How was the German question resolved?

Sovereignty is always shaped from below, and by those who are afraid  — Michel Foucault

Marc Trachtenberg’s A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963, won the George Louis Beer Prize as well as the Paul Birdsall Prize.[1] It remains highly regarded in the field. Trachtenberg argues convincingly that the German question was at the heart of postwar international politics and its resolution was the key to the establishment of a stable international system. Since the great powers disagreed so profoundly on what was to be done with Germany and put a great deal of importance on that question, a stable pattern of East-West relations could not obtain until the German question had been settled one way or the other. As long as the German question remained unresolved, the specter of general nuclear war hung over East-West relations. Once it was resolved, the basic parameters of the bipolar world fell into place, East-West relations were stabilized, and the Cold War in effect came to an end.[2]

The entire future of Germany was open for reconsideration when postwar planning began during the war.[3] Was Germany to pay reparations? Was it to be deindustrialized and turned into an agrarian country to reduce its power as envisioned in the Morgenthau Plan? Was Germany to be broken up into smaller statelets? Into two, three, or four pieces? Under whose sphere of influence were these pieces to fall? Who was going to control the Ruhr? Even after they had been agreed upon, were the occupation zones to be run separately by each occupying power as it wished? What was to be their socio-economic system? Were all non-fascist political parties to be tolerated in all zones? Or were the zones merely temporary and a unified German state was to be resurrected? And if so, was the Germany army to be reconstituted? And if German power was to be restored, was Germany going to be neutral or an ally of one of the three great powers?

Given the centrality of the German question to his account of the European postwar settlement, it is perplexing to find Trachtenberg begin his narrative at war’s end, some two years after official three-power negotiations began. A number of important decisions on the German question were in fact hashed out during the war; above all, the territorial division of Germany into occupation zones. The first steps in that direction were taken at the Moscow Conference in October 1943.[4] The British circulated a draft agreement on the zones of occupation on January 15, 1944.[5] On February 18, 1944, the Soviets accepted the British proposal for the eastern zone apparently without bargaining.[6] Why Stalin would accept a division that gave him control of the agrarian third of Germany is not clear.

So Trachtenberg is not interested in how the German question was resolved per se. What Trachtenberg does instead is mobilize it to explain why East-West relations took so long to stabilize. Secretary of State James Byrnes, ‘the real maker of American foreign policy during the early Truman period,’ we are told, pressed for ‘a spheres of influence settlement in Europe’ that the Soviets could get behind, whereby ‘each side would have a free hand in the area it dominated, and on that basis the two sides would be able to get along with each other in the future.’[7]

But a settlement of this sort did not come into being, not until 1963 at any rate. Why was it so long in the coming? Why did the division of Europe not lead directly to a stable international order?[8]

Trachtenberg’s answer is that profound disagreements on the German question prevented the emergence of a stable order. The Soviets were implacably opposed to the resurrection of German power, especially a nuclear-armed Germany, particularly one allied to the West. The US did not want an independent Germany. But the defense of Western Europe ultimately required the reconstitution of the German army. In the end, despite the fact that the Soviet Union had almost single-handedly defeated Hitler, the US was able to get its way on the German question. In effect, the US managed to impose its preferred outcome on the Soviet Union. Why?

Although Trachtenberg does not come right out and say it, the short answer is that the US leveraged its nuclear superiority to get its way on the German question. The first great confrontation was triggered by the introduction of a common currency into the three Western zones in 1948. It meant in effect the creation of a West German state. It is this that triggered the Berlin Crisis. At the time the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, and according to Trachtenberg, ‘as long as it was a question of purely one-sided air-atomic war’ the US was ‘sure to win in the end’.[9] The West could thus afford to stand firm in the face of Soviet pressure. And the Soviets backed down once it became clear that the United States was prepared to go all the way to general nuclear war in order to defend the West’s position in West Berlin.

America responded to the loss of nuclear monopoly in 1949 with an enormous buildup of air-atomic forces. By 1952 the Strategic Air Command had emerged as a war-winning first-strike weapon. It was in this context that the resurrection of the German army was put on the table. Stalin responded by sending the famous March 1952 Note suggesting that the Soviets would be willing to accept a unified Germany with free elections and even a capitalist economic system as long as it was guaranteed to be neutral. The West dismissed the offer as a mere ploy. Trachtenberg, following Gaddis, concurs.[10] But many serious scholars of Soviet foreign policy have argued that the offer was in earnest.[11]

A series of increasingly hostile confrontations occurred in 1958-1962 culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Khrushchev, emboldened by the Soviet acquisition of ICBMs capable of reaching US cities, decided to force a showdown on the question of the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the German army. Astonishingly, Trachtenberg devotes less than three pages to this final confrontation over the German question, concluding that the US ‘laid down an ultimatum’ and the USSR ‘acceded’ without explaining why.[12] As Trachtenberg himself had argued elsewhere,

It really does seem that “we had a gun to their head and they didn’t move a muscle”—that their failure to make any preparations for general war was linked to a fear of provoking American preemptive action. … The effect therefore was to tie their hands, to limit their freedom of maneuver, and thus to increase their incentive to settle the crisis quickly.[13]

The picture that emerges thus calls for a major revision of the account presented in the monograph, one that pays attention to the balance of strategic power as it came to weigh on international politics at crucial moments in the resolution of the German question, 1942-1963.


[1] Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963. Princeton University Press, 1999.

[2] Except for a brief revival under Reagan in the early 1980s. See Stephanson, Anders. “Cold War Degree Zero.” Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012): 19-50.

[3] This paragraph is adapted from an earlier essay that appeared on my blog.

[4] Mosely, Philip E. “The occupation of Germany: New light on how the zones were drawn.” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 580-604, p. 580.

[5] Ibid, p. 589. Of course, the British awarded the Ruhr to themselves.

[6] Ibid, p. 591.

[7] Trachtenberg, p. 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Trachtenberg, p. 89.

[10] Ibid, p. 129.

[11] See Willging, Paul Raymond. “Soviet foreign policy in the German question: 1950-1955.” (1975): 1199-1199, and references therein.

[12] Trachtenberg, p. 352-355.

[13] Trachtenberg, Marc. History and strategy. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 259.


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