Isaac Deutscher 1959

Khrushchev Plays For Time

Source: The Reporter, 28 May 1959. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In the months that have elapsed since Khrushchev raised the demand for a change in the status of West Berlin, his diplomacy has displayed much initiative and a great deal of confusion. Initiative has brought rewards. It has sent Prime Minister Macmillan on an unprecedented diplomatic errand to Moscow; it has caused reluctant Western governments to accept the prospect of a summit meeting or even of a series of such meetings; and it has helped to reveal, if not produce, discord in the Western camp.

But the signs of Soviet confusion have been no less evident. At the starting point of the Berlin crisis last November, Khrushchev denied the Western powers any right to stay on in Berlin; and he appeared to confront them with the demand for an early withdrawal and with an ultimatum. He has since re-acknowledged explicitly and solemnly the right of the Western powers to maintain their positions in Berlin. As the foreign ministers assembled in Geneva, the Soviet purpose thus appeared to be more modest than it was last autumn. Moscow claimed that it wished merely to change the legal and diplomatic basis for the Western presence in Berlin: the Western powers should remain on the basis of new rights that ought to be defined through negotiations, not by the right of conquest dating back to 1945.

This, then, was the main item in Gromyko’s Geneva brief. He was not to parley about larger issues such as the unification of Germany or disengagement. Instead, he was to propose that the former allies conclude a peace treaty with the two German governments. As the Western powers were not prepared to agree to this, the redefinition of the legal basis for their continued presence in Berlin remained the only real object of negotiations. Even some of Khrushchev’s closest associates may be wondering now whether it was worth while raising so much dust over this question.

Underlying this confusion there is also a very much deeper conflict between Soviet political strategy and Soviet tactics vis-ŕ-vis Germany. Strategically, Moscow is playing from strength; tactically, it is playing from weakness. Its policy-makers are convinced that in the long run the rapid industrial and technological ascendancy of the Soviet Union is bound to have its effect on Germany and eventually will draw the whole of Germany into the Soviet orbit. In the short run, however, Germany remains the most important European bulwark of the West, and even East Germany is potentially, because of the mood of its people, a stronghold of anti-Communism. Despite all its strength, Soviet policy has been helpless against this fact.

New Balance – Old Stalemate: The contrast between Soviet strategic strength and tactical weakness has had its source in the legacy of the Stalin era in Germany. Even if Khrushchev will not say it openly, he knows full well that it was Stalin’s Potsdam policy, with its emphasis on reparations, territorial annexation and nationalist Russian revenge on the defeated Reich, that produced the present long-lasting slump of Communism in Germany, weakened the economy and lowered the standard of living of East Germany, and utterly discredited the Ulbricht regime. As long as the consequences and the memory of this Stalinist legacy have not been effaced, Soviet policy vis-ŕ-vis Germany is bound to be torn between a sense of power and a sense of weakness.

The latest Soviet initiative over Berlin illustrates this state of affairs. What has prompted Khrushchev and his policymakers to press for a revision of the status of Berlin is precisely their confident awareness of the great shift in Russia’s favour that has recently taken place in the international balance of power. They see the division of Berlin as the remnant of a now closed era, an era during which the outlook in Germany was determined on the one hand by the predominance of the Russian land power in Europe and on the other by the American monopoly of atomic power. With the lapse of that monopoly, and with Russia’s present lead in the development in missiles, Soviet policy is tempted to do away with the ‘anachronism’ of Berlin, especially because the position of the Western powers in Berlin is particularly vulnerable to Soviet pressure.

Last November, however, Khrushchev set out to probe the exposed Western outpost. He soon found out, for the nth time, that in Berlin the Soviet position is no less vulnerable. To both sides, East and West, Berlin is the chink in their armour. But while the weakness of the Western powers is military, Russia’s weakness is mainly political; it lies in the stubborn opposition of the local population to any change that might enhance the Russian influence on the spot. Since East and West at present conduct their contest by political rather than by military means, Khrushchev has had to acknowledge the precariousness of his position and to climb down.

Russia’s mixture of strength and weakness also determines Khrushchev’s attitude towards disengagement. On strictly strategic grounds, he could well afford to withdraw Soviet troops from East Germany – nothing, indeed, should suit him better. He might even afford to carry out a unilateral withdrawal, for he knows that whether Soviet troops stand on the Elbe, on the Polish border or on the Soviet frontier, the NATO powers cannot, under the present balance of military strength, risk moving across the Elbe; and under certain circumstances a unilateral Soviet withdrawal might compel them, also, to withdraw. Yet Khrushchev is in fact almost as much afraid of disengagement as are most NATO leaders. While the latter fear that disengagement might lead to the disintegration of NATO, Khrushchev is afraid that it might be followed by an anti-Communist upheaval, of which the East Berlin rising of 1953 and the Budapest rising of 1956 gave him a foretaste. He must keep Soviet military power, or at least must preserve his freedom to use that power, in East Germany and Eastern Europe in order to protect not Russia’s security directly, but the security of the governments of Ulbricht, Kádár and Gomulka.

The Plan for East Germany: As Moscow sees it, the great question on which the prospects of its diplomacy hang is how and how soon the legacy of the Stalin era can be lived down in Eastern Europe, especially in East Germany.

It would be a mistake to overlook or belittle the efforts the Soviet government is making to clear the liabilities of that legacy. Soviet economic policy towards East Germany is no longer governed by the Stalinist spirit of ruthless Russian egoism – not for nothing has the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ been replaced by that of ‘international division of labour within the socialist camp’. East Germany is already benefiting from the change. It is no longer treated, as it was in Stalin’s days, as both a defeated enemy and an exploitable satellite. It derives definite advantages from economic exchanges with the Soviet Union. Its trade with the countries of the Soviet bloc has grown considerably; its engineering industries play an important part in the industrialisation of China and other underdeveloped Communist-ruled countries. The standard of living of the East German people has been rising steadily, even though it is still well below that of the West Germans.

All this has probably been enough to soften the acute popular discontent that exploded in Berlin in 1953, but not enough to create contentment. Moscow expects, however, that East Germany will continue to make progress, and will secure full employment and prosperity for its people, while conditions in the Federal Republic may become stagnant or even deteriorate into a slump and mass unemployment. As Khrushchev puts it: in the 1950s the German people were impressed by the ‘economic miracle’ of West German capitalism; in the 1960s they will see the ‘economic miracle’ of East German socialism, which will radically alter the political climate in the whole of Germany. But even by Khrushchev’s most optimistic calculations, it must be quite a few years before this happens.

Khrushchev and his advisers are aware that the problem is not merely economic. Since his visits to East Germany, the Soviet leader has had few illusions about the Ulbricht regime. Some of his advisers are well aware of the distrust and hatred by which it is surrounded. But on this point Khrushchev is extremely cautious and shuns ‘risky experiments’. He has met any hint about the desirability of a change in the East German Communist leadership with the argument that the experience with Hungarian Communist boss Mátyás Rákosi was enough for him and that he was not going to ‘turn Ulbricht into another Rákosi’ – that is, make him into a scapegoat for all that has happened in East Germany and thereby to encourage the anti-Communist opposition there. He tries, on the contrary, to build up Ulbricht’s prestige, believing that the opportunity for a relaxation of the East German regime will come later when, helped by economic progress, East German Communism has recovered from its moral slump. It is also assumed in Moscow that new political trends at work in Bonn may favour East Germany. At least some Soviet political observers interpret Adenauer’s assumption of the presidency of the Federal Republic as a move toward a new authoritarianism, modelled on General de Gaulle’s presidential government; and they believe that this will deprive the Federal Republic of the moral-political advantages and the popular appeal that, as a parliamentary democracy, it has hitherto enjoyed.

All these changes, economic and political, which are expected to strengthen Russia’s hands in Germany, must take time, a lot of time. Therefore Soviet diplomacy is at present determined to postpone any general German settlement. This was the meaning of the appeal Khrushchev made to the Germans from Leipzig earlier this year, begging them to bear up patiently with the continued division of Germany. The time when the Soviet Union will be ready to press for a general German settlement will, in his view, be around 1965. It may be even later, between 1965 and 1970, after the completion of the present Seven-Year Plan, when the Soviet Union will have new trump cards in its foreign policy.