G. F. Hudson, of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, here examines the alternatives for Western diplomacy in the Berlin crisis.




In the nine and a half years between the raising of Stalin’s Berlin blockade in May 1949 and Khrushchev’s new challenge to the city in November 1958, the Soviet Union accepted the outcome of the trial of strength in which it had been worsted in 194849. But far-sighted observers of the German situation always anticipated that sooner or later there would be a second attempt to evict the Western garrisons from West Berlin and force the city to submit to Communist control. All that was required was the maturing of a Russian “situation of strength” and a certain consolidation of leadership in the Kremlin. By the autumn of last year, these conditions were fulfilled, and Khrushchev set out to accomplish what his scorned predecessor had failed to do.

Stalin in 1948 acted on two assumptions—that the Western powers would not try to break through to Berlin on the ground in the face of superior Soviet military forces and that the city could not be adequately supplied by air. He was right in the first assumption, for the Western governments were extremely reluctant to force the issue on the ground. But he was wrong in underestimating the capacity of an airlift—though not more wrong than most Western officials who also refused to believe in it until it had been demonstrated in practice. When the airlift proved superior to the blockade, Stalin had to choose between calling off the blockade and engaging in hostilities by shooting down the air transports. He preferred to call off the blockade. The United States still had a monopoly of the atomic bomb and Russian industry had not yet recovered sufficiently from the ravages of the German invasion for it to be able to stand up to the strain of another war.

In 1959, after years of massive economic advance and with an armory of intercontinental rockets and nuclear weapons, Khrushchev does not have to feel so nervous about the outcome of a violent clash. The political conditions for any Soviet move in Germany, however, are no longer the same as they were in 1948. Then there were no German governments recognized as sovereign entities by any of the Allied occupying powers, and the struggle was therefore directly between these powers, a fight carried on openly among non-German states for the control of a subjugated German population. But, since the two states of West and East Germany came into being, such a contest would have an undesirably imperialist look in the eyes of the world, and from a Soviet point of view there is no need for it. The Ulbricht regime, which ardently desires on its own account to gain possession of West Berlin, can be allowed to do whatever blockading is required, while the Soviet Union can simply use its power to protect its puppet against external “aggression.” Hence, Moscow has announced its intention to transfer to East Germany the remaining rights and obligations of the Soviet Union with regard to Berlin. A subsidiary aim of this tactic is to compel the Western powers to deal with and ultimately recognize diplomatically the East German government, but the primary purpose, as in 1948, is to bring West Berlin under Communist control. The difference now is that this will be done in the name of a German state, with the Soviet Union as second instead of principal, and consequently there will be more room for maneuver without a head-on clash between the forces of the great powers.

Moscow has not demanded anything so crude as the incorporation of West Berlin into East Germany. It is merely to be turned into a “free city,” instead of being, as it legally is now, a Land of the German Federal Republic. But nobody with any memory of Communist take-over methods in Europe since 1944 can suppose that the “free city” is meant to be more than a halfway house on the way to incorporation. Psychologically, it would mean that the Berliners would have to sever the links with West Germany on which their morale and political aspirations depend; they would be not only geographically but politically isolated behind the Iron Curtain. If Western troops were to be withdrawn, this would induce a feeling of utter helplessness. An increasing number of the more prudent citizens under various forms of pressure would hasten to come to terms wtih the local Communists, until Khrushchev and Ulbricht could triumphantly announce to the world that the “free city” had voluntarily asked for incorporation in the German “Democratic” Republic.



The situation would be no better if, in accordance with Khrushchev’s recent proposal, a guarantee military force, including Russian as well as Western troops, were to be stationed in West Berlin. The mere sight of Russian uniforms in West Berlin fourteen years after the original Russian capture of the city, with no corresponding presence of Western troops in East Berlin, would be visible evidence that Russia had won the cold war, and all but the most stout-hearted would begin to take thought for their personal safety. Moreover, such a guarantee force could not possibly act to protect the city against the infiltration of Communist armed gangs from East Berlin; the Russian contingent would be there not to take part in, but to frustrate, any military action in support of the West Berlin police. That Khrushchev should put up such a transparently fraudulent plan seems to show that he has a very low opinion of the intelligence of those with whom he intends to negotiate; but in accordance with his favorite technique of diplomacy by press publicity, he probably hopes to gain a favorable response from sections of Western public opinion for which the creation of an international force is a panacea for all problems in world affairs.

West Berlin might be taken over in one of three ways: by a direct military invasion, by infiltration of paramilitary groups, or by interruption of communications with West Germany. The Western army units now in West Berlin could not hold out by themselves for long against a serious attack by Soviet and East German regular forces, but they would act as a tripwire since such an attack would be an open act of war against the Western powers. They could without help from outside deal with any infiltration of irregulars from East Germany. They could not, however, assure communications with West Germany if these were cut off, nor would they necessarily be involved if they were not themselves directly attacked. In any new blockade of West Berlin, a decision to open up access to the city by force would have to be taken by the Western governments in the light of these circumstances and put into effect with ground or air forces stationed in Western Europe; the units actually in Berlin could then only be regarded as a besieged garrison.

The transfer of powers from the Soviet Union to East Germany would make no practical difference in Berlin if the Ulbricht regime would accept the same obligations of non-interference with transport to and from the city that the Russians have accepted since 1949. East German police already play a part in regulating the traffic by road, rail, and canal, and if there were a clearly recognized right of free access it would be possible to deal with East German officials on administrative and technical questions without having diplomatic relations with Ulbricht’s government. But all the talk on the Communist side about East Germany having full territorial sovereignty, both by land and air, after the termination of the remaining Soviet occupation rights, indicates that the Communist intention is to bargain on the basis that any access to Berlin through East German territory can only be by grace and favor of the sovereign authority. The Western powers are thus still paying for their original gigantic mistake of taking up military occupation sectors in Berlin without insisting on extraterritorial corridors of communication through what used to be the Soviet Zone of Germany. As it is, their rights depend partly on the original inter-Allied agreement on occupation zones and sectors and partly on the agreement of May 1949 which terminated the Berlin blockade. The East German government was not a party to either of these agreements, and it now claims that any rights it grants to the Western powers or to West Germany must be the result of fresh negotiation—in which, as the sovereign state with territory all around West Berlin, it will start with a decisive advantage.



What, then, is the vital interest that the West has at stake in this situation? It is, briefly, to maintain the independence of West Germany, of which West Berlin is a detached fragment. To abandon the people of West Berlin under duress in 1959, after giving them security for fourteen years, would be not merely to connive at the Communist conquest of an urban area of two million inhabitants, but also a betrayal of the cause of democracy so great that all confidence in the good faith of the Western powers would be destroyed. There can be no doubt about the wishes of the West Berliners; they were emphatically reaffirmed at the recent city elections, even after Khrushchev had announced the new drive against the city’s freedom with its undertone of menace to all who might resist. The people of West Berlin have never allowed themselves to be intimidated by the Soviet power which envelops them, and the responsibility of the Western democracies toward them was clearly proclaimed in the declaration of the United States, Britain, and France after the London Conference of 1954 that “the security and welfare of Berlin and the maintenance of the position of the three Powers there are regarded by the three Powers as essential elements of the peace of the free world in the present international situation.”

No strategic interest of the Western powers, apart from the protection of the people of West Berlin, requires them to keep troops in an exposed and isolated position where they would probably become a total loss soon after the outbreak of hostilities in any major war. It would be impossible for them to hold West Berlin at all against the will of the majority of its inhabitants; even with the popular support which in fact they have, they could not make the area a base for military operations. If it were only a matter of strategic position, the Western allies would be only too glad to withdraw. Indeed, now that West Germany is an equal partner in NATO with its own army, there would be no disadvantage if the American, British, and French troops were to be withdrawn and replaced by West German units. Then there would no longer be any foreign troops in Berlin, but only German soldiers in a German city, as Khrushchev says he wants it. But, since in fact his purpose is to shift West Berlin’s allegiance from West to East Germany, the substitution of West German for foreign troops would please him least of all.

In the conflict that lies ahead it is essential that the West proclaim its principles clearly and stand firmly on them. This need not mean a rigid, inflexible attitude which excludes any possibility of bargaining, but it does mean publicly distinguishing between what is more and what is less important in such a manner that the Western peoples, on whose steady support the elected governments of the West must rely in a crisis, can clearly comprehend the real issues at stake. So far, however, the Western governments have shown a remarkable ineptitude in stating their case. They have allowed it to appear that the Soviet Union, out of a desire for a settlement of the German problem, is putting forward one proposal after another on which the Western powers ought to negotiate and reach a compromise solution; under pressure to produce counter-proposals, they have hinted at a willingness to make major concessions of principle on the future of Germany while at the same time declaring that they will not be forced out of Berlin.

The most disastrous and confusing official announcement on the Western side was the statement of John Foster Dulles that the reunification of Germany could be brought about otherwise than by free elections. If the Western powers once abandon the principle that, as far as they are concerned and as long as the freely elected government of the German Federal Republic stands on the same principle, free elections are the only basis for German reunification, their cause will go down to defeat, and deservedly so. What is of fundamental importance is that the West Germans should not be pressed into any form of confederation with East Germany which would preserve the Communist dictatorship intact within a German national political constitution and perpetuate the denial of freedom to the people who live under it. The fact that such terms of settlement are being seriously considered in the West is partly due to the alarm of some Western statesmen and diplomats who see no way out of the Berlin impasse except by capitulation, and who wish to enlarge the range of negotiation so that yielding on Berlin may be disguised as part of a general German “settlement” in which the question of whether the city belonged to West or East Germany would no longer appear important.

There are also, however, certain optimists who believe that a German confederation, as a union of the West and East German states with their present constitutions, would actually be a gain for the West. They reason that the Bonn regime would be the “stronger partner” and would before long absorb the unpopular East German state into a democratic national structure; it is even suggested that Moscow has already decided to write off the Communist regime in Germany and only wants some arrangement whereby it can be liquidated by stages without undue loss of prestige for the Soviet Union. This idea of saving the Soviet face by resort to the “inevitability of gradualness” is closely connected with the suggestion that it would not matter if free elections were not held to inaugurate German unity because there could be a pledge that they would be held at the end of, say, five years. Anyone who remembers how the Western recognition of the Bierut regime in Poland was made conditional on a pledge of free elections which was never honored will know what to think of proposals which put a German confederation first in point of time with trust that free elections will follow. Nor is there any evidence to justify the belief that Moscow is prepared to allow the liquidation of the German Communist state through free elections; indeed, Khrushchev has been at enormous pains to refute it. It is hardly possible for him to commit himself more unreservedly than he has to the preservation of the existing political and economic structure in East Germany. This is, in fact, a basic need for Soviet policy; the collapse of any part of the Communist system in Eastern Europe would be likely to endanger the rest of it and ultimately to have serious repercussions inside the Soviet Union itself.



Unfortunately, the Western position that Germany can only be reunified through free, all-German elections has come to be identified in the public mind with the claim that a Germany thus reunified should be allowed to join NATO. Many commentators have argued that it is so obviously impossible for Russia to agree to this—since it would mean a large increase in the forces of the West with no compensating gain for Russia—that the neutralization of Germany is the only basis on which negotiations with Russia for the reunification of Germany could have any chance of success. From this premise, some have gone on to urge that the Western powers should urge the Bonn government to get together with Ulbricht and Grotewohl and work out an agreement for a confederated neutral Germany, so that the great powers can then disengage and remove their armies, leaving a new and larger Switzerland as a buffer between them.

But what is really implied in the idea of a German confederation? It has been made clear from the Communist side that it can only be on the basis of parity between two sovereign states; a totalitarian regime is to be combined at the top with a democratic one. The Communists would continue to be able to rig elections in their own domain, and in the confederation would have a built-in parity with the sum of other political parties and could maneuver between them from a position of superior strength. Such a composite state would certainly not be a democracy and it would probably not long remain neutral, but would be drawn by degrees into the Soviet orbit.

In spite of the difficulties and risks involved in the idea of a neutralization of Germany, it would be sound policy for the Western powers to offer agreement on the neutralization of Germany, on condition of free elections to precede, and not to follow, reunification. Tactically, it is essential for the West to render itself invulnerable to the charge that it is preventing the reunification of Germany by insisting on future German membership in NATO. Moreover, if the bargain were to be accepted, it could reasonably be hoped that the Germany emerging from nationwide free elections would be stable, pacific, and friendly to the West, even though no longer a part of the Western defense system. But if, as all the evidence indicates, Moscow is determined to maintain the East German regime intact, whether separately or within a confederation, the offer of neutrality in return for free elections would not be accepted. Then the Western powers could make full political use of the advantage they would obtain by the Russian refusal. They could convincingly refute the contention that Russian concern about Germany is primarily due to a quest for security and fear of the rearming of West Germany as a member of the North Atlantic alliance.

Moreover, once the question of political liberty in Germany had been separated from that of a German right to join NATO, the West could take a much firmer stand on its political principles. Far from striving to find some formula by which poor old Ulbricht can be saved without undue loss of face from exposure to contested elections, the point should be made relentlessly on every occasion that freedom of elections is opposed simply because the Communist dictatorship does not represent the people of East Germany and dares not face the electorate in a fair fight. Propaganda on these lines is not, of course, going to knock down a regime with a strong apparatus of police and the Soviet army behind it, but it should at least demonstrate that the Western democracies are in earnest about defending political liberty in Germany where it already exists, and are not ready to sell it for a phantom “settlement” of the German question.

If the Russians are not willing to trade free elections for German neutrality and if the West resists attempts to impose a confederation of the two German states without free elections, then the situation remains essentially as it is, with Germany partitioned and the two parts integrated with the Western and Soviet blocs respectively. But if this situation continues, what can be the future status of West Berlin? Is there any scope for negotiation, or have the Western powers simply a straight choice between capitulation and being prepared to fight if their communications are interrupted?



As long as the Western Allies are resolved neither to recognize the East German regime nor to allow West Berlin to be forced to submit to Communist control, they have little scope for bargaining: almost any concession reducing the present rights of the Western powers and of the West Berlin administration would render it impossible for the city to preserve its independence. But it need not be out of the question for the three Western powers and West Germany to accord diplomatic recognition to the East German regime, thereby accepting the fact that there are two separate states in Germany, that one of these states is under the military protection of the Soviet Union, and that there is no prospect of a unification of Germany on a democratic basis until there is a radical change in the regime of the Soviet Union itself. If the Western governments, including Bonn, are not willing—as they should not be willing—to bring the Ulbricht tyranny into a German confederation, then the best thing they can do is to deal with it as they do with the present governments of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania. Recognition of East Germany would certainly add to the prestige of the Ulbricht regime and enable it to play a greater part in international affairs than it can at present, but it is arguable that this would involve no serious worsening of the present situation, in which East Germany is sustained by Russia and advancing in economic strength.

The Bonn government has so far maintained its claim to be the only legitimate government of Germany and its policy of refusing to have diplomatic relations with any nation except Russia which recognizes the East German regime. But the assumption underlying this policy has been that, by keeping East Germany diplomatically isolated and unrecognized, it would be possible to convince the Russians of the unwisdom of giving it continued support. Bonn, however, should be persuaded by this time that the Russians are not going to discard their East German puppets and that it will therefore be necessary to coexist with them for an indefinite period. In these circumstances, the disadvantages of recognition will have to be weighed against the possible gain to be made by granting recognition in return for a Soviet and East German recognition of West Berlin as a detached portion of West Germany, with precise guarantees for its communications with the main West German territory. In other words, the fact of the cold war would be recognized by an agreement that both German states should have international de jure standing, each one to hold exactly the territory it already has. Such an acceptance of the partition of Germany could not be regarded as a final separation, for the East German dictatorship would be eliminated whenever the working of political forces within Russia removed the support on which it depends. But in the meantime the cause of peace may best be served by a pact on the basis of the realities of power and will which have produced the existing frontiers in Central Europe.



It may be, however, that even recognition of the Ulbricht regime would not be sufficient to induce Moscow to give up its resolve to get control of West Berlin. In that case, the Western powers would have in effect three alternative courses of action. The first would be to resolve to hold West Berlin and keep open its communications even at the risk of war with Russia. The Western governments may well come to hold the view—which President Eisenhower apparently holds already—that if Russia is indeed ready to fight over Berlin, the West will not avoid an armed conflict by yielding there, but will merely postpone it, as Britain and France did by the Munich surrender. If, however, the West is going to stand firm against Soviet threats, it must be with a genuine willingness to face war in the event of Soviet action against West Berlin, and not simply in the belief that the Russians are bluffing; any underestimate of the gravity of the situation would be likely to result in a panic retreat at the last moment if the crisis reached the brink.

If, on the other hand, the Western governments are not convinced that the issue is one for which the risk of war should be taken—or if their peoples are not sufficiently behind them to make it practical politics to take such a risk—then they have two alternative policies. One is to settle on terms which would, under whatever disguise—and a formula à la Yaltaise could no doubt be found—enable the Russsians and their East German puppets to dictate to the people of West Berlin and bring the city by stages under Communist control. This would be an unmitigated political disaster for the West and would have catastrophic effects on the morale of West Germnay.

The alternative—on the premise of avoiding a challenge to war—would be to evacuate West Berlin, evacuate all the West Berliners who wished to migrate, and build a new city for them in West Germany with funds to be provided jointly by all the Western nations. This, in spite of being a withdrawal in the face of the enemy, would at the same time be an act of defiance and of preservation of freedom, and it would also make a very strong appeal to the sympathies of all neutral countries.

Whichever of these courses of policy the Western governments adopt, it is essential that they be fully agreed among themselves and that they carry their peoples with them. The democracies are certainly faced with a trial of strength and a test of nerves more serious than any they have had to meet since the downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich. They have to deal with a dictator who, even if he has shown himself so far less sanguinary than Hitler or Stalin, appears to be afflicted with an extremely dangerous recklessness and instability of temperament which might lead him to plunge wildly in a moment of acute crisis. He has committed himself on the German question to a degree which is making it increasingly difficult for him to draw back without a loss of prestige which he can ill afford. He may perhaps be bluffing, but it is safer to assume that he is determined to get West Berlin in one way or another—So oder so, as Hitler used to say.



+ A A -
Share via
Copy link