‘To most people it must have been apparent, even before the Second World
War made it obvious, that the time when European nations could quarrel
among themselves for world dominion is dead and gone. Europe has
nothing more to look for in this direction, and any European who still
hankers after world power must fall victim either to despair or to ridicule,
like the many Napoleons in lunatic asylums’.
Max Frisch (July, 1948)
‘Because we have had our troops there, the Europeans had not
done their share. They won’t make the sacrifices to provide the soldiers
for their own defense’.
‘The chief argument against the French having nuclear information
has been the effect it would have on the Germans, encouraging them
to do the same’.
John F. Kennedy
‘Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: they last while they last’.
Charles de Gaulle
‘Political institutions alone are capable of forming the character
of a nation’.
Madame de Stael
In his classic study of the growth of political stability in early-eighteenth-century England, the English historian J. H. Plumb wrote: ‘There is a general folk belief, derived largely from Burke and the nineteenth-century historians, that political stability is of slow, coral-like growth; the result of time, circumstances, prudence, experience, wisdom, slowly building up over the centuries. Nothing is, I think, farther from the truth (. . . ) Political stability, when it comes, often happens to a society quite quickly, as suddenly as water becomes ice.’81
Something of the sort occurred in Europe, quite unexpectedly, in the first half of the 1950s.
From 1945 until early 1953, Europeans lived, as we have seen, in the shadow of the Second World War and in anxious anticipation of a third. The failed settlement of 1919 was still fresh in the minds of statesmen and public alike. The imposition of Communism in Eastern Europe was a pointed reminder of the revolutionary instability that had followed World War One. The Prague coup, the tensions in Berlin and the Korean War in the Far East seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of the serial international crises of the thirties. In July 1951 the Western Allies had declared their ‘state of war’ with Germany to be over, but in the circumstances of a rapidly intensifying Cold War there was still no Peace Treaty, and little prospect of one to come. Nor could anyone be confident that Fascism would not once again find fertile soil in the unresolved problem of Germany, or indeed anywhere else.
The expanding web of international alliances, agencies and accords offered little guarantee of international harmony. With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that between them the Council of Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Payments Union and above all the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were the germ of a new and stable system of inter-state relations. Documents like the Council of Europe’s 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights would acquire lasting significance in the decades to come. But at the time such documents, like the agencies that published them, rather closely resembled the well-meaning but doomed pacts and leagues of the 1920s. Skeptical contemporaries could be forgiven for paying them little attention.
Nevertheless, with the death of Stalin and the end of the Korean War, Western Europe stumbled half unawares into a remarkable era of political stability. For the first time in four decades the states of the continent’s western half were neither at war nor under the threat of imminent war, at least among themselves. Domestic political strife subsided. Communist parties everywhere except Italy began their slow retreat to the political margins. And the threat of a Fascist revival no longer carried conviction, except perhaps at Communist political rallies.
Western Europeans owed their newfound well-being to the uncertainties of the Cold War. The internationalization of political confrontations, and the consequent engagement of the United States, helped draw the sting from domestic political conflicts. Political issues that in an earlier age would almost certainly have led to violence and war—the unresolved problem of Germany, territorial conflicts between Yugoslavia and Italy, the future of occupied Austria—were all contained, and would in due course be addressed, within the context of Great Power confrontations and negotiations over which Europeans had very little say.
The German Question remained unanswered. Even after the panic of 1950 had subsided, and Western leaders recognized that Stalin had no immediate plans to ‘do a Korea’ in central Europe, the two sides were no closer to agreement. The official Western position was that the two Germanies that had emerged in 1949 should be reunited in a single democratic state. But until all Germans were free to choose for themselves the political regime under which they would live, such reunification was not possible. In the meantime the Federal Republic of (West) Germany would be treated as the representative of all German citizens. Unofficially, the Americans, like the West Europeans, were not at all unhappy to see Germany divided indefinitely. As John Foster Dulles would put it to President Eisenhower in February 1959, there was ‘a great deal to be said for the status quo’, but this wasn’t ‘a position we could take publicly’.
The Soviet position was ironically quite similar. In his last years Stalin continued to maintain the official Soviet stance, that Moscow sought a united Germany and would even be willing to accept that such a Germany be neutral, so long as it was unarmed. In a series of Notes in the spring of 1952 Stalin proposed that the four occupying powers draw up a Peace Treaty aimed at establishing such a united Germany, neutral and demilitarized, with all occupying forces removed and its government chosen by free, all-German elections. Historians have criticized Washington for its failure to take Stalin up on these proposals—a ‘missed opportunity’ to end the Cold War or at least to draw the sting from its most dangerous point of confrontation.
It is certainly true that Western leaders did not take Stalin’s Notes very seriously and refused to take the Soviet Union up on its offer. As it turns out, though, they were right. The Soviet leaders themselves attached little importance to their own proposals and didn’t seriously expect the Americans, British and French to withdraw their occupying troops and allow a neutral, unarmed Germany to float loose in the middle of a divided continent. If anything, Stalin and his successors were not unhappy to see a continuing American military presence on German soil; from the point of view of the Soviet leaders of this generation, the presence of US troops in West Germany was one of the more reliable guarantees against German revanchism. It was worth risking that guarantee in exchange for a demilitarized Germany in the Soviet shadow (an objective for which Moscow would happily have abandoned its East German clients and their Democratic Republic), but not for anything short of that.
What the Russians decidedly did not want at any price was a re-militarized West Germany. The point of the Soviet démarches was not to reach an agreement with the West on German reunification, but to head off the impending prospect of German rearmament. The Americans had raised the matter, a mere five years after Hitler’s defeat, as a direct consequence of the Korean War. If Congress were to accede to the Truman Administration’s requests for increased military aid overseas, then America’s allies—Germans included—had to be seen to make their own contribution to their continent’s defense.
When the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson first initiated discussions about German rearmament with Britain and France, in September 1950, the French vehemently opposed the idea. It confirmed all their earlier suspicions that NATO, far from representing a firm American commitment to protect France on her eastern flank, was simply a stalking horse for the remilitarization of Germany. Even the Germans were reluctant, though for their own reasons. Konrad Adenauer understood perfectly well the opportunity afforded him by these altered circumstances: far from leaping at the opportunity to rearm, the Federal Republic would hold back. In return for a German contribution to Western defense Bonn would insist upon full international recognition of the FRG and an amnesty for German war criminals held in Allied custody.
Anticipating some such deal being cut behind their back, the French pre-empted further discussion of a German military contribution to NATO by making a counter-proposal of their own. In October 1950, René Pleven, the French Prime Minister, suggested that a European Defense Community be established, analogous to the Schuman Plan. In addition to an Assembly, a Council of Ministers and a Court of Justice, this Community would have its own European Defense Force (EDF). The Americans, like the British, were not happy with the idea but agreed to go along with it as a second-best solution to the problem of defending Europe.
The European Defense Community (EDC) Treaty was accordingly signed on May 27th 1952, along with contingent documents affirming that once all the signatory countries had ratified the Treaty, the US and Great Britain would cooperate fully with an EDF and that the military occupation of Germany would come to an end. It was this accord that the Soviet Union had tried unsuccessfully to derail with its offers of a Peace Treaty demilitarizing Germany. The West German Bundestag ratified the EDC Treaty in March 1953, and the Benelux countries followed suit.82 It only remained for the French National Assembly to ratify the Treaty and Western Europe would have acquired something resembling a European army, with integrated and intermingled national contingents, including a German one.
The French, however, were still unhappy. As Janet Flanner shrewdly observed in November 1953, ‘for the French as a whole the EDC problem is Germany—not Russia, as it is for the Americans.’ France’s hesitations frustrated the Americans—at a NATO Council meeting in December 1953 John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s new Secretary of State, threatened an ‘agonising reappraisal’ of American policy if the EDC were to fail. But even though the Pleven Plan was the brainchild of a French prime minister, public debate had revealed the extent of French reluctance to countenance German rearmament under any conditions. Moreover, the proposals for German rearmament and a European army could not have come at a worse time: the French army was facing defeat and humiliation in Vietnam, and the new French Prime Minister, Pierre Mendès-France, rightly calculated that it would be imprudentto stake the future of his fragile coalition government on an unpopular proposal to re-arm the national enemy.
Accordingly, when the EDC Treaty finally came to the National Assembly for ratification, Mendès-France forbore to make of it an issue of confidence, and the Treaty was rejected, on August 30th 1954, by a vote of 319-264. The plan for a European Defense Community, and with it a re-armed Germany in a European army, was finished. In private conversation with Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak and Luxembourg Prime Minister Joseph Bech, a frustrated Adenauer attributed Mendès’s behavior to his ‘Jewishness’—for which he was, according to the German Chancellor, overcompensating by aligning himself with French nationalist sentiment. More plausibly, Mendès himself explained the failure of the EDC thus: ‘In the EDC there was too much integration and too little England.’
The Europeans and their American ally were back where they had begun. But the circumstances were now very different. The Korean War was over, Stalin was dead, NATO was a fixture on the international scene. The French had successfully postponed the problem of European defense for a while but they could not put it off much longer. Within a few weeks of the National Assembly vote on the EDC the Western Allied powers—the US, Britain and France—met twice, at hastily convened conferences in London and Paris. At the initiative of the British foreign secretary Anthony Eden a set of proposals83—the so-called London Agreements—was rapidly approved which, when finalized in the subsequent Paris Treaties, were to form the basis of European defense policy for the next half century.
To overcome the problem of ‘too little England’, Eden offered to commit British forces (four divisions) to a permanent presence in continental Europe (for the first time since the Middle Ages). The Brussels Treaty of 1948 would be extended into a Western European Union (WEU), and Germany and Italy would join it (even though the 1948 Treaty, as we saw, was drawn up for the explicit purpose of mutual protection against Germany). In return, the French would agree to allow the Federal Republic an army of no more than half a million men; and Germany would join NATO as a sovereign state.4
When these treaties were ratified and went into effect, the German occupation statute would lapse and in all but name the Western Allies would have made formal peace with their erstwhile enemy. Allied troops would remain in the Federal Republic to guard against German recidivism, but as part of a European presence and by mutual agreement. The French were by no means unanimous in welcoming these new plans, but having shot down their own alternative proposals they were ill-placed to protest, even though West Germany achieved more generous terms under the 1954 Treaties than it would have got from the Pleven Plan. Not for the first time in international disputes over Germany, France was its own worst enemy. Understandably, French support for the Paris Treaties was more than a little ambivalent. When the National Assembly voted to ratify them, on December 30th 1954, they passed by 287-260, a majority of just 27 votes.
If the French were hesitant, the Russians were distinctly displeased. On May 15th 1955, ten days after the formal incorporation of West Germany into NATO and the abolition of the Allied High Commission in the Federal Republic, the Soviet Union announced the formation of its Warsaw Pact. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and the Soviet Union formed an alliance of ‘friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance’ under a unified command. Moscow abrogated its wartime treaties of alliance with Britain and France and, accepting the inevitable, asserted the full sovereignty of the East German Democratic Republic and incorporated it into the Warsaw Pact. The German Question had not exactly been answered; but with both parts fully integrated into their respective international alliances it would now be set aside for a while, its place to be taken in due course by the still unresolved dilemma of the divided former capital, Berlin.
Now that the immediate future of Germany had been resolved, both sides hastened to address secondary conflicts and tensions. The new men in the Kremlin, Nikita Khrushchev in particular, took seriously their own agenda for ‘peaceful coexistence’ in Europe and shared the American desire to minimize the risk of future confrontations. The day after the Warsaw Pact was announced, the four occupying powers signed the Austrian State Treaty. Austria was to be independent and neutral, attached neither to NATO nor the Warsaw Pact and free to choose its own path.84 All four armies of occupation were to withdraw—though the Soviet Union, which had already extracted about $100 million from its Zone of Occupation in eastern Austria, secured a final pound of flesh in the form of an obligation on Austria to ‘buy out’ Soviet economic interests in the country’s eastern sector for a further $150 million.
Meanwhile, just to the south, Yugoslavia and Italy had agreed to end their standoff over Trieste. In an agreement brokered by the Americans and the British in October 1954, the city of Trieste would remain with Italy while its surrounding hinterland, overwhelmingly populated by Slovenes, would revert to Yugoslavia. The Trieste accords, like so much else in these years, were facilitated by the understanding that they would be regarded as ‘provisional’: in the words of the Italian ambassador to the US, Alberto Tarchiani, the agreement on Trieste ‘had merely a resemblance of being provisional while in reality it was final’.
The accords over Austria, Yugoslavia and Italy were made possible by a new mood of ‘détente’ in European affairs, symbolized by the July 1955 Summit Meetingat Geneva (the first since Potsdam) and the admission of sixteen new member states to the United Nations, breaking a ten-year East-West deadlock. Beyond the atmospherics of friendly exchanges between Eisenhower, Khrushchev and Eden, the most important issue resolved at Geneva was the fate of some 10,000 German prisoners of war still in Soviet hands. In return for Adenauer’s visit to Moscow in September 1955 and the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Soviet leaders consented to the return of these men: 9,626 of them were released that same year, and the remainder by the end of January 1956. Meanwhile Germany’s small western neighbors also achieved some degree of closure with Bonn. The Danes reached agreement on minor border issues and compensation for German war crimes in 1955, the Belgians a year later (the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, however, did not come to an agreement with the Germans until 1959, and the Dutch only in 1960). Without anyone actually saying so, the book was closing on the crimes and punishments of the European war and its aftermath.
These reassuring developments were unfolding against the backdrop of a major international arms race. This paradox—that a peaceful European settlement was taking shape even as the two Great Powers of the day were arming themselves to the hilt and preparing for the eventuality of a thermonuclear war—was not so bizarre as it might appear. The growing emphasis in US and Soviet strategic thinking on nuclear weapons, and the intercontinental missiles with which to deliver them, released European states from the need to compete in an arena where they could not hope to match the resources of the superpowers, even though central Europe remained the most likely terrain over which any future war might be fought. For this reason, the Cold War in Western Europe was experienced quite differently in these years from the way it was felt in the United States, or indeed in the USSR.
The United States’ nuclear arsenal had grown rapidly through the 1950s. From 9 in 1946, 50 in 1948 and 170 at the beginning of the decade, the stockpile of nuclear weapons at the disposal of the US armed forces had reached 841 by 1952 before expanding to around 2,000 by the time of Germany’s entry into NATO (it would reach 28,000 on the eve of the Cuban crisis seven years later). To deliver these bombs the US Air Force had a fleet of forward-based B-29 bombers that grew from around 50 at the onset of the 1948 Berlin blockade to well over 1,000 five years later; the first intercontinental B-52 bombers entered service in June 1955. Given the Soviet Union’s overwhelming advantage in manpower and conventional weapons in Europe, these airborne nuclear weapons were inevitably to become central to Washington’s strategy, especially following President Truman’s secret order of March 10th 1950 to accelerate development of a hydrogen bomb.
Truman’s decision was prompted by the Soviet Union’s successful test in August 1949 of a Soviet atomic bomb. The gap between American and Soviet nuclear capability was shrinking: the first successful US thermonuclear test was carried out on the Pacific atoll of Elugelab on November 1st 1952; the first such Soviet test, at Semipalatinsk, was announced just ten months later, on August 12th 1953. American battlefield nuclear weapons first began arriving in West Germany the following month; the next January Dulles announced Eisenhower’s ‘New Look’ policy. NATO was to be ‘nuclearised’: the threat to use tactical nuclear weapons on the European battlefield was to become part of the Alliance’s defense strategy. In order for the Soviet Union to believe that the West might really fire them, the distinction between nuclear and conventional arms was to be abolished. As Dulles explained to a NATO Council meeting in April 1954: ‘The US considers that the ability to use atomic weapons is essential for the defense of the NATO area in the face of the present threat. In short, such weapons must now be treated as in fact having become conventional.’
The coincidence of NATO’s nuclearization with the stabilization of the Continent was no accident. From the Soviet point of view as well, conventional warfare in central and Western Europe was of diminishing strategic interest. Moscow too was stockpiling nuclear weapons—starting with just 5 in 1950 it had built some 1,700 by the end of the decade. But the chief Soviet emphasis was on developing the means to deliver them not on the European battlefield but across oceans, to compensate for American plans to base nuclear weapons in Germany, just a few hundred miles from Russia itself.
The notorious ‘missile gap’ of which John F. Kennedy spoke when campaigning for the US presidency in 1960 was a myth, a successful exercise in Soviet propaganda; the same was true of widespread contemporary accounts of Soviet educational and technical superiority. Two decades before German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made the observation, Khrushchev and some of his senior colleagues already understood intuitively that the empire they ruled over was basically ‘Upper Volta with missiles’. But the USSR certainly was expending great efforts on the development of its ballistic capabilities. The first successful Soviet test of an intercontinental ballistic missile came in August 1957, five months ahead of the Americans. The subsequent launching of Sputnik on October 4th 1957 showed what it could do (to American horror85).
Ballistic weapons—intercontinental missiles capable of delivering nuclear war-heads from the Soviet hinterland to American targets—had considerable appeal for Nikita Khrushchev in particular. They were cheaper than conventional weapons. They allowed Khrushchev to maintain good relations with heavy industry and the military while diverting resources to consumer goods production. And they had the curious consequence, as both sides would come to appreciate, of making a major war much less likely than hitherto. Nuclear weapons made both Moscow and Washington more belligerent in form—it was important to seem ready and willing to use them—but far more restrained in practice.
For the Americans they had an added appeal. The US was still trying to find a way to extricate itself from the European entanglement into which it had slipped despite its leaders’ best intentions. The nuclearization of Europe would be a way of managing this. It would no longer be necessary to envisage a huge American military presence indefinitely stationed in the heart of Europe—statesmen and military strategists alike looked forward to the day when Europe would be able to defend itself virtually alone, backed only by the firm promise of massive American nuclear retaliation in the event of a Soviet attack. As Eisenhower had reiterated in 1953, the US presence in Europe was only ever supposed to be a ‘stopgap operation to bring confidence and security to our friends overseas.’
There are various reasons why the Americans were never able to realize their plans for quitting Europe. Towards the end of the 1950s the US was pressing the case for a European nuclear deterrent, under collective European command. But neither the British nor the French were happy with the idea. This was not because their governments were opposed in principle to nuclear weapons. The British exploded their first plutonium bomb in the Australian desert in August 1952; fourteen months later the first British atomic bomb was delivered to the Royal Air Force. For military and economic reasons the British governments of the time were quite keen to switch from a strategy of continental defense to one of nuclear deterrence: indeed, British urgings had played a role in persuading Eisenhower to come up with his ‘New Look’ strategy, and the British offered no objection to the stationing of nuclear-capable US bombers on British soil.86
The French also had an atomic weapons program, approved by Mendès-France in December 1954, although the first independent French bomb was not successfully exploded until February 1960. However, neither the British nor the French were willing to relinquish control of nuclear weapons to a European defense entity; the French especially were suspicious of any hint that the Americans might allow Germans access to a nuclear trigger. The Americans reluctantly conceded that their presence in Europe was indispensable—which was just what their European allies wanted to hear.8
A second issue binding the Americans to Europe was the problem of Berlin. Thanks to the defeat of the blockade in 1948-49, the former capital of Germany remainedsomething of an open city; East and West Berlin were linked by phone lines and transport networks criss-crossing the various zones of occupation. It was also the only transit route from East Europe into the West. Germans fleeing west could come to East Berlin from anywhere in the German Democratic Republic, make their way from the Russian Zone of occupation into the Western Zones and thence along the road and rail corridor linking West Berlin to the rest of the Federal Republic. Once there, they were automatically entitled to citizenship in West Germany.
The journey was not entirely risk free, and refugees could bring only what they could carry; but neither consideration inhibited younger East Germans from undertaking it. Between the spring of 1949 and August 1961 somewhere between 2.8 and 3 million East Germans went through Berlin to the West, around 16 percent of the country’s population. Many of them were educated, professional men and women—East Germany’s future; but the numbers also included thousands of farmers who fled rural collectivization in 1952, and workers who abandoned the regime after the violent repression of June 1953.
Berlin’s curious status was thus a standing embarrassment and public-relations disaster for East Germany’s Communist regime. As the Soviet Ambassador to the GDR tactfully advised Moscow in December 1959: ‘The presence in Berlin of an open and, to speak to the point, uncontrolled border between the socialist and the capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which, unfortunately, does not always turn out in favour of Democratic Berlin.’ The situation in Berlin had its uses for Moscow, of course, as for others—the city had become the primary listening post and spy center of the Cold War; some 70 different agencies were operating there by 1961, and it was in Berlin that Soviet espionage agencies scored some of their greatest successes.
However, now that the Soviet leaders had accepted the division of Germany and elevated the eastern zone into a fully fledged sovereign state, they could not continue indefinitely to ignore the steady haemorrhage of its human resources. Nevertheless, when Moscow did once again direct international attention to Berlin and generate a three-year international crisis over the city’s status, it was not out of consideration for the wounded sensibilities of the East German rulers. By 1958 the Soviet Union was once again worried that the Americans might be planning to arm their West German clients, this time with nuclear weapons. This, as we have seen, was not an entirely unreasonable fear—it was, after all, shared by some West Europeans. And so Khrushchev set out to use Berlin—a city to whose fate the Russians were otherwise indifferent—as a lever to block the nuclearization of Bonn, about which they felt very strongly indeed.
The first move in the ‘Berlin crisis’ came on November 10th 1958, when Khrushchev made a public speech in Moscow, addressed to the Western powers:
The imperialists have turned the German question into an abiding source of international tension. The ruling circles of Western Germany are doing everything to whip up military passions against the German Democratic Republic . . . Speeches by Chancellor Adenauer and Defense Minister Strauss, the atomic arming of the Bundeswehr and various military exercises all speak of a definite trend in the policy of the ruling circles of West Germany . . . The time has obviously arrived for the signatories of the Potsdam Agreement to give up the remnants of the occupation regime in Berlin and thereby make it possible to create a normal situation in the capital of the German Democratic Republic. The Soviet Union, for its part, would hand over to the sovereign German Democratic Republic the functions in Berlin that are still exercised by Soviet agencies.
The ostensible objective of Khrushchev’s offensive, which took on a greater urgency when the Soviet leader demanded two weeks later that the West make up its mind to withdraw from Berlin within six months, was to get the Americans to abandon Berlin and allow it to become a ‘free city’. If they did so, the credibility of their general commitment to the defense of Western Europe would be seriously dented, and neutralist, anti-nuclear sentiment in West Germany and elsewhere would probably grow. But even if the Western powers insisted on staying put in Berlin, the USSR might be able to exchange its consent to this for a firm Western commitment to deny Bonn any nuclear weapons.
When Western leaders refused any concessions over Berlin, claiming that the Soviet Union itself had broken its Potsdam undertakings by integrating East Berlin fully into the government and institutions of the East German state before any final Treaty had been agreed, Khrushchev tried again. Following an unsuccessful series of foreign ministers’ discussions in Geneva in the summer of 1959, he repeated his demands, first in 1960 and then again in June 1961. The Western military presence in Berlin must end. Otherwise the Soviet Union would unilaterally withdraw from Berlin, conclude a separate Peace Treaty with the GDR and leave the West to negotiate the fate of its zones of occupation with an independent East German state. From November 1958 through the summer of 1961 the crisis over Berlin simmered, diplomatic nerves frayed and the exodus of East Germans grew to a flood.
Khrushchev’s June 1961 ultimatum was delivered at a summit meeting with John F. Kennedy, the new American President, held in Vienna. The last such summit meeting, between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in May 1960, had been abandoned when the Soviets shot down US Air Force pilot Gary Powers in his U2 plane and the Americans reluctantly conceded that they had indeed been conducting high-altitude espionage (having first denied all knowledge of the matter). In his talks with Kennedy, Khrushchev threatened to ‘liquidate’ Western rights in Berlin if there was no settlement there by the end of the year.
In public Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him, took a hard line, insisting that the West would never abandon its commitments. Washington was standing by its rights under the Potsdam accords and increasing the national defense budget specifically to buttress the US military presence in Germany. But off the record the US was much more accommodating. The Americans—unlike their West German clients—accepted the reality of an East German state, and understood Soviet anxiety over the aggressive tone of recent speeches by Adenauer and, especially, his Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss. Something had to be done to move the German situation forward—as Eisenhower said to Macmillan on March 28th 1960, the West couldn’t ‘really afford to stand on a dime for the next fifty years.’ In a similar spirit, Kennedy assured Khrushchev at Vienna that the United States did not ‘wish to act in a way that would deprive the Soviet Union of its ties in Eastern Europe’: a veiled acknowledgement that what the Russians had, they could hold, including the eastern zone of Germany and the former German territories now in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.87
Shortly after Kennedy returned to Washington, the East German authorities began imposing travel restrictions on would-be emigrants. In direct response, the US President publicly re-asserted the Western commitment to West Berlin—thereby implicitly conceding that the city’s eastern half was in the Soviet sphere of influence. The rate of exodus through Berlin grew faster than ever: 30,415 people left for the West in July; by the first week of August 1961 a further 21,828 had followed, half of them under twenty-five years of age. At this rate the German Democratic Republic would soon be empty.
Khrushchev’s response was to cut the Gordian knot of Berlin. After the Allied foreign ministers, meeting in Paris on August 6th, rejected yet another Soviet note threatening a separate Peace Treaty with the GDR if a settlement was not reached, Moscow authorized the East Germans to draw a line, literally, separating the two sides once and for all. On August 19th 1961 the East Berlin authorities set soldiers and workmen to the task of building a partition across the city. Within three days a rough wall had been erected, sufficient to foreclose casual movement between the two halves of Berlin. Over the ensuing weeks it was raised and strengthened. Searchlights, barbed wire and guard posts were added; the doors and windows of buildings abutting the wall were first blocked off, and then bricked up. Streets and squares were cut in half and all communications across the divided city were subjected to close policing or else broken off altogether. Berlin had its Wall.
Officially the West was horrified. For three days in October 1961 Soviet and American tanks confronted one another across the checkpoint separating their respective zones—one of the last remaining links between them—as the East German authorities tested the Western powers’ willingness to affirm and assert their continuing right of access to the eastern zone in keeping with the original Four-Power Agreement. Faced with the intransigence of the local American military commander—who refused to recognize any East German right to impede Allied movements—the Soviets reluctantly granted the point; for the next thirty years all four occupying powers remained in place, although both sides conceded de facto administration of their respective zones of control to the local German authorities.
Behind the scenes many Western leaders were secretly relieved at the appearance of the Wall. For three years Berlin had threatened to be the flashpoint for an international confrontation, just as it had been in 1948. Kennedy and other Western leaders privately agreed that a wall across Berlin was a far better outcome than a war—whatever was said in public, few Western politicians could seriously imagine asking their soldiers to ‘die for Berlin’. As Dean Rusk (Kennedy’s Secretary of State) quietly observed, the Wall had its uses: ‘the probability is that in realistic terms it would make a Berlin settlement easier.’
The outcome of the Berlin crisis showed that the two Great Powers had more in common than they sometimes appreciated. If Moscow undertook not to raise again the question of Allied status in Berlin, Washington would accept the reality of East German government there and would resist West German pressure for nuclear weapons. Both sides had an interest in stability in central Europe; but more to the point, the US and the USSR were both tired of responding to the demands and complaints of their respective German clients. The first decade of the Cold War had given German politicians on either side of the divide unparalleled leverage over their patrons in Washington and Moscow. Afraid of losing credibility with ‘their’ Germans, the Great Powers had allowed Adenauer and Ulbricht to blackmail them into ‘hanging tough’.
Moscow, which as we have seen had never set out to establish a client state in the eastern zone of occupied Germany, but had settled for it as a second best, devoted inordinate effort to shoring up a weak and unloved Communist regime in Berlin. The East German Communists in their turn were always half-afraid that their Soviet patrons would sell them out.88 The Wall thus offered them some reassurance, although they were disappointed by Khrushchev’s refusal to keep pressing for a Peace Treaty once the barrier had gone up. As for Bonn, the longstanding fear there was that the ‘Amis’ (Americans) would just get up and walk away. Washington had always bent over backwards to reassure Bonn that it had America’s unswerving support, but after the Wall went up and the Americans conspicuously acquiesced, West German anxiety only increased. Hence the reiterated post-Wall promises from Washington that the US would never quit their zone—the background to Kennedy’s famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (sic) declaration in June 1963. With 250,000 troops in Europe by 1963, the Americans like the Russians were clearly there for the duration.
The Wall ended Berlin’s career as the crisis zone of world and European affairs. Although it took ten years to reach formal agreement on issues of access, after November1961 Berlin ceased to matter and West Berlin began its steady descent into political irrelevance. Even the Russians lost interest in it. Curiously, this was not immediately clear to the West. When the Cuba crisis broke out the following year, Kennedy and his advisers were convinced that Khrushchev was engaged in a complex, Machiavellian ploy to achieve his longstanding German objectives. The lessons of 1948-50 had been learned too well.
Just as Truman and Acheson had seen the Korean incursion as a possible prelude to a Soviet probe across the divided frontier of Germany, so Kennedy and his colleagues saw in the missile emplacements in Cuba a Soviet device to blackmail a vulnerable America into giving way in Berlin. Hardly an hour passed during the first ten days of the Cuba crisis without American leaders reverting to the subject of West Berlin, and the need to ‘neutralize’ Khrushchev’s anticipated countermove in the divided city. As Kennedy explained on October 22nd 1962 to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: ‘I need not point out to you the possible relation of this secret and dangerous move on the part of Khrushchev to Berlin.’
The problem was that Kennedy had taken recent Soviet bluster and propaganda all too seriously and built his understanding of US-Soviet relations around the Berlin question. This dramatically ratcheted up the apparent significance of the Cuban crisis, leading Kennedy to inform his closest advisers, on October 19th: ‘I don’t think we’ve got any satisfactory alternatives . . . Our problem is not merely Cuba but it is also Berlin. And when we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for these days. Otherwise, our answer would be quite easy.’ Three days earlier, as the Cuba crisis began, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had summarized his own interpretation of the Soviet actions: ‘I think also that Berlin is very much involved in this. For the first time, I’m beginning really to wonder whether maybe Mr. Khrushchev is entirely rational about Berlin.’
But Khrushchev, as it transpired, was entirely rational about Berlin. The Soviet Union had indeed maintained a vast superiority of conventional forces in Europe and could have occupied West Berlin (and most of Western Europe) any time it wished. But now that the US had sworn to defend the freedom of West Berlin by all means (which in practice meant nuclear weapons), Khrushchev had no intention of risking nuclear war for Germany. As the Soviet ambassador to Washington later observed in his memoirs, ‘Kennedy overestimated the readiness of Khrushchev and his allies to take decisive actions on Berlin, the most aggressive of which really was the erection of the Berlin Wall.’89
With Berlin and Cuba behind them, the superpowers moved with surprising alacrity to resolve the uncertainties of the first Cold War. On June 20th 1963 a ‘hotline’ was established between Washington and Moscow; a month later talks in Moscow between the US, the Soviet Union and the UK culminated in a Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. This Treaty, which came into force on October 10th, had considerable significance for Europe—less because of its overt objectives than on account of the ‘sub-text’ underlying it.
Both great powers wanted to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of China and West Germany and this was the real purpose of the Treaty. The promise of a non-nuclear Germany was the quid pro quo Moscow sought for the Berlin compromise; that is why the Americans were willing to court unpopularity in Bonn in order to achieve it. The West Germans somewhat resentfully accepted the veto on German nuclear arms, just as they had accepted the division of Berlin, as the price of a continued American presence. Meanwhile the Treaty confirmed a distinct shift in Soviet strategic concerns, away from Europe and towards other continents.
The stabilization of the Cold War in Europe, the reduced likelihood of it ever becoming ‘hot’, and the fact that these matters lay largely out of their hands, induced among West Europeans the rather comfortable conviction that conventional armed conflict was obsolete. War, it seemed to many observers in the years 1953-63, was unthinkable, at least on the European continent (it never ceased to be the preferred approach to conflict resolution elsewhere). If war were to come, the huge nuclear arsenals of the Great Powers meant that it must surely entail unimaginably terrible consequences, and could only therefore be the result of a miscalculation on someone’s part. In that case, there would be very little that Europeans could do to mitigate the consequences.
Not everyone saw things thus. Among a minority, the same evidence inspired movements calling urgently for nuclear disarmament. The British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched in London on February 17th 1958. From the outset it was squarely in the great dissenting tradition of British radical politics: most of its supporters were educated, left-leaning and non-violent, and their demands were addressed in the first instance to their own government, not to the Russians or Americans (both major parties in Britain were convinced of the need for an independent British nuclear deterrent, even though it was clear by the end of the 1950s that without American-provided missiles and submarines a British bomb would never reach its target).
At its peak, in 1962, the CND was able to turn out 150,000 supporters on the annual protest march to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. But, together with like-minded disarmament movements in West Germany and the Benelux countries, the British campaign shriveled in the course of the sixties. The anti-nuclear campaigners lost their relevance after the Test Ban Treaty; it was increasingly difficult to claim with any credibility that Europe faced imminent annihilation and new topics had displaced disarmament from the radical agenda. Even in the Soviet Union the dissenting atomic physicist Andrei Sakharov became less concerned with the risk of imminent nuclear holocaust—turning, as he put it, ‘from world wide problems to the defense of individual people’.
There is no doubt that most West Europeans, when they thought about it at all, were in favor of nuclear disarmament: polls taken in 1963 showed that Italians in particular would welcome the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The French were somewhat less overwhelmingly abolitionist, while Germans and British were divided, though with a clear anti-nuclear majority in each case. But in contrast with the fraught debates over disarmament of the 1920s and early ’30s, the nuclear question in Europe did not move people much. It was too abstract. Only the British and (nominally) the French had nuclear arms, and of the others only a minority of the West German political establishment sought them.
Italians, Danes and the Dutch worried on occasion about having US bases on their soil, which exposed them to danger should a war break out. But the weapons that caused concern belonged to the superpowers; and most Europeans, reasonably enough, concluded that they could do nothing to influence decisions made in Moscow and Washington. Indeed, the hard ideological edge of American Cold War rhetoric allowed many in Western Europe, once the immediate threat of nuclear war had passed, to tell themselves that they were in effect doing the United States a favor by allowing it to defend them. And so, rather than engage one way or the other in debates over disarmament, they cultivated their gardens instead.
The most remarkable aspect of the European political scene in the 1950s was not the changes it saw but the changes it didn’t see. The re-emergence in post-war Europe of self-governing democratic states—with neither the means nor the desire to make war, and led by elderly men whose common if unstated political creed was ‘No experiments’—came as something of a surprise. Notwithstanding widespread expectations to the contrary, the political temperature of Western Europe retreated from the fevered heights of the past forty years. With the calamities of the recent past still fresh in public memory, most Europeans turned away with relief from the politics of mass mobilization. The provision of administration and services replaced revolutionary hopes and economic despair as the chief concern of voters (who in many places now included women for the first time): governments and political parties responded accordingly.
In Italy the change was especially striking. Unlike Europe’s other Mediterranean states—Portugal, Spain and Greece—Italy became a democracy, however imperfect, and remained a democracy throughout the post-war decades. This was no small achievement. Italy was a profoundly divided country. Indeed, its very existence as a country had long been a controversial issue—and would become so again in later years. Studies from the early 1950s suggest that fewer than one adult Italian in five communicated exclusively in Italian: many Italians continued to identify above all with their locality or region, and used its dialect or language for most of their daily exchanges. This was especially true of those—the overwhelming majority of the population in those years—who did not have a secondary-school education.
The backwardness of southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, was notorious—Norman Lewis, a British army officer stationed for a while in wartime Naples, was particularly struck by the ubiquitous Neapolitan water-carriers, ‘hardly changed from representations of them in the frescoes of Pompeii.’ Carlo Levi, a doctor from Piedmont exiled by Mussolini as punishment for his activities in the Resistance, recorded similar observations in Christ Stopped in Eboli (first published in 1945), his classic account of life in a remote village in the barren uplands of southern Italy. But the South was not only unchanging, it was poor. A parliamentary enquiry of 1954 revealed that 85 percent of Italy’s poorest families lived south of Rome. A rural laborer in Apulia, in south-eastern Italy, could expect to earn at best half the wages of his counterpart in the province of Lombardy. Taking the average Italian per capita income in that year to be 100, the figure for Piedmont, in Italy’s wealthy North-West, was 174; that of Calabria, in the far South, just 52.
The war had further exacerbated the historical division of Italy: whereas the North, beginning in September 1943, had experienced nearly two years of German rule and political resistance, followed by Allied military occupation of its radicalized cities, the South of Italy had been effectively taken out of the war by the arrival of the Western Allied troops. In the Mezzogiorno the social and administrative structures inherited from the Fascists thus survived unscathed the bloodless coup that replaced Mussolini by one of his generals. To the longstanding political and economic contrasts between northern and southern Italy were now added markedly different memories from the war.
The failure of post-war agrarian reforms led Italian governments to adopt a new approach to the country’s vexed ‘Southern Question’. In August 1950 the Italian Parliament established a Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, a Southern Fund, to channel national wealth to the impoverished South. In itself this was not a new idea—efforts by Rome to address the poverty and hopelessness of the South date back at least to the reform-minded early-twentieth-century governments of Giovanni Giolitti. But previous efforts had achieved little and the only effective solution to the woes of Italy’s southerners was still, as it had been ever since the birth of modern Italy, emigration. However, the Cassa represented a far greater commitment of resources than any previous plan and had a better prospect of success because it fitted rather well into the core political mechanisms of the new Italian republic.
The function of the Republican state was not very different from its Fascist predecessor—from whom it had inherited most of its bureaucrats90: the role of Rome was to provide employment, services and welfare to the many Italian citizens for whom it was the only refuge. Through a variety of intermediaries and holding agencies—some of them, like the IRI (Institute for Industrial Reconstruction) or the INPS (the National Institute for Social Security) founded by Mussolini, others like the ENI (the National Agency for Hydrocarbons) established in the 1950s—the Italian state either owned or controlled large sections of the Italian economy: energy, transport, engineering, chemicals and food-production in particular.
Whatever the economic arguments against such a strategy (its roots lay partly in the inter-war Fascist drive for economic autarky), its social and political advantages were clear. At the beginning of the 1950s the IRI employed 216,000 people; other agencies, including the many branches of the national bureaucracy, employed hundreds of thousands more. Contract work financed by the Cassa—for road-building, urban housing, rural irrigation projects—and state subsidies for new factories and commercial services were another, and a substantial source of centralized funding, as was state employment itself: by the mid-fifties nearly three civil servants in five were from the South, even though that region represented little more than a third of the country’s population.
The opportunities that these arrangements afforded for corruption and crime were considerable; here too the Republic sat squarely in a tradition dating from the early years of the unified state. Whoever controlled the Italian state was peculiarly well placed to dispense favors, directly and indirectly. Politics in post-war Italy, then, whatever their patina of religious or ideological fervor, were primarily a struggle to occupy the state, to gain access to its levers of privilege and patronage. And when it came to securing and operating these levers, the Christian Democrats under Alcide De Gasperi and his successors demonstrated unmatched skill and enterprise.
In 1953, and again in 1958, the CDs secured more than 40 percent of the vote (their share did not slip below 38 percent until the later 1970s). In coalition with small parties of the Center they ran the country without interruption until 1963, when they switched to a partnership with the minority parties of the non-Communist Left. Their strongest support, outside the traditionally Catholic voters of Venice and the Veneto, came in the South: in Basilicata, Molise, Calabria and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Here it was not faith but services that drew small-town voters to the Christian Democrats and kept them loyal for generations. A Christian Democrat mayor in a southern town hall or a representative in the national parliament was elected and re-elected on the promise of electricity, indoor plumbing, rural mortgages, roads, schools, factories and jobs—and thanks to the Party’s monopoly of power, he could deliver.
Christian Democracy in Italy resembled in many respects similar parties in West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. It lacked ideological baggage. To be sure, De Gasperi and his successors took care to meet regularly with the Vatican authorities and never to propose or support any legislation of which the Vatican disapproved; post-war Italy was in some respects the Church’s moment of revenge for the aggressively anti-clerical secularism of the new Italian state after 1861. But the active role of the Catholic Church in Italian politics was smaller than both its defenders and its critics liked to assert. The main vehicle for social control was the powerful central ministries—it is significant that De Gasperi, like the Communist parties of eastern Europe in the immediate post-war years, took care to keep the Interior Ministry securely under CD direction.
In time, the clientelistic system of patronage and favors put in place by the Christian Democrats came to characterize national Italian politics as a whole. Other parties were constrained to follow suit: in cities and districts controlled by the PCI, most notably ‘Red’ Bologna and the surrounding Emilia region, the Communists supported their friends and favored their clients, the urban workers and rural smallholders of the lower Po valley. If there was a difference, it lay in the Communists’ emphasis upon the propriety and honesty of their municipal administration, in contrast with the widely acknowledged corruption and rumored Mafia links of the CD municipalities of the South. In the 1950s, large-scale corruption was a near-monopoly of Christian Democrats; in later decades the Socialists who governed the great cities of the North emulated them with considerable success. In politics, corruption is largely a by-product of opportunity.
Government Italian-style was not especially edifying, but it worked. Over time whole areas of public and civic activity were carved up de facto into political families. Entire industries were ‘colonised’ by the Christian Democrats. Control and employment at newspapers and radio—later television—were divided among Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists; occasional allowance was made for the somewhat shrunken constituency of old-school anti-clerical liberals. Jobs and favors were created and delivered proportional to local, regional and national political clout. Every social organism from trade unions to sporting clubs was split among Christian Democrat, Socialist, Communist, Republican and Liberal variants. From the point of view of Economic Man the system was grossly wasteful, and inimical to private initiative and fiscal efficiency. The Italian ‘economic miracle’ (as we shall see) happened in spite of it rather than because of it.
And yet: Italy’s post-war stability was the crucial permissive condition for the country’s economic performance and subsequent social transformation. And that stability rested, paradoxical as it may appear, upon the rather peculiar institutional arrangements just described. The country lacked a stable majority in favor of any one party or program, and the complicated electoral system of proportional representation generated parliaments too divided to agree on substantial or controversial legislation: the post-war Republican constitution did not acquire a Constitutional Court to adjudicate its laws until 1956, and the much-discussed need for regional autonomy was not voted upon in Parliament until fourteen years later.
Accordingly, as in Fourth Republic France and for some of the same reasons, Italy was in practice run by un-elected administrators working in central government or one of the many para-state agencies. This distinctly un-democratic outcome has led historians to treat the Italian political system with some disdain. The opportunities for graft, bribery, corruption, political favoritism and plain robbery were extensive and they worked above all to the advantage of the virtual one-party monopoly of the Christian Democrats.91 Yet under the umbrella of these arrangements, state and society in Italy proved remarkably resilient in the face of inherited challenges and new ones ahead. When measured by the standards of Canada or Denmark, Italy in the 1950s might appear wanting in public probity and institutional transparency. But by the standards of Italy’s strife-ridden national past, or by those prevailing in the other states of Mediterranean Europe with which the country was traditionally compared, Italy had taken a remarkable leap forward.
In important respects Italy’s condition after the war stood comparison with that of Austria. Both countries had fought alongside Germany and had suffered accordingly after the war (Italy paid a total of $360 million in reparations to the Soviet Union, Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania and Ethiopia). Like Italy, Austria was a poor and unstable country whose post-war renaissance could hardly have been predicted from her recent past. The country’s two dominant political groupings had spent the inter-war years in bitter conflict. Most Austrian Social Democrats had regarded the emergence in 1918 of a truncated Austrian state out of the ruins of the Habsburg Empire as an economic and political nonsense. In their view the German-speaking remnant of the old Dual Monarchy ought logically to have joined its fellow Germans in an Anschluss (union), and would have done so had the self-determination clauses of the Versailles agreements been applied consistently.
The Austrian Left had always received its strongest backing from working-class Vienna and the urban centers of eastern Austria. During the inter-war years of the First Austrian Republic, most of the rest of the country—rural, Alpine and deeply Catholic—voted for the Christian Socials, a provincial and conservative party suspicious of change and outsiders. Unlike the Social Democrats, the Christian Socials had no pan-German urge to be absorbed into an urban and mostly Protestant Germany. But nor did they have any sympathy for the Social Democratic policies of the Viennese workers’ movement; in 1934 a coup engineered by the Right destroyed the Social Democrats’ bastion in ‘Red Vienna’ and with it Austrian democracy. From 1934 until the Nazi invasion Austria was ruled by an authoritarian clericalist regime in which the Catholic party exercised a monopoly of power.
The legacy of Austria’s first, unhappy experience with democracy lay heavily on the post-war Republic. The Christian Socials, reborn as the Austrian People’s Party, boasted proudly of their opposition in 1938 to the German takeover; but they were conspicuously silent on their singular contribution to the destruction of Austrian democracy just four years earlier. The Socialists, as the Social Democrats were now known, could reasonably claim to have been the victims twice over: first of the civil war in 1934 and then at the hands of the Nazis. What this obscured, however, was their erstwhile enthusiasm for the Anschluss. Dr Karl Renner, the Socialist leader and first president of the independent Republic established by the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, had maintained his principled enthusiasm for a union of Austria and Germany as late as 1938.
Both parties thus had an interest in putting the past behind them—we have seen what became of initial attempts at de-Nazification in post-war Austria. The Socialists were the majority party in Vienna (which comprised one-quarter of the country’s population), while the People’s Party had a lock on the allegiance of voters in the countryside and small towns of the Alpine valleys. In political terms the country was divided almost exactly in half: in the elections of 1949 the People’s Party outpolled the Socialists by just 123,000 votes; in 1953 the Socialists led by 37,000; in 1956 the People’s Party again won, by 126,000 votes; in 1959 the result favored the Socialists, by 25,000 votes; and in 1962 it was reversed yet again, with the Peoples Party winning by a mere 64,000 votes in a total of over four and a quarter million.
These uniquely narrow margins recalled the similarly close elections of the inter-war Republic. Catholic Austria and Socialist Austria thus faced the renewed prospect of parliamentary politics degenerating into a cultural civil war. Even with the help of a third party—the Liberals, who depended to an embarrassing extent on the vote of ex-Nazis, and whose vote in any case fell steadily at each election—neither Austrian party could hope to form a stable government, and any controversial legislation would risk resurrecting bitter memories. The prognosis for Austrian democracy was not promising.
Yet Austria not only succeeded in avoiding a re-run of its history, but managed in a short space of time to repackage itself as a model Alpine democracy: neutral, prosperous and stable. In part this was due to the uncomfortable proximity of the Red Army, occupying Lower Austria until 1955 and thence withdrawn just a few kilometers to the east—a reminder that Austria’s neighbors now included three Communist states (Yugoslavia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) and that the country’s vulnerable location made it prudent to pursue conciliatory and uncontentious policies at home and abroad. In addition, the Cold War assigned Austria an identity by association—as Western, free, democratic—that it might have been hard put to generate from within.
But the main source of Austria’s successful post-war political settlement lay in the widely acknowledged need to avoid ideological confrontations of the sort that had torn the country apart before the war. Since Austria had to be—there could be no question after 1945 of annexing it to its German neighbor—its political communities would have to find a way to co-exist. The solution on which the country’s leaders settled was to eliminate the very possibility of confrontation by running the country in permanent tandem. In politics, the two major parties agreed to collaborate in office: from 1947 to 1966 Austria was governed by a ‘Grand Coalition’ of Socialists and People’s Party. Ministries were carefully divided up, with the People’s Party typically providing the Prime Minister, the Socialists the Foreign Minister and so on.
In public administration—which in post-war Austria comprised all public services, most of the media and much of the economy, from banking to logging—a similar division of responsibilities was reached, known as Proporz. At almost every level jobs were filled, by agreement, with candidates proposed by one of the two dominant parties. Over time this system of ‘jobs for the boys’ reached deep into Austrian life, forming a chain of interlocking patrons and clients who settled virtually every argument either by negotiation or else through the exchange of favors and appointments. Labor disputes were handled by arbitration rather than confrontation, as the bi-cephalous state sought to head off dissent by incorporating contending parties into its shared system of benefits and rewards. The unprecedented prosperity of these years allowed the Grand Coalition to paper over disagreements or conflicts of interest and, in effect, purchase the consensus on which the country’s equilibrium rested.
Some groups in Austrian society were inevitably left out—small shopkeepers, independent artisans, isolated farmers, anyone whose work or awkward opinions placed them outside the grid of allocated benefits and positions. And in districts where one or other side had an overwhelming advantage, proportionality would sometimes be ignored in favor of a monopoly of posts and favors for members of that party. But the pressure to avoid confrontation usually triumphed over local self-interest. Just as Austria’s newfound neutrality was enthusiastically adopted as the country’s identity tag, displacing awkward memories of more contentious identities from the past—‘Habsburg’, ‘German’, ‘Socialist’, ‘Christian’—so the post-ideological (indeed post-political) implications of government-by-coalition and administration-by-Proporz came to define Austrian public life.
At first sight this would seem to distinguish the Austrian solution to political instability from the Italian variant; after all, the major political cleavage in Italy separated Communists from Catholics, a juxtaposition that hardly suggests the description ‘post-ideological’.92 But in fact the two cases were quite similar. The singular quality of Togliatti and his party was the importance they attached, throughout the post-war decades, to political stability: to the preservation and strengthening of the institutions of democratic public life, even at a cost to the Communists’ own credibility as the revolutionary vanguard. And Italy, too, was administered through a system of favors and jobs that bore a certain resemblance to Proporz, albeit skewed heavily to the advantage of one side.
If Italy paid a price for political stability in an ultimately intolerable level of public corruption, the cost to Austrians was less tangible but just as pernicious. A Western diplomat once described post-war Austria as ‘an opera sung by the understudies’, and the point is well taken. As a result of the First World War Vienna lost its raison d’être as an imperial capital; in the course of Nazi occupation and the Second World War the city lost its Jews, a significant proportion of its most educated and cosmopolitan citizens.93 Once the Russians left in 1955, Vienna lacked even the louche appeal of divided Berlin. Indeed, the measure of Austria’s remarkable success in overcoming its troubled past was that to many visitors its most distinctive feature was its reassuringly humdrum quality.
Behind the tranquil appeal of an increasingly prosperous ‘Alpine Republic’, however, Austria too was corrupt in its own way. Like Italy, it won its newfound security at the price of a measure of national forgetting. But whereas most other European countries—Italy especially—could boast at least a myth of national resistance to the occupying Germans, Austrians could not plausibly put their wartime experience to any such service. And unlike the West Germans, they had not been constrained to acknowledge, at least in public, the crimes they had committed or allowed. In a curious way Austria resembled East Germany, and not only in the rather monotonously bureaucratic quality of its civic facilities. Both countries were arbitrary geographical expressions whose post-war public life rested on a tacit agreement to fabricate for common consumption a flattering new identity—except that the exercise proved considerably more successful in the Austrian case.
A reform-minded Christian Democrat party, a parliamentary Left, a broad consensus not to press inherited ideological or cultural divisions to the point of political polarization and destabilization, and a de-politicized citizenry; these were the distinctive traits of the post-World War Two settlement in Western Europe. In various configurations the Italian or Austrian pattern can be traced almost everywhere. Even in Scandinavia there was a steady descent from the high point of political mobilization reached in the mid-1930s: the annual sales of May Day badges in Sweden fell consistently from 1939 to 1962 (with a brief blip at the end of the war) before rising again with the enthusiasms of a new generation.
In the Benelux countries the various constitutive communities (Catholics and Protestants in Holland, Walloons and Flemings in Belgium) had long been organized into separate community-based structures—zuilen or pillars—that encompassed most human activities. Catholics in predominantly Protestant Holland not only prayed differently and attended a different church from their Protestant fellowcitizens. They also voted differently, read a different newspaper and listened to their own radio programmes (and in later years watched different television channels). Of Dutch Catholic children in 1959, 90 percent attended Catholic elementary schools; 95 percent of Dutch Catholic farmers in that same year belonged to Catholic farmers’ unions. Catholics traveled, swam, cycled and played football in Catholic organizations; they were insured by Catholic societies, and when the time came they were of course buried separately as well.
Similar lifelong distinctions shaped the routines of Dutch-speakers in northern Belgium and marked them off absolutely from the French-speakers of Wallonia, even though in this case both communities were overwhelmingly Catholic. In Belgium, though, thepillars defined not just linguistic communities but also political ones: there were Catholic unions and Socialist unions, Catholic newspapers and Socialist newspapers, Catholic radio channels and Socialist radio channels—each in turn divided into those serving the Dutch-speaking community and those serving French-speakers. Appropriately enough, the smaller Liberal tendency in both countries was less emphatically communitarian.
The experience of war and occupation, and the memory of contentious civic divisions in earlier decades, encouraged a greater tendency towards cooperation across these communitarian divides. The more extreme movements, notably the Flemish nationalists, were discredited by their opportunistic collaboration with the Nazis; and in general the war served to diminish people’s identification with the established political parties, though not with the community services associated with them. In both Belgium and the Netherlands a Catholic Party—the Christian Social Party in Belgium, the Catholic People’s Party in the Netherlands—established itself as a fixture in government from the late 1940s until the late sixties and beyond.94
The Catholic parties of the Benelux countries were moderately reformist in rhetoric and functioned very much like Christian Democrat parties elsewhere—to protect the interests of the Catholic community, colonize government at every level from state to municipality, and make provision through the state for the needs of their broad social constituency. Except for the reference to religion this description also fits the main opposition parties—the Labour Party in the Netherlands and the Belgian Workers’ (later Socialist) Party. Both of these approximated more closely to the northern European model of a trade union-based labor movement than to the Mediterranean socialist parties with their more radicalised heritage and frequently anti-clerical rhetoric, and they evinced only limited discomfort in competing for power (and sharing its spoils) with the Catholics.
It was this distinctive post-war mix of self-sustaining cultural communities and reformist parties of the left- and right-center that established political equilibrium in the Low Countries. It had not always been thus. Belgium especially had seen serious political violence in the 1930s when the Flemish separatists and Léon Degrelle’s Fascist Rexistes had between them threatened the parliamentary regime, and the country would experience a new and even more disruptive bout of inter-community strife beginning in the 1960s. But the old political and administrative elites (and local Catholic hierarchy), whose rule had been briefly threatened in 1945, regained their power while allowing considerable latitude for welfare and other reforms. The pillars thus survived into the 1960s—anachronistic echoes of a pre-political age that lasted just long enough to serve as cultural and institutional stabilizers during a period of hectic economic transformation.
The most dramatic instance of political stabilization in post-war Europe, and certainly the most important, is also in retrospect the least surprising. By the time it joined NATO in 1955, the Federal Republic of [West] Germany was already well on the way to theWirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) for which it liked to be known. But the Bonn Republic was even more noteworthy for its success in wrong-footing the many observers in both camps who had anticipated the worst. Under Konrad Adenauer’s direction West Germany had navigated safely between the Scylla of neo-Nazism and the Charybdis of philo-Soviet neutralism, and was anchored securely within the Western alliance, despite the misgivings of critics at home and abroad.
The institutions of post-war Germany were deliberately shaped so as to minimize the risk of a re-run of Weimar. Government was decentralized: primary responsibility for administration and the provision of services was devolved upon the Länder, the regional units into which the country was divided. Some of these, like Bavaria or Schleswig-Holstein, corresponded to once-independent German states that had been absorbed into Imperial Germany in the course of the nineteenth century. Others, like Rhineland-Westphalia in the north-west, were administrative conveniences that combined or bisected older territorial units.
West Berlin became a Land in 1955 and was duly represented in the Bundesrat, the Upper House where the regions’ delegates sat (although its deputies in the directly elected Lower House, the Bundestag, could not vote in plenary sessions). The powers of the central government were on the one hand considerably restricted when compared to those of its predecessors—the Western Allies blamed the rise of Hitler upon the Prussian tradition of authoritarian government and set out to prevent any recurrence. On the other hand, the Bundestag could not casually unseat a Chancellor and his government once elected; to do so they were obliged to have ready in advance a candidate for the succession with sufficient parliamentary votes to assure his success. The purpose of this constraint was to prevent the kind of serial political instability and weak government that had characterized the Weimar Republic’s last years; but it also contributed to the longevity and authority of strong Chancellors like Konrad Adenauer, and after him Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl.
This concern to deflect or contain conflict shaped the whole public culture of the Bonn Republic. ‘Social market’ legislation was aimed at reducing the risk of labor conflicts or the politicization of economic disputes. Under a Co-Determination Law of 1951, large firms in the heavy industries of coal, steel and iron were obliged to include employee representatives on their supervisory boards, a practice that was later extended to other sectors and smaller businesses. The Federal Government and the Länder were active in many economic sectors; and, despite objecting in principle to nationalized monopolies, the Christian Democratic-run state of the fifties owned or controlled 40 percent of all coal and iron production, two-thirds of electricity-generating plants, three quarters of aluminium manufacturing and, crucially, a majority of German banks.
The decentralization of power, in other words, did not mean hands-off government. By maintaining an active economic presence either directly or indirectly (through holding companies), West German regional and national governments were in a position to encourage policies and practices conducive to social peace as well as private profit. Banks, acting as intermediaries between government and the businesses on whose boards bankers typically sat, played a crucial role. Older German economic practices returned, notably price-setting and consensual market-sharing. At the local level especially there had been very little stripping out of Nazi-era bureaucrats, businessmen or bankers, and by the later 1950s much of the West German economy was run in a manner that would have been familiar to the giant trusts and cartels of earlier decades.
This de facto corporatism was not perhaps what its American overseers had in mind for the new German republic—trusts and their powers were widely believed to have contributed to the rise of Hitler and were anyway inimical to the free market. Had the economist Ludwig Erhard—Adenauer’s longtime minister of economic affairs—got his way, the West German economy and with it West German social relations might have looked quite different. But regulated markets and close government-business relations sat comfortably in the Christian Democratic schema, both on general social principles and from pragmatic calculation. Trade unions and business groups cooperated for the most part—the economic cake grew fast enough in these years for most demands to be accommodated without conflict.
The Christian Democrat Union ruled without interruption from the first FRG elections in 1949 until 1966; until Konrad Adenauer resigned in 1963 at the age of 87, he had unbroken charge of the affairs of the Bonn Republic. There were various reasons why the CDU, with Adenauer as Chancellor, enjoyed such a long period of continuous power. One was the strong position of the Catholic Church in post-war West Germany: with the predominantly Protestant regions of Brandenburg, Prussia and Saxony now in Communist hands, Catholics represented just over half the West German population. In Bavaria, where conservative Catholics constituted the overwhelming majority of the voters, the local Christian Social Union had an impregnable power base and used it to secure for itself a permanent place as junior coalition partner in the Adenauer governments.
Adenauer himself was old enough to remember the early years of the Wilhelminian Empire when the Catholic Church had been the target of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf ; he was wary of profiting excessively from the new balance of forces and thereby risking renewed conflict around the relations of church and state, especially in the aftermath of the German churches’ distinctly un-heroic record under the Nazis. From the outset, therefore, he sought to make of his party a nationwide Christian electoral vehicle rather than an exclusively Catholic one, emphasizing the socially ecumenical appeal of Christian Democracy. In this he was distinctly successful: the CDU/CSU only narrowly beat the Social Democrats in the first elections of 1949, but by 1957 their vote had almost doubled and the winners’ share of the turnout topped 50 percent.
A related reason for the success of the CDU/CSU alliance (between them the two parties would always henceforth secure 44 percent or more of the national vote) was that, like the Christian Democrats in Italy, it appealed to a broad electorate. The Bavarian Christian Socials, like their homologues in the Low Countries, had a restricted appeal, attracting votes from a conservative, church-going community in a single region. But Adenauer’s CDU, though traditionally conservative in cultural matters—in many smaller towns and rural communities local CDU activists allied with the Catholic Church and other Christian groups to control and censor cinema programs, for example—was otherwise quite ecumenical: particularly in social policy.
In this way, Germany’s Christian Democrats established a trans-regional, cross-denominational base in German politics. They could count on votes from the countryside and the towns, from employers and from workers. Whereas the Italian Christian Democrats colonized the state, in Germany the CDU colonized the issues. On economic policy, on social services and welfare, and especially on the still sensitive topics of the East-West divide and the fate of Germany’s many expellees, the CDU under Adenauer was firmly entrenched as an umbrella party of the majority center—a new departure in German political culture.
The chief victim of the CDU’s success was the Social Democratic Party, the SPD. On the face of things, the SPD ought to have been better placed, even allowing for the loss of traditionally Socialist voters in northern and eastern Germany. Adenauer’s anti-Nazi record was spotty: as late as 1932 he had believed that Hitler could be brought to behave responsibly, and he was perhaps rather fortunate to have been an object of Nazi suspicion both in 1933 (when he was ousted from his post as mayor of Cologne) and again in the last months of the war when he was briefly imprisoned as an opponent of the regime. Without these points to his credit it is doubtful whether the Western Allies would have sponsored his rise to prominence.
The Socialist leader Kurt Schumacher, on the other hand, had been a resolute anti-Nazi from the outset. In the Reichstag on February 23rd 1932 he had famously denounced National Socialism as ‘a continuous appeal to the inner swine in human beings’, unique in German history in its success in ‘ceaselessly mobilizing human stupidity.’ Arrested in July 1933 he spent most of the next twelve years in concentration camps, which permanently damaged his health and shortened his life. Gaunt and stooped, Schumacher, with his personal heroism and his unswerving insistence after the war on Germany’s obligation to acknowledge its crimes, was not just the natural leader of the Socialists but the only national politician in postwar Germany who might have provided his fellow Germans with a clear moral compass.
But Schumacher, for all his many qualities, was curiously slow to grasp the new international regime in Europe. Born in Kreisstadt, in Prussia, he was reluctant to abandon the prospect of a united, neutral Germany. He disliked and distrusted Communists and had no illusions about them; but he seems seriously to have believed that a demilitarized Germany would be left in peace to determine its fate, and that such circumstances would be propitious for the Socialists. He was thus virulently opposed to Adenauer’s Western orientation and his apparent willingness to countenance an indefinite division of Germany. For the Socialists, the restoration of a sovereign, unified and politically neutral Germany must take precedence over all international entanglements.
Schumacher was particularly aroused by Adenauer’s enthusiasm for the project of West European integration. In Schumacher’s view, the 1950 Schuman Plan was intended to produce a Europe that would be ‘conservative, capitalist, clerical and dominated by cartels.’ Whether or not he was altogether mistaken is besides the point here. The trouble was that Schumacher’s Social Democrats had nothing practical to offer instead. By combining their traditional socialist program of nationalizations and social guarantees with the demand for unification and neutrality they did respectably in the first FRG elections of 1949, receiving 29.2 percent of the vote and the support of 6,935,000 voters (424,000 less than the CDU/CSU). But by the mid-fifties, with West Germany firmly tied into the Western Alliance and the incipient project of European union, and with the Socialists’ doom-laden economic prophecies demonstrably falsified, the SPD was stymied. In the elections of 1953 and 1957 the Socialist vote increased only slightly and their share of the electorate stagnated.
Only in 1959, seven years after Schumacher’s premature death, did a new generation of German Socialists formally abandon the party’s seventy-year-old commitment to Marxism and make a virtue of the necessity of compromise with West German reality. The function of Marxism in post-war German socialism had only ever been rhetorical—the SPD had ceased to harbor genuinely revolutionary ambitions by 1914 at the latest, if indeed it ever really had any. But the decision to relinquish the ageing formulas of Socialist maximalism also released Germany’s Socialists to adapt the substance of their thinking. Although many remained unhappy with Germany’s role in the new European Economic Community, they did reconcile themselves both to Germany’s participation in the Western Alliance and to the need to become a cross-class Volkspartei—rather than rely on their working-class core—if they were ever seriously to challenge Adenauer’s monopoly of power.
In due course the SPD reformers were successful: the improvement in the Party’s performance at the elections of 1961 and 1965 led to a ‘grand’ coalition government in 1966 with the Social Democrats, now led by Willy Brandt, in office for the first time since Weimar days. But they would pay an ironic price for this improvement in their prospects. So long as Germany’s Social Democrats maintained their principled opposition to most of Adenauer’s policies, they contributed inadvertently to the political stability of the West German Republic. The Communist Party had never done well in the FRG (in 1947 it received just 5.7 percent of the vote, in 1953 2.2 percent, and in 1956 it was banned by the West German Constitutional Court). The SPD thus had a monopoly on the political Left and absorbed within itself whatever youthful and radical dissent there was at the time. But once it joined the Christian Democrats in office and adopted a moderate and reformist agenda, the SPD lost the allegiance of the far Left. A space would now open upoutside parliament for a new and destabilizing generation of political radicals.
West Germany’s political leaders did not need to worry about the rise of a direct successor to the Nazis, since any such party was explicitly banned under the Basic Law of the Republic. There were, however, many millions of former Nazi voters, most of them divided among the various parties of the mainstream. And there was now an additional constituency: the Vertriebene—ethnic Germans expelled from East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Of the approximately thirteen million German expellees, nearly nine million had initially settled in the western zones; by the mid-1960s, with the steady flow of refugees west through Berlin, a further 1.5 million Germans expelled from the eastern lands had arrived in West Germany.
Predominantly small farmers, shopkeepers and businessmen, the Vertriebene were too numerous to ignore—as ‘ethnic Germans’ (Volksdeutsche) their rights as citizens and refugees were enshrined in the 1949 Basic Law. In the early years of the Republic they were more likely than other Germans to be without proper housing or employment, and they were strongly motivated to turn out at elections, their politics shaped by one issue above all others: the right of return to their land and property in the countries of the Soviet bloc, or, failing that, the claim to compensation for their losses.
In addition to the Vertriebene there were the many millions of war veterans—even more after Khrushchev agreed to return the remaining POWs in 1955. Like the expellees, the war veterans and their spokesmen saw themselves above all as the unjustly abused victims of the war and the post-war settlement. Any suggestion that Germany, and especially the German armed forces, had behaved in ways that precipitated or justified their suffering was angrily dismissed. The preferred self-image of Adenauer’s Germany was that of a victim thrice over: first at Hitler’s hands—the huge success of films like Die Letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954), about a female doctor resisting the Nazis, or Canaris (1955) helped popularize the notion that most good Germans had spent the war resisting Hitler; then at the hands of their enemies—the bombed-out cityscapes of post-war Germany encouraged the idea that on the home front as in the field, Germans had suffered terribly at the hands of their enemies; and finally thanks to the malicious ‘distortions’ of post-war propaganda, which—it was widely believed—deliberately exaggerated Germany’s ‘crimes’ while downplaying her losses.
In the early years of the Federal Republic there were some indications that these sentiments might translate into a significant political backlash. Already at the 1949 elections 48 parliamentary seats—three times as many as the Communists and almost as many as the Free Democrats—went to various populist parties of the nationalist Right. Once refugees were permitted to organize politically there emerged the ‘Bloc of Expellees and Disenfranchised’: in local elections in Schleswig-Holstein (formerly a rural stronghold of the Nazi Party) the ‘Bloc’ won 23 percent of the vote in 1950. The following year, in nearby Lower Saxony, a Sozialistische Reichspartei—appealing to a similar constituency—scored 11 percent. It was with this by no means insignificant constituency in mind that Konrad Adenauer took great care to avoid direct criticisms of the recent German past, and explicitly blamed the Soviet Union and the Western Allies for Germany’s continuing problems, especially those resulting from the Potsdam accords.
To assuage the demands of refugees and their supporters, Adenauer and the CDU kept a hard line towards the East. In international relations Bonn insisted that Germany’s 1937 frontiers remain legally in force until a final Peace Conference. Under the Hallstein Doctrine propounded in 1955, the Federal Republic refused diplomatic relations with any country that recognized the GDR (and thereby implicitly denied Bonn’s claim under the 1949 Basic Law to represent all Germans). The only exception was the Soviet Union. Bonn’s rigidity was demonstrated in 1957 when Adenauer broke off diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia after Tito recognized East Germany. For the next ten years Germany’s relations with eastern Europe were effectively frozen.
In domestic affairs, in addition to devoting considerable resources to helping the refugees, returning prisoners and their families integrate into West German society, the governments of the nineteen-fifties encouraged a distinctly uncritical approach to Germany’s recent past. In 1955 the Foreign Ministry formally protested against the showing at that year’s Cannes Film Festival of Alain Resnais’s documentary Night and Fog. With the Federal Republic about to enter NATO as a full partner the film could harm West Germany’s relations with other states: in the words of the official protest it ‘would disturb the international harmony of the festival by its emphatic reminder of the painful past.’ The French government duly complied and the film was withdrawn .95
This was no momentary aberration. Until 1957 the West German Ministry of the Interior banned any screenings of Wolfgang Staudte’s (East German) film of Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan (‘Man of Straw’, 1951)—objecting to its suggestion that authoritarianism in Germany had deep historical roots. This might seem to confirm the view that post-war Germany was suffering from a massive dose of collective amnesia; but the reality was more complex. Germans did not so much forget as selectively remember. Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and had been properly punished.
In the course of a series of amnesties, hitherto-imprisoned war criminals were steadily released back into civilian life. Meanwhile, most of the worst German war crimes—those committed in the East and in the camps—were never investigated. Although a Central Office of Land Justice Departments was set up in Stuttgart in 1956, local prosecutors studiously failed to pursue any investigations until 1963, when Bonn began to pressure them to do so—and to greater effect after 1965, when the Federal Government extended the twenty-year statute of limitations on murder.
Adenauer’s own attitude to these matters was complicated. On the one hand he clearly felt that a prudent silence was better than a provocative public recital of the truth—Germans of that generation were too morally compromised for democracy to work, except at this price. Anything else risked a right-wing revival. Unlike Schumacher, who spoke publicly and movingly of the sufferings of the Jews at German hands, or the German President Theodor Heuss, who declared at Bergen-Belsen in November 1952 that ‘Diese Scham nimmt uns niemand ab,’96 Adenauer said very little on the subject. Indeed, he only ever spoke of Jewish victims, never of German perpetrators.
On the other hand, he acknowledged the irresistible pressure to make restitution. In September 1952 Adenauer reached agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett to pay to Jewish survivors what would amount, through the years, to over DM100 billion. In making this agreement Adenauer ran some domestic political risk: in December 1951, just 5 percent of West Germans surveyed admitted feeling ‘guilty’ towards Jews. A further 29 percent acknowledged that Germany owed some restitution to the Jewish people. The rest were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’ When the restitution agreement was debated in the Bundestag on March 18th 1953, the Communists voted against, the Free Democrats abstained and both the Christian Social Union and Adenauer’s own CDU were divided, with many voting against any Wiedergutmachung (reparations). In order to get the agreement approved Adenauer depended on the votes of his Social Democratic opponents.
On more than one occasion Adenauer exploited widespread international nervousness over a possible Nazi revival in Germany to nudge West Germany’s allies in the direction he wanted them to move. If the Western Allies wanted German cooperation in European defense, he suggested, then they had better abstain from criticizing German behaviour or evoking troubled pasts. If they wanted to head off domestic backlash, then they should stand firm with Adenauer in rejecting Soviet plans for East Germany. And so forth. The Western Allies understood perfectly well what Adenauer was up to. But they too read the German opinion polls. And so they allowed him considerable leeway, accepting his insistence that only he stood between them and a far less amenable alternative, and his claim to need foreign concessions if he was to head off trouble at home. In January 1951 even Eisenhower was brought to declare that he had been wrong to conflate the Wehrmacht with the Nazis—‘the German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland.’ In a similar vein General Ridgeway, Eisenhower’s successor as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, asked Allied High Commissioners in 1953 to pardon all German officers previously convicted of war crimes on the Eastern Front.
Adenauer’s behaviour did not endear him to his interlocutors—Dean Acheson in particular rather resented Bonn’s insistence on setting conditions before agreeing to join the community of civilized nations, as though West Germany were doing the victorious Western Allies a favor. But on those rare occasions when Washington or London displayed their frustration in public, or whenever there was any suggestion that they might be talking to Moscow behind Bonn’s back, Adenauer was quick to turn the situation to political advantage—reminding German voters of the fickleness of Germany’s allies and of how he alone could be counted upon to look after the national interest.
Domestic support for German rearmament was not especially strong in the 1950s, and the creation of a new West German army, the Bundeswehr, in 1956—a mere eleven years after the defeat—did not arouse widespread enthusiasm. Even Adenauer himself had been ambivalent, insisting—with what was by his lights a modicum of sincerity—that he was responding to international pressure. One of the achievements of the Soviet-backed ‘Peace Movement’ of the early 1950s was its success in convincing many West Germans that their country could be both reunified and secure if it declared itself ‘neutral’. Over a third of adults polled in the early fifties favored a neutral, united Germany under any circumstances, and almost 50 percent wanted the Federal Republic to declare neutrality in the event of a war.
Given that the most likely trigger for a Third World War in Europe was the German situation itself, these aspirations may seem curious. But it was one of the oddities of post-war West Germany that their country’s privileged position as a de facto American protectorate was for some of its citizens as much a source of resentment as of security. And such sentiments were only strengthened when it became clear from the later fifties that a war in Germany might see the use of battlefield nuclear weapons—under the exclusive control of others.
Back in 1956 Adenauer had warned that the Federal Republic could not remain a ‘nuclear protectorate’ forever. When it became clear in the early 1960s that the Western Allies had come to terms with Moscow on this sensitive subject, and that between them they would never allow Germany access to nuclear weapons, he was furious.97 For a brief period it seemed as though the Bonn Republic’s allegiance to Washington might be transferred to De Gaulle’s Paris, with whom it was bound by a common resentment at high-handed Anglo-American treatment and a shared suspicion that the US was wriggling free of obligations to its European clients.
Certainly, the French desire for an independent nuclear deterrent offered a tempting precedent to West Germany, one that De Gaulle skillfully exploited in his efforts to wean Bonn away from its American friends. As De Gaulle phrased it, at the same January 14th 1963 press conference where he responded ‘Non!’ to British membership in the EEC, he ‘sympathized’ with West Germany’s aspirations to nuclear status. And the following week he translated that ‘sympathy’ into a Treaty of Franco-German friendship. But the Treaty, for all its accompanying fanfare, was hollow. Adenauer’s apparent switch of loyalties was disavowed by many in his own party; later that same year his colleagues conspired to bring about his removal from power and reaffirm their loyalty to NATO. As for De Gaulle, he of all people harbored no illusions about the Germans. Six months earlier, in Hamburg, the French President had told a wildly enthusiastic crowd ‘Es lebe die Deutschfranzösiche Freundschaft! Sie Sind ein grosses Volk!’ (‘Long live Franco-German friendship! You are a great people!’); but to an aide he commented, ‘If they really were still a great people, they wouldn’t be cheering me so.’
In any event, however cool their relations, no West German leader dared break with Washington for the sake of an illusory French alternative. Nonetheless, Adenauer’s foreign policy intrigues played to an underlying mood of resentment at Germany’s unavoidable subservience to the US. In retrospect we too readily assume that the post-war Federal Republic enthusiastically welcomed everything American; that the GIs spread across central and southern Germany in these years, with their military installations, bases, convoys, movies, music, food, clothes, chewing gum and cash were universally loved and adopted by the people whose freedom they were there to secure.
The reality was more complicated. Individual American (and British) soldiers were certainly liked, for the most part. But after the initial relief at having been ‘liberated’ (sic) by the West (and not the Red Army) had worn off, other feelings surfaced. The hard post-war years of the Allied occupation contrasted unfavorably with life under the Nazis. During the Cold War some blamed America for putting Germany at the center of ‘its’ conflict with the Soviet Union and exposing the country to risk. Many conservatives, particularly in the Catholic South, attributed the rise of Hitler to the ‘secularizing’ influence of the West and argued that Germany should steer a ‘middle way’ between the triple evils of modernity: Nazism, Communism and ‘Americanism’. And West Germany’s growing prominence on the eastern edge of the Western alliance subliminally recalled Nazi Germany’s self-assigned role as Europe’s cultural bulwark facing down the Asiatic Soviet hordes.
Moreover the Americanising of West Germany—and the omnipresence of foreign occupiers—contrasted revealingly with the sanitized Germany of popular desires, nourished in the early fifties especially on a diet of nostalgic domestic films. These, the so-called ‘Heimat’ (‘homeland’) cinema, were typically set in the mountain landscapes of southern Germany and featured tales of love, loyalty and community, in period or regional costume. Shamelessly kitschy, these hugely popular entertainments were often close copies of Nazi-era films, sometimes with identical titles (e.g. Black Forest Maiden, of 1950, a re-make of a film with the same title from 1933): the work of directors like Hans Deppe, who had flourished under the Nazis, or else younger men like Rudolf Schündler who were trained by them.
The titles—Green Is the Heath (1951), Land of Smiles (1952), When the White Lilacs Bloom Again (1953), Victoria and Her Hussar (1954), The Faithful Hussar (1954), The Gay Village (1955), When the Alpine Roses Bloom (1955), Rosie from the Black Forest(1956) and dozens more in this vein—evoke a land and a people untroubled by bombs or refugees, ‘deep Germany’: wholesome, rural, uncontaminated, happy and blond. And their very timelessness carried comforting intimations of a country and people free not just of occupiers from East and West but clean, too, of guilt and undefiled by Germany’s recent past.
The Heimat films reflected the provinciality and conservatism of the early Federal Republic, a heartfelt desire to be left alone. This demobilization of Germans was perhaps facilitated by the disproportionate presence of women among the adult population. In the first post-war census of 1950, one-third of all West German households were headed by a divorced woman or a widow. Even after the surviving prisoners of war returned from the USSR in 1955 and 1956, the disproportions remained: in 1960 females in the Federal Republic outnumbered males in a proportion of 126:100. As in Britain or France, only more so, family and domestic concerns were uppermost in the public mind. In this world of women, many of them in full-time work and raising children alone98—with terrible private memories of the last months of war and the immediate post-war era—the rhetoric of nation, nationalism, rearmament, military glory or ideological confrontation held little appeal.
The adoption of substitute public goals to replace the discredited ambitions of the past was quite deliberate. As Konrad Adenauer explained to his cabinet on February 4th 1952, when outlining the Schuman Plan’s importance for his countrymen: ‘The people must be given a new ideology. It can only be a European one.’ West Germany was distinctive in that it alone stood to recover its sovereignty by joining international organizations; and the idea of Europe could itself substitute for the void opened up in German public life by the evisceration of German nationalism—as Schuman explicitly hoped that it would.
For the intellectual and political elites, this diversion of energies proved effective. But for the woman in the street, the real substitute for the old politics was not the new ‘Europe’ but the business of surviving—and prospering. At the end of the war, according to the British Labour politician Hugh Dalton, Winston Churchill had expressed the wish that Germany might grow ‘fat but impotent’. And so it did, faster and to greater effect than Churchill could have dared to hope. The attention of West Germans in the two decades after Hitler’s defeat did not need to be diverted away from politics and towards producing and consuming: it moved wholeheartedly and single-mindedly in that direction.
Making, saving, getting and spending became not just the primary activity of most West Germans, but also the publicly affirmed and approved purpose of national life. Reflecting many years later on this curious collective transformation, and on the concentrated zeal with which the citizens of the Federal Republic went about their work, the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger observed that ‘one cannot understand the puzzling energy of the Germans if one resists the idea that they have turned their defects into virtues. They had, in a quite literal sense, lost their minds and that was the condition of their future success.’
Internationally condemned after Hitler’s fall for blindly obeying immoral orders, Germans thus turned the defect of their industrious obedience into a national virtue. The shattering impact of their country’s total defeat and subsequent occupation made West Germans amenable to the imposition of democracy in a way that few could have imagined a decade earlier. In place of the ‘devotion for its rulers’ that Heine had first observed in the German people a century before, Germans in the nineteen-fifties attracted international respect for their similarly wholehearted devotion to efficiency, detail, and quality in the manufacture of finished products.
By older Germans especially, this newfound devotion to building prosperity was unambiguously welcome. Well into the nineteen-sixties, many Germans over sixty years old—which included almost everyone in a position of authority—still thought that life had been better under the Kaiser. But in view of what had followed, the security and tranquility afforded them by the passive routines of daily life in the Federal Republic were more than acceptable as a substitute. Younger citizens, however, were more suspicious. The ‘skeptical generation’—men and women born in the last days of the Weimar Republic, and thus old enough to have experienced Nazism but young enough to bear no responsibility for its crimes—were particularly mistrustful of the newfound German order.
For men like the writer Günther Grass, or the social theorist Jürgen Habermas, both born in 1927, West Germany was a democracy without democrats. Its citizens had vaulted with shocking ease from Hitler to consumerism; they had salved their guilty memories by growing prosperous. In the German turn away from politics towards private accumulation, Grass and others saw a denial of civic responsibilities past and present. They ardently seconded the dissent from Bertold Brecht’s aphorism ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral’ (‘Eating comes first, then morality’) expressed by Ernst Reuter, the mayor of West Berlin, in March 1947: ‘No sentence is more dangerous than “Eating comes first, then morality”. We are hungry and freezing because we permitted the erroneous doctrine which this sentence expresses.’
Habermas would later be closely identified with the search for Verfassungspatriotism (‘constitutional patriotism’), the only sort of national sentiment that he felt it appropriate—and prudent—to encourage in his countrymen. But as early as 1953 he came to public attention for an article in theFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung attacking Martin Heidegger for allowing his Heidelberg lectures to be republished with the original allusions to the ‘inner greatness’ of Nazism. At the time the incident was isolated—it aroused little international attention. But it put down a marker all the same, foreshadowing the bitter interrogations of a later decade.
In his 1978 film The Marriage of Maria Braun, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (born in 1945) acidly dissects the serial defects of the Federal Republic as they appeared to its youthful critics. The eponymous heroine picks up her life in the rubble of defeat, in a Germany where ‘all the men look shrunken’, and coolly puts the past behind her, announcing that ‘it’s a bad time for emotions’. Maria then devotes herself with unflinching single-mindedness to the national preoccupation with making money, at which she proves strikingly adept. Along the way the heroine, her initial vulnerability now encrusted with cynicism, exploits the resources, affections and credulity of men—including a (black) American soldier—while remaining ‘loyal’ to Hermann, her German soldier-husband incarcerated in the Soviet Union and whose wartime exploits are left studiously vague.
All Maria’s relations, achievements and comforts are measured in cash, culminating in a new, gadget-filled house into which she plans to welcome her restored husband. They are about to be reconciled in connubial bliss when they and their worldly goods are blown to pieces by an oversight: an open gas tap (sic) in their ultra-modern kitchen. Meanwhile the radio acclaims hysterically West Germany’s victory in the 1954 football World Cup. For Fassbinder and a coming generation of angrily dissenting West Germans, the newfound qualities of the new Germany in its new Europe—prosperity, compromise, political demobilization and a tacit agreement not to arouse the sleeping dogs of national memory—did not deflect attention from the old defects. They were the old defects, in a new guise.