Isaac Deutscher 1955

Is Germany the Key To Soviet Manoeuvres?

Source: The Reporter, 8 September 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Geneva Conference of July illuminated the evolution of Soviet foreign policy since Stalin’s death, notably changes in the approach to the German problem. More than ever, it seems to me that this issue has been in the centre of the controversy that divided the Soviet ruling group and was a major cause of the two dramatic governmental crises of 1953 and 1955. Conversely, as I see it, every change in the ruling group has entailed a shift in Moscow’s German policy.

The brief but intricate story of the post-Stalin era falls into three chapters. In the first, which lasted from March until mid-June 1953, the Soviet Union was ruled by Malenkov and Beria; in the second, power was exercised by the coalition of Malenkov and Khrushchev, which in February 1955 gave place to the Khrushchev – Bulganin combination. It is striking that the transition from one chapter to another was never preceded by any startling event in Soviet domestic affairs that would offer a clue to the subsequent governmental crisis. But at the end of each chapter a strikingly dramatic development took place in German affairs.

The Malenkov – Beria coalition collapsed in the days of the June rising in East Germany. The Malenkov – Khrushchev combination broke up after the signing of the Paris and London Agreements and West Germany’s inclusion in NATO became imminent. In each case the impact of German developments shook Moscow, replaced one political alignment by another, and led to a revision of Soviet foreign and domestic policies.

Accent on Reunification: Stalin’s successors sought to preserve the assets and reduce the liabilities he had bequeathed. It was in the months of the Malenkov – Beria coalition that most of the conciliatory moves of Soviet foreign policy, beginning with the Korean armistice, were initiated. Malenkov and Beria saw in the German situation, as Stalin had left it, the greatest single liability of Soviet diplomacy. They viewed Germany’s division and the presence of the armed forces of East and West on German soil as the chief obstacles to a rationalisation of Soviet foreign policy and the chief source of international tension. They contemplated nothing less than a withdrawal from Germany and the virtual abandonment of the East German Communist regime, hoping that they would be able to persuade the Western powers to agree to a withdrawal of their forces too. They assumed that it would be possible for the USSR to effect an orderly retreat, without much loss of face and without shattering Soviet power positions in the rest of Eastern Europe.

The accusation later levelled against Beria that he intended to ‘surrender East Germany to world capitalism’ was thus not quite groundless, only that Beria, far from being an ‘agent of imperialism’ and guilty of conspiracy and treason, had advocated this ‘surrender’ as part of a definite political and diplomatic conception for which he argued in the normal way with his colleagues. This conception was reflected in the Soviet documents of the time and it was emphatically formulated in the famous ‘Reply to President Eisenhower’ that appeared in Pravda on 25 April 1953. The ‘Reply’, which was Beria’s and Malenkov’s explicit appeal to the West, stated categorically that ‘a peace treaty with Germany giving the German people the possibility of a reunion in one state... should be concluded as early as possible; and following closely upon this the occupation troops should be withdrawn...’.

Reversal of a Reversal: When this statement is compared with the attitude taken up by Bulganin and Khrushchev at Geneva, the change and the contrast are self-evident. In April 1953, Moscow gave top priority to Germany’s reunification. Only after unification were foreign troops to be withdrawn, and the fact that two antagonistic states with ‘differing social and political systems’ had existed in Germany for nearly eight years was not seen as an insuperable obstacle to early reunification. At Geneva the Soviet leaders based their policy on Germany’s continued division, which had, in their view, been rendered inevitable not only by West German adherence to NATO but also by the existence of the two antagonistic German regimes. Malenkov and Beria were prepared to try to reverse Stalin’s policies in Germany and dismantle the Pieck – Ulbricht government, believing that this would secure a stable peace. Khrushchev and Bulganin appear to have ruled out any such reversal. They stand firm by the Communist regime in East Germany.

It may be assumed, although this cannot be proved, that if the Western powers had tried to negotiate with Russia in the spring or early summer of 1953, when Sir Winston Churchill first urged them to do so, they would have found the Soviet leaders much more ready to make important concessions of substance on Germany than they have found them at Geneva. But at that time most Western statesmen were convinced that ‘nothing had changed in Russia’, viewed the Russian scene with incredulity, and were not inclined to act at once. Then the rising of 16-17 June suddenly brought to light the risks and dangers to Russia that were inherent in the Malenkov – Beria policy. The opinion gained ground in Moscow’s ruling group that an orderly retreat from Germany was almost impossible, and that, if attempted, it was likely to turn into a rout and to shake the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

What followed was a phase of transition characterised by indecision and ambiguity. Under Malenkov and Khrushchev the emphasis of Soviet diplomacy was no longer on Germany’s early reunification, but it had not yet shifted to continued division. In the long series of notes addressed to the Western powers in the second half of 1953 and during the Berlin Conference early in 1954, Foreign Minister Molotov argued at no point from Germany’s continued division. Half-heartedly he still pleaded for unification and even advanced fairly specific schemes for the setting up of an all-German government. Throughout 1954, while the Western campaign for West German rearmament was still in progress, Soviet policy was in a state of suspense. Moscow encouraged the French opposition to the European Defence Community and then sought to obstruct the passage of the London and Paris Agreements. The failure of these efforts ended the state of suspense; after Malenkov’s fall, Molotov relegated to the archives his schemes for an all-German government.

The Atomic Stalemate: Whatever one may think about the hopes raised by the Geneva Conference, on the German issue the attitude of the Soviet government is now more clearly defined than it was before, and it is much stiffer. Amid smiles and friendly handshakes (which came after the renunciation by Moscow of the Anglo-Soviet and Franco-Soviet alliances!) Khrushchev and Bulganin carried out the threat that they would not seriously negotiate over Germany’s unification as long as the Federal Republic was part of NATO. Straight from Geneva the two Soviet leaders went to East Germany to demonstrate that they backed to the hilt the Pieck – Ulbricht regime. (In June 1953, Beria had gone to Berlin in order to set the stage for its dismantling.)

This is not to say that the ‘summit’ conference was a mere hoax, or that the present Soviet rulers are not in earnest when they express the desire for a relaxation of tension. But the limitations they envisage should be clearly realised. Malenkov and Beria believed that a change in the German status quo was its most essential condition. Bulganin and Khrushchev seek to achieve the détente on the basis and within the framework of the status quo. The first two aimed at what they believed would lead to a thorough and radical disengagement of the armed forces of East and West, while the latter aim at a partial disengagement only.

Behind all the trappings of Geneva and the paraphernalia of the Soviet collective-security pact (designed to last into the next millennium) there is, I believe, a genuine desire to call a halt to the arms race and, if possible, to bring about a substantial reduction of armaments.

Parallel with the change in the Soviet approach to Germany, a significant modification seems to have occurred in Soviet strategic thinking. In 1953, Russia was not yet confident in its ability to match the United States in the production of nuclear weapons and transcontinental bombers. Soviet strategic thought still moved mainly along the lines of conventional warfare. Russia clung obstinately to its superiority in conventional weapons. From the point of view of traditional strategy, no military disengagement between East and West was possible as long as Germany was divided and Eastern and Western armies were garrisoned on German soil. Since then, however, Soviet strategic thought has advanced in step with Soviet nuclear power. The atomic stalemate between East and West has become a fact. The maintenance of superiority in conventional forces is no longer essential to Russia.

This creates the possibility of a relaxation based on a universal reduction of armaments. But the new strategic outlook affects Germany in a rather unexpected way. In terms of intercontinental atomic strategy, no thorough military disengagement of East and West is possible at all. Even the evacuation and neutralisation of a unified Germany could not bring it about. Intercontinental air forces are not disengageable. Thus, from the Soviet viewpoint, a decisive incentive for ending Germany’s partition has vanished. Russia’s security can no longer be enhanced, at least in the view that seems to have prevailed recently in Moscow, by any German settlement agreed on with the Western powers. But Russia’s – and the world’s – insecurity may be lessened by a reduction of armaments. This probably is why Bulganin and Khrushchev are more conciliatory over disarmament than were their predecessors and why they argue that collective security and disarmament should be given priority over the German problem and be tackled independently of it.

Diplomacy and Ideology: In all these considerations, Germany is still treated as the mere ‘object of history’ it was during the first postwar decade. If it is possible to speak now of continued division, it is so largely because no irresistible popular movement for unification has so far emerged in Germany to force the hands of the victors of 1945 – a fact by which future historians will certainly be puzzled. Yet in their long-term plans, Soviet policymakers are undoubtedly allowing for the emergence of such a movement, and they foresee the moment when the status quo will become untenable. How then do they envisage eventual unification?

Soviet long-term policy is usually framed in alternative terms of conventional diplomacy and revolutionary ‘ideology’. Ideas about Germany’s eventual unification must also fall into these two categories. Which of the ideas is eventually put into effect – the conventional diplomatic or the revolutionary – will depend on many still unpredictable circumstances.

Let us first consider the revolutionary scheme of things. On the face of it, any variant of policy envisaging Germany’s unification by means of a revolution may appear quite unrealistic. The German Communist Party is utterly discredited. Its influence west of the Elbe is almost nil, and even east of the Elbe it enjoys little popular support. As an instrument of revolution it is at present quite worthless. But it does not follow that it must remain worthless forever. The decay of German Communism has not been due to any inherent lack of popular appeal. Under the Weimar Republic millions of German workers followed the Communist Party, and on the collapse of the Third Reich the eyes of many Germans turned for a moment hopefully toward Communism. Communist influence was then destroyed by the shock it received from Stalin’s policy of national revenge, from the abominable conduct of the Soviet occupation troops, and from the revelation of the discrepancy between Western and Soviet standards of living.

Stalin’s successors are working hard to live down this part of Stalin’s legacy, and they are assisted by Russia’s economic and cultural development since the war. Russia, I believe, is no longer interested in exploiting the Soviet Zone of Germany or in keeping down the German economy as a whole, if only because the volume of Russian industrial output, according to my information, is now at least two and a half to three times as large as that of Germany. This is the momentous and quite new factor in Russo-German relations that will make itself felt in the coming decade. I predict that its weight will increase immensely with the further progress of Soviet industrialisation. The vast gap between the German and the Soviet standards of living is being bridged; it may well vanish within the next ten years.

The education of the Soviet masses is another new factor. The time may not be far off when Germany coming into contact with Russia will no longer be repelled by the Asian element in Russia’s outlook as it was in 1945. Moscow obviously expects that all these processes, and especially the liberalisation of the post-Stalinist regime, will in the long run have powerful repercussions – first in East Germany, which will participate in Soviet prosperity as it participated after 1945 in Soviet poverty and misery, and then also in the rest of Germany.

Waiting for a Crash: Assumptions about a slump in the capitalistic economy of the West are never absent from Soviet policy-making. They are now made much more cautiously than they were some years ago, but it is still taken for granted that the slump, no matter how long delayed, is bound to come with a crash and to transform the German political scene. If within a few years the German Federal Republic were to see an end of its present prosperity, a decline of living standards, and the reappearance of mass unemployment while the economy of East Germany was on the upswing, then the present unchallenged and unchallengeable supremacy of the anti-Communist parties in the Federal Republic might well be undermined. The call for reunification would then resound anew from East Germany, and perhaps meet with a response unimaginable under present conditions. It would then be a call for unity on a Communist basis.

This prospect was certainly present in the minds of Bulganin and Khrushchev when they argued in Geneva that the conditions were ‘not yet ripe’ for Germany’s unification, and when they assured crowds in Berlin that the ‘mechanical fusion of the two parts of Germany which are developing in different directions is an unreal business’. Beria and Malenkov favoured a Soviet retreat from East Germany because they believed that an early and stable peace was a more ‘real business’ than a German revolution in 1960 or 1965. Bulganin and Khrushchev, in my opinion, want to preserve East Germany as the springboard of an all-German revolution. Should the revolutionary expectations fail, then they or their successors will tackle the German problems in the conventional diplomatic manner.

Diplomacy: The Direct Deal: The premise on which the conduct of Soviet diplomacy appears to be based at present is that all Soviet attempts, whatever they were worth, to agree with the Western powers over Germany have failed, and that it is futile to continue them after Germany’s inclusion in NATO. This is the point in which Soviet policy seems to have crystallised in recent months. At Geneva, Bulganin and Khrushchev stated quite clearly that the terms on which they would consider Germany’s unification were not merely Germany’s exclusion from NATO but the dismantlement of NATO itself. This amounted to saying that henceforth negotiations over Germany would be more or less unreal unless the Atlantic powers retraced all the steps they had taken since 1948.

The corollary to this is that if at any time Germany’s unification could not be postponed any longer, and if it had to be unification ‘on a capitalist basis’, Moscow would negotiate over this not with the Atlantic powers but directly with the Federal German Republic. Russia could then offer the virtual surrender of East Germany to a West German government on the condition that said government get out of NATO.

Such a bilateral deal would fit in well with the traditions of Russian diplomacy, which in critical situations has more than once sought rapprochement with Germany whenever it could not come to terms with the Western powers. The Rapallo Treaty and the Soviet-German Pact of 1939 are the obvious precedents which in their turn had behind them the older tradition of Russo-German cooperation of the Bismarck era. Moscow is convinced that, in spite of Dr Adenauer’s firm commitment to the Atlantic alliance, the ‘Bismarck idea’ is still alive and stirring under the surface in the Federal Republic and that it will survive Dr Adenauer’s administration.

But whenever Russian diplomacy chooses to make another direct appeal to this tradition, it will do so under circumstances incomparably more favourable than in the past. Never before has Russia enjoyed as strong a bargaining position, nor is it likely to enjoy a stronger one in the foreseeable future. Never before, I think, has the balance of economic power been so favourable to Russia. In the past, Germany was Europe’s leading industrial nation. Now it is Russia. Germany’s ability to dispute Russia’s place must, it seems to me, be evaluated as no greater than was France’s ability to dispute Germany’s economic ascendancy after 1870. Never before did Russia deal with Germany while Eastern Europe was united under Russian leadership. Never before was Russia’s influence even remotely as powerful in Asia as it is now. Never before could Russia tempt Germany with prospects of trade as dazzling as those it may hold out for the near future, even though the reality of these prospects must depend on the extent to which the economy of the Soviet bloc remains or does not remain closed and self-sufficient.

Finally, never before has Russia held so formidable a bargaining point as the one it now possesses: it is on Russia, and Russia alone, that the recovery by Germany of its national identity and of the fullness of its national life depends. The Soviet leaders assume that they can afford to wait, and that once they have brought their full bargaining power to bear upon it, the Federal German Republic will not be able to refuse a bilateral settlement of Russo-German affairs.

Playing for Time: Soviet diplomacy is acting in this matter with its customary patience, but also with a great capacity for rapid decision and action. It is probably not yet in a hurry to bring its full bargaining power into play. Dr Adenauer’s invitation to Moscow seems to be not more than an early preliminary to future action. Moscow’s purpose at the moment is to establish normal contacts with Bonn and perhaps also to open up channels of trade. Only after this has been achieved will it be possible for Soviet diplomacy to gauge more accurately than hitherto the currents of West German opinion, to explore the alignments behind the scenes, and to discover the exact points at which Soviet bargaining power may be applied in due time with the utmost effect. Only when a Soviet embassy is established in West Germany can the Russians begin to look around and see who and where are the influential men eager for a deal with Russia.

Time alone can show which of the solutions, the revolutionary or the conventional diplomatic, is practicable and, from the Soviet viewpoint, preferable. At Geneva Bulganin and Khrushchev played for time, and it is for time, much time, that Soviet diplomacy will be playing in the series of negotiations that will be opened in October. Since the Western powers are doing the same – indeed, since the atomic stalemate compels both East and West to avoid head-on collision – the time-span during which Soviet diplomacy may be able to postpone a solution of the German problem may prove to be considerable.