Ostpolitik was the major strategic innovation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). It signaled the emergence of a more assertive and emancipated West Germany after twenty years of a semi-sovereign foreign policy. In some important ways it also marked the beginning of a more “normal” FRG foreign policy. By taking the initiative, Chancellor Willy Brandt acted on his recognition that the German question would not be settled by the superpowers but needed a major impulse from within West Germany. Brandt's acceptance of the losses of World War II and of German responsibility for that catastrophe, symbolized by his kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, opened the door to acceptance of the FRG as a reliable partner for the Soviet Union and its East European allies. By taking away the German threat, Brandt was able to pursue his long-term goal of bringing change through rapprochement and paving the way for the peaceful unification of a democratic Germany. The legacy of Ostpolitik remains in the foreign policy of the united German state and its approach of engagement and interdependence in dealing with international partners and adversaries alike.
The story of this diplomatic achievement has been examined in great detail by historians and political scientists, both within and outside Germany. The contribution of this volume is twofold: first, the contributors draw on archival and other materials that were not available during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath; second, the volume offers a broad international perspective examining the impact of Brandt's diplomacy among West Germany's allies, its Communist adversaries, and countries far removed from Europe, including China, South Korea, India, South Africa, and Israel. The book is the product of a three-year collaboration between the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, and the Mershon Center of Ohio State University and is ably edited by Carole Fink of Ohio State and Bernd Schafer, a senior scholar with the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
As might be expected, the chapters that examine the countries in closest proximity and therefore were most directly affected by the changes have the most relevance. Andrey Edemskiy's study of the Soviet response and the role of Leonid Brezhnev makes excellent use of Soviet archival material and is a fine study of how Brezhnev's struggle for power within the Politburo played into his responses to Brandt's policies. The Soviet leader used Ostpolitik and his own back channel to Brandt and his key adviser, Egon Bahr, in his competition with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin. This analysis also demonstrates the Soviet choice of West Germany over the USSR's Warsaw Pact ally, the German Democratic Republic, and the Soviet officials’ clear preference for Brandt over the East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker. The Soviet authorities hoped that an improved relationship with West Germany would help Moscow's efforts to modernize the Soviet system, a hope that had to be postponed until Mikhail Gorbachev's time.
The other major player in the game was the United States, which under the leadership of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger was trying its own variant of détente. However, as Holger Klitzing observes in his treatment of U.S. reactions to Ostpolitik, Nixon's and Kissinger's goals were quite different from those of Brandt. U.S. leaders wanted to use détente to stabilize their country's declining global preponderance, whereas Brandt's vision was more dynamic in seeking to change the status quo. In addition, U.S. officials were interested in the global dimension and believed that the West Germans were concerned only with the regional aspect. Klitzing also highlights the deep suspicion of the FRG held by one of its most famous émigrés. He quotes Kissinger as saying to the old German hand, John McCloy, “never underestimate the depths of German stupidity” (p. 97). Kissinger and Nixon were suspicious of both Brandt and Egon Bahr, seeing them as neutralist nationalists who threatened to pull the FRG out of the West, something Edemskiy's scrutiny of Soviet archives shows was entirely unfounded. Kissinger seemed to be fixated on German history rather than contemporary Germany. A reading of this chapter will be an antidote to nostalgia about the close U.S.-West German relationship that was seemingly lost after the Cold War.
The chapter on France by Marie-Pierre Rey, while brief and a bit too condensed, reveals the ambiguity that continues to this day in Paris over the German-Russian relationship. It is no accident that a French word, “détente,” came to represent the goal of relaxing Western tensions with the USSR, given the pioneering efforts of Charles de Gaulle and his successor, Georges Pompidou, in that regard. But as is so often the case, what the French believe is good for France is not good when applied to Germany. French leaders worried that Ostpolitik would mean that the FRG would turn away from Europe, a concern that returned in 1989–1990 over the prospect of German reunification. French leaders were also worried about engaging in a race with the FRG to get closer to Russia, a fear that remains today. Yet, at the end of the day, Franco-German solidarity prevailed.
The rest of the volume provides good portraits of reactions in Poland and Czechoslovakia. The other, further removed states, were less central to Ostpolitik, but they provide a global perspective on what turned out to be more than a regional development. Of special interest is Meung Hoan Noh's chapter on how Ostpolitik was viewed in the Koreas, the world's last major divided state. The absence of a chapter on the reaction in the United Kingdom is puzzling and a gap in this treatment. In short, this is an excellent look from a longer historical distance of what surely ranks as one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of the twentieth century.