David H. Schumaker,
Gorbachev and the German Question: Soviet-West German Relations, 1985-1990 (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1995)

202 pages. UCSB: DK67.5 G3 S48 1995.

Book Essay written by Stephanie Ables
February 2004
for Prof. Marcuseís upper division lecture course Germany since 1945
(course homepage)
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004

About the Author

I am a senior double majoring in film studies and communication and minoring in history. After graduation, I plan on attending law school and studying entertainment law. While my knowledge of German history prior to this class was limited, I chose this book because it deals with international relations associated with the German question, which coincides with my overall interest in European history.


While focusing on the tumultuous time period between 1985 and 1990, David H. Shumakerís book examines the years leading up to German reunification through the lens of Soviet history. Shumaker follows Gorbachevís every political move to show how his domestic policies began to merge with his international policies, as his desire to keep the USSR domestically safe from the US military tactics, for example, leads to increased relations with Western Germany. In this five year period, Gorbachev worked hard to move the Soviets in a new direction while not alienating the staunch conservatives. Shumaker concludes through this careful analysis of Gorbachevís policies and motivations that Gorbachevís support of reunification was multidimensional. It was the forward movement of both domestic and international policies that led to a united Germany no longer being perceived as a threat. As such, I argue that it is through the fusion of his domestic and international policies, such as issues of security, political communication, and the United Statesí influence on Western Europe, that Gorbachev came to hail the occurrence of German reunification.


Juggling Germanies:
The Context and Consequences of German Reunification

The territorial division of Germany among the Allies after World War II set in motion a policy of social, economic, and political separation in Europe that lasted for more than forty years. General Secretary for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Mikhail Gorbachev inherited such a separationist government when he was elected in 1985. However, in just five years, he managed to turn around four decades of hostility toward Western Europe and forge connections that eventually brought the two Germanies back together. It is through the fusion of his domestic and international policies, such as issues of security, political communication, and the United Statesí influence on Western Europe, that Gorbachev came to hail the occurrence of German reunification.

The Soviet position toward Germany before Gorbachev came to power was one of reproach and fear. Though the military effects of World War II had long been dealt with, the wounds of German occupation were deep. The USSR preferred a divided Germany, believing that such a coup for power could be prevented as long as the country was not a unified whole. Although he inherited this mentality, international and domestic interactions helped Gorbachev realize that reunification might not be the feared monster it was perceived to be.

One of the main shifts in Gorbachevís thinking was caused by the press. The Soviet news media was known for reporting biased information, yet when covering stories concerning the USSR and West Germany, they often omitted and blatantly bent remarks made by FRG officials. The period between 1985-86 saw a strong division between Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany. Kohl was reported as slamming the Soviets for only having their own interests at heart, while his comments regarding his desire to amend relations between his country and the USSR went unreported by the Soviet press. In addition, the meeting between Kohl and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in which Kohl publically expressed positive feelings toward the improvement of Soviet-West German relations, also went unmentioned in the USSR newspapers (pg. 13).

This obvious bias against the FRG in the early days of Gorbachevís reign was made to match the past regimeís attitude towards the West. As an example, Schumaker points out that "the press recognized the leadership consensus in favor of a strong-arm policy toward West Germany and reflected this view in its reporting" (pg.11). As Gorbachev shifted his way of thinking toward interactions between the Soviets and West Germany, it placed him in the precarious position between not only the political leaders of Western Europe, but also the news media of his own country. This helps account for why Gorbachevís "sudden" policy shift toward reunification seems out of the blue; in reality, he was attempting to ease his domestic counterparts slowly into a new phase by keeping his ideas to himself.

One way he helped ease his country into a more open relationship with Western Europe was through his policy of glasnost. This plan was a "controlled liberalization of Soviet political communications" (pg.18) that required the press to play an instrumental role in his policy of perestroika, which called for the restructuring of economic political, and social policies. Gorbachev wanted to break away from the use of the media for political propagandizing that only operated within set guidelines, as was the role of the Soviet press in the past. He felt that in ridding the news media of the stigma of forced censorship, the rest of the world would regard the USSR with more respect.

While glasnost did force the world to pay attention to the Soviet media reform, it also had negative side effects. The Chernobyl power plant explosion in 1986 went virtually uncovered within the Soviet Union, causing Gorbachev to realize that reforms were positive only as long as they were consistently followed (pg.19). Google marcuse 133c to find where this has been published on the web. However, the domestic policy was able to influence foreign affairs, marking the beginning of the overlapping of domestic and international reforms. As Gorbachevís image improved abroad, the staunch-conservative Soviets lost visible power in criticizing his policies toward extending an olive branch toward Western Europe. This becomes important as Gorbachev moved further and further into relations with the West and further away from past Soviet policies.

Another important development in Soviet-West German relations was the growth of personal communication between leaders. In the beginning of his term, Gorbachev avoided meetings with Kohl and favored relations with Englandís Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the president of the French National Assembly. Gorbachev claimed that France, in compliance with the Soviets, had urged the United States to reconsider their Strategic Defense Initiative; West Germany was still an ally to the US (pg.13). Gorbachev viewed the USís "interest in ground-based kinetic energy weapons" to be a threat to Soviet security and penalized Kohl for his continued support of relations with the United States military strategy.

However, as France began to engage in what Moscow considered questionable behavior, such as participating in nuclear weapons talks with the US in 1987, Gorbachev moved closer politically to West Germany, who were expressing anti-US sentiments. From 1987-88, relations continued to improve, as Moscow conceded to work with the once politically exiled West German political party, the CDU-CSU, as well as recanted its demands of a strict no FRG-US relations policy (pg.68). These few concessions not only changed the way Europe looked at the German question, but also opened up the lines of communication between Kohl and Gorbachev for further German-Soviet relations.

The summit meetings in 1988 and 1989 between Gorbachev and Kohl marked an important step toward unification, whether intended or not. West Germany contributed financially to perestroika, which increased Gorbachevís popularity domestically as it illustrated how his foreign policies could directly benefit the Soviets (pg. 72). The monetary contribution also created a physical reminder of their vested interest in each othersí country. However, despite the policy and governmental changes that were discussed, the most important factor to emerge from these meetings was a personal relationship that would play an instrumental role in the reunification negotiations.

Following the fall of the GDR, Europe itself lay in disarray. Contrary to its past position toward alliances, as the Soviets felt such relationships were to blame for the destruction of the past World Wars, Gorbachev and the USSR in December of 1989 recognized the benefits of NATO and the stabilizing effect it had on Europe (pg.127). This acknowledgment came at the heels of their request to meet with the United States, Great Britain, and France to discuss the state of Germany within the context of Western Europe.

Though Soviet leaders were divided on the issue of reunification, the final push towards a united Germany stemmed from West Germanyís political parties and Gorbachevís domestic problems. According to Shumaker, "the ultimate Soviet acceptance of a unified Germany in NATO was made possible by Gorbachevís willingness to incur the wrath of Soviet conservative opposition.... Gorbachev was willing to make this sacrifice because of his trust in Western leaders, his fundamentally altered vision of international relations, and the multitude of domestic problems demanding immediate attention" (pg. 129). In July 1990, Gorbachev sealed his decision during the summit meeting with Kohl: "In committing the USSR to the prospect of German membership in NATO, Gorbachev acknowledged the end of Europeís political and military division" (pg. 137).

Critics of Gorbachevís policies may look at his acceptance of unification as "giving in" to Western ideals. By supporting the end of the wall, the USSR, by implication, could be said to support the spread of capitalism in the East. However, Schumaker points out that the Soviets were not the only ones to alter their stance on the German Question, as England and France also shifted their policies toward Germany from gradual progress to reunification (pg. 144). In joining together with other European countries, Gorbachev gave the USSR a strong voice in the reunification process.

According to Schumaker, Gorbachevís decision came down to relationships: "In the end, Moscow evaluated specific economic opportunities as more important than the potential threat of a unified Germany. As with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the final result was remarkably consistent with the Gorbachev leadershipís earlier statements and actions" (pg 145). A strong united Germany would result in an economically strong USSR. Though at first glance one might assume Gorbachev gave in to the West on the German question, Schumaker points out that his support of a united Germany was equivalent to the rest of his policies of finding the route that was most beneficial for the USSR. Such policies included the acceptance of German reunification as well as increased relations between the Soviets and Western Germanyís political leaders.

The road from political animosity to friendly unification talks was a tumultuous and often contradictory path, but the relationship developed between Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proved to be a guiding force in uniting not only Germany, but all of Europe as well. In altering the direction of Soviet-West German relations, Gorbachev relied heavily upon the relationship between his domestic and foreign policies, the dialectic of which allowed for the birth of a new Europe.

Additional Sources

Dodds, Dinah, and Pam Allen-Thompson, eds. The Wall in My Backyard: East German Women in Transition (1994). Provides personal testimonies of 18 East German Women on their feelings towards reunification. Though it focuses only on East Germany and not the USSR, it does provide another perspective (reunification through the eyes of women) to the same period Schumaker discusses. UCSB: HQ 1630.5 W35 1992 C.2.

Smyser, W.R. From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany (1999). This book phrases the German Question in relation to diplomacy and foreign affairs. UCSB: DD257.4.S59 1999

Published Reviews of Schumaker:

  1. Boll, Michael M. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Oct-Dec 1996 v19 n4 p.431. UCSB: HV6431 .T46 v.15 (1992) - v.25 (2002).
  2. Bigler, R.M. Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. Nov 1995 v33 n3 p.539. UCSB: Z1 .c56 .v1 (1964/1965) - v.40: no.6 (2002/2003).


Questia.com offers an online version of the Schumaker's book. Some introductory material and the first page of each chapter are free, otherwise one must pay to become a member of questia. (http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=27983284)

"The German Question," Part of the course website for Gerhard Rempel of Western New England College, this site gives a great brief overview of Germanyís international relations from the WWI the present and how their history effects the Germany of today.

"Germany: Postwar Developments" This website provides an overview of German unification as well as the Soviets role. Part of a website on German history.

"Strategic Defense Initiative," From the Federation of American Scientists website.

"Perestroika," Website covering world history. (http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/soviet.exhibit/perest.html)


essay by Stephanie Ables, Feb. 2004; prepared for web by H. Marcuse, March 8, 2004
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