Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961by Hope M. Harrison
The Berlin Wall was the symbol of the Cold War. For the first time, this path-breaking book tells the behind-the-scenes story of the communists' decision to build the Wall in 1961. Hope Harrison's use of archival sources from the former East German and Soviet regimes is unrivalled, and from these sources she builds a highly original and provocative argument: the
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The Berlin Wall was the symbol of the Cold War. For the first time, this path-breaking book tells the behind-the-scenes story of the communists' decision to build the Wall in 1961. Hope Harrison's use of archival sources from the former East German and Soviet regimes is unrivalled, and from these sources she builds a highly original and provocative argument: the East Germans pushed the reluctant Soviets into building the Berlin Wall.
This fascinating work portrays the different approaches favored by the East Germans and the Soviets to stop the exodus of refugees to West Germany. In the wake of Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviets refused the East German request to close their border to West Berlin. The Kremlin rulers told the hard-line East German leaders to solve their refugee problem not by closing the border, but by alleviating their domestic and foreign problems. The book describes how, over the next seven years, the East German regime managed to resist Soviet pressures for liberalization and instead pressured the Soviets into allowing them to build the Berlin Wall. Driving the Soviets Up the Wall forces us to view this critical juncture in the Cold War in a different light. Harrison's work makes us rethink the nature of relations between countries of the Soviet bloc even at the height of the Cold War, while also contributing to ongoing debates over the capacity of weaker states to influence their stronger allies.
A smoothly written, clearly organized, and massively documented account . . . [which] deserves to be read by every serious student of post-war Europe.
"Harrison has turned over every archival rock in reconstructing the tense relationship between the Soviet Union and Walter Ulbricht's East Germany, from Stalin's death until the construction of the Berlin Wall.. . . Harrison is not alone in teaching us that third parties played a significant role in shaping the Cold War, but hers is a particularly striking example."Foreign Affairs
"A smoothly written, clearly organized, and massively documented account . . . [which] deserves to be read by every serious student of post-war Europe."W.J. Lavery, History: Reviews of New Books
"This aptly entitled book makes an outstanding contribution to what has become known as 'the new Cold War history.' Lucidly written and fascinating to read, it demonstrates how, under a unique set of circumstances, a satellite state in the depths of existential crisis could manipulate a superpower."Peter Grieder, Central European History
"Harrison has written a thoughtful, fluent, and meticulously researched study of Soviet-East German relations between 1953 and 1961. Driving the Soviets Up the Wall is a fine example of the new scholarship on the cold war that has emerged since 1991 and a rewarding read for anybody interested in finding out exactly how and why the Berlin Wall came to be built."Alan McDougall, Journal of Modern History
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Driving the Soviets up the WallSoviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961
By Hope M. Harrison
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionTHE DYNAMICS OF SOVIET-EAST GERMAN RELATIONS IN THE EARLY COLD WAR
THE TWO STATES that emerged from the defeated Germany were central to the development of the cold war. Rapidly evolving from defeated objects of Four Power policy, the two Germanys became important actors in their own right on the front line of the cold war. Both superpowers initially treated their part of Germany as war booty to be plundered and kept weak, but as the cold war developed, they would each come to see their part of Germany as an essential ally whose needs were intertwined with their own. For political, military, economic, and ideological reasons, the superpowers engaged in a competition for allies to show that their side of the cold war was the stronger, more popular, more vibrant one. They also wanted to ensure that their German ally would not unite with the other against them. Beginning in the 1950s, the superpowers invested themselves, and their reputations, increasingly in their German allies, who were adept at taking advantage of this situation.
While there have been a variety of in-depth studies of the U.S.-West German alliance, there has been much less investigation of the Soviet-East Germanalliance. This book will take advantage of the opening of former communist archives to examine the Soviet-East German side of the cold war from Josef Stalin's death in 1953 through the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. After the profound Soviet losses of World War II, the Kremlin leaders' prime motive initially was to make sure Germany could not rise up and threaten them again. It took longer for the Soviets than for the Western Powers to shift their policy from destruction and retribution in Germany to construction and support of an ally. It was a big leap from Stalin's sanction of the raping and pillaging of the Soviet Zone of Germany in the mid- to late 1940s to Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev's declaration to the East Germans that "your needs are our needs" in the 1950s. This book tells the story of Khrushchev's increasing commitment to a strong, socialist state in East Germany and the ways the persistent East German leader Walter Ulbricht was able to use this commitment to his advantage. It is the story of East Germany transforming its weakness into strength in its relations with the Soviet Union and the story of the East Germans' capacity to resist Soviet directives. This book will demonstrate that Soviet-East German relations from 1953-1961, particularly concerning the divided city of Berlin, cannot be understood without studying the actions and aims of both the Kremlin and East Berlin.
An appreciation of the importance of nonsuperpower actors in the cold war is one of the primary lessons scholars have gleaned from the former Soviet bloc's new archival evidence. In response, the political scientist Tony Smith has called for a pericentric study of the cold war, and the historian James G. Hershberg has urged a "retroactive debipolarization" of cold war history. Both scholars point to the opportunity and need to supplement previous studies focusing on the role of the superpowers with studies that examine the contributions of other states to the dynamics and key events of the cold war. Allies mattered in the cold war both because of the importance vested in them by the superpowers and because of actions they took at times independent of their superpower patrons, especially actions that exacerbated superpower relations or dragged more powerful superpower patrons into situations and commitments they otherwise would not have chosen. Only by including the actions and perceptions of key allies, such as England, France, the two Germanys, the two Koreas, the two Chinas, and the two Vietnams, in the history of the cold war can we arrive at a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of some of the pivotal events and dynamics of that period. The roles of the two superpowers must be combined with those of important allies.
The present book is an effort to do this. This book will illustrate that the Soviet-East German relationship was more two-sided than previously understood, that in some important ways a mutual dependency existed that mattered for the evolution of the cold war. As Abraham Ben-Zvi postulates in studying U.S.-Israeli relations, "the core of numerous patron-client [relationships] is seldom characterized by pure dependence, but rather by what [Klaus] Knorr calls 'asymmetrical interdependence.'" The concept of interdependence in superpowerally relations has been well developed on the Western side of the cold war, revealing the influence of America's allies on the cold war-as persuasive allies and independent actors whose views and actions mattered to the United States for a variety of reasons. This body of literature demonstrates that it was not just U.S. preferences that were expressed in relations with its allies; the perceptions and aims of the allies were also important factors influencing U.S. policy. For example, the British played a crucial role in prodding the Americans to respond to the Soviet threat by establishing the Marshall Plan, a West German state, and NATO; and the West European "invitation" for a postwar American presence was an essential part of U.S. decision making. Outside of Europe, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Israel all pulled the Americans in as much as possible to assist them against their regional rivals. The United States often found that its actions in these regions were guided more by the concerns of its local ally than by U.S. global strategy.
American allies did not exert their influence just by being persuasive in interactions with the United States; they also at times went outside of those interactions to act independently. Thus, President Truman found that he could not control the actions of South Korean President Syngman Rhee in the armistice talks ending the Korean War; and the British and French launched the Suez Crisis of 1956 without consulting with the United States. Similarly, try though he did to persuade West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to be more flexible in handling the Berlin Crisis in the late 1950s, President Eisenhower frequently complained that Adenauer's differing views seriously constrained American options in the crisis. Scholars of the Western side of the cold war have assumed that their findings of complicated, two-sided alliance relations only applied to the West. This is partly because they believed that the openness of the American democratic system to lobbying was a significant part of the reason allies were able to gain influence over American policy. Thomas Risse-Kappen has argued that democratic norms and institutions enabled and even promoted "the European influence on U.S. foreign policy." Given the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc, combined with the Western cold war image of the Kremlin as an autocratic master of the Warsaw Pact, most scholars have concluded that, with the exception of China, Moscow did not have to deal with troublesome allies who complicated its foreign policy making.
The treasure trove of documents made accessible since 1991, however, makes it clear that Moscow also had alliance concerns and that Soviet alliances were not as one-sided as previously surmised. This book will show that there was an important degree of mutual dependency between the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The same basic phenomenon accounts for both U.S. and Soviet vulnerabilities to alliance pressures during the cold war: the competition for allies.
As the cold war burgeoned in the 1950s, Moscow and Washington felt they needed allies not only for practical military and economic reasons, but also for reasons more connected with their reputation as leader of one of two opposing blocs. Both sides believed in the domino theory: that gaining or losing an ally would have a multiplier effect. On the Soviet side, this concern was exacerbated starting in the late 1950s when they had to worry not only about the challenge to their allies from the United States, but also from Mao's China. In Germany, Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere, the superpowers believed that if they did not defend their interests strongly, they would have no credibility as a reliable ally. As John Lewis Gaddis observes, however, "Credibility is ... a state of mind, not an objective, independently measurable reality. redibility can hardly be on the line until one has chosen to put it there. For whatever reason, the Cold War encouraged a curious fecklessness on the part of the superpowers when it came to how and where they risked their reputations. Berlin was the most dramatic example, but hardly the only one." Just as John F. Kennedy told the West Berliners in 1963, "Ich bin ein Berliner," so Khrushchev equated Soviet needs with those of his German ally. This book sets out to investigate both sides of the Soviet-East German relationship: how and why the Soviets saw the GDR as a crucial domino and how the East Germans responded to this. We will examine both the constraints on Soviet policy in affecting events in the GDR and the ways in which the East Germans resisted or influenced Soviet policies. Regarding relations between the Soviets and their allies, Kathryn Weathersby has argued that it is only by examining "the intersection of Moscow's and Pyongyang's aims" that one can understand what "produced the [Korean] war in June 1950"; and Norman Naimark has asserted that "[t]he GDR ... was created primarily out of the interaction of Russians and Germans in the Soviet occupied zone." Similarly, I will demonstrate that it is only by taking into account both the actions, urgings, and proddings of Ulbricht, and the calculations of Khrushchev, as well as the broader East-West interactions, that one can understand the climactic event of this book, the building of the Berlin Wall and the crisis surrounding it.
There are a variety of factors that can explain the influence of a smaller ally on a great power, the influence of the Kremlin's German ally on Soviet policy and on conditions in the GDR. As in any relationship between an empire's core and its periphery, the geographic distance yields significant control over local conditions to the local power. This can create a gap between the superpower's policy preferences and the actual local implementation of policy. The capacity of the local power to affect local conditions, and the implementation or nonimplementation of the superpower's declared policies, gives it the capacity to constrain these policies. In spite of all the Soviet troops and advisors in the GDR, Moscow was still not able always to enforce its policies and prevent the East Germans from acting independently. The roughly 500,000 Soviet troops in the GDR may have deterred the population from repeating the uprising of 1953, but they were not able to control the actions of the East German leaders. The Soviet forces could determine or protect the ultimate "fate" of the socialist regime in the GDR but could not regulate its daily "behavior." Thus, through its impact on day-to-day local conditions, the smaller ally may limit the superpower's real long-term policy options.
Strategic location is central to the influence of an ally. If the country is located, for example, at the border between two military alliances, as was the case with the GDR, this gives the superpower a great stake in protecting and strengthening the ally, because the ally is a crucial part of the superpower's buffer zone. The ally is of course perfectly well aware of this situation and may be able to use it to its own advantage. It can do this by persuading the superpower that the local ally needs certain things like increased economic and military aid (or a border closure) if it is going to be able to maintain its position as a bulwark against the other bloc. Thus, while the ally is clearly dependent on the superpower for its protection in its vulnerable location on the edge of the bloc, the superpower also feels some dependence on the ally to preserve this position as bulwark or buffer. The ally may play more than just a military-strategic role for the superpower; it may have a more symbolic function, such as serving as a model for the system of its superpower patron. As Khrushchev recounted in his memoirs, he sought to use their front-line location to make the GDR and East Berlin into a "showcase of the moral, political and material achievement" of socialism for capitalists to see and so be persuaded of the superiority of socialism. Khrushchev's energetic faith in the preeminence of the communist system and his determination to demonstrate this in Germany gave the GDR a means to pressure him for increased support. Khrushchev testified to the importance of a strong, socialist East Germany for the Soviet Union by telling Ulbricht, "your needs are our needs." Ulbricht treated this as an invitation to elicit a Soviet response to East German "needs" even if they sometimes conflicted with broader Soviet "needs." As John Lewis Gaddis points out, the two superpowers "attached their own reputations to their respective clients ... [and] fell into the habit of letting their German allies determine their German interests, and hence their German policies." This situation provided the GDR with opportunities to convert its weaknesses into strength in bargaining with or manipulating the Soviet Union. The lack of popular support for the East German socialist government was manifested in the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) each year. The leaders of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (SED) could, with justification, use the threat of the regime's collapse to obtain more aid from Moscow. In addition, as the weaker power, East Germany had more to lose, more at stake if it collapsed than the Soviet Union did and thus was more motivated and persistent in the pursuit of its narrow goals. This translated into increased bargaining strength. Glenn Snyder's concept of the "alliance security dilemma" offers a useful lens through which to view the Soviet-East German relationship, although he does not apply the concept to the Soviet side of the cold war and focuses primarily on periods of multipolarity instead of bipolarity. Snyder postulates that in an alliance, each side must find the right balance between two tendencies toward more or less active support of the other ally. On the one hand, if one ally strongly supports the other, it can risk being manipulated, or "entrapped" in Snyder's words, by that ally into adopting policies the first ally does not really support. On the other hand, if the first ally is stinting in backing the other ally, it can risk "abandonment" by the latter for a stronger supporter. This entrapment-abandonment dilemma also exists in the complicated dynamics of alliance politics between a superpower and a key ally.
In the Soviet-East German case, the SED's abandonment and entrapment concerns were very similar. On the one hand, they feared the Soviets would abandon the GDR to German unification on Western terms. On the other hand, they feared being forced or entrapped by the Soviets into more liberal policies than they favored domestically and in foreign policy, which in turn might facilitate German unification on Western terms or at least the SED hard-liners' own overthrow by domestic opponents. The East German side, their fears, and their dependence on the alliance, however, have long been taken for granted and identified. It is the Soviet side that makes the story more interesting and that in fact opened up the opportunity for the East Germans to wag their tail as an ally.
Excerpted from Driving the Soviets up the Wall by Hope M. Harrison Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Mel Leffler, University of Virginia
A. James McAdams, William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs, University of Notre Dame
John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University
Thomas Banchoff, Georgetown University, author of "The German Problem Transformed"
Jeffrey Kopstein, University of Toronto, author of "The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany 1945-1989"
Strobe Talbott, Brookings Institution
Meet the Author
Hope M. Harrison is Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. She is also Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at the Elliott School. She served as Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council from 2000 to 2001.
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