The Cold War: To what extent was Germany the cause of East-West disagreements between 1945 and 1961?

During the period between 1945 and 1961, Germany played an incredibly significant part in the Cold War, and it can be argued that it served as the cause of East-West disagreements between 1945 and 1961. However, there are also alternate opinions such as the belief that other reasons were more important, as well as the balance of power debate, all of which I shall now elaborate on.

Firstly, the significant strategic geographic location of Germany within Europe as well as its potential economic strength was important in a way that both the Eastern and Western bloc took interest in it. Being in centre of Europe, Germany was key to securing influence within the continent, sharing borders with many different smaller countries that were under threat of falling to communism such as Czechoslovakia. The important way in which the Allies regarded Germany can be viewed in the way that they divided Germany into different zones of occupation during the Potsdam Conference of 1945, with each country carrying out disarming and de-Nazification within their respective areas. The great amount of debating over the agreement during the conference was indicative of how important the different countries viewed Germany.

Similarly, the issue of a resurgent Germany also caused East-West disagreements. Whereas both the US and UK wished to see Germany recover economically so as to restore European peace and contain communism, the Soviet Union wished to see Germany crippled, both through reparations, of which it expected around $20 billion US dollars, and militarily. The Soviet perspective, which is also held by some revisionist historians such as Joyce Kolko, was that the Soviets were acting aggressively to Germany due to feeling threatened and only wished to ensure security. Later events such as the joining of NATO by West Germany in 1955 only furthered these fears. Having already been invaded twice by Germany, the Soviets wished to ensure that such an event would never happen again. This however, went against Western beliefs, furthering disagreements over the future of Germany.

More importantly however, is the differing aims that the different sides wanted for the future of Germany. Whereas the Soviet Union wished to make East Germany in it’s own image, as a rigidly Stalinist, authoritarian state with a planned economy, the United States wanted to oversee the evolution of West Germany as a flourishing capitalist state with democracy and a high standard of living. This can be demonstrated by the treatment of both sides. For example, West Germany was provided with Marshall Aid by the US to help its economy and its people. In East Germany though, during 1953 when political discontent manifested itself as violence within the industrial areas of the country, the Soviet Union sent in tanks to put down the rioting workers. This intervention was a clear demonstration of Soviet intentions. Both of these clearly demonstrated the aims that the superpowers held with regards to Germany and how different they were, inevitably leading to disagreements.

Furthermore, Germany often served as the backdrop for many Cold War crises that caused many East-West disagreements, such as the first and second Berlin Crisis. The first Berlin crisis of 1948, also known as the Berlin Blockade, was started when Stalin began a stranglehold on Western transport routes to West Berlin, which was deep in East German territory. The total blockade was done to try and push the Western Allies out of Berlin, but failed after the Allies began supplying Berlin through the air. The consequences of this though were that it ensured the division of Germany. The Berlin blockade made both sides unable to contemplate the idea of a united Germany that could become an ally to the other side and tilt the balance of power. The second Berlin crisis of 1958 though, occurred when Krushchev threatened handing over access to West Berlin over to East Germany. This was done to force the allies to recognise the existence of East Germany as a legitimate state; however it was later dropped after Western outrage. Both crises were clear examples of the East-West disagreements that Germany caused, and both very nearly led to armed confrontation, showing that in some ways Germany was central to East-West disagreements between 1945 and 1961.

On the other hand, there were many reasons that would show that why Germany was not the central cause of disagreements. Firstly, there were the clear fundamental ideological differences between the two superpowers, both economically and politically. Whereas the USSR believed in the distribution of goods through communism, the US believed in the power of the market through capitalism. Moreover, whereas the USSR believed in a one-party authoritarian state, the US believed in democracy and the freedoms and rights of individuals. The apparent incompatibility of these views made it hard for the two superpowers to agree on almost anything, let alone co-operate. This can be seen in the failures of diplomacy between the superpowers on multiple occasions, such as the Geneva conference of 1959 and the meetings between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in the same year.

There were other international reasons for the East-West disagreements between 1945 and 1961 that took place outside of Germany. There were other events within Europe that hardened US attitudes towards the Soviets, such as the acquiring of the atomic bomb by the Soviets, the Czechoslovakian coup of 1948, whereby the Soviets instigated the assassination and removal of various top Czech government officials, as well as the usage of “salami tactics” whereby the Soviets slowly removed and replaced government officials with pro-Soviet sympathisers in areas such as Albania and Poland. Additionally, there was the slow shifting of the focus of the Cold War from Europe to Asia that began with the fall of China in 1949, and continued with the re-arming of Japan as a stalwart against communism in Asia, and the Korean War of 1950. All of these events, particularly those in Asia, clearly show that many East-West disagreements were in fact, not caused by Germany and took place all over the world.

Additionally, the NSC-68 document of 1950 was incredibly important in causing East-West disagreements. The report was produced by the US National Security Council and warned that all communist activity everywhere in the world could be traced back to Moscow, and reported that all communist activity had a global theme as a result of the growing strength and influence of the USSR. This document was incredibly important as it enforced beliefs in a communist bloc and changed US attitudes. As a result of the growing idea of a monolithic communist bloc, the US became more willing to commit to other countries resisting communism, something that caused many East-West disagreements.

Finally, there is also the idea held by some historians that the origins of the Cold War lie in the traditional ‘balance of power’ idea of conflict. This idea came from the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in 1835 that the US and Russia would eventually come into conflict simply as a result of being two opposing expansionist superpowers during the same time. This would suggest that the entire Cold War, including East-West disagreements between 1945 and 1961, was actually not based on ideology or specific events, but simply caused by the balance of power.

In conclusion, I believe that while Germany played an important part during this period, it was not the main cause of East-West disagreements and that others, such as the events around the world during the same time and the central ideological opposition between the two superpowers, were far more important in both disagreements during that period as well as the greater course of the Cold War, as evidenced by the easing of tensions within Germany caused by the division of Berlin through the Berlin wall in 1961.

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