- The Emergence of Détente in Europe: Brandt, Kennedy and the Formation of Ostpolitik
Most historians feel obliged to divide the narrative flow of history into distinct segments with clear beginnings and ends. Historians of the East-West conflict also take this approach. A consensus seems to have emerged that the East-West conflict that shaped the world during most of the second half of the twentieth century forms an integrated whole, which we call the Cold War. Cold War studies, with distinguished scholarly journals, are booming on both sides of the Atlantic. The book under review here is a product of the well-established Cold War Studies Centre at the London School of Economics and is published in its Cold War History Series.
The topic of Arne Hofmann's slim and solid study is, however, not the Cold War but the endeavor to overcome the Cold War by making life in Berlin somewhat easier and by containing the danger of a hot war between the superpowers. Focusing on Berlin and Cuba as the two major flashpoints during the dangerous, crisis-ridden years from 1958 onward, Hofmann discusses the roles of two protagonists of a significant change in East-West relations: Willy Brandt, the governing mayor of West Berlin starting in 1957, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Both Brandt and Kennedy argued that a lessening of tensions between East and West was imperative. Both were convinced that by improving East-West communications and by curbing sterile Cold War propaganda, the West would not run any serious risk. On the contrary, turning from Cold War confrontation to some sort of cooperative antagonism would [End Page 168] be to the advantage of the West in a medium-range perspective. In other words, détente had to take the place of the old Cold War approach to the East-West conflict.
Hofmann describes how the concept of Ostpolitik was developed in West Berlin (and not in Bonn) and how détente emerged in Europe (but not only in Europe). Although he is aware of the methodological problem of reducing the political concept of détente to the Brandt-Kennedy relationship, his effort to reconstruct as closely as possible the exchange of views between Brandt and Kennedy during the brief time they worked together makes perfect sense. By the time of Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, "détente was on the international agenda" (p. 4).
In the first and largest part of the book (pp. 9–98) Hofmann presents a thoroughly researched narrative of Brandt's and Kennedy's interaction, which ended up in the "Brandt-Kennedy alliance and the first steps towards détente" (p. 75). The story is one of impulses from both sides, of mutual influences and adaptations, a story that depicts Brandt as an increasingly "independent" actor who "finally overtook the Americans with an Ostpolitik confidently conducted by Germans in an attempt to take charge of the German cause themselves" (p. 181). Of course, it is not only a story of these two leaders. Sometimes and inevitably Egon Bahr turns up, partly as Brandt's closest associate, partly as the man who, allegedly, did not share Brandt's transatlantic orientation. The Brandt-Bahr duo was not only a challenge for the federal government in Bonn, but also for many people in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The internal debate in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) about West German–U.S. relations is covered in the third part of the book (pp. 153–174), which should have been incorporated into the first part.
The book's middle part is devoted to the underlying assumptions of Ostpolitik à la Brandt and Bahr and to Kennedy's expectations about the function of détente. Hofmann hints at different schools of thought within the SPD. This is not his actual concern, however, and it is a tricky subject because a history of the Social Democratic discourse on the complex, overlapping themes of the German question, integration into the West, and policy toward the...