History does not experiment. What comes to light in historical struggles is always the material and political forces, ideas, programmes, and perspectives that have already been created in each historical constellation. Declaring some conflicts to be tragedy and others farce is certainly justified from the point of view of a world-philosophical interpretation, but doing so leaves out of consideration the reality that all cases involve victors and vanquished, victims and perpetrators, and the closing of one historical path and opening of another. Those who subsequently raise themselves to the status of winners of history are often those who fall far down at the next turn.
History not only was open but it is and remains open. At some points this is especially manifest, namely when those who have so far ruled can no longer do so in the old way, and those who have been ruled no longer want to be ruled as before, and all this suddenly becomes visible. In German history, the 4 and 9 November 1989 were moments of this kind.
Thirty years after 1989, the official political viewpoint is still trying to create the impression that with ‘really existing socialism’ an evil enemy was driven off, one that had come from outside. But had not the idea of creating a completely different society that breaks with capitalist relations in reality been generated by these very same relations?
The ‘old world’ of Europe perished in the First World War. This was the great dramatic event of the twentieth century. Russia’s October Revolution was a social-historical process that logically emerged from the carnage of this war, which claimed the lives of more than ten million people. Well before it the general intellectual expectation of the international labour movement was that the terrible destruction and devastation that a European war would cause would end in a great catastrophe, which would push bourgeois society into the abyss. From this perspective the First World War appeared to be that awaited catastrophe called forth by capitalism and its imperialism from which there could only be one way out: ‘socialism’.
From the communist standpoint, analysis arrived at this conclusion: ‘It was inevitable that the imperialist policy of the “Great Powers” should sooner or later bring them into collision. Indisputably, the game of grab played by all the “Great Powers” was the real cause of the war.’ ‘[…] the war could not fail to be a world war,’ because ‘the Powers were intimately connected by the ties of a world-wide economic system’: the conclusion is ‘Chaos or Communism. The revolution as it develops becomes a world revolution for the same reason that the imperialist war became a world war.’ The history of the twentieth century turned out differently. The world revolution did not occur, and actually existing socialism was at first restricted to the Soviet Union. But the Russian Bolsheviks, once in power, were not ready to roll in their flag and go home; they defended their power with all means. At the behest of Lenin, they abolished Russia’s elected parliamentary representation. And so the forswearing of winning over a numeric majority within one’s ‘own’ population became inscribed in the established Soviet power and thereafter every established power of the communist type. The revolutionary party transformed itself into the omnipresent state party. Actually existing socialism finally took on the form imprinted on it by Stalin and after the Second World War was extended to other countries in Eastern Europe.
Soon after Russia’s October Revolution Rosa Luxemburg, while insisting on the Marxist position of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, nevertheless emphasised that ‘this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class’. And this is precisely what she accused the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, of: the elimination of democracy, which would lead to the ‘smothering of political life in the whole country’ and finally to a dictatorship, not of the proletariat but of ‘a handful of persons’.
Kronstadt – the sea fortress, port, and garrison city near Petersburg, which was Russia’s capital up to 1918 – was home mainly to workers, and thousands of soldiers and sailors were stationed there who had actively supported the October Revolution since 1917. There, in March 1921, the first workers’ uprising broke out against the exclusive rule of Lenin’s party due to the lack of participatory rights: If the goal were rule by the workers then it should be the workers themselves that should rule. The uprising was crushed and declared to be ‘counterrevolution’.
The justification for ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe was always an ideological one. At its core was the promise that the ‘socialist’ world would be fundamentally different from that of capitalism, with a greater level of self-determination for people and a greater productivity of labour. In the framework of the party-type shaped by Lenin and later by Stalin, the former did not just fail to be achieved but a systematic control and suppression of individuals was established. An expression of this was the millions of victims in the system of penal camps.
Despite this, the hope for a better world persisted among a substantial part of the population, which was the condition of socialist construction in the early years, in the expectation of a higher productivity of labour, which would create a better life. Since the 1950s this has been turned around: Direct controls over people were reduced, but the attainment of a higher productivity of labour receded ever further into the distance. If the economic gap between actually existing socialism and the developed countries of the West was reduced up through the 1960s, it then widened in subsequent years. The credibility of the original promises decreased, the longer ‘actually existing socialism’ continued to exist.
The lack of democratic conditions criticised by Rosa Luxemburg remained the main problem for the societies of ‘actually existing socialism’. The first uprising after the constitution of the ‘socialist camp’, as it was then called in the context of the Cold War, broke out on 17 June 1953 in the GDR. Here too it was above all workers who revolted. Since the victory over fascist Germany had occurred only eight years before, with Germany divided and under occupation law, this rebellion was put down by Soviet troops and designated a ‘fascist putsch’.
In June 1956 there were strikes and protests in Poznań, Poland, which caused the Polish party to change its policies. At the end of October in Hungary a popular uprising broke out, which was put down at the beginning of November, once again by Soviet troops. In 1968 the leadership of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia made an attempt to democratically open up society, which Moscow’s leadership answered in the context of an invasion by a part of the troops of the Warsaw Pact.
At the beginning of the 1980s, strikes and unrest spread throughout Poland, but the Soviet leadership no longer felt it could intervene militarily. It had enough problems by then with the invasion of Afghanistan, which had just occurred, and could not be certain of how the situation in Poland might escalate. The Polish government then tried to regain control of the situation by declaring a state of emergency but in the end failed. The state faced strong oppositional organisations in Poland supported by the Catholic Church. The opposition could not take power because the other side could call on the military and its weapons; but they, once again, could not restore their power to what it had been, as their popular support was no longer there. In this situation leaders on both sides agreed to strike a compromise. In summer of 1989, the ‘Round Table’ was a synonym for the handing over of power on the part of the state party of the Communist type to an elected government, first in Poland, then also in other countries, in the end including the GDR.
Although perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union did not produce an amelioration of the situation, it was able to change the foreign policy of the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev. Soviet troops were no longer available to protect the power of the ‘fraternal parties’. The developments in Poland had also shaken the bases of power in the other communist state parties of Eastern Europe. The group of reformers governing Hungary since 1988 wanted to increase the country’s room for manoeuvre within European politics and assumed that German unification would lead to ‘the Russians’ leaving Hungary as well.
The GDR was ‘the jewel in the crown’of the Soviet power structure in Europe. In this respect it was no accident that the Berlin Wall fell after the changes in Poland and Hungary had been completed. But its ‘path to Europe’, that is, away from Soviet dominance, was freed up after the fall of the Wall. For this reason the developments in the GDR in the autumn of 1989 played a key role in further developments in Europe.
Although the head of state, Erich Honecker, still believed after 1 May 1989 that the mass participation in the May Day demonstration in Berlin was in support of his policy, the situation rapidly changed. Municipal elections, held on 7 May 1989, were seen as falsified. This remained an open wound in the SED’s system of rule, which up through the turning point (‘Wende’) could not be healed.
The accelerated wave of exits from the GDR in the summer of 1989 via Hungary and various embassies of the Federal Republic was characterised in a commentary in the party newspaper Neues Deutschland on 2 October, which Honecker had personally asked to have inserted, to the effect that there would be ‘no tears shed’ for those who leave. The answer in the Leipzig Monday demonstrations were cries of ‘we’re staying here’, which were connected to demands for freedom of expression and reforms. From then on public expressions of the popular will became ever stronger in demonstrations. The massive use of force, still used on 4 October against demonstrators at Dresden’s central railway station, and also on 7 October, the national holiday, in the capital Berlin, put a heavy burden on those participating in the scheduled Monday demonstration on 9 October 1989, in Leipzig. Despite the widespread fear of police deployment, around 75,000 people took part, and the use of force was avoided. After this, demonstrating became a de facto right of citizens.
The peaceful demonstration and rally in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989 drew about 700,000 people. With the lawyer Gregor Gysi’s help, Berlin theatres had legally announced the event.
The crack that ran through society was also a crack that ran through the SED and the other parties of the GDR. It is therefore no surprise that German leftists coming from the GDR still cite these events today. They had played a role in those confrontations. The actress Steffie Spira brought the 4 November rally to a close, citing the famous lines of Brecht’s ‘In Praise of Dialectics’, and dialectically reasoned that flag ceremonies at schools should be things of the past and that the Politburo should resign. In her diary notices of those days she writes of the preparation for the public rally: ‘They’re giving me the swan song role’, but only, she adds, ‘because I speak with a bit of humour and quick-wittedness.’ Spira had entered the KPD in 1931 and remained after the ‘Wende’ in the PDS. The standpoint of her criticism was not the rejection of the communist ideal but that the SED leadership had betrayed it, and she spoke at the rally not although, but because, she saw herself as a communist. The highpoint of all the demonstrations had been reached.
The SED leadership under Egon Krenz tried to stabilise the situation, but the political pressure in the country grew. From 8 to 10 November 1989, the SED’s Central Committee met to discuss the situation. The new communication style was seen in the way Politburo member Günter Schabowski, reported in the evening press conference on the results of the CC meeting and answered journalists’ questions. Thus, at the famous press conference of 9 November 1989, carried live by GDR television, Schabowski communicated ‘coincidentally’ that the SED top leadership had decided to pass a provision ‘permitting permanent exit, that is, leaving the Republic’. Then he read out the new travel provisions. When would they become effective? ‘Right now, without delay.’
The news programmes of West German television, which could be seen by most GDR citizens, carried this communication during the news show ‘Tagesschau’ at eight o’clock in the evening, featuring it as its top story. At 8:15 the first Berlin residents began to gather at the border crossings, eight to ten people at Sonnenallee, twenty at Invalidenstraße, and about fifty at Bornholmer Straße. By about 9 o’clock there was already a crowd there; the first people were ‘controlled’ to be allowed into West Berlin at 9:20. At about 10:30 controls were no longer possible due to the size of the onrush. ‘We’re flooding now’, the commander in charge of the Bornholmer Straße crossing, told his superiors.
The responsible Politburo members, ministers, and generals who also took part in the CC meeting were not in any way alarmed and worried as they had been when the wall was built in 1961, but instead they rested at home after the strenuous Central Committee session. The officers on the ground had no orders and decided not to use force, as indeed it had not been used in any of the demonstrations since 9 October. But to open the gates it was not enough that people pushed against them; somebody had to open them. Nevertheless, the Berliners had pushed open the gates without waiting for permission from the authorities. In the ensuing period the ‘we are the people’ became ‘we are one people’. No shot was fired on 9 November 1989. Europe’s post-war order, which had seemed so firmly established, collapsed. Socialism, in the way that it had developed in Europe since 1917, was at an end. It was the wrong answer to the questions posed by actually existing capitalism. Indeed, these questions were not settled but were opened up again in a new way in the 21st century.
An Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance existed between the GDR and the Soviet Union that aimed at ‘eternal’ assistance. Apart from the fact that the governing communists of both countries (of the Brezhnev-Honecker generation) were trying to establish a quasi-religious, transcendental relationship to history, which rested on the basic conception of the irreversibility of a development from ‘capitalism’ to ‘socialism’, this treaty actually also had to have a legal force, since legal formalities of policy were always part of the calculations of communist rule. In the eventful months of 1989/1990 nobody in either the Soviet Union or the GDR cared about this. The lax attitude towards law in general, which was also a characteristic of ‘socialist international law’ and left its stamp on the history of international legal relations within the ‘socialist camp’ from the very start, also determined the approach of the political protagonists of the Wende period. This particularly applies to the representatives of the communist nomenklatura, especially in the Soviet Union. It goes without saying that opponents of the system in the months of the radically changing GDR – and the politicians of other parties who slipped out of the ‘leading role’ of the communist state party and tried to govern the country after the March 1990 elections with a view to bringing the country into a unified Germany – did not accept the ‘law’ established by the communists. The end of the GDR cannot be analysed without considering the context of its coming into being and the particularities of its mode of existence, and without discussing it from the perspective of the politics of Soviet hegemony.
In disregard of the eternity clause, German unification had already been contemplated quite concretely in 1987 or 1988 in Moscow without consulting the GDR leadership, if one is to believe the subsequent autobiographical accounts of leading participants. Now one might object that all of this was simply the turning of the tide away from the assertion of special international and international-law relationships among the countries of actually-existing socialism, which had served Moscow’s control of the Soviet empire, and towards the recognition of general norms of international law, which came down to human rights, civic freedom, liberal democracy, and capitalist market economy, which the protagonists saw as civilisational progress. One might further say that it was not to be expected that a group of communists (the Soviets under Gorbachev) would treat another group (the German communists around Honecker) in an especially accommodating way, considering how Stalin had persecuted Trotsky and Bukharin, or Walter Ulbricht had persecuted Paul Merker in the GDR. Here, however, it was not a question of death and prison but, on the contrary, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev did not have Honecker shot but only wanted to see him pushed out of office. This was succinctly expressed in the much-quoted sentence of Gorbachev in Berlin: ‘He who comes too late is punished by life’. Nevertheless, the liquidation of the Soviet empire had power-political components that were no different from those of its creation: the empire has interests, not friends.
Up to the mid-1980s – Gorbachev’s assumption of office and the beginning of perestroika in the Soviet Union can serve as caesuras – there had been a multiform structure of relations between the states of the Soviet sphere of influence. The structure had been held together multilaterally by the Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact) and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). There was a web of bilateral ‘friendship treaties’, which also had special alliance clauses. Meetings of general secretaries, various department secretaries of the central committees, of prime ministers, of foreign ministers, and other ministers appeared to form a dense network of political coordination. Nevertheless, these relationships were far from having embodied a ‘new type’ of fraternity or creating ‘new forms’.
Since the 1950s a process took place, at first imperceptibly, in which the powers of intervention in other socialist countries that Moscow, as the hegemonic power, had curtailed, and the room for manoeuvre of the ruling ‘new classes’ of some of the other countries grew. Despite the incomparably greater economic, military, and other resources of the Soviet Union, the CPSU leadership had to gradually accept the qualitative equality of the other party leaderships, which had the same ideological, political, and economic claim to power in regard to each state and its international relations. Four factors should be emphasised in this context:
First, Moscow forfeited the ideological power of interpretation; it was not only the confrontations with Tito and Mao and the inner developments in the ‘socialist community’ which contributed to this but also those within the world communist movement. Santiago Carillo, then General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, in his speech at the Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties of Europe in 1976 in Berlin, compared the communist movement with early Christianity and its sufferings. This ‘allowed a connection between scientific communism and a sort of mysticism of victimhood. We became a kind of new church with our martyrs and prophets. For years Moscow, where our dreams began to become a reality, was our Rome. We spoke of the Great Socialist October Revolution as if it were our Christmas. That was our infancy. Today, we have grown up.’ He expressly emphasised ‘that we, communists, have no leadership centre today and are bound to no international discipline’. Erich Honecker had this speech printed verbatim in the GDR because he had promised the West European Eurocommunists he would do so, and because this fitted his attempt to have the SED become the ‘second party’ (as the party of Marx’s and Engels’s country).
Second, the close connection between political power, the ideological power of interpretation, and ownership of the means of production in the hands of the parties had consequences in the individual countries. Not only the institutions of the political system, but also – in view of the introduction of the planned economy and the abolition of authentic market relations – the requisite surrogate institutions that were to fill out the planned-economy systems were different in the different socialist countries. In all Eastern European countries the deficit economy remained the natural mode of existence of the socialist economy, which made Comecon cooperation into regular haggling over scarce goods. Actual integration through multilateral settlements could never be achieved. Scarcities, control over property in the national framework, and differing conceptual positions on planned economy and non-market, that is, contractually stipulated, foreign exchange parities, prevented this. In the mid-1980s, for all countries in the sphere of Soviet domination, including the hegemon itself, cooperation with the West was more lucrative than it was with ‘fraternal countries’. ‘There is a force more powerful than the wishes, the will and the decisions of any of the governments or classes that are hostile to us. That force is world general economic relations, which compel them to make contact with us.’ Lenin said this in 1921 referring to the West’s blockade against Soviet Russia. In 1985 it was clear that the converse also holds.
Third, Soviet positions in foreign and defence policy were, likewise, continually more difficult to implement. If the dogma of the international class struggle was originally an essential factor of the self-legitimation of the communist party leaderships, in the age of détente it had long since lost its binding force. In the area of foreign policy too, the other countries articulated their positions more independently – this also applied to the GDR from the 1980s, especially in its relations to the FRG.
Fourth, still more reticent was the support for the Soviet Union’s Third- World policy. If the GDR still tried to profile its own support for the ‘anti- imperialist struggles’ in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Ethiopia, countries like Poland or Hungary increasingly rejected Soviet policy in this area, which was moreover connected with military conflicts in various parts of the world.
In the manner of a Russian matryoshka doll, the Soviet empire had many forms. Internally, as the smallest matryoshka, there was Russia, which was always treated by the Moscow leadership as a power base. When CPSU First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had the idea of giving the Russian CP its own central committee, as the Ukrainian CP and the CPs of other socialist counties had, this became one of the reasons for his removal in 1964; some political forces in Moscow today use this as an argument for exonerating Russia from the responsibility for the past in the other former Soviet republics and to declare it as, so to speak, the first victim of Bolshevism. The second doll was the Soviet Union in its territorial-political form up to its collapse, which appears in the literature as the so-called ‘inner empire’. Here the Moscow leadership had direct access to all resources and decisions. The third level was the ‘outer empire’ in Eastern Europe, that is, the group of states tied to the Soviet Union and dominated by it, which were independent in the above described sense. Their resources could be commanded only partially by the Moscow leadership, above the heads of the ‘new classes’ in those countries. For Moscow there was the additional problem that it could not derive the hoped for economic benefits from these economically often more highly developed countries. Even if it was possible in individual cases to set certain prices in a way favouring the Soviet Union, nevertheless as a whole the subsidies or costs of keeping the countries within the Soviet sphere of domination surpassed the derived benefits. The fourth doll was the attempt to project Soviet power and Soviet influence in the Third World, that is, to use the countries freed after the collapse of the imperialist colonial systems as a resource in the bloc confrontation with the West. Here the economic cost-benefit calculation was still more problematic for the Soviet Union than it was in Eastern Europe; in the end it was dragged into a number of regional wars. The war and defeat in Afghanistan marks the beginning of the end of Soviet world power ambitions.
If world-revolutionary approaches were central to Soviet foreign policy after 1917 (and the world-revolutionary thinking still customary articulated in the 1970s should not be confused with a world-revolutionary foreign policy in practice), then after 1945 the USSR gradually became something resembling a classic great power with global ambitions, standing in the tradition of Czarist Russia. The victory over Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War, achieved with enormous sacrifices, brought considerable prestige and increased power, and for Russia (in the form of the Soviet Union) the politically and military strongest position in its entire history, now territorially expanded up to the Elbe. Despite its difficult economic basis, the USSR then allowed itself to be drawn into a global contest – the Cold War – with the USA, which was allied to all the other Western powers. The result of the world-power ambitions of the Soviet leaders was a global overreach, which no longer had any relation to economic capacity. The empire was over-extended.
When Gorbachev entered office in 1985 this was the closing balance sheet of the old, Stalinist-influenced leaders (from Stalin through Khrushchev and Brezhnev to Chernenko) and the point of departure for his transformational policy. However, in this he appears to have established a rather pragmatic relationship to the ideological codes of actually existing socialism. Like no other, he had a mastery of the ideological figures of Soviet Communism; this is why he succeeded, from 1985 to 1990, in thwarting all attempts by the orthodox to bring about his removal. But this does not mean that he possessed a true understanding of the extent and depth of the problems facing the Soviet Union. The accusation of ‘betrayal’, which is often raised today inside and outside Russia, is off target. His socialisation in the Stalinist corridors of power is what formed him. He was more cultured and eloquent than all other Soviet party leaders, probably since Trotsky. And he was determined to end not only the Cold War but also the dictatorial aspect of the communist exercise of power. This is where his historical novelty lay. But he apparently knew power in only two forms: as the exertion of force and as court intrigue – not as a factor of rule as such. This clearly led to perestroika in combination with glasnost not creating the consolidation originally intended but only the disintegration not only of communist rule but also of the empire.
The ending of the Cold War would have to be seen as the great and lasting historical achievement of Gorbachev. In the beginning of the 1980s the West German political scientist Ernst-Otto Czempiel developed a layer model of the East-West conflict. He distinguished four levels of conflict: at the lowest level, the original conflict, the contrasting positions on the social, economic, and political order; above this the dilemma of security, that is, insecurity about whether the other side would risk an attack; above this the secondary conflict, the power competition in the Third World; and, finally, the fourth level of derived conflict in the form of the armaments dynamic. Czempiel’s findings, which at first appear surprising, that the level of tension – certainly against ideological expectations – stands exactly in inverse relation to the order of levels: the greatest tension is at the level of the arms race, high tension also exists at the level of Third-World competition, still considerable tension at the level of the security dilemma, and the least tension at the original system level.
It is striking that Gorbachev proceeded exactly according to these levels of tension: first, through far-reaching concessions in disarmament talks with the USA and the NATO states he brought the Soviet Union to an offensive foreign-policy position and thus contributed to an opening of negotiations. The reduction of arms burdens was to be the first way to rein in imperial over- extension. The second was the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the conflicts in the Third World. With the USA and the other parties to the conflicts, agreements were reached to resolve the conflicts in Africa, Central America, Cambodia, and finally in Afghanistan. Both visibly contributed to reducing the security dilemma. In the meantime, Gorbachev had announced, not only in connection with allies in the Third World but also with those in the Eastern European ‘outer empire’, a ‘free choice of the path of development’, in other words the party leaderships in Eastern Europe should themselves derive their legitimation from their respective populations, with Soviet troops no longer available to ensure their power. It is no longer possible today to say to what extent his assurances that the historical decision ‘in favour of socialism’ was irrevocable were the expression of a spectacularly wrong assessment or simply ‘whistling in the dark’. The empire fell apart in the East. With the Charter of Paris in 1990 the original conflict was also laid to rest: human rights, liberal democracy, and capitalist market economy were established according to international law as the common binding values of Europe.
In a systemic sense, the dissolution of the Soviet empire was the second dimension of the fiasco of actually-existing socialism. The globalisation of the world and the generalisation of human rights and fundamental democratic values sealed the fate of the communist project in international relations as well. The separation into a specially created ‘new world’ proved to be unrealisable. What this in the end means for the people in the countries in question is not yet clear. The ongoing peripheralisation of Eastern Central and Southeastern Europe within the European Union is the expression of the fact that the difference in the level of development was not the result of the communist system but has deeper roots. Actually existing socialism can instead be understood as a failed attempt at making up for the historic lag.
Two factors in Gorbachev’s strategy in the 1980s have had especially far- reaching consequences. After the First World War, the slogan of ‘proletarian internationalism’ was the banner under which the Bolsheviks gathered up the Russian earth. Therefore the Russian Empire did not fall apart under the onslaught of nationalism analogously to the way the Habsburg and Ottoman empires had permanently disintegrated. After the Second World War ‘internationalism’ was the ideological foundation for the erection of the outer empire as well as for the extension into the Third World. However, the clear-cut relinquishment of ‘internationalism’ in favour of general human values not only removed from the Soviet area of domination its usual basis in the external forms of the matryoshka but also the inner ones. Already in 1989, the aspirations to independence of Lithuania and Georgia signalled the disintegration of the USSR; in the form of the Chechen War of the 1990s it became evident that this process would not even stop at the Russian Federation. Certainly, a democratic refounding of a greater federation grouped around Russia would have also been thinkable. But for this it was obvious that there were neither the historical and constitutional conditions nor the political will of the national elites.
The other factor was that of nonviolence. The overriding goal of ending the Cold War and the arms race, as well as removing the security dilemma, excluded the use of force against independentist aspirations. The deployment of military force, for example forcibly reclosing the border in the GDR or cracking down on the Lithuanian Parliament would, in Gorbachev’s estimation, have meant not only the end of perestroika but would have destroyed all the results of the détente achieved since 1985. In return, the West promised restraint. During the 1989 Summit in Malta US President Bush senior promised that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakened position. In February 1990, then US Secretary of State James Baker ensured Gorbachev that in return for the Soviets’ agreement to NATO membership for a united Germany ‘there will be a guarantee that NATO will not extend its territory one inch eastward’. It is this promise that Moscow today rightfully regards as having been broken with NATO’s eastward expansion.
Thus Gorbachev’s policy was based on two premises: that the trimming back of the empire could be halted at a definite point, and that after its contraction the Soviet Union would be treated just as much as a superpower as it previously was. Both proved to be illusions. The protagonists in Moscow were not conscious of this in 1989, and they cheerfully carried on their foreign policy of the ‘new thinking’, which became a policy of strategic retreat. In the West, both before and after this time, there was and still is a lack of readiness to recognise Russia as an equal power.
Germany is once again a primary factor of political influence in Europe and the world. The basis of this transformed geopolitical position is Germany’s economic strength, expressed in the high technological level of important export goods in domains such as automobile manufacture, mechanical engineering, and the chemical industry, as well as in a traditionally high export surplus. In 2017 this amounted to 244.5 billion euros, of which the trade surplus with the USA alone amounted to 50 billion euros.
When the Wall fell and German unification was accomplished, many people in both Germanys had hopes for a good future and especially for a peaceful one. Today German troops are stationed in the Hindu Kush, at the Turkish border, and in Africa, performing the tasks of a ‘protection force’ in various provinces of Southeast Europe controlled by NATO or the EU, and German warships are cruising the oceans. Germany is once again Europe’s central power, it dominates the European Union and has once again become a geo-economic power – based on the EU – with global interests. Hopes for a permanently pacified Germany have been dashed. The chatter about ‘more responsibility’ for Germany on the part of the former federal president, of various foreign ministers, and of the current Minister of Defence is aimed at promoting the domestic population’s readiness for war. The anti-Russian campaign underway since 2014 plays a special role in this process.
It is pure propaganda when Western politicians and journalists today assert that the West is only seeking to extend ‘its values’, while Russian President Vladimir Putin only wants to extend his influence territorially in the manner of the nineteenth century. Of course NATO and the European Union represent geopolitical orders. The former is dominated by the US, the second by Germany. Both have been extended to the East up to Russia’s borders. (In this respect, this section could have also been headed ‘The other empire expands again’.) This involves cooperation and competition. From the US point of view, in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an independent Ukraine is the crux of a new geopolitical order in Eastern Europe. Zbigniew Brzeziński, for decades a prominent mastermind of US global strategy, emphasised soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union that an independent Ukraine is ‘the geopolitical focal point for keeping Russia in a weakened position’. This must, he insisted, be a core element of a comprehensive strategy of the US and the West in Eurasia.
Admittedly, the Ukraine is geopolitically tied to the EU. The ‘political’ part of the Association Agreement, which referred to what was at stake in the confrontations around and in the Ukraine at the latest by November 2013, was signed on 21 March 2014 in Brussels and the ‘economic’ part on 27 June 2014. Comparable agreements were signed with Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. The connection of these countries to the EU has by now been contractually established. But they do not have firm assurances of later EU membership. They thus belong to the outer eastern periphery of the EU’s imperial centre, where they are positioned against Russia. After the First World War, Europe’s East – between Germany’s eastern border and the western border of the Soviet Union or Russia and also between the Baltic and the Black Sea – was the West’s cordon sanitaire against the Soviet Union, and after the Second World War that of the Soviet Union against the West; today, once again, these countries are to function as the advance guard of the West against Russia. The expanded NATO manoeuvres in the Baltic, in Poland, and in the Black Sea are the clear expression of this and are endangering peace.
Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has always invoked ‘friendship’ with the US but at the same time enlarged the room for manoeuvre for German foreign policy especially in relation to the US. Programmatically, she has stressed that Germany should emerge strengthened from the financial and euro crisis of 2008 and after. Today it is in a dominant, hegemonic position within the EU. In relation to Russia she has always played the human-rights card but has up to now also cultivated strategic cooperation. In 2014, with the aid of US policy – NATO in a certain sense making available the hard military substructure – the Ukraine was detached from Russia’s sphere of influence and moved to the EU’s, that is, to Germany’s. In turn, Russia took the Crimea, which was greeted in the West by protest, but in the end the West supposed that Russia would be happy to continue to maintain relations with the West, that is, Germany. The subsequent insistence of the Chancellor on sanctions against Russia is symbolically aimed at getting Russia to back down on the issue of Ukraine’s transference to the EU’s sphere of power.
The new European order is a sweeping historic event. Something has been accomplished here, which Germany failed to attain in two world wars. On 11 August 1914, shortly before the beginning of the First World War, Reich Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg wrote regarding German war aims in the East: ‘We regard as very important the “Insurgierung” not only of Poland but also of Ukraine; first, as a means of struggle against Russia; second, because in the case of a favourable outcome of the war, the formation of several buffer states between Russia and Germany and Russia and Austria- Hungary would be advisable, in order to lighten the pressure exerted by the Russian colossus on Western Europe and to push back Russia as far as possible eastward […].’ On its own, Germany was not able to accomplish this through two world wars; with the support of the EU and US/NATO it is now to happen. Here, the words of the Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, uttered at the time of the Ukraine Crisis, acquire a whole symbolism of their own: ‘Always in alliance with our partners. There will never be a German solo action’. Thus it is sufficient if NATO is there in the background. The Ukraine does not even have to be a NATO member to finalise this reorganisation.
The political scientist and Cold War fossil, Christian Hacke, declared shortly after Donald Trump’s electoral victory that, for a conflict with Russia, Germany needs its own capability for ‘escalation dominance’; for, he said, we do not know whether the US under Trump will continue to support the foreign policy Germany has so far conducted. What does ‘escalation dominance’ mean? Behind it there are patterns of thinking derived from the Cold War: There is a conflict, one side increases pressure, the other follows suit, the first party then sharpens it again, etc. One can think of this with non-military means, as both sides have done with the economic and trade sanctions since 2014, or the US and the EU, China, and others currently practice with escalating ‘punitive tariffs’. But it can also be conceived militarily: NATO stations 5,000 personnel in the vicinity of the Russian border, in response Russia moves three additional divisions to its western border, in the East the West installs ‘missile-defence systems’ allegedly serving for defence but which are actually part of an offensive nuclear warfare concept, to which Russia responds stationing missiles in the area of Kalinigrad that can be equipped with nuclear warheads and reach Warsaw or Berlin in a few minutes.
Henry Kissinger, Security Advisor and Secretary of State under US President Richard Nixon, who in the 1970s negotiated the peace accord with Vietnam and the first treaties on strategic nuclear arms limitation, commented that he who escalates must also know how he can extricate himself and de-escalate. This is something that the strategists in the US Senate and those in Brussels in NATO currently do not know in terms of Russia.
To have dominance in escalation means to have the capacity to aggravate the situation without the other side being able to do anything effective about it. The West had this in its Libya War; Russia and China had to look on and do nothing more than protest politically and diplomatically against the breach of international law and the violation of the UN Security Council’s resolution. Military intervention on the side of the Gadaffi regime would have created a confrontation with the US and NATO and – thinking the escalation through to its logical end – the danger of a nuclear war. Conversely, Russia has escalation dominance in the Syria War: the West cannot impede the deployments of Russian and Syrian government troops without provoking an open military confrontation, whose consequence would be nuclear war.
But what does Hacke really want? What escalation dominance of Germany against Russia as a nuclear power does he have in mind? He did not say. Berthold Kohler, one of the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (27 November 2016) let the cat out of the bag: If Trump sticks to his line, the US will leave the ‘defence of Europe’ (meaning the EU) ‘to the Europeans’ to an extent not seen after 1945. Let us leave aside for now that Kohler was situating Nazi Germany’s war against the Soviet Union in the tradition of the ‘defence of Europe’, which the US took over in 1945. The conclusion he drew is that not only are greater expenditures on defence, as well as the ‘revival of obligatory military service’, back on the agenda, but also something ‘that is totally unthinkable for the German brain’: the question of an independent nuclear deterrence capacity against Moscow. For this the French and British arsenals are too weak. This means the German atom bomb. That this was not a gaffe in 2016, but the thinking of a part of those wielding political influence in Germany, became clear at the latest when the newspaper Die Welt recently had Christian Hacke repeat this demand (WELTplus, 29 July 2018).
In Article 3 of the 1990 ‘2+4 Treaty’, the governments of the FRG and the GDR reaffirmed ‘their renunciation of the manufacture and possession of and control over nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. They declare that the united Germany, too, will abide by these commitments.’ ‘The French Republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America’ in turn declared in Article 7 the termination of their ‘rights and responsibilities relating to Berlin and to Germany as a whole’, with the consequence: ‘The united Germany shall have accordingly full sovereignty over its internal and external affairs.’ ‘Accordingly’ means ‘under these conditions.’ With this, German affairs, which were part of the Cold War and of international confrontations since 1945, were in substance definitively regulated. German sovereignty, however, is tied to the renunciation of nuclear weapons and in this sense continues to be conditioned.
Apparently, parts of the political caste in Germany have in the meanwhile begun to sense their own strength again, regarding the ‘2+4 Treaty’ as waste paper that can be flouted. And there it is once again, German arrogance, which led the world into two devastating world wars! However, the idea of a Germany with nuclear weapons is once again a false assessment. In regard to preventing Germany from becoming an atomic power, all the victorious allied forces of the Second World War are once again in the same boot. All four of them.