The Germanys move closer

Ross Laver August 27 1984

The Germanys move closer

Ross Laver August 27 1984

The Germanys move closer


Ross Laver

The six-room apartment in a workingclass district of Hamburg is bare. But for the Voigt family, formerly of the Baltic port city of Rostock in East Germany, it is home—the cherished result of a 3½-year struggle to emigrate to the West. Former musician Christian Voigt and his wife, Magdalene, both 34, and their children, Marcus, 14, and Alexandra, 12, crossed the frontier—legally—in April, beneficiaries of a remarkable improvement in relations between East and West Germany.

Until 1980, Christian played accordion with a band in Rostock. But the East German authorities revoked the band’s licence to perform, citing the performance of politically unacceptable

I songs. Shortly afterward Magdalene lost her job in a local art gallery where she

had complained about authoritarian behavior by the gallery ’s director. Unable to find other work, the Voigts sought permission to emigrate. After a frustrating wait, security police accompanied the Voigt family to the frontier on April 13. Four months later Magdalene was working in a Hamburg art gallery and Christian was planning to open a small moving business. Both are optimistic. Says Christian: “.Here in the West, you feel free to talk and move about. Nobody checks up on you. ”

Nearly 40 years after they were wrenched apart in the aftermath of the Second World War, the two Germanys are tentatively reaching out to one another across their heavily armed 1,076km frontier. And it is a process with profound diplomatic, economic and human implications—for the superpowers, the rest of Europe and the German

people themselves. Although the prospect of a formal reunification is still remote, the dream is now more alive than at any time since Allied bombers left the skies over a devastated Berlin in 1945. Indeed, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said last week that the peaceful reunification of the German people “remains a historic task.” Defiance: The progress toward rapprochement between the two German states will receive dramatic new stimulus late next month when, for the first time since the war, the leader of Communist East Germany is scheduled to shake hands with his former countrymen on capitalist West German soil. The planned visit by Erich Honecker, the first secretary of the East German Communist Party, to his native town of Wiebelskirchen represents both a sentimental journey and an act of calculated defiance by a hard-headed politician chafing under the restraints imposed by his worried and increasingly angry masters in the Soviet Union. By almost any standard, it promises to be a significant step toward a redrawing of the contours of Europe.

Motivated on one level by sharply differing but uniquely German interests— the extension of economic credits by West Germany in exchange for humanitarian concessions by the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—the two Germanys are pursuing closer contacts with each other at a time when overall relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest point in years. But far from driving East and West Germany farther apart, the hostility between the superpowers appears to have underscored the shared sense of frustration and helplessness felt

by ordinary Germans on either side of the border. Perhaps as a consequence, a resurgent wave of patriotism, neutralism and anti-Americanism, particularly among younger West Germans, has rekindled debate on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

While the current improvement in relations is far removed from formal reunification, there is a growing conviction in both Bonn and East Berlin that prosperous coexistence between capitalist West Germany and Communist East Germany might serve to counterbalance the renewed Soviet-American Cold War. West Germans, in particular, recall that former I chancellor Willy

1 Brandt’s policy of Ostpo-

2 litik, which more than a g decade ago led to the es-

/ à tablishment of formal I $ relations between the I § two Germanys, also im-

proved relations with Moscow and Eastern Europe and helped to encourage East-West détente. And among some idealists on the West German left, there are suggestions that improved trade and political ties could set the stage for a new Europe that would conduct its own foreign policy outside the narrow military and philosophical restrictions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.

The prospect of cordial inter-German relations has caused uneasiness in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Washington fears that the gradual spread of neutralist sentiment may undermine NATO, its principal bulwark against Soviet expansion in Europe. At the same time, Moscow fears that East Germany’s traditionally unwavering commitment to the Warsaw Pact might weaken. Both superpowers also have economic reasons to be wary of German rapprochement. For their part, U.S. state department officials contend that in his eagerness to foster East Bloc trade, Kohl might order subsidiaries of U.S. firms to ignore President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 ban on high-technology exports to Communist nations. As well, Moscow does not want any erosion of Soviet influence in its richest satellite.

Punish: While recent West German gestures toward East Germany have caused concern among some Western allies, particularly France, Reagan administration officials state that Bonn’s moves are consistent with established U.S. policy. Declared one state department official: “We do not see this as some slippery slope to the downfall of the postwar order.” On the contrary, the Reagan administration relishes seeing the Kremlin face the same sort of selfassertiveness from its allies that the United States regularly encounters.

Moscow, by contrast, has openly expressed its dissatisfaction with East Germany’s conciliatory policies. In an apparent attempt to dissuade Honecker from proceeding with his trip to the Federal Republic, four recent Soviet press commentaries have accused Bonn of “revanchism”—a reference to what the Kremlin contends is a long-standing policy by the West Germans to regain their prewar might. The Soviets are particularly annoyed because the minidétente between the two Germanys has emerged at a time when the Kremlin wants to punish Bonn for agreeing to deploy new U.S.-built Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles.

Until the end of the Second World War, modern Germany ranked as an independent global military power. But currently, both East and West Germany are home not only to their own troops and weaponry but to those of their postwar allies as well. In West Germany there is a combined NATO force of 233,000 Americans, 65,000 British, 50,000 French, 32,000 Belgians, 6,700 Dutch and 5,400 Canadians. In addition, the West German army can deploy more than 4,000 tanks and 12 divisions for a total force of 335,000 men. NATO’s nuclear arsenal is equally formidable, consisting of 5,000 nuclear weapons. By 1988, West Germany will bristle with 108 Pershing and 96 cruise missiles.

East Germany is even more fortified. Soviet forces in the country total 22 divisions, or 400,000 men, and 7,000 tanks. At the same time, the East Germans maintain 140,000 active troops as well as more than 70,000 border guards and 570,000 paramilitary forces. Still, the suspicious Soviets rigidly control the size of the East German army, and forbid the development of a domestic arms industry. Indeed, Moscow’s understandable fear of German militarism—a direct result of the estimated 25 million Soviet fatalities during the First and Second World Wars—is a cornerstone of the superpower’s foreign policy. An armed, united German nation is a recurring nightmare among Soviet officials and the Soviet public alike.

To many observers, the most striking aspect of the current improvement in inter-German relations is the fact that it is happening at all. A staunch conservative known for his hard-line stance on most nato-Warsaw Pact issues, the 54year-old Kohl led his Christian Democratic Union to power in October, 1982,

promising to adopt a more pro-Western posture in foreign affairs. In particular, Kohl’s party was scathingly critical of the Ostpolitik begun by the rival Social Democratic Party under former chancellor Brandt, when for the first time both sides recognized each other’s right to exist. Critics of Ostpolitik within West Germany, including Kohl’s Christian Democrats, warned that by encouraging full participation by East Germany in world diplomacy, Bonn was consigning the German people to perpetual division. At the same time, East Germany’s government made no secret of its deep distaste for Kohl’s anti-Communist views—at least until he succeeded Helmut Schmidt. Bound for East Berlin on a private visit in 1978, Kohl was turned back at the border by East German guards, who told him that his visit was “undesirable.”

Commands: Far from dismantling West Germany’s links with the East, however, Kohl’s government has sought to reinforce them, pressing ahead with its own policy—known as Deutschlandpolitik. In a move that angered his rightwing supporters, prominent Bavarian Christian Democrat Franz Josef Strauss helped put together a $396.8million (U.S.) private loan package to East Germany last year—the biggest loan ever made to East Germany by a Western nation and the first not to be linked to a specific business project. Said Strauss, for years one of the most uncompromising critics of economic ties with the Eastern Bloc: “I can switch

corners faster than your eye can follow.”

Western analysts say that on the surface Honecker, too, seems an unlikely advocate of closer inter-German ties. The quiet, 72-year-old Communist leader commands wide respect for his managerial skills, but until recently he had a well-earned reputation as a hard-line adherent to official Moscow policy. Born in the Saarland, now a region of West Germany, Honecker joined the German Communist Party in 1929—before Adolf Hitler’s rise to absolute power. In 1935 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his political affiliation. Amazingly, he survived the war in Berlin’s infamous Brandenburg-Gorden jail, to be freed by advancing Russian troops on April 27, 1945. By the following spring Honecker had firmly established himself as a member of the German Communist Party’s central committee. Indeed, it was Honecker who, as head of East German security forces, organized the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The wall quickly became an international symbol of Communist repression, particularly after President John F. Kennedy denounced it as an obscenity during his 1963 visit.

For years Honecker was seen as the likely successor to chairman Walter Ulbricht and, when the ailing Ulbricht stepped down in 1971, Honecker was unopposed as he assumed the supreme position of first party secretary. In 1973, in the climate of détente, he began lifting curbs on contacts with the West, allowing more than eight million West Germans and West Berliners to enter East Germany annually for family reunions. But when growing Western influence threatened to release a torrent of discontent, Honecker quickly slammed the doors again. In 1979 the East German government also put into force stringent laws threatening East Germans with as many as 12 years in prison for passing to Westerners embarrassing revelations about economic problems or acts of political repression.

Slashing: But what most worried ordinary East German citizens was a new law prohibiting “illegal contacts” with

Westerners. Passed in 1979, the law was one element in a campaign by Honecker to contain the spread of dissent. The new tough line also included a virtual doubling of the amount of hard currency—to the equivalent of 25 West German marks ($11), instead of the prevailing 13— that visitors from non-Communist countries were required to exchange for each day spent in East Germany.

That change in policy had the desired effect of slashing the number of visitors to 3.4 million in

1981 (from West Germany and West Berlin) from 6.4 million in 1979.

When it agreed last September to guarantee the $396.8-million bank loan, the Kohl government clearly indicated that it expected important humanitarian concessions from East Germany in return. At first Honecker merely waived the 7.5-mark-a-day obligatory foreignexchange requirement for children under 15, who account for about 15 per cent of West German visitors. Then, as Western border troops watched skeptically, Communist guards began removing some of the 50,000 lethal automaticfiring “shrapnel guns” positioned along

the frontier. Bonn regarded the dismantling of the devices as a welcome change. And West German officials now hope that standing East German orders for border guards to shoot escapers may soon be rescinded.

Honecker has also sharply increased the number of exit permits granted to citizens who want to move to the West. In 1983 the East German authorities allowed only 6,000 refugees to leave. Of those, most were old-age pensioners whose departure served

the government’s economic purposes by# vacating scarce apartments and reducing monthly pension and health-care costs. By contrast, this year about 27,000 East Germans, many of them young, well-educated householders with large families, were permitted to emigrate up to June 30, when East German authorities again cut off the exodus. Among the East Germans who made it to the Giessen refugee camp near Frankfurt was Ingrid Berg, niece of East German Premier Willi Stoph, the second most important man in the Communist hierarchy. West German authorities were so embarrassed by the publicity over Berg’s defection that they initially withheld any comment, fearing that too much attention might lead to unrest in East Germany and cause Honecker to close the border completely. In a similar gesture, Bonn took the unusual step in June of warning East Germans against seeking asylum in its diplomatic mission in East Berlin. Explained Philipp Jenninger, a West German official responsible for relations with East Germany: “It is unfortunately not possible to take in any more such people.”

Ashes: West Germany’s immediate motives in the current exchanges are humanitarian, reflecting that country’s relative prosperity and its overall sense of responsibility to its Communist cousins. Rising from the ashes of Hitler’s Third Reich and rebuilt with U.S. dollars under the Marshall Plan, West Germany rapidly developed into one of the most economically dynamic and affluent countries in the world. With a total population of 62 million, it is the world’s second-largest exporter of manufactured goods—after the United States —and its 27-million-member work force is both highly productive and highly skilled. Among its major industries: steel, automobile production, shipbuilding and telecommunications. Even so, most economists say that West Germany’s extremely high economic growth rates are probably past.

Opposition: For its part, East Germany, with only 16.8 million people, ranks as the Soviet Bloc’s most prosperous nation—a major exporter of machinery,

chemicals and technical expertise to East European nations. That is a remarkable achievement for a country that must import virtually all of its raw materials. Per capita income—about $5,500 Cdn.—is less than half that of West Germany, but it is the envy of its East European neighbors.

Still, Western economists say that Honecker badly needs loans from Bonn —including a new $330-million (U.S.) credit approved by Kohl last month—to help meet interest payments on the $9.4 billion his country owes to Western banks. East Germany now uses 80 per cent of its hard currency earnings just to service that debt. Meanwhile, inter-

est-free trade credits from West Germany of about $360 million annually enable Honecker to satisfy consumer demand for such Western-made products as dishwashers, television sets and refrigerators. Honecker hopes that by maintaining East Germany’s steady improvement in living standards, he can avoid the emergence of any serious domestic opposition. As Ilse Spittemann, editor of the West German magazine Deutschland Archiv, wrote recently: “They [the East Germans] need a reliable, dependable, long-term partnership so as not to be detached from international technological developments, to maintain their credit in international foreign exchange markets and to avoid a reduction in living standards.”

At the same time, Western diplomats

say that Honecker is shrewdly taking advantage of a rift in the Politburo in Moscow in order to exert his current independence in foreign affairs. Those analysts note that only a year ago the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was subtly encouraging East Germany’s then-nascent diplomatic campaign— even if, as widely suspected, his policy was at least partly designed to block deployment of new NATO missiles in Western Europe. But the strategy failed, and the missile deployment began on schedule in December, plunging Moscow-Washington relations to their chilliest level in years. And when Andropov died of acute kidney failure last

February, his place was taken by Konstantin Chernenko, 72, the hard-bitten member of Moscow’s old guard. Within the Soviet high command, old-timers such as Chernenko, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov are believed to be pitted against a more pragmatic faction, led by 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev. The Politburo pragmatists, according to Western analysts, argue that the East would reap both economic and political benefits from increased East-West trade in all areas.

‘Force’: For now, however, the Politburo hawks appear to be firmly in control. In a dispatch marking the 14th anniversary last week of a nonaggression pact with West Germany—signed by Brandt and former Soviet leader Leo-

nid Brezhnev—the Soviet news agency TASS said that Bonn should never advance “territorial pretensions.” Added TASS: “An intrinsic part of the Moscow Treaty is the principle, reinforced in it, of the inviolability of the postwar European borders. However, facts indicate that the present conservative government [in Bonn] is more and more casting doubt on this key position of the treaty.” Kohl’s response, in an interview with the right-wing daily newspaper Bild Zeitung, clearly did nothing to allay Moscow’s fears. Although he pledged to respect the Soviet-West German treaty, the West German leader added conspicuously that the goal of reunifying the German people remained official policy. Added Kohl: “I will do all that is humanly possible in my period of office to bring the people of both Germanys together. But only by peaceful means, without force.”

Even more troublesome from the Soviet standpoint is the fact that other Eastern Bloc nations are also exhibiting signs of unhappiness with official Moscow policy. Hungary, for one, has come under recent fire from the Soviets for refusing to fall into line on East-West relations. And the Soviets were particularly unhappy when maverick Romania decided not to join the Moscow-led boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics. In an unusually bold speech in Moscow on June 4, Romanian President Nicolae Ceau§escu criticized not only NATO’s missile deployment in Western Europe but also the Soviet Union’s “nuclear countermeasures.” Even normally reliable Bulgaria appeared to be straying. The government in Sofia announced recently that its leader, Todor Zhivkov, will visit Bonn this fall.

Emotional: Despite those stirrings of independence, it is unlikely that there is any real fear in Moscow that East German waywardness may by the first step on the road to reunification. For one thing, it has been a consistent Kremlin slogan in recent years that there can be normal relations between “states of different social orders.” As a result, many analysts believe that Moscow does not, in fact, want to block Honecker’s visit to West Germany but to ensure that while he is there, he does not make any radical gesture of reconciliation. As one U.S. state department expert noted: “The fact is that the East Germans are totally dependent on the Soviet Union. They know exactly what their room for manoeuvring is.”

While the diplomatic moves continue, some observers argue that the two Germanys have grown too far apart—ideologically and economically—ever to be rejoined. Young West Germans in particular lack their parents’ patriotic and emotional bond to the East. A recent opinion poll found that 43 per cent of those aged 14 to 21 regarded East Germany as a “foreign” country. Among the population as a whole the figure was 20 per cent. But history, language and cultural heritage are powerful forces, too, and the people of the two Germanys share all three. As former West German president Walter Scheel remarked in the Bundestag six years ago, “A nation which can only be separated by a wall and barbed wire must indeed have a strong sense of togetherness.”

With Keith Charles in Moscow, Terry Hargreaves in Ottawa, Peter Lewis in Brussels, Gilbert Lewthwaite in Washington and Gerald Stewart in Hamburg.

Keith Charles

Terry Hargreaves

Peter Lewis

Gilbert Lewthwaite

Gerald Stewart