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Stalin portrait

German Unification and the Stalin Note of March 1952: A Missed Opportunity?

Book Essay on: Rolf Steininger, The German Question: The Stalin Note of 1952 and the Problem of Reunification
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 186 pages. UCSB: DD257.25.S776 1990

by Robin Garnham
December 5, 2008

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

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links

About Robin Garnham

I am an Education Abroad Program student from the United Kingdom. I am studying Modern and Contemporary History at Queen Mary College, University of London. My main interest in the topic is that I had been unaware of it up to this point, even though it appears to be a major turning point, in terms of Cold War diplomatic relations.

Abstract (back to top)

The paper addresses the exchange of diplomatic notes between the Soviet Union and the United States, Britain, and France through the course of 1952, comparing John Walko's The Balance Of Empires to Rolf Steininger's The German Question. Both books examine the question of German unification in the immediate post-war period through the lens of the Stalin Note of March 1952. The paper questions the assertions of both Walko and Steininger, and ultimately concludes that both of their interpretations are too extreme. Walko asserts that there was absolutely no possibility that the Soviets had any sincere intentions, while Steininger argues strongly that the Soviets did have good intentions, and therefore the March Note did represent a missed opportunity for German unification. The paper argues that, while unification may well not have been possible on the terms proposed, a definite chance of negotiation was lost. Therefore, the Stalin Note did represent something of a missed opportunity.

Essay (back to top)

This paper examines the arguments put forward by Rolf Steininger in The German Question, and John Walko in The Balance Of Empires, regarding the exchange of diplomatic notes between the Soviet Union and the Western powers (United States, Britain, and France) on the 'German Question' in 1952. Special emphasis will be placed on the first note of March in that year, the so-called 'Stalin Note'. One of the main points of contention in the historiography is whether or not the Soviet offer was sincere, and as a consequence whether or not the Stalin Note constitutes a missed opportunity or not. Rolf Steininger argues very strongly for the missed opportunity thesis, arguing that the Stalin Note offered a genuine chance of unification on terms that were in fact quite favorable to the Western powers. He places the blame for the failure of Stalin's unification efforts at the feet of Konrad Adenauer, who he claims thwarted any attempts at a positive response to the note. John Walko rejects the idea of a missed opportunity, and instead asserts that Stalin's note was a mere propaganda move. His thesis places far more importance on the role of the United States than Steininger.

Both books try to address similar questions: whether Stalin's offer was sincere; why the Western powers reacted the way that they did; the significance of Germany's role; and ultimately whether there was a missed opportunity or not. Steininger's work is more nuanced. He examines the episode from more angles, and in more depth, using a greater number of, and more varied, sources. His sources range from government memoranda to Adenauer's memoirs. Walko, on the other hand, uses mostly easily accessible sources; the few primary sources that he does use are almost all American telegrams, and as a result Thomas Maulucci has criticized Walko's sources as 'outdated and insufficient' (Maulucci, 1). In this paper I argue that, while there were definite, and quite possibly correct, concerns about Stalin's sincerity, the West's response to the note meant that there was no chance to explore the possibility of unification. Therefore, as Steininger maintains, there was a missed opportunity for German unification in 1952.

In assessing the Stalin Note is it important to start with an analysis of what motivated the Soviets to send the note in the first place. While Walko correctly points out that previous attempts to engage the Soviets had been completely unproductive (Walko, 47), the change in the style of the March 1952 note shows that some kind of change had occurred in the Kremlin's policy toward Germany (Smyser, 117). Both Walko and Steininger agree that the March note was a response to the proposed establishment of the European Defense Community (EDC) (Walko, 41. Steininger, 20). They differ, however, on how they in interpret the reasons for Stalin's response to it. Walko maintains that the note was an attempt to destabilize Western Europe and in doing so ensure that the EDC treaty was not signed (Walko, 27). It seems unlikely, however, that a diplomatic note would disrupt the establishment of the EDC in any significant way, so Steininger's argument appears more convincing. He argues that a West Germany as part of an integrated Western Europe was an unpalatable idea to the Soviet regime, so they offered an alternative (Steininger, 94-5). In other words, for the USSR, a unified, neutral Germany was preferable to the Federal Republic becoming party of the EDC.

One of the main pieces of evidence that Steininger uses to support his argument that Stalin's motivations were sincere is an alleged conversation between Stalin and Pietro Nenni, an Italian socialist, in which Stalin supposedly told Nenni that he favored German unification (Steininger, 11-13). This is something that is strongly refuted by Ruud Van Dijk, who points out that there are in fact four different accounts of the conversation (Dijk, 8), something that Steininger fails to mention. Walko rightly dismisses the Nenni evidence as 'hear-say' (Walko, 17). This, however, does not necessarily indicate that Stalin was not making a genuine offer. Like Konrad Adenauer, the Federal Republic's Chancellor, Stalin had to present different faces to different people in order to keep them satisfied with the situation. After the EDC treaty and the Bonn Convention had been signed, Stalin's incentive for the Soviets to push for unification had been removed, and so the proposals made after that date can be viewed as merely a move to save face and/or serve Soviet propaganda needs.

Ruud Van Dijk rightly states that 'lack of documentary evidence about Soviet motives has been the single most important reason why the episode of the Stalin-note remained so contentious for so long' (Dijk, 5). Steininger concludes by saying that 'there can no longer be any doubt that Stalin was prepared to agree to German reunification in the Spring of 1952' (Steininger, 20). His assertion, however, is premature, as it is based on circumstantial evidence and conjecture. Despite the opening of certain archives, all theorizing on Soviet intentions is difficult; there is still no concrete evidence of Stalin's intentions (Smyser, 118). Ultimately, Walko downplays the importance of Soviet intentions, stating that 'regardless of whether Soviet intent was obstructive or constructive, other factors predetermined a negative response' by the Western powers (Walko, 29). Although Steininger stresses too strongly that Soviet actions were sincere, I think that some component of Stalin's original offer must have been genuine.

One of the major, and most significant, differences between Walko and Steininger's interpretations is how much emphasis they place upon the role of Adenauer and the West German government in the whole affair, compared with the international community. Steininger asserts that Adenauer's conviction that “neutralization means sovietization” was the main factor in the rejection of the Note (Steininger, 80). Steininger maintains that the Western powers did not try to dissuade Adenauer from his policy because they knew that they would fail in their efforts (Steininger, 49-51). Walko, however, argues that Adenauer had less influence than Steininger claims, and that the Western powers played a far more important role. He argues that Adenauer's opinion was only one element of the decision process, although later he concedes that the United States was 'powerless to derail Adenauer's integration policy' (Walko, 75).

Adenauer feared that unification might result in the end of the CDU's dominance in the Bundestag (Steininger, 103). If Adenauer wanted to continue with his policy of Western integration, he would have had to persuade the German people that integration was the best option for Germany. Walko asserts that the majority of the population was against the proposals that were made in the March note, but he offers no evidence to substantiate his statement, which makes his claim unconvincing (Walko, 87). While it is fair to say that Germans might have been apprehensive about another Soviet overture, it is difficult to imagine that many Germans wanted to maintain the division of their nation, and thus Adenauer played a more important role than German popular opinion in deciding the response to the note. Nevertheless, Steininger's unrelenting emphasis on the role of Adenauer is unproductive, as it marginalizes the role of the international community in his narrative.

The role of the international community is another point that Walko and Steininger strongly disagree on. As discussed above Steininger places more emphasis on the role of the German government, and especially of Adenauer himself, whereas Walko's book examines the issue from an international perspective, and so places a greater emphasis on the United States role. In fact, it is far too simplistic to look at the situation from just German and American perspectives; both Britain and France still had very definite interests in the German state, and were strongly influential. Each country had its own input, and as it happened, they were all working toward roughly the same goal. Walko describes the 'American rejection' of Stalin's offer as though it was the United States who was deciding what should be done; completely ignoring the role of Britain and France, not to mention West Germany (Walko, 5). While he may be correct in stressing the American role in negotiations, as West Germany did not have full power to negotiate on its own, he is wrong to stress the role of the international community so strongly in the rejection of the offer. West Germany, at this time, was starting to exert itself again within the international community, as signified by the proposals for the EDC and the Bonn Convention, both of which were signed in May 1952.

A committee was convened in Paris on March 20 1952 to decide what an appropriate response should be to the Stalin Note. The committee consisted of Adenauer, British Foreign Secretary Anothy Eden, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, and American ambassador James Dunn, who decided that 'the object should be to avoid discussion with the Russians and to press on the European Defense Community' (Steininger, 56). According to John Gaddis 'there was little inclination in Western capitals to explore this offer' (Gaddis, 126). Even after the EDC treaty was signed, however, Eden and Robert Schuman still pushed for a four-power conference. Throughout the exchange of notes there were significant disagreements between the Western powers on how the German question should be approached. The French were keen to keep West Germany weak, as opposed to the United States, which wanted to build up German strength as another bulwark against the Soviets, especially as the Cold War progressed (Walko, 37). Both Walko and Steininger stress their own respective viewpoints on the role of the international community too strongly; Adenauer did play a decisive role, but he was not all powerful, as Steininger suggests; and the Western powers did exert their influence, but they did not override German opinion, as Walko suggests. I have come to the conclusion that each played its own significant role in deciding the appropriate response to the Stalin Note.

Both books are essentially an examination of the issue of German reunification through the examination of the exchange of diplomatic notes between the USSR and the Western powers in the course of 1952, and both cover much of the same ground. It is clear, however, that in terms of quality Steininger's book far outstrips Walko's. Steiniger uses a much more balanced set of sources, and his book is a much more carefully researched effort. Dijk's main criticism of Steininger is that he is 'unpersuasive' (Dijk, 1). While it is true that Steininger's conclusions are sometimes stretched a little further than the available evidence justifies, his argument is well substantiated enough to sustain real interest in the work (Blum, 440-42). As a result Steininger's book is still a cornerstone of the English language historiography on the topic, and while it may not be the most easily accessible work to a lay person, it is an invaluable title for any research into the topic. Therefore, the audience for Steininger's book is almost entirely comprised of those in the academic community.

John Walko's Balance of Empires cannot be praised nearly as highly as The German Question, as it is not written in a 'methodically sophisticated way', and does not succeed in engaging the reader. Walko consistently fails to address the main point of his thesis: that is, his argument that it was the United States' attitudes that most strongly influenced the response to the March 1952 note.(Maulucci, 1). Walko uses a far smaller number of sources, even though he had more archives and scholarly titles available at the time of writing. Thomas Maulucci gives an absolutely damning review of the book criticizing the lack of research and the structure of the work (Maulucci, 1). There is little that can be said to counter these criticisms, as the majority of them are correct. The book tries to give a general overview of the topic, while also trying to secure itself as a credible part of the historiography; it fails in both cases (Walko, x). Therefore, the potential audience for the book is limited, perhaps confined to those who have exhausted the rest of the historiography.

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

Book Reviews

  • Blum, G.P, Review of Steininger, R., The German Question , German Studies Review , Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 440-442. (jstor)
    The review praises Steininger's work as an invaluable part of the historiography on the Stalin Note. While George Blum does not agree with Steininger's thesis completely, he praises the high level of academic integrity that the book represents, as it provides not only a detailed narrative, but also in depth analysis supported by careful research.
  • Maulucci, T., Review of Walko, J.W., Balance of Empires: United States' Rejection of German Reunification and Stalin's March Note of 1952, The. H-German, H-Net Reviews. June 2004. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=9432
    The article gives an absolutely damning review of Walko's work, arguing that an insufficient source base makes many of the questions he asks completely unnecessary. The article sees little use for Walko's work, either in an academic sphere, or for an overview of the topic.

Web Sites

  • Wikipedia, “Stalin Note,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/stalin_note.
    Includes a factual rundown of all of the major events during 1952, as well as important events that occurred both before and after the exchange of diplomatic notes. The article does a good job in highlighting the ongoing debate over the Stalin note, showing clearly the available evidence on each side. Includes a short, but extremely useful bibliography, including information on German language works on the topic.
  • Absolute Astronomy, “Stalin Note – Facts, Encyclopedia Articles, and Discussion Forum,” http://www.absoluteastromony.com/topics/stalin_note.
    While not particularly in depth or analytical, the essential facts are presented in a way that facilitates an easy understanding of the basic events and debates on the topic. Provides a short, and easily accessible overview of the events of 1952, as well as important background information, including historiographical debates.
  • Ruud van Dijk, “Stalin Note,” (referenceworld.com--google's html version).
    For what is essentially an academic article, the piece is relatively short in length. There is not as much analysis as in Ruud van Dijk's scholarly works, but nevertheless the topic is still addressed from all of the relevant angles, evaluating not only the events, but also the underlying causes of them. Van Dijk strongly supports the argument that the Stalin Note does not constitute a 'missed opportunity'.

Additional Book and Articles

  • Ruud van Dijk, and Cold War International History Project; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, The 1952 Stalin Note Debate: Myth or Missed Opportunity for German Unification? (Washington D.C.: Cold War International History Project Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1996) 38 pages. www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/ACFB54.pdf
    Using newly opened (early 1990s) archive material Ruud van Dijk builds evidence to challenge the views of those historians who argue for the “missed opportunity” thesis, arguing that their theses are based on little more than conjecture. The article is most useful in the fact that it directly addresses many of the existing arguments that have been proposed about the Note. His thesis is that there was not a missed opportunity in the exchange of diplomatic notes during 1952.
  • John Gaddis, We Know Now: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) 456 pages. UCSB library call number: Library D843 .G23 
    The book attempts to cover the whole of Cold War history in one volume, and as a result only one short chapter is devoted to the Stalin Note episode. The work is lacking on detail, but is fundamentally sound in its analysis of the topic.
  • William Smyser, From Yalta To Berlin (New York: St. Martins, 1999) 425 pages. UCSB library call number: Main Library DD257.4 .S59 1999 
    Smyser sees a larger role for Walter Ulbricht and the East German state in his work. While he admits that there was some kind of opportunity presented by the diplomatic notes in 1952, to what extent there was a viable chance of unification remains unclear, based on the available evidence.
  • Wilfried Loth, "The Origins of Stalin's Note of 10 March 1952," Cold War History, vol.4, no.2 (January 2004) pp.66-88. UCSB library call number: Main Library D839 .C64
    Wilfried Loth's work concentrates on the Soviet intentions behind the note, using previously unavailable sources from the Russian archives. His thesis is that Stalin was sincere in his motivations, although that does not necessarily mean that there was a “missed opportunity”, as some have claimed.

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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 12/11/08; last updated:
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