Commentary Magazine

Peace and Survival, by David Gress

The New Neutralism

Peace and Survival: West Germany, the Peace Movement, and European Security.
by David Gress.
Hoover. 266 pp. $15.95.

In this period of relative calm after the storm over the installing of cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, “continuity” is the key word for many observers of West German politics. The Greens, it is said, remain in an electoral ghetto. Although the Social Democrats (SPD) indulge in the luxury of political opposition to attack the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative and to propose chemical-free zones with the East German Communists, once they were to regain office they would sing a different tune. Meanwhile (this line continues), the West German conservatives, heirs to Konrad Adenauer, are governing, reminding West Germans that having to live with the Soviet Union does not require describing it as a “security partner.” Nothing, in other words, has really changed.

David Gress, in his cogently argued and fiercely independent analysis, Peace and Survival, dissents from this view, explaining what has changed in West German politics and why these changes matter for the defense of Western Europe. Gress documents a gradual shift away from the basic axioms of Adenauer's foreign policy: reunification with freedom; integration into the Western alliance; no flirting with neutralism; and no recognition of the Communist regime in Eastern Germany. In the 1950's, no one in the West German political elite argued that the division of Germany was anything other than a source of tension. In the 1980's it is “almost impossible” to find West German leaders who still hold that view. Whereas in the 1950's these same leaders located responsibility for the division in the intolerable Soviet domination of East Germany, by the 1980's an “ideology of Europe” has developed that faults both superpowers more or less equally.

According to Gress, resignation to the fact of Soviet domination began in the Social Democratic party, acquired conceptual coherence after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, gained momentum during the “Great Coalition” of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats from 1966 to 1969, and was established as government policy in 1969 when Willy Brandt became Chancellor. Brandt's Ostpolitik, combined with the resurgence of the intellectual and cultural Left, then coalesced into a distinctive neoneutralist ideology which became a driving force behind the peace movement of the early 1980's.

Gress's analysis of the evolution of Social Democratic views is complex and nuanced. Although in the early 50's the SPD was explicitly neutralist, anti-NATO, anti-nuclear, and often anti-defense, it was nevertheless still not resigned to Communist domination over East Germany. On the contrary, until the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the SPD maintained an underground organization in East Germany and claimed that it, not the Communist party, was the real representative of East German workers. The anti-NATO Social Democrats were thus vigorous anti-Communists who shared Adenauer's conviction that a genuine European peace required respect for human rights in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Where they disagreed with him was over the nature of the Soviet military threat to Western Europe, and on the issue of whether integration with the West would aid or impede German reunification. The fundamental change, according to Gress, was the evolution of this “uncompromising democratic nationalism of the 1950's to the much more uncertain attitude regarding the national issue evident in [the] Ostpolitik” of the late 1960's.

Willy Brandt and his foreign-policy adviser Egon Bahr brilliantly obscured (pernaps even to themselves) the conservative and highly traditional essence of détente as conceived by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Brandt's was a policy of dealing with governments rather than “peoples,” whose effect was to codify the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Aspirations for democratic socialism, as in East Germany, were now seen as themselves a “destabilizing” factor in East-West relations. This last view surfaced during the rise and repression of Solidarity in Poland, when Egon Bahr went so far as to say that for the sake of peace the Poles should be willing to sacrifice their national aspirations just as the Germans already had done. Even more amazing, while pursuing this policy Brandt won the ideological and moral high ground for the Social Democrats by depicting the conservative opposition as both unrealistic and dangerous in its desire to “revive the cold war.”

In Gress's judgment, the West German shift “from resistance to appeasement as the preferred way to deal with the facts of Soviet power and intransigence” represented a triumph for Soviet foreign policy. Wandel durch Annäherung, “change through rapprochement” (in Bahr's words), meant that political change for the better in Eastern Europe would come only by reassuring the Soviet Union over its “legitimate security concerns.” “Ideology,” i.e., anti-Communism, was relegated to the past, its place taken by a new ideology, neoneutralism: the blurring of distinctions between East and West and the view that the main threat to Europe lay in “the logic of the blocs” and the actions of “both superpowers.”

Neoneutralism in this sense was adopted by the Brandt wing of the SPD—as opposed to the strongly pro-NATO wing led by Helmut Schmidt—and led to “the abandonment of the Atlanticist line by the SPD,” in Gress's view the “most dramatic and portentous development in West German politics since the inauguration of the Ostpolitik of the social-liberal coalition in 1969.” Gress presents statements by leading SPD politicians and intellectuals loyal to Helmut Schmidt which make clear how deeply concerned they are about this tendency and which show incidentally that German neoneutralism is not just some nightmare of Americans.


West Germany does not suffer from analytical neglect these days, but David Gress in this book demonstrates the importance of examining contemporary politics with some historical, cultural, and philosophical perspective. He thereby helps us to understand as well the seeming “continuity” of West German foreign policy since 1982. Given the strength of neoneutralism in the SPD, only a government dedicated to Adenauer's “simplistic” ideological verities of the 1950's could sustain the dual commitment to defense and diplomacy that has characterized Helmut Kohl's CDU/ CSU. But if Soviet diplomacy under Gorbachev continues to display more tactical subtlety than it did when his aged and stubborn predecessors deployed hundreds of SS-20's while denouncing the “arms race,” the impact of neoneutralism on West German defense and foreign policy will persist and may grow. Perhaps Social Democrats in power would behave differently from what their rhetoric of recent years suggests, but if not, readers of this fine book will have an understanding of the storm that may follow the current, relative calm.

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