Germany as a Source of Tension
The two Germanys
Germany had, by 1949, become two countries. It was this division of Germany that did much to fuel the Cold War in the years up to 1961. Significant differences existed between West Germany and East Germany in the economic and political spheres.
Economic differences between West Germany and East Germany
Economically, West Germany was larger than East Germany with a larger population and greater industrial output. It had also received Marshall Aid. In fact, West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s experienced what became known as the 'economic miracle' and accordingly, the standard of living of most West Germans rapidly increased. Meanwhile, in East Germany, leader Walter Ulbricht's post-1959 programmed of forced collectivisation of farms and of socialisation was disastrous for the economy. With the hardship and a decline in living standards that this entailed, many East Germans fled to the West via Berlin.
Political differences between West Germany and East Germany
Politically, West Germany had democracy. In East Germany there had been no free elections since 1946 and, by the 1950s, it was a rigidly Stalinist, authoritarian state. Discontent with the situation in East Germany manifested itself in the riots of 1953. Workers in East Berlin and elsewhere in the East rose up in revolt. The riots were quickly suppressed with the help of Soviet tanks. This was the first major rebellion within the Soviet sphere of influence.
As a result of these differences, there were no further efforts by either side to reunite as one country. Changing the situation seemed more risky than maintaining the status quo. However, the potential for conflict remained, and particularly in the increasingly untenable situation of Berlin, which Khrushchev described as 'a fishbone in East Germany's gullet.'
Why did the Berlin Crisis develop?
Khrushchev and the crisis of 1958
After the Berlin Blockade, Berlin remained divided under joint American−British−French−Soviet occupation and the economic and political inequalities of the two Germanys could be clearly seen in the differences between West Berlin and East Berlin. West Berlin appeared to be a glittering, dynamic example of what capitalism could achieve. This factor, along with the political freedoms and open lifestyle of the West Berliners, encouraged East Germans to escape from the hardship of the East to the prosperity and freedom of the West through the open frontier in Berlin. All East Berliners had to do was to travel from East Berlin to West Berlin, which could be done by train or subway, and from there emigration to West Germany was easy.
This exodus of mainly young and skilled East Germans − which was encouraged by the West − meant that between 1945 and 1961 about one-sixth of the whole German population took the opportunity to move to the West via Berlin. In addition, the divided city of Berlin allowed the West to maintain a unique propaganda and espionage base 186km (110 miles) inside East German territory.
In 1958, Khrushchev proposed a peace treaty that would recognise the existence of the two Germany's. One the 27th of November 1958, he then demanded that Berlin should be demilitarised. Western troops were to withdraw and Berlin change into a 'free city.' If the West did not agree to these changes within six months, Khrushchev threatened to turn over control of access routes to the Western sectors of Berlin to the GDR (East Germany). This was clever diplomacy; it would allow the GDR to interfere at will with traffic using land corridors from the FRG (West Germany). The Western allies would then have to negotiate with the GDR, which would force them to recognise the existence and sovereignty of the GDR. It was a dangerous situation. The West could not contemplate losing face over Berlin or giving up its propaganda and intelligence base, but to resist Khrushchev could mean the possibility of war.
Why was Khrushchev prepared to precipitate this Cold War crisis? Evidence from the Soviet archives points to the fact that the most important influences on Khrushchev's policy making at this time were:
- Soviet fear of West Germany acquiring nuclear weapons,
- concern over the failing East Germany economy, and
- pressure from Walter Ulbricht, leader of the GDR.
In the face of Western outrage at his proposal, Khrushchev dropped his ultimatum. He was successful, however, in forcing the Allies to discuss the German question. In February 1959, they agreed that a foreign ministers' conference should meet in Geneva in the summer. At Geneva both sides put forward proposals for German unity, but no agreement was secured. Khrushchev then met in the United States with Eisenhower in September 1959, but again no agreement was reached. A follow-up summit to be held in Paris in May 1960 was called off at the last minute after the shooting down over the Soviet Union of an American U-2 spy plane.
The Paris Summit and the U-2 incident, May 1960
By the time the leaders met in Paris, the situation had already altered. The US had discovered,via its spy planes, that the USSR was already well behind the US in terms of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), while West Germany was no longer prepared to make any concessions on West Berlin. Then, on 1 May 1960, came the announcement that a Soviet missile had successfully grounded a US U-2 spy plane over the USSR. Eisenhower, embarrassed that his previous denials of spy planes had been revealed (he had claimed they were merely weather planes), and concerned at the effectiveness of Soviet missile technology, refused to apologise for the incident. Khrushchev cancelled Eisenhower's proposed visit to the Soviet Union. The incident doomed the Paris summit to failure.
The Soviets proposed a confederation between the two German states, with both leaving their respective military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact). They also suggested the internationalisation and demilitarisation of Berlin. These proposals were countered by the Western powers by suggestions for a united Germany and all-German elections, along with some German disarmament. One reason the West was keen to resist the moves outlined by the Soviet Union was that Berlin was an important propaganda, espionage and intelligence base behind the Iron Curtain.
As these discussions dragged on, an increasing number of East Germans migrated to the West. By 1959, these numbered around 200,000 a year − many of them young technicians and other skilled workers. This had a serious effect on the weak Eastern German economy, and was thus encouraged by the West. Not surprisingly, the GDR leader, Walter Ulbricht, began to press for action.
Ideally, Ulbricht wanted West Berlin to be added to East Berlin, removing the Western presence in the GDR. Khrushchev, however, preferred the continued division of Berlin if it allowed him to gain concessions from the West over West German rearmament − in particular, to prevent West Germany possessing nuclear weapons. Encouraged by another Soviet technological first − manned space flight − and the failure of the US-backed Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba, Khrushchev thought he might secure a better deal with the new US president, John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy and flexible response
John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. His approach to containment was a policy of 'flexible response.' In terms of his wider Cold War policy, it involved:
- more spending on conventional forces,
- enlarging the nuclear arsenal,
- continuing with CIA covert work,
- giving economic aid to developing countries to help them resist Communism, and
- continuing negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Therefore, Kennedy broadened the range of options for resisting Communism, as it seemed to his administration that the Communist threat was much more diverse than it had been previously. Not only was it more geographically diverse, but Communist forces now were giving assistance to revolutionary movements in the developing world. With flexible response, Kennedy was moving away from Eisenhower's policy of 'massive retaliation' or, as he put it, 'We intend to have a wider choice than humiliation or all-out nuclear war.'