Beginning with Ludwig Erhard's chancellorship (1963–1966) and continuing with that of Kurt Kiesinger (1966–1969), West Germany's leadership began to modify its approach toward the Soviet bloc, sending trade missions to Poland, Hungary, and Romania in hopes that economic agreements would lead to political dialogue. This transformation served as a prelude to the more radical Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) implemented by Chancellor Willy Brandt's government during 1969–1974.
Mayor of West Berlin during 1957–1966 and foreign minister in the Kiesinger government, Brandt became West Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor in October 1969, heading a coalition cabinet that included Walter Scheel, leader of the Free Democratic Party, as foreign minister. Seeking to reduce tensions in Central Europe, hoping to ameliorate conditions for Germans living in East Germany, and recognizing that a hard-line approach had brought German reunification no closer, Brandt as foreign minister had already set out to improve relations, via negotiations and diplomatic agreements, between West Germany and the Warsaw Pact. As chancellor, he and Scheel worked aggressively to expand this process.
Brandt's Ostpolitik encountered substantial obstacles, both internationally and domestically. President Richard M. Nixon's administration, itself seeking détente, proved reluctant to surrender the initiative in East-West relations to Bonn. At the same time, East Germany, led by Walter Ulbricht, made negotiations with West Germany dependent upon Bonn's willingness to recognize East Germany diplomatically, a condition unacceptable to the Brandt cabinet. In addition, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union (CDU/CSU) opposition in the Bundestag made repeated attempts to stymie Brandt's initiatives.
Fortunately for Brandt, the Soviet Union had ample reason to embrace Ostpolitik. Concerned over growing hostilities with communist China, desirous of increasing economic ties with the West, and sensing an opportunity to possibly split NATO, the Kremlin welcomed Ostpolitik, agreeing to discuss relations with West Germany in early 1970. Talks between the Soviet Union and West Germany culminated in the Treaty of Moscow on 12 August 1970, whereby both sides renounced the use of force against each other and acknowledged as inviolable existing European frontiers. Moscow even added a supplemental declaration affirming Germany's right to reunify by peaceful means, thereby undercutting one of the CDU/CSU's chief criticisms of Ostpolitik. The Soviets also agreed to discuss Berlin with the United States, Great Britain, and France, with the objective of redressing the divided city's status.
West Germany's willingness to recognize existing European frontiers paved the way for an agreement with Poland via the Treaty of Warsaw, signed on 7 December 1970. In so doing, Bonn acknowledged the disputed Oder-Neisse Line (although stipulating that it remained subject to change in a final peace settlement), while Warsaw agreed to allow Germans residing in Poland to relocate to either East or West Germany provided they conformed with Polish emigration laws. Moscow's decision to discuss Berlin's status led to the Quadripartite Agreement of 3 September 1971, which saw Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union acknowledge that West Berlin was not part of West Germany, recognize West Germany's right to represent West Berlin internationally, and offer diplomatic protection to its citizens. Additionally, the agreement promised Soviet facilitation in the movement of traffic from West Germany to West Berlin and pledged the signatories to resolve by negotiation any future problems concerning Berlin.
Eight months later, in May 1972, East Germany, now headed by Erich Honecker, and West Germany signed a transit agreement guaranteeing West Berliners access rights to East Germany—all but forbidden since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961—and granting East Germans the right to visit West Germany in cases of family emergency. This agreement set the stage for the West German–East German Basic Treaty, signed on 21 December 1972, in which the two Germanies renounced the use of force in their relations, agreed to recognize and respect each other's authority and independence, renounced any claim to represent the other internationally, agreed to respect human rights principles as enumerated in the United Nations (UN) Charter, and consented to an exchange of permanent missions but not of ambassadors.
Brandt followed up the Basic Treaty by entering discussions with Czechoslovakia that led to a concrete agreement similar to the 1970 Treaty of Moscow in December 1973. That same month, West Germany exchanged ambassadors with both Hungary and Bulgaria, meaning that by the time Brandt left office in May 1974, West Germany enjoyed relations with every East European communist regime except Albania.
Ostpolitik greatly reduced Cold War tensions in Central Europe and thereby contributed to the success of détente in the 1970s. It essentially eliminated Berlin as a Cold War issue, opened the door for the entry of both Germanies into the UN in September 1973, and improved conditions for Berliners. It also marked West Germany's emergence as a state willing to act independently on the international stage. Finally, Ostpolitik earned Brandt acclaim both in Germany and abroad, symbolized by his selection as the winner of the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize. Bruce J. DeHart
Marshall, Barbara. Willy Brandt: A Political Biography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.; Sarotte, M. E. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Detente, and Ostpolitik, 1969–1973. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Bruce J. DeHart