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Journal of Cold War Studies 1.1 (1999) 117-119

Book Review

Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev

Hannes Adomeit, Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998), 609 pp.

Mikhail Gorbachev's acceptance of German unification and of a united Germany's inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) both symbolized and rendered permanent the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. By conceding these two issues, Gorbachev and his advisers acquiesced in something that had always been portrayed as sheer anathema to the Soviet Union: a renascent, powerful Germany fully ensconced in the Western camp. Although Gorbachev is still lionized in the West for these concessions, he has been sharply criticized at home both because he agreed to German unification and because he "sold" it too cheaply.

Scholars are still wrestling with how to conceptualize and interpret Gorbachev's policies. Was there some grand design behind his "new political thinking," or was it, as some have argued, a pragmatic "diplomacy of decline"? Did Gorbachev have a foreign policy plan, or did he merely react to events that increasingly spun out of control? When it was all over, what was the Soviet Union's East European "empire" really worth if it ultimately brought down the Soviet system itself? Hannes Adomeit sets out to answer both the broader questions of empire and the narrower issue of German unification in his new book, which draws extensively on East German archives and is also based on interviews with some of Gorbachev's advisers and on memoirs by former Soviet officials. The book covers the entire postwar period through the unification of Germany.

The initial discussion of theories of empire raises the perennial debate in Soviet studies--namely, the relevance, if any, of political science theories, which were largely derived by Western academics from the Western experience, for the Soviet system. Was the Soviet Union a sui generis case that should be studied for its own sake (since it explicitly claimed to be an anti-imperial country), or was its East European empire--in many ways perceived as an extension of the Soviet Union itself--similar to previous territorially contiguous empires? Adomeit's review of the literature explores a variety of theories--metrocentric, pericentric, systemic, structural, and transnational--and concludes that one must integrate several different theories to derive a useful explanatory framework. He briefly returns to these conceptual issues in the last pages of the book.

The richness of Adomeit's book lies in the complex tapestry it weaves as it delves into the minutiae of Soviet views of Germany and the Soviet Union's ties with its [End Page 117] "fictional" East German ally. The archives may not radically change our understanding of how the Soviet empire functioned; but, as Adomeit shows, they reveal how difficult it was for the Soviet Communist authorities to deal with their comrades in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in spite of Walter Ulbricht's and Erich Honecker's dependence on Moscow's political and economic largesse. Adomeit also highlights the Soviet Union's key dilemma regarding the stability of the East German state. On the one hand, from the very inception of the GDR, "the Soviet leaders were perfectly well aware of the main problems of imperial control in Germany. The GDR lacked legitimacy. There was a tremendous outflow of people. Politically, the regime was unstable. It could be kept in power only by the presence of Soviet forces" (p. 99). Adomeit cites a variety of communications between Soviet leaders (Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev) and East German leaders (Ulbricht and Honecker) that illustrate this point.

On the other hand, after the Berlin Wall was built, the Soviet leadership acted as if the GDR did enjoy a certain degree of legitimacy. Moreover, under Gorbachev it became clear that despite Moscow's realization that the GDR was unstable, the Soviet Union never made any plans to deal with a situation in which the authority of the East German...

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