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McAdams, Germany Divided, book cover

Political Systems and Détente: A History of East and West Germany

Book Essay on: A. James McAdams, Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 266 pages.
UCSB: DD571 .M26 1993

by Connor Culhane
December 4, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Connor Culhane

I am a third year history major with an interest in modern Middle Eastern history. I have traveled in some parts of Eastern/Central Europe, including Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Germany. I chose to write about McAdams' book because I find the transition out of communism and into more liberal democracy that many European countries underwent very interesting, especially after visiting them.

Abstract (back to top)

McAdams' book Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification asks why did many Germans give up all serious hope of reunification and why did the East-West relationship appear stable in the 1980's. It is McAdams' argument that the different political structures of East and West Germany, liberal democracy on hand and state socialism on the other, and their interaction were responsible for producing an environment of apparent stability between the two countries. In this essay I will argue that McAdams provides an thorough effective history of political and elite interaction between East and West Germany. He relies on a variety of sources, including scholarly articles and books, works of journalism, and personal interviews, including top officials in both countries. Were McAdams falls short is in his attempt to fully explain the fall of the Berlin Wall, but despite this, his work still provides a useful framework for understanding the forces of change at work in 1989.

Essay (back to top)

In Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification A. James McAdams seeks to answer two fundamental questions. Why, he asks, did many Germans give up all serious hope of reunification? Secondly, why, during the 1980's, did the Eastern-Western relationship appear stable despite huge differences between the two in decision-making processes and policy formation? McAdams argues the apparent stability of both countries during the 1970's and 80's was due to the differences in political structure between East and West Germany, and despite obvious differences it was the interaction of these two systems that produced the appearance of relative stability and calm. McAdams attempts to show how leaders in both Germanys came to believe that cooperation between the East and West advanced the interest of their respective nation as fighting over the “German question” took a back seat to more pressing day-to-day interests that dominated policymaking and political interaction between the two states. The sources used to support his hypothesis include an array of scholarly and newspaper articles, dozens of personal interviews, and a few scholarly books. As McAdams points out, his goal is to understand the perceptions of people who were in control of the decision making process of their state, not to judge the accuracy of those perceptions . In terms of his goals, McAdams appears to do an admirable job. His argument is well organized and his analysis of political decision making systems in order to explain the arrival at decisions is well incorporated into a history of the two German states and the rise and fall of the Berlin wall. McAdams ultimately falls short in attempting to completely explain the factors involved in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but still provides an effective framework for understanding what brought about such dramatic and unforeseen changes in 1989.

Chapter I sets the stage for McAdams core argument by outlining how the different political structures of East and West Germany became obstacles for unification. Sources for both Chapter I and II mainly consist of scholarly studies, diplomatic documents, and some memoirs and personal accounts. McAdams points to the failed 1972 Basic Treaty as an important example to demonstrate his theory on the political decision making processes. McAdams saw the Eastern German political process constrained by two key factors: the incapability of knowing citizens' level of commitment to socialism, and the centralization of power under the First Secretary (McAdams, pg. 10-11). On the other side of the wall the FRG was constrained by the needs of individuals and political parties to form majorities and coalitions that were resistant to radical change (McAdams, pg. 12). By summarizing the basic political structures that would support the two German States for decades to come McAdams begs the question, why did the wall come down in 1989? Chapter I is an effective introduction to McAdam's political theory and lays the groundwork for the more in depth analysis that follows in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter II analyzes several developments in Eastern-Western relations up through the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. McAdams traces a growing divergence of interest throughout the 1950's between the FRG and the GDR and their corresponding superpower allies. While many German leaders still saw reunification as their ultimate goal, the superpowers sought to use East and West Germany to bring some stability to central Europe and the entire continent. In this context of opposition both East and West Germany sought to become stronger before negotiating on the national question (McAdams, pg. 43). In the end, while the United States and the Soviet Union may have seen the construction of the Berlin Wall as a solution of sorts, leaders in both Germanys still thought of the national question as unresolved (McAdams, pg. 52.)

While Chapter II dwells primarily upon the interests of the Soviet Union and the United States and how these interests interacted with those of the Germanys, McAdams devotes several pages to discussing how the political structures of the FRG and the GDR shaped how Adenauer and Ulbricht were able to make decisions and implement policy. McAdams believes that while Adenauer was able to control policy formation as the head of the dominant CDU, he was also constrained by the different constituencies he had to appeal to. Likewise, while Ulbricht enjoyed the position of power within the SED, he had to guide a party that was divided on the issue of how to address the immediate future of the GDR (McAdams, pg 34-38). These analyses are the most pertinent of McAdams within Chapter II and provide greater insight into the different factors that account for how policy was formed in the Germanys than the summary of Soviet and United States interests described in the previous paragraph.

Throughout Chapter III McAdams continues to set the stage for his analysis of the later half of the 70's and the 1980's, building on the theory he outlined in Chapter I. McAdams continues to rely on many diplomatic documents and scholarly articles. He points out that as both nations made efforts to build a more constructive East-West relationship they were hampered by several factors. As the GDR sought to effectively negotiate and bargain with the FRG government it quickly realized that it too as at the mercy of liberal election politics within West Germany. McAdams points out that the GDR could act quickly and with relative impunity in terms of implementing policy because it did not have to appeal to voters or take part in party politics (McAdams, pg. 94). While McAdams may be correct in that fact, it is precisely judgments of this type that lead to McAdams assertions about the stability of the GDR in the 1980's. The GDR may not have had to appeal to voters and the SED's elite may not have been forced to think about the larger ramifications of their actions, but the failure to account for such factors certainly contributed the fall of the GDR.

Chapter IV traces the trajectory of East and West German interaction over the course of the 1970's. Now McAdams begins to rely on many personal interviews as sources, making these last couple chapters the most compelling and involved of the study. McAdams writes that while there is reason for optimism at the outset of the 1970's and inter-German cooperation is at all time high by the end of the decade, both sides' interests had come to be dominated by issues other than unification and a common German identity (McAdams, pg. 134.) The division that would grow throughout the 1970's began as Brandt and the FRG continued to emphasize the open-endedness of the German question, drawing attention to qualities that all Germans might share, while Honecker tried to build popular support for the GDR and socialism by emphasizing the differences between Eastern and Western Germans (McAdams, pg. 134). It is logical that the GDR would try to bolster its own public image among East Germans, which it was undoubtedly unsure of, by comparing it selves in a favorable light, whether accurately or not, to the FRG. However, McAdams fails to successfully integrate his depiction of the West German political system with his explanation for West German behavior in the 1970's. One could assume that he concludes the continued characterization of the German question as open and undecided by the FRD a natural extension of the status quo from 60's, but McAdams doesn't make it clear how this position is explained by the FRG's liberal democratic political system.

The 1980's brought about a considerable growth in the number of contacts between East and West Germany. McAdams begins his analysis of the 1980's by asking if these new developments can be explained by a recognization on the part of both Germanys that a certain amount of interaction between them was mutually beneficial. However, in attempting to explain East German motivations for strengthening ties with the West, the author again disregards factors critical to understanding why the Germanys appeared stable in the 80's but were in fact not, writing that Honecker had little reason to worry about domestic constraints because he was the leader of a Marxist-Leninist state (McAdams, pg 141.) In all likelihood if East German leaders, and also scholars such as the author, had paid more heed to the domestic environment the fall of the Berlin wall would not have been such a surprise. McAdams does make an excellent point in that as East Berlin pushed the SPD for maximum advantages they weakened Schmidt's party and accommodated the rise of a new CDU/CSU coalition, thus jeopardizing some of the gains achieved with the SPD (McAdams, pg. 152). Here the author succeeds in explaining some of the swings in East-West diplomacy by examining the interaction of the two different political structures.

East-West German relations continued to improve into the 1980's as the CDU/CSU coalition began to improve relations with the SED and a general environment of communication between the two countries continued to grow (McAdams, pg 158). McAdams provides one of his better analyses of the decade as he explains how both Germanys were able to shift their East-West German policy from being solely concerned with inter-German relations to portraying inter-German relations as integral to providing unity and stability in the European continent, and the world as a whole (McAdams, pg. 172.) McAdam's theory does an excellent job of explaining the appearance of stability leading through the late 1980's.

In Chapter VI McAdams faces the task of explaining why the Berlin Wall fell despite all indications of stability between the two nations in the late 1980s. His basic point is that as the Germanys grew closer together, for both internal and external reasons the GDR grew more and more unstable. One on hand, as the FRG continually sought to improve relations with the East, it found it harder and harder to pressure the GDR to reform internally. Simultaneously, the GDR also resisted pressure to reform from Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR, and a culture of dissent supported by musicians, artists, intellectuals, and religious groups grew rapidly (McAdams, pg. 176-179.) McAdams deserves credit for providing an effective overall analysis of why East Germany collapsed, highlighting the inability of the GDR to continue to improve relations with the West while simultaneously maintaining the support of the East German citizenry. However, it's clear that McAdams is not able to explain how exactly the GDR lost support of the East German people. His sources consist of interviews of high-ranking officials and articles and publications with little insight into the attitudes of the average person. In the end, McAdams was unable to predict the fall of the wall for many of the same reasons the GDR leadership also failed in this respect. While some would say this renders his study ineffective an unenlightening in fact it provides an insight into why the fall of the Berlin Wall was so sudden and unforeseen by politicians and observers around the world.

Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification provides an interesting narrative on the history of the two German states in the later half of the 20 th century precisely because of the nature of its shortcomings. McAdams failed to anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall, as did many other observers, and was forced to shift his focus from why East and West Germany had a stable relationship to why that relationship only appeared to be stable. The sources employed to write this study no doubt contributed to its narrow vision. McAdams provides a view of East-West relations constricted to the dialogue between high-ranking officials and the discourse covered in both scholarly works and more popular media of the time. A more broad assessment of the attitudes of the people and their motivations and interests is absent, but it must be noted that such an assessment may have been difficult to obtain. In the end McAdams' overarching analysis proves insightful: as politicians struggled for decades to normalize relations they developed strong political interests in treating national division as if it were permanent. Fortunately for the sake of Germans everywhere this vision proved in the end to be misguided and unrealistic.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

    • Clemens, Clay. Rev. of McAdams, Germany Divided. The American Political Science Review, June 1994: 503-04. (jstor), accessed 16/10/08
      Clemens offers praise for McAdams' book, praising it's sources, especially the interviews with elites, it's structure of argument, and its core argument about political processes in both Germanys. Clemens' review, while making several good points about the book, lacks any meaningful criticism of McAdams' thesis, falling short in that regard.
    • Croan, Melvin. Rev. of McAdams, Germany Divided. Slavic Review Summer 1994: 613-614. (jstor), accessed 16/10/08
      Croan also points out that McAdams skillfully dissects and interprets the political interactions between East Germany and Bonn over the course of several decades. Croan's review is somewhat more useful because he points out that McAdams relies too heavily on “official protestations,” but fails to elaborate or articulate a more meaningful critique.

Web Site

  • Wikipedia. “Berlin Wall – Wikipedia, Free Encyclopedia.” (accessed 11/25/08). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall
    This simple website provides a relevant starting point for the study of the Berlin Wall and the interaction between East and West Germany. While Wikipedia does not have the reliability or in depth analysis necessary for scholarship the base of knowledge offered here can help one get started on bigger ideas.

Books and Articles

  • McAdams, A. James. Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. UCSB: DD257 .M26 1993
    Germany Divided is an attempt to explain how the political systems of East and West Germany shaped the nature of their interactions and accounted for the perceived stability of the situation in the 1980s. McAdams work provides a bright, but narrow vision, offering an insightful analysis of political dialogue between the Germanys but failing to draw from sources which could better explain the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Philipsen, Dirk. We Were the People: Voices from East Germany's Revolutionary Autumn of 1989. New York: Duke UP, 1992. UCSB: DD289 .P48 1992
    Philipsen relies on many first hand accounts and interviews in an effort to explain how and why the Berlin Wall fell. Philipsen's work offers a greater insight into what non-elites thought and felt in the 1980's as compared to McAdam's book.
  • Taylor, Frederick . "The Berlin Wall." History Today 57 (Feb2007).
    Taylor asks if the Western allies had interests in keeping the Berlin Wall standing, or at least not seriously pushing for it's removal. Taylor's article is a useful analysis that, like some of McAdams' work, points out the divergence of interests between each Germany and their allies and sponsors.

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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 12/16/08; last updated:
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