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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.2 (2000) 118-120

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Book Reviews

From Yalta to Berlin:
The Cold War Struggle over Germany

William R. Smyser, From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 465 pp. US$29.95.

The division and subsequent reunification of Germany are the subject of William Smyser's book. Smyser lived in Germany for two years before World War II, and he maintained ties with Germany in one way or another after the war. The book offers new information and some surprising conclusions. It is divided into twenty chapters and numerous subsections, whose striking headings (such as "Why Germany was Divided" or "Stalin's Final Try") provide additional guidance for the reader. The book focuses on Soviet policy toward Germany, the Ostpolitik of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and developments in Soviet-occupied Germany (later converted into the German Democratic Republic, or GDR).

In analyzing Soviet policy toward Germany up to 1953, Smyser often uncritically accepts the firsthand accounts of Soviet officials such as Vladimir Semenov and Valentin Falin. He contends that Josif Stalin did not desire the partition of Germany, concurring with the interpretation put forth by the historian Wilfried Loth. Smyser also argues that East German Communists (SED), supported by some military officers in Soviet-occupied Germany, provoked the division of Germany against Stalin's will. Nevertheless, Smyser acknowledges that "German division did not emerge full blown from any master plan conceived in Moscow, London, Paris, or Washington. It emerged from a process of incremental decision making, where the logic of one action followed the logic of another with a mutual ratchet effect leading to a result that most had not expected" (p. 71). Indeed, it is debatable whether Stalin's decision of 1945 "to place much of Germany 'under Polish administration'" was actually the "most important" mistake in his German policy (p. 68). If the occupying powers had failed to detach the eastern German territories and to permit the expulsion of millions of Germans from Pomerania and Silesia, the whole basis of their policies and the policies of the German political parties would have been changed. Moreover, even though Soviet policy toward Germany was often counterproductive, the fundamental reorientation of German policy away from the short-sighted pursuit of national interest toward Western and Eastern European integration was equally difficult to achieve. Only the painful consequences of Nazi-era policies induced the majority of Germans to come to terms with the new political realities. If the war had ended without the occupation of Germany and without the forced migration of the Germans, these political lessons would not have been so thoroughly understood.

In assessing the controversial "Stalin note" of March 1952, Smyser remains ambivalent. Although he believes there was a critical opportunity to preserve German unity, he is forced to acknowledge that no East German or Soviet document has yet provided "concrete evidence" that "Stalin was prepared to unite Germany and abandon the GDR during the 1950s" (p. 118). He correctly states that "Stalin could send any number of notes, but it was Ulbricht who determined the mood in which they were received and negotiated" (p. 119). Only when Smyser discusses the uprising in the [End Page 118] GDR in June 1953 does he finally concede that "rage against the SED ran so deep that German unification would destroy the Soviet position in central Europe" (p. 124).

Smyser provides separate accounts of developments in the two Germanies after Stalin's death, especially during the period before and after the Berlin crisis of 1958. In the same way that the Soviet regime concluded after 1953 that "the Soviet bloc could survive . . . only with the GDR as a security zone between West and East" (p. 133), the governments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came to regard the FRG as a linchpin of the Western alliance. Consequently, Smyser believes that Moscow's primary goal during the Berlin crisis was to compel the United States to acknowledge the division of Germany...