The Berlin Wall: A Lesson in Geopolitics

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The Berlin Wall: A Lesson in Geopolitics

By Michael Liebig


Fifty years ago, on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was built on orders by Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and East German leader, Walter Ulbricht. Oddly enough, the governments of the United States, Britain and France, which then had the exclusive sovereignty over West-Berlin remained passive. Also, the reaction of the West German government was strangely restrained. Why? The answer leads us to two peculiar geopolitical phenomena: the “Cold War” and the strategic regime of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) among nuclear powers. Fifty years later, these phenomena are not “past history”, but still quite relevant, albeit in a different appearance. Not in Europe, but in the Pacific-Asia area. Today, it’s not Moscow vs. the “West”, but Beijing vs. Washington. It’s not primarily rockets, tanks and aircraft carriers, but money and capital.

The Berlin Wall came as a shock for the public in West and East Germany – and, of course, the Berliners. But there wasn’t much shock outside Germany. On Aug. 13, 1961, I was vacationing with my parents in Holland: the Dutch weren’t particularly agitated. For the Western governments the Berlin Wall was a tactical surprise – hardly a strategic one. The Western intelligence services had known for some time that “something big was up” in Berlin.

And when it happened, John F. Kennedy, British Prime Minister Macmillan and French President de Gaulle shared a basic geopolitical calculation: Did the Berlin Wall infringe on their strategic positions and interests in Berlin and Germany as a whole? Did the Wall change to balance of power in Europe? Based on these geopolitical considerations, their answer was a clear No. Consequentially, their reaction was limited to political and diplomatic rhetoric.

Equally, Khrushchev and Ulbricht had made a geopolitical calculation. By building the Berlin Wall, they didn’t intend to change the balance of power in Europe, but wanted to preserve it. What looked like a Soviet and East German provocation, was really an attempt to preempt a likely collapse of economic and political system in communist East Germany. Until Aug. 13, 1961, roughly two million East Germans had fled to West Germany – mostly via the open border in Berlin (the rest of the inner-German border had been fortified with barbed wire and land mines since the early 1950s). The Wall gave communist East Germany a new lease of life – for another 28 years. In 1989 came the exitus.

The Cold War & “MAD”

The Berlin Wall instantaneously became “the” symbol of the Cold War. What was the Cold War? War means the use of military force, the Cold War was based on the permanent threat to use military force. In essence, the Cold War was a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Russia over the control of continental Europe. This power struggle was inextricably tied to the “German question”, because, in effect, control over Germany meant control over continental Europe. After World War II, neither Washington and its western allies nor Soviet Russia were able to gain control over all of Germany – consequently, the country was divided. That, however, did not end the power struggle, but perpetuated it in the peculiar form of permanently “menacing”, “testing”, “probing” the respective other side – below the threshold of a “hot” war.

Why did this “war” remain “cold”? Since 1945, the United States had nuclear weapons and a bomber fleet to carry them distant targets. In 1949, Soviet Russia exploded its first nuclear bomb, and in 1957 “Sputnik” demonstrated that Russia could build intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the USA. Thus, a balance of nuclear terror – “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) – between the United States and Soviet Russia was established. Within the context of the nuclear MAD regime, the inner-German border became the “frontline” of military confrontation below the threshold of actual warfare. At no point during the Cold War, did the Soviet Russian leadership have the strategic intention to militarily conquer Western Europe. And the same is true, in reverse, for the Americans and their NATO allies. Doing that would have involved the risk of nuclear war in a MAD setting – for both sides.

What About the Ideological Struggle?

Was the Cold War an ideological struggle between two “systems”, a struggle of liberty and democracy vs. communist totalitarianism? It was that too, of course. But first of all, it was a geopolitical struggle.

The Soviet leadership – up to the late 1980s – was determined to preserve its territorial gains in Central-Eastern Europe resulting from its victory in World War II. That was the geopolitical imperative. For Moscow, the establishing of a system of communist states in Central-Eastern Europe – the “communist bloc” – was not an ideological goal in itself, but seen as most effective way to control the peoples there and secure the Russian motherland by a “glacis” of client states. In order to preserve control over its sphere of control in Central-Eastern Europe, the Soviet Russian leadership acted with ruthless brutality – East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968. And the West let it happen, except issuing diplomatic protests.

Similarly, but in reverse, Moscow “dumped” the Greek communists in the 1946-49 Greek Civil War. For the Soviet leadership, its ideological allies in the West – the communist parties in western Europe – were mere instruments of its foreign policy. They were used as a lever to serve Soviet Russia’s interests and to build up channels of influence abroad.

In the long run, the installment of communist regimes in Central-Eastern Europe turned out to be a costly and ultimately fatal strategic miscalculation for Soviet Russia. That communist regimes didn’t quasi-automatically guarantee subordination under Moscow’s geopolitical order, was demonstrated early on by Tito’s Yugoslavia and Mao’s China. These communist countries turned away from Moscow and, in the case of China, against Moscow.

The “German Question”

In 1961, the prospect of a collapsing East German regime was unacceptable for Soviet Russia. In order to demonstrate that it viewed its westernmost client state as sacrosanct, Russia had stationed 500.000 troops in East Germany. Moscow had its own geopolitical “domino theory”: If both West and East Germany would belong to the West, Russia’s remaining (communist) client states in Central-Eastern Europe would crumble sooner than later. Thus, Russia’s national security would be directly threatened.

In the West, the basic strategic stance vis-a-vis the post-war configuration in Europe was equally determined by geopolitics. The famous dictum by NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, sums it up: NATO was created, he said, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. Note that Ismay didn’t bother to invoke “Western values” to define NATO’s mission.

Why was not only the “Russian threat”, but also the “German question” central geopolitical issues for NATO? If all of Germany became a client state of Russia, continental western Europe would not be able to withstand the political and economic gravitation forces exerted by the Russian-German combination. And, the United States‘ strategic position in not only in continental Europe, but in western Eurasia as a whole would become unsustainable.

Was a neutral, unified and non-communist Germany a geopolitical option acceptable to Moscow and Washington (plus its NATO allies)? Perhaps for Russia, but not for the West. We still do not know whether Stalin’s offer of a unified, neutral Germany in 1953 was really serious. In any case, Stalin died soon thereafter and his successors withdrew the offer, even though they did agree to a neutralized Austria in 1955. What is certain, is the fact that the United States categorically opposed a neutralization of Germany. Britain, France, and the smaller Western European states took the same position. They all feared that a neutral, re-unified Germany, with close economic and political ties to Soviet Russia, would have a similar impact on the balance of power in Europe as the hypothetical case of a communist Germany.

As a consequence, a concerted effort was made in 1954 to integrate West Germany into NATO. In return for West Germany’s membership in NATO and its re-armament, the occupation status of the three western powers was lifted in 1955 and France agreed to return the Saarland. Thus, the option of a unified, neutral Germany was eliminated. Almost in parallel, Soviet Russia created the Warsaw Pact, into which a re-armed East Germany was integrated. Now the geopolitical balance in Europe seemed permanently frozen.

After World War II, Soviet Russia had directly annexed (East Prussia) and alloted to Poland (Silesia and Pomerania) roughly a quarter of Germany’s eastern territories. And it had occupied a third of the remaining German territory with some 20 million people, while the western powers occupied the other two thirds with roughly 60 million people. West Germany’s superior human and economic resources and its “social market economy” rapidly resulted in the so called “economic miracle”, which could not be matched by the command economy and the dictatorial system in East Germany. This economic and political imbalance led to the mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany which further eroded East Germany’s economic and political system.

So, by 1961, the “German question” was once again tilting the geopolitical balance in Europe. Soviet Russia was facing the prospect of a collapsing East Germany. In contrast, the United States and her West European allies were quite satisfied with the status quo in Germany. Since 1955, West Germany had been fully integrated in the West – politically, economically and militarily. The West’s geopolitical position in Continental western Europe was secured.

One should think that the United States and her NATO allies would have welcomed the collapse of the East Germany. If one thinks in ideological terms, that should have been so, but not in terms of geopolitics. A collapse of the East Germany would have decisively weakened Soviet Russia, but at the same time would have brought to the fore the question of German re-unification – which the West did not want. Remember Lord Ismay’s words.

So here we are back to the building of the Berlin Wall. And we understand better why the United States and its NATO allies remained so ostentatiously passive in August 1961. Isn’t that all past history? The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the East German regime collapsed and Germany is unified. And, in 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart.

Jumping to the Present

But why did the Soviet Russian leadership decide in the late 1980s to give up its glacis in Central-Eastern Europe and to terminate the Cold War power struggle in Europe? Some reasons are evident: the inflexibility and ineffectiveness of the Soviet political and economic system, technological backwardness, excessive arms spending and the lost war in Afghanistan. There is another factor – a geopolitical factor outside Europe: China. The former head of the German foreign intelligence service, Hans-Georg Wieck, has stated that Soviet Russia realized in the late 1980s that it could not stand up at the same time against the USA-led NATO bloc and a rising China, which was than in a de-facto alliance with the United States. Moscow decided to cut its losses in Central-Eastern Europe and to normalize relations with Beijing. Thus, the Russian motherland was secured and, after period of internal turmoil in 1990s, Russia repositioned itself as a major actor in the new multipolar world, in which China is the rising power.

The Cold War power struggle in Europe – symbolized by the Berlin Wall – has ended 20 years ago. But a new “Cold War” is emerging in the Pacific-Asia area. The Cold War in Europe remained “cold” because of the nuclear-strategic balance of “Mutually Assured Destruction” between the United States and Soviet Russia. Today we have a similar MAD regime between China and the USA, albeit in quite different forms. The predominant manifestation of the new Cold War in the Pacific-Asia region are not a nuclear arms race or regional confrontation with land and naval forces.

Between China and the USA, the regime of “Mutually Assured Destruction” operates primarily in the realm of economics and finance. As a means of power politics, economics and finance are no less effective than military capacities. The American strategist, Colin S. Gray, defines “hard power” as 1) “military threat or use” and 2) “economic menace or reward”. How does “21st century MAD” operate?

China could, hypothetically, wreck the American financial and economic system within a few days by selling off a fraction of its giant holdings of US dollars and US treasury bills. However, doing so would have devastating consequences for China’s own economy (and political stability). China would loose it main export market and its vast dollar-denominated financial assets would collapse in value. Now the reverse hypothetical case: The United States still have the military and political means to aggressively confront China. But being financially weakened and massively indebted to China, America would face devastating economic, financial and political consequences, were it to pursue such a course of action.

This new type of “Mutually Assured Destruction” regime will in all probability ensure that a “21st century Cold War” between China and the USA will remain cold. But – in the financial-economic and political realm – there is and will be a lot of “menacing”, “testing”, or “denial” of the respective other side. History doesn’t simplistically repeat itself, but there are lessons to be learned from the geopolitical background of the Berlin Wall.

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