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(UNC, 2003)

The Federal Republic’s Isolation Game

Book Essay on:
William Glenn Gray, Germany’s Cold War:
The Global Campaign to Isolate East Germany, 1949-1969
(University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2003)
UCSB: DD 259.5.G46 2003

by Christopher Young
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course: Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
at amazon

About Christopher Young

I am a third year history student with an interest in state diplomacy. This topic was interesting to me, as I did not have much background in German history during the Cold War, for either the Federal Republic or the GDR. Furthermore I was interested in how the newly created states would establish their own diplomatic strategies and move out from the guidance of the nations that had created them.

Abstract (back to top)

Germany’s Cold War: The Global Campaign to Isolate East Germany, 1949-1969 by William Glenn Gray takes a look at the diplomatic strategy used by West Germany to deny legitimacy to its Eastern counterpart. The book examines the international, inter-German, and internal Federal Republic politics regarding the issue, and makes the case that the isolation campaign was by and large a success. The book looks at the early history of both states, from their creation by the wartime Allies and throughout their existence, though a preference is definitely focused on the West. At the time that the GDR gained worldwide recognition it was done not because the GDR had proven itself to be a state worthy of international respect but because the Federal Republic was no longer interested in isolating the East Berlin government.

Essay (back to top)

“We judge almost every foreign event primarily from the standpoint of whether it increases or diminishes the isolation of the Zone” – Karl Carstens

A Cold War in Miniature

In 1945 Germany was partitioned into four military occupation zones administered by the four wartime allies, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Fearful of a renewed German threat, this division ensured that German power would be kept in check, and that each of the powers would closely control and administer their portion of the former Reich. Yet as the reality of the Cold War became increasingly apparent, the way that the wartime allies looked at Germany began to change. Viewing economic stability and prosperity as key to ensuring that Communism did not continue to spread west, the United States, Britain and France merged their occupation zones into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), centered in Bonn, in May of 1949. In response the Soviet Union created the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with its capital in East Berlin. While the wartime allies initially pushed forward the causes of their respective client states, the German governments quickly began to conduct diplomacy on their own. East Germany sought to obtain equal standing throughout the world as a legitimate, second German state, while Bonn began a diplomatic campaign to isolate the East by using its political and economic leverage to prevent other nations from recognizing the GDR. Over the course of the next twenty years, the Federal Republic maintained that there could be only one Germany, and successfully isolated and outmaneuvered the GDR for this position. While the isolation campaign would end in 1969, the Federal Repulic continued to maintain that Germany could not be divided into two nations; through this insistence unification was eventually achieved. (Gray pg 5)

Wobbly Steps

The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany began with a shaky start. A minute majority had elected the ruling coalition and Konrad Adenauer was elected chancellor by a majority of one vote on September 15, 1949. Thus the declaration of a second German state on October 7 represented a grave threat to the legitimacy and stability of the Government in Bonn. This was entirely intentional, as the creation of the German Democratic Republic was above all a means for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) to consolidate its strength in the East and win over the support of the working class in the West. Indeed the GDR claimed to represent the German people as a whole, not merely those living within the Soviet Zone. (Gray pg 10-11)

Chancellor Adenauer responded to this challenge in a speech to the Bundestag (West German parliament) two weeks later, in which he stated that there was only one Germany and that until the nation was re-unified “the Federal Republic-which alone had been elected in a free and democratic manner-would act as the sole legitimate representative of the German people.” (Gray 12). Thus began West Germany’s policy of non-recognition towards East Germany, referring to their counterpart government as “the so-called GDR” or “the Soviet Zone” with its headquarters in “Pankow” a district in East Berlin. (Gray pg 11-12)

Backing this policy Britain, France, and the United States agreed in November 1949 not to recognize the GDR or take any actions that would imply recognition. Additionally they used their diplomatic leverage to encourage other nations to adopt this policy as well. To the Western Allies diplomatic relations was off limits, and consular relationships, which implied recognition, were also out of the question. Thus only non-government trade agreements such as those by chambers of commerce were acceptable. The result of this was the non-recognition of the GDR by all nations outside the Soviet block, with the partial exception of Finland, which had signed a trade agreement with the GDR but refused to recognize the SED led government (Gray pg 14).

However the policy of Western Allies was not entirely straightforward. While they were active in promoting the non-recognition of the GDR, the Allies were hesitant to endorse Adenauer’s claim to speak on behalf of the entire German people. To begin with, the Allies did not wish to encroach on the Soviet Union’s right to speak on behalf of its occupation zone. Additionally, they had not yet decided to view the FRG as a state, as this would make the Allies complicit in the division of Germany. (Gray pg 15)

Hallstein Doctrine and the Soviet Hurdle

The Federal Republic became a sovereign state on May 5, 1955. Bonn was now free to conduct diplomacy as it pleased; yet this raised a major problem. The Soviet Union then invited Adenauer to Moscow to discuss the normalization of relations in June 1955. If the Soviet Union, the fiercest enemy of the Western Allies, that created the Federal Republic, recognized West Germany as an independent state, then the prestige of the FRG would greatly increase. However, this would lead to Moscow having two German embassies, implying recognition of the GDR by Bonn. (Gray 30-32)

Adenauer wanted to handle the matter as cautiously as possible, and the FRG took over three weeks to prepare its response. This was contrasted by the shocking comments by Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano in a press conference on June 14 in which he stated that the presence of an East German embassy in Moscow would not deter the FRG and used the example of Helsinki, where both Germanys enjoyed trade missions without diplomatic status as a possible model for future Soviet-German relations. In response to this state secretary of the Foreign Ministry Walter Hallstein went on damage control issuing a telegram to all West German diplomatic missions stating that the “admission of GDR diplomatic representation in states with which we maintain diplomatic relations would unleash the sharpest resistance on the part of the Federal Government, and might possibly even lead to the withdrawal of our representatives.” (Gray pg 32)

The West German-Soviet negotiations reached an impasse shortly after Adenauer arrived in Moscow. However, a last minute offer by the Soviets to return the last ten thousand German POWs from World War II in exchange for diplomatic relations was one that Adenauer could not refuse. To counter the liability of having two German embassies in Moscow, the Federal Republic spun the outcome as a necessary step for unification, as the FRG now had a direct means to present its case to the final member of the Four Powers. Relations with the Soviet Union were to be the only exception to West Germany’s policy of no double representation; yet while this gave Bonn an excuse for Moscow, the FRG had tied their own hands in regards to relations with the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. (Gray pg 37-38)

The GDR’s New Policy and Hallstein Doctrine in Action

The German Democratic Republic had initially held a position demanding equal representation for itself and the Federal Republic, even to the point of insisting that the GDR be recognized as a prerequisite for doing business. By 1955 the fruitlessness of this policy was clear and a new strategy was being employed. Trade Minister Heinrich Rau returned in the fall from Cairo and New Delhi with the GDR in enjoying a working relation with both governments. By downplaying the recognition issue and expressing political solidarity and economic assistance, the GDR would be able to gradually achieve its goal by lessening the non-aligned nation’s dependence on the West. (Gray pg 59)

East Germany’s courting of states outside of the Sino-Soviet bloc first paid off with Yugoslavia’s recognition of the GDR on October 15, 1959. Yugoslavia’s communist leader Josip Tito had been gauging the reaction from Bonn since early September. While the Federal Republic had viewed Tito’s exploration as not serious, the October announcement that the GDR and Yugoslavia had decided to establish normal diplomatic relations would need to be met by a clear West German response. (Gray pg 80-81)

For the leadership of the West Germany the decision was quite clear; the Federal Republic would have to break diplomatic ties with Yugoslavia in order to make good on its earlier threats to prevent the FRG from appearing to accept the status quo in regards to unification. As such on October 19 the Yugoslavian ambassador in Bonn departed for Belgrade. Additionally West Germany removed its consulate in Belgrade, as it was argued that it would otherwise imply recognition, and mild economic sanctions began, which would grow in time. (Gray pg 83)

Yugoslavia’s recognition of East Germany was not the diplomatic coup that the GDR had been expecting. Tito insisted that the SED press not report the events in an extravagant manner, and at the last minute opened a diplomatic legation in East Berlin rather than a full embassy. Moreover the Federal Republic’s swift response had made it clear that Bonn would not tolerate recognizing the GDR, and Tito’s call for nonaligned states to follow his actions fell on deaf ears. (Gray 84-86)

Going too Far

The Federal Republic’s successful maneuvering was greatly interrupted in 1965. The results of this miscalculation would cause a reevaluation of the existing Hallstein doctrine. However events in 1965 would cause the Federal Republic to reevaluate its longstanding position. In January 1965 President Nasser of Egypt invited Walter Ulbricht, head of the SED, to Egypt. Nasser stated that this did not mean recognition of the GDR, but that if the FRG continued to sell weapons to Israel, recognition would follow. This statement caused resentment in Bonn, and an overall feeling that Nasser was attempting to blackmail West Germany. While Foreign Minister Schröder cautioned that if the FRG failed to reach an understanding with Nasser and thus broke relations other Arab states would follow Egypt’s example and sever their ties with Bonn. (Gray pg 174-175)

However, the cabinet of Chancellor Erhard moved in the opposite direction. Rather than applying the Hallstein Doctrine and breaking ties with Egypt, the Federal Republic exchanged embassies with Israel, a move that added fuel to the fire, and resulted in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan breaking ties with the FRG, while they moved to recognize the GDR. Yet this only made West Germany reliant on other Western powers’ diplomatic channels to curb the inroads of the GDR, and made one thing very clear; Hallstein’s hard-line diplomacy was causing West Germany to put itself into a state of self-isolation. If Bonn took action that would sever relations, it guaranteed that East Berlin would be put in a position to act as the sole representative of Germany. (Gray pg 182-183)

In attempting to apply the Hallstein Doctrine to the Middle East the FRG made a grave mistake. By recognizing Israel, Bonn was attempting to force Nasser to back down and quit his flirtation with the GDR. In attempting to blackmail their blackmailer, the FRG crossed the line and found themselves on the receiving end of an Arab Hallstein Doctrine aimed at isolating the Israelis. This slip up cost the Federal Republic the position of representative of in ten nations.

Beyond Nonrecognition

1969 marked a turning point in Bonn’s outlook on the German question. The Christian Democrats held to the Hallstein Doctrine and thus maintained that the FRG’s best option in achieving unification was to deny the existence of the GDR. In contrast the Social Democrats proposed embracing the truth of the situation in order to overcome it. In the aftermath of the elections the SPD found themselves in position to put their novel approach in action.

This new direction would lead to improving the Federal Republic’s relations with Eastern Europe and ultimately resulted in recognition of the German Democratic Republic with the signing of the Basic Treaty on December 21, 1972. Ironically the “normalcy that Ulbricht and Honecker strove to acquire for the GDR came only after the two German states had negotiated a treaty highlighting the uniqueness (hence, abnormality) of their relationship” (Gray pg 233). While the GDR obtained its long sought acceptance into the international community, the West German insistence that the German nation could not be divided continued to enjoy a great support. By 1990 the idea of an independent East Germany had fallen to this claim. (Gray 217-233)


The Federal Republic’s isolation campaign was largely successful. Throughout the 1950’s Bonn had implemented a hard-line policy in regards to the issue of recognition for the GDR and only Communist Yugoslavia had dared to cross the line. After over fifteen years of success, and after implementing a more flexible approach to foreign relations, West Germany faced its greatest setback after a return of the hardball policy in 1965 over Ulbricht’s visit to Egypt and subsequent expulsion of their ambassadors from the Arab world at large.

For over two decades the Federal Republic had sought to maintain their openness on the German question by ignoring the reality of East Germany. The revision of foreign policy that began in 1969, and acceptance of the GDR may appear to be in stark contrast with Bonn’s previous actions, but underlying both of these polices was the staunch denial that the German nation could be divided. In this basic principle lay the fundamental outline of the Federal Republic’s foreign policy, and an anchor for unification.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/14/07)

Book Review

  • http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=144031117566178
    By Anna Saunders, Department of Modern Languages, University of Wales
    Review of Germany’s Cold War supports the claims made in the book, and generally follows William Glenn Gray’s line. Particularly complimentary of the international dimension given to the German Question.


  • Geiss, Imanuel, The Question of German Unification, 1806-1996. Routledge, London  1997.
    Looks at German unification and problems during the 19th and 20th centuries. Contains information regarding the FRG and GDR as well as post-unification issues.
  • Gray, William Glenn. Germany’s Cold War: the Global Campaign to Isolate East Germany, 1949-1969. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 2003
    Examines the Federal Republic’s strategy of not recognizing the GDR and subsequent isolation campaign against East Germany. Focuses on the FRG stating that the East was the victim of the campaign.
  • Weber, Jürgen. Germany, 1945-1990: A Parallel History  Central European University Press, Budapest. 2004.
    Gives a comparison between the two German states during the years of their existence. Contains economic, social, and political comparisons.


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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/12/07; last updated: 6/20/07
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