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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 96-98

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M. E. Sarotte, Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 295 pp. $55.00.

The end of the East-West conflict has opened new fields of research now that many archives in the states of the former Soviet bloc have been made available. With respect to the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), researchers encounter exceptionally good conditions—in fact, much better conditions than those facing historians of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Research on the GDR, unlike on the FRG, is not restricted by the Thirty Year Rule. Thus far, however, most publications have dealt with the internal affairs of the East German state. The literature on the GDR's foreign policy is sparse. Hence, M. E. Sarotte's book is most welcome, particularly because it is an excellent piece of research, based on unpublished documents from party and state archives. In a highly informative note on sources the author gives an overview of various groups of documents. Most important are the files of the ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany. The party leadership headed by Walter Ulbricht and then by Erich Honecker decided the political course of the country, whereas the head of government, Willi Stoph, played a minor role. In addition to this material Sarotte obtained documents from the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi files. She also interviewed people on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, including Markus Wolf, the former Stasi counterintelligence chief; Valentin Falin, a longtime expert on Germany at the Soviet Foreign Ministry (who later served as Soviet ambassador in Bonn); and Egon Bahr, a close aide of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt when Ostpolitik was formulated in the 1960s and entered a new phase in 1969-1970 [End Page 96] with the de facto recognition of the GDR as a second German state and the conclusion of a treaty with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Sarotte dipped into the papers of Egon Bahr, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Schmidt.

Sarotte's main topic is how the GDR reacted to the challenge of Ostpolitik— achallenge that required "dealing with the devil." The capitalist enemy insisted on sticking to the idea of the German nation even though two German states coexisted as a result of the postwar power structure in Europe. Bonn's strategy of "change through rapprochement" implied that the GDR had to be prepared to take risks. On the one hand, the GDR leadership, by consenting to rapprochement, hoped for economic advantages and international recognition. On the other hand, it feared the risk of change that might result from increased contacts with the West. To minimize this risk, the East German authorities fortified the German-German border and built up the Stasi apparatus. The fortress mentality of the GDR leadership was reflected in a campaign for a separate socialist identity of the GDR, thereby repudiating the idea of a still- existing German nation.

The response of the East German regime to the challenge of détente and Ostpolitik revealed that the GDR was not simply a puppet state that acted only under orders from Moscow. Quite the contrary, Ulbricht tried to maintain an independent position when he argued in favor of closer relations with the Federal Republic. When Moscow wanted to dictate the pace of the rapprochement between the two German states, Ulbricht retorted: "We're not Belorussia, we are not a Soviet state." In Brezhnev's view this was a sign of arrogance and had to be punished. With Soviet support, Honecker, who led the anti-Ulbricht faction in the GDR, replaced Ulbricht in 1971. Honecker was much more willing to act in accordance with Soviet preferences, although he shared Ulbricht's idea of improving relations with Bonn. Ultimately the Soviet Union had the final say when the GDR had to back away from its proclaimed goals. From the Soviet point of view the paramount aim was not the...