Commentary Magazine


In Europe's Name, by Timothy Garton Ash

The Fifty-Five Years War

In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent.
by Timothy Garton Ash.
Random House. 680 pp. $27.50.

Timothy Garton Ash is best known to American readers as the British journalist whose front-line reports on the personalities and events that gave birth to the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe were the finest materials on the subject available in English. Those who delighted in Garton Ash’s previous work may be in for something of a shock, though, when they start their way through In Europe’s Name. For here we meet Garton Ash the Oxford don and fellow of St. Antony’s College; and if the writing continues to be mellifluous, the pace, the cautious probity of the analysis, and the seemingly unbridled passion for academic detail (In Europe’s Name contains 240 pages of scholarly apparatus) make for a very different kind of read.

But then so, too, does the subject matter. For in painstakingly dissecting the ends, means, accomplishments, and failures of West German policy toward the old Soviet bloc (Ostpolitik), Garton Ash has left the world of easily identifiable Good Guys and Bad Guys—the setting for his previous works on Solidarity and on the human-rights movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the late East Germany—and entered the far murkier, chiaroscuro world of diplomacy during the last twenty years or so of the cold war. If the resulting historical autopsy is not so edifying as Garton Ash’s earlier evocations of the anti-Communist resistance in Mitteleuropa, it is nonetheless fascinating for what it suggests not only about the past, but about the future of Germany and “Europe.”

In Europe’s Name also brings a refreshing—indeed, at times, almost relentless—ecumenism of political outlook to the debate about the material and efficient causes of the Communist crack-up. Garton Ash has described his book as an attempt to challenge the “terrible simplifications” that have skewed commentary on the how and the why of Communism’s fall. No doubt some of those simplifications continue to befog our vision of the recent past; one thinks in particular of the Gorbophilia and Reaganophobia that still dominate the American academy and prestige press. Yet Garton Ash’s call to a wiser complexity cuts both ways ideologically: both unrepentant cold warriors and unrepentant détentists will find things to cheer and things to deplore in his explication of the materials he has assembled. Still, on the evidence of In Europe’s Name, it would seem that it is the advocates of appeasing Soviet power, on both sides of the Atlantic, who should have the most to regret when the score sheets are tallied up at the end of the day.

According to Garton Ash, the Ostpolitik of the old Federal Republic of Germany unfolded in three intersecting circles: relations with the Soviet Union; with the oxymoronically-styled German Democratic Republic (DDR); and with the other states of the Yalta imperial system in Central and Eastern Europe. It is the first of these, with the Soviet Union, that he judges to be the greatest success in terms of the goals that German Ostpolitik set for itself.

The task and the stakes were large indeed. For what Ostpolitik sought on this front was nothing less than a reversal of the traditional Russian fear of German power in Central Europe. Moreover, “normalization” with the Soviet Union had to be pursued without alienating West Germany’s principal ally, the United States. Thus, the “crucial trick” of Ostpolitik, as Garton Ash once put it elsewhere, was to “woo and win the confidence of Moscow without losing the confidence of Washington.”

And here the West Germans were successful. Over a period of twenty years, Soviet perceptions of the Federal Republic changed dramatically. The country thought as late as 1970 to be the gravest threat to the Soviet position in Europe came to be regarded by Kremlin leaders, in the last moments of the Soviet state, as their chief potential European partner.

Garton Ash recognizes that this striking Soviet turn toward amiability was not West Germany’s accomplishment alone; it was also, and deeply, influenced by the events of the 1980’s throughout the Warsaw Pact, and by the revitalization of the Western policy of containment as embodied in the NATO deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe and the threat of SDI. But he still insists that the West Germans are to be given full credit here, at least in their own diplomatic frame of reference: they got what they wanted, the way they wanted to get it.

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This was emphatically not the case, however, in the second circle of Ostpolitik: relations with East Germany. Here, success—i.e., reunification—was achieved by means quite different from those anticipated by Willy Brandt, Walter Scheel, Egon Bahr, Helmut Schmidt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Helmut Kohl, and the other architects of Ostpolitik.

Indeed, Ostpolitik’s impact on East Germany is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences working itself out in history. For according to Garton Ash’s analysis (based in part on newly available East German party archives and state-security papers), the East German Communist regime successfully manipulated the economic blandishments and diplomatic status afforded it by its cousins in the Bundesrepublik for its own totalitarian purposes, only to find itself trumped, in the end, by forces whose emergence neither East nor West German leaders anticipated.

Thus, West Germany set out to stabilize East Germany, from which baseline (it was thought) the liberalization of the East German regime might be pursued; in other words, the democratic West Germans would facilitate the reform of Communism from above in East Germany. But in fact what happened was stabilization without liberalization. West German Ostpolitik did not bring a new generation of reforming East Germans to the fore; rather, what got stabilized was the neo-Stalinist regime of Erich Honecker.

The supreme irony here, though, is that the Honecker regime crumbled all the more rapidly and comprehensively in 1989 than it might have done if a Hungarian-style reform Communism had been at the throttle throughout the 1980’s; Honecker’s successful stabilization set the conditions for rapid implosion when other, outside factors changed the game. And yet the finger of irony points at Bonn as well as at East Berlin. For if West Germany’s policy of stabilization contributed to the collapse of the DDR by fueling the hubris of the Honecker gerontocracy, then West Germany ended up getting it right (effecting the reunification of Germany) by getting it wrong (appeasing the likes of Erich Honecker).

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Finally, relations with the nations east of East Germany and west of the Soviet Union: these were always, and deliberately, on the back diplomatic burner. And here, Gar-ton Ash argues, the West Germans were at their least impressive, and contributed virtually nothing to the collapse of Communism in East Central Europe.

West German openness to the “human-contacts” dimension of the Helsinki accords resulted in millions of Central and East Europeans visiting the Federal Republic and seeing, with their own eyes, the superiority of democratic capitalism. That, plus the deliberate effort to defang the German bogey in the minds of Central and East Europeans (as well as Russians), indirectly influenced the Revolution of 1989, Garton Ash suggests. But the West Germans played no direct role in shaping the human-rights resistance that brought down Communism from within in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the DDR, and that influenced the “goulash Communism” which evolved in Hungary prior to that country’s democratization.

In fact, West German hesitancy about “destabilizing” the Soviets’ Warsaw Pact satellites, which at times spilled over into active criticism of the anti-Communist resistance—some German statesmen actually welcomed the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 as a contribution to stability and détente—was the expression of two serious misjudgments, one moral and the other political.

The moral misjudgment is the more obvious: to defend, even if tacitly, the actions of a Polish state that had declared war on Polish society, or to make excuses for the people who were shuttling Vaclav Havel and his colleagues in and out of jail, was odious in itself. To be sure, given the unnatural division of the country and the consequent reality of millions of hostages in the DDR, West Germany could not take the lead; but it could have recognized more fully the contributions that American, British, and French public diplomacy made to the common cause in supporting Solidarity, Charter 77, and other resistance groups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Instead, the West Germans compounded their moral misjudgment by criticizing that support in what can only be described as a patronizing and supercilious way.

Then there was the strategic-historical-political misjudgment. West German Ostpolitik was based on a “top-down” strategy of change: whether the issue was the Soviet Union, East Germany, or the other Soviet satellites, the key to reversing Yalta, it was thought, was to promote reform Communism. Stabilization would lead to liberalization, and liberalization would lead, eventually, to convergence with the West and the erasure of Yalta’s artificial division of the continent. This, interestingly (and perhaps not accidentally), was similar to the policy engaged in by the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI.

Both German and early Vatican Ostpolitik seemed to assume, on the one hand, that Communist regimes could be successfully self-reforming and self-transforming, and, on the other hand, that Western Europe and the United States lacked the staying power to see the cold war through to a victorious conclusion. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (with occasional help from François Mitterrand, Helmut Schmidt, and Helmut Kohl) put paid to the second proposition; the first was implausible from the outset.

The very least that can be said is that West German policy toward the “captive nations” of East Central Europe combined a minimum of moral fiber with a paucity of strategic sagacity: a disheartening combination, indeed, and one that, continued into the changed circumstances of today, does not bode well for the future of German diplomacy. In fact, in late 1992 the Foreign Minister of a now-unified Germany, Klaus Kinkel, visited Beijing in order to promote a “long-overdue normalization” with the People’s Republic of China. This, as Garton Ash puts it, suggests that “like the Bourbons, the German Foreign Ministry [has] forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”

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Garton Ash concludes his study by suggesting that it was the “unintended combination” of two forms of detente, the German and the American (of the Reagan variety), that produced the desired result: and this despite the fact that the exponents of these two approaches were not infrequently critical (to put it gently) of each other’s positions. Thus, rearmament and arms control, economic sanctions and economic carrots, human contacts and the public diplomacy of human rights were all responsible, in their various ways, for bringing a decisive, if subsequently difficult and tempestuous, victory to the forces of freedom in the Fifty-Five Years War against totalitarianism.

There is a lot to be said for such a judicious and balanced verdict. The Revolution of 1989 was a massive historical upheaval, and no single-cause explanation can possibly do justice to the myriad of forces that made it what it was. And yet, if one asks why the Revolution of 1989 happened when it did and how it did, then surely pride of place has to be given to those human-rights activists whose courageous resistance throughout the 1980’s set the moral-cultural and political foundation on which the nonviolent overthrow of Communism in East Central Europe took place.

Yes, their cause was aided, and significantly, by a weakening of the Soviet Union—itself a major accomplishment of the Reagan/ Thatcher revitalization of containment. Yes, it made a difference that Mikhail Gorbachev, and not Yuri Andropov, was in control in the Kremlin. Yes, even before 1989, Bonn’s wooing of Moscow had made possible Soviet contemplation of a post-Yalta order in Central Europe.

But in the cold light of dawn, it was those hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of individual conscientious decisions to say “No” to Communism—and to do so non-violently—that made the crucial difference. And it was the human-rights dimension of the Helsinki accords, which, as Garton Ash amply demonstrates, Ostpolitik did little if anything to support, that made the difference to the difference.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).




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