he was sent to Moscow for a socialist edu-cation at the International Lenin School. After returning to Germany in 1931, Honecker was arrested by the Nazis and spent a decade in prison for resisting Hitler’s takeover.

After the war, Honecker entered the East German government as an early member of the SED and was appointed for a seat on the Council of State in 1971. Honecker’s eco-nomic policies were driven by his staunch ideological beliefs, but he ameliorated the GDR’s centrally planned economy—based upon state ownership of the means of production and rigid industrial production quotas—with expanded social welfare programs to benefi t the East German proletariat. Furthermore, Honecker refocused much of the GDR’s industrial capacity to the production of consumer goods.

Soon, the citizens of East Germany enjoyed the highest standard of living in the Warsaw Pact, although they still lagged behind the West in both material luxury and political liberty. Honecker’s foreign policy was based upon his unfl inching support for the Soviet Union and the prin-ciple of Abgrenzung, which repudiated the goal of unifi cation with West Germany and sought to slow the process of détente with the West by accentuating the ideological and political distinctiveness of the GDR.

Despite this chilling in the East German government’s relationship with the West, and the widespread criticism Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik evoked among West German conservatives, the chancellor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 in recognition for the stunning success of his diplomacy in fostering understanding across the cold war ideo-logical divide.

However, his most important diplomatic coup was still to come. In December 1972, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic signed the Basic Treaty, recognizing each other’s sovereignty and guaranteeing to maintain peaceful relations. This was the start of an era of fruitful dialogue and exchange between the two German states, including diplomatic visits, trading relations, and cultural exchange, that went on uninterrupted despite their ideo-logical differences and the rising cold war tensions of the era.

In 1972, Brandt’s attempt to draw the Warsaw Pact countries into peaceful dialogue instigated a political crisis that almost lead to the chancellor’s ouster. Early in 1972, several prominent members of the SPD and others from the FDP joined with the CDU in protest of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, branding him a traitor for collaborating with the GDR, thus threatening his parliamentary majority. On April 24, 1972, the opposi-tion authorized a vote of no confi dence, which would have removed Brandt from offi ce, but it failed by just two votes. In the wake of this bitter political dispute, West Germany prepared to celebrate its status as host country of the Games of the XX Olympiad.

These summer games, scheduled to be held from August 26 to September 11, 1972, would be the fi rst in Germany since the Nazi games of 1936. Having constructed a fabulous Olympic venue on the outskirts of Munich, known as the Olympiapark, the West German government was eager to showcase the prosperity and the prestige of the new Germany.Unfortunately, the Munich games are remembered today as the site of a terrible tragedy.

On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian members of the Black September group (which derived its name from events fol-lowing the 1967 war involving Israel and its Arab neighbors) stormed the Olympic Village at the summer games in Munich and took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, killing two immediately for resisting in the initial chaos of the attack. The terrorists demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinian militants being held in Israel, as well as Red Army Faction leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, incarcerated in West Germany. After a botched rescue attempt, the terrorists murdered all nine of the surviving hostages, further eroding Brandt’s reputation.

Despite these scandals and crises, two months later, Brandt’s SPD managed to secure a narrow victory over the CDU in the Bundestag elections of November 1972. Having won reelection, Brandt continued his conciliatory policies toward the Warsaw Pact nations, and in 1973, West Germany forged diplomatic ties with Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Both of the Germanies joined the United Nations that same year. These diplomatic milestones were overshadowed in 1973, however, when the German economic miracle came to a grinding halt as oil prices soared amid unrest in the Middle East, causing a global recession.

The Social Democrats’ costly social programs came under increasing scrutiny as the German economy faltered and the ranks of the unemployed swelled. By 1975, more than 1 million West Germans were jobless, a number that would double by the mid-1980s.It was not West Germany’s economic problems that toppled Brandt, but rather a scandal that erupted the following year, one that called Brandt’s Ostpolitik into question and toppled him from power.

In 1973, as the German economy faltered in the face of an international oil crisis, West German intelligence learned that one of Brandt’s personal assistants, Günter Guillaume (1927–95), was a spy with ties to the East German secret police, the Stasi. After Guillaume’s arrest for espionage, in April 1974, the West German government compelled an embarrassed Brandt to tender his resignation. Brandt was succeeded as chancellor by another Social Democrat, Helmut Schmidt (1918– ), but he retained a seat on the Bundestag and the leadership of the SPD.

Helmut Schmidt was well placed to replace Brandt, having served as defense minister and fi nance minister in the former chancellor’s cabi-net. Conscripted into the German army during World War II, Schmidt had joined the SPD in 1946, as a university student in Hamburg, and risen in the party owing to his reputation for competence. The new chancellor took offi ce as the 1973 oil crisis brought crippling infl ation to Germany and took decisive action, pursuing nuclear energy in the face of attacks from environmentalists.

Schmidt also showed his resolve in taking tough action during the “German Autumn” of 1977, when a wave of Red Army Faction violence terrorized Germany.The wave of terrorist violence began on July 30, 1977, when mem-bers of the Red Army Faction murdered Jürgen Ponto, the head of the Dresdner Bank, in a botched kidnapping attempt. The RAF fol-lowed up on this violent murder with an audacious attack on a police convoy in Cologne transporting Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a prominent industrialist. The terrorists killed Schleyer’s driver and three police offi cers, abducting the businessman.

The kidnappers demanded that the Schmidt government release several early RAF leaders in police custody in exchange for Schleyer, including one of the group’s original founders, Andreas Baader. When the Schmidt government refused to cooperate, the RAF escalated their terrorist campaign by hijacking a Lufthansa fl ight with the aid of Palestinian terrorists and diverting it to Mogadishu, Somalia. Helmut Schmidt authorized a daring rescue, using the elite West German antiterrorist unit, known as GSG 9, a unit formed after the 1972 Olympic tragedy.

The GSG 9 assault team stormed the plane on the night of October 18, rescuing the hostages and killing or capturing the hijackers. The same night, the imprisoned RAF leaders, including original members Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, were found dead in their cells, victims of apparent suicide. In retaliation, the RAF kidnappers holding Schleyer murdered him and left his body in the trunk of a car in rural France. The violent autumn of 1977 had fi nally come to an end.

The SPD had maintained a slim majority in the Bundestag elections of 1976, as Schmidt beat out Helmut Kohl (1930– ) of the CSU for the chancellorship, but during his second term, he faced a range of daunting challenges, including the continued stagnation of the West German economy, soaring unemployment, and growing unrest among the nation’s workers. Meanwhile, the SPD’s conciliatory policy toward the Warsaw Pact was called into question by the Soviet Union’s increas-ingly aggressive stance, culminating in its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.

As German conservatives called for increased defense spending and a tougher policy toward the Warsaw Pact, Schmidt’s support began to erode. In October 1982, Schmidt was ousted when the opposi-tion delegates in the Bundestag called for a no-confi dence vote. The vote passed, and Schmidt was deposed as chancellor. His replacement was the moderate CSU head who had ran against Schmidt in the last Bundestag election, Helmut Kohl, elected with the help of the FDP.

Helmut Kohl was born in 1930, the son of a Catholic civil servant. He was conscripted into the German army in the waning days of the war, never saw combat, and continued his schooling after the confl ict ended. As a student, in 1946, he joined the newly formed Christian Democratic Union and after graduation entered local politics. By 1973, he had risen to become federal chairman of the CDU and served on the Bundestag. Once Kohl became chancellor, after the ouster of Helmut Schmidt in October 1982, he worked to shore up his support, and in the federal elections of March 1983, he won a crushing reelection vic-tory.

After forming his second cabinet, Kohl’s conservative supporters in the Bundestag authorized his plan to allow the stationing of NATO nuclear missiles on German soil, to the consternation of the left. He also worked to form closer diplomatic ties with Western allies, a reversal in the SPD’s earlier policy of seeking détente with the Warsaw Pact nations. Most important, in 1984, Kohl met with French president François Mitterrand (1916–96) at Verdun, where the two statesmen offered rec-onciliation for the bloodshed between their two nations in World War I and World War II.

The ceremony was the beginning of a close relation-ship between Kohl and Mitterrand and helped lay the foundations for Europe’s future integration. Meanwhile, the chancellor also shored up West Germany’s relationship with the United States and its NATO allies. In 1985, Kohl and U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and a German military cemetery at Bitburg, ceremonial visits intended to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe and the close postwar relationship of the two former combatants.

The visit to the military cemetery proved controversial, however, when it was discovered that members of the Waffen SS, an elite Nazi military unit, were buried there. The episode caused embar-rassment for the Kohl government, as did certain corruption scandals involving high-ranking members of his cabinet.Despite these scandals, and the left’s outrage at the deployment of nuclear weapons within Germany, Kohl won reelection in Bundestag elections of 1987.

Soon after his electoral victory, Kohl reversed his hard-line policy toward the eastern bloc, inviting the East German leader, Erich Honecker, to visit West Germany, making him the fi rst leader of the GDR to do so. By the late 1980s, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were under immense pressure, as their citizens began to agitate for democratic reform. In Poland, for example, an illegal, nongovernment-controlled trade union, known as Solidarity, emerged in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980.

In the face of brutal repression, the movement’s leader Lech Wałesa (1943– ) exposed the corruption and violence of the communist government and, by the late 1980s, had forced the government to negotiate. The news of these events spread through the eastern bloc like wildfi re, reaching the GDR as the nation was grappling with a serious economic recession. In 1984, as the East German economy faltered, and government quotas and shortages eroded workers’ living conditions, disgruntled East Germans began to seek asylum in foreign embassies.

By January 15, 1986, a state holiday, the offi cial communist commemorations were disrupted by outbursts of angry protest, as demonstrators demanded democratic freedoms. Honecker denounced the movement as traitorous, and the protest-ers were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. In 1989, when a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931– ), took power and began to authorize startling reforms that shook the Soviet Union to its core, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to falter. German reunifi -cation suddenly seemed possible.