Ostpolitik: An Honest Attempt at Understanding

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Wenhao Du (Winston) Vanderbilt Class of 2019


On October 28, 1969, West Germans heard their new Chancellor’s first address, and with it the beginnings of a new foreign policy: Ostpolitik.

Radically reversing previous policies such as non-recognition of the GDR and the Hallstein Doctrine (West Germany’s informal practice of severing diplomatic ties with any third-world country that recognized the GDR[1]), Ostpolitik called for a normalization of diplomatic and economic ties with countries in the Eastern Bloc. In particular, it sought to improve relations with East Germany and ease tensions between the two Germanies.[2] Highly controversial at the time, Brandt’s “change through rapprochement” policy would be supported by only the thinnest of parliamentary margins.[3] The opposition party CDU objected to every facet of Brandt’s policy: a April 1972 vote of no confidence in Brandt was defeated by only two votes in the Bundestag.[4]

Brandt’s policy was also found to be, according to East Germans like Spymaster Markus Wolf, “riven with contradictions.”[5] Despite its critics and its inherent flaws however, it was clear by the 1980’s that Ostpolitik had achieved meaningful results in a plethora of areas.

The new Ostpolitik was going to be “an honest attempt at understanding,” Brandt declared. He believed Germany could not “stand between the West and the East,” but must instead gain “cooperation and coordination with the West and understanding with the East.”[6] To do so his administration shelved the Hallstein doctrine, thus allowing NATO allies such as Belgium and the United States to recognize the GDR. He opened diplomatic channels: by May 1974 the two Germanys would have permanent representation in each other’s capitals.[7] Brandt and his colleague Egon Bahr reasoned that the “confidence that our world is the better one… the one that will prevail, makes it conceivable to try to open up ourselves, to encourage the other side to do so…”[8]

Willy Brandt Campaign Poster (1972) Sir James, Haus der Geschichte (Wikimedia Commons)

Economic Cooperation

This line of reasoning was proven by the almost immediate effect Ostpolitik had on economic matters. East Germany, for example, quickly saw benefits of cooperation, “[w]hether … the building of a motorway between Hamburg and Berlin … the opening of an East-West shipping canal, or business negotiations with the West German industrial giants Krupp or Hoechts.”[9] In fact, the resulting over-involvement by East Germany with its counterpart often did not please Moscow: during the 1980’s these activities resulted in a “postponement yet again of the long-desired meeting between Honecker and Schmidt.”[10]

West Germany’s Ostpolitik economic incentives were also available to other Eastern European countries, and even allowed a certain degree of political influence. Poland, a country that had criticized East Germany’s openness to Ostpolitik, is one prominent example. As Werner Lippert has suggested, this criticism was out of jealousy “over perpetual East German refusals to share the economic and technological advances the East reaped from Inter-Zonal Trade” rather than dedication to the hard-line.[11] At the same time it railed against the East German government’s actions, Poland was seeking to reap its own détente bonus. During trade negotiations with West Germany, Poland went as far to even concede the politically-controversial question of whether to include West Berlin as part of the trade agreement. In doing so, it handed a decisive political victory for Ostpolitik.[12]

The Soviet Union was also bought to the negotiation table. In early 1970, a triangular trade deal of “hitherto unheard-of proportions” between the Soviet Union, the German Steel Industry, and a German bank consortium allowed a “quantum leap forward” for then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s economic plan.[13] This large-scale trade deal offered the much-needed grease for new political initiatives with the Soviet Union that year, culminating in the Moscow Treaty. After the treaty’s signing ceremony, the Brandt government removed import restrictions on over 4,700 products from Eastern Europe.[14] These victories vindicate Egon Bahr’s belief that “[m]aterial improvement would have to have a relaxing effect in the Zone.”[15] Conducted with the agreement of the Eastern Bloc, they had paradoxically changed “the status quo by first attempting not to change it.”[16]

Visit of Erich Honecker in Bonn (Sep. 1987) Klaus Oberst, BundesArchiv Bild 183-1987-0907-017 (Wikimedia Commons)

Keeping their heads down”

In military matters, Ostpolitik with East Germany achieved significant cooperation between the two Germanys to ensure peace, despite escalating Cold War tensions globally at the time. As East German intelligence officers reported early on, “Brandt’s new Ostpolitik … marked a genuine change of course in West German foreign policy.” There was a sense of trust in the GDR leadership regarding “the intentions of Brandt and his allies.”[17] Just a decade later, high officials from both states would be in frequent contact: according to a report by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “in difficult times … the two states are making an important contribution to maintaining peace by actively using all available options to work together.”[18] When the international crisis came to a head in 1982 with Soviet deployment of SS-20s to East Germany and the subsequent failure of arms negotiations by NATO, West Germany was still able to convincingly assure its counterpart that it was reliable. “Nothing crazy will happen on West German’s side,” then Federal Republic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told the GDR economics advisor Günter Mittag. The progress of Ostpolitik had allowed a shared belief by both sides that “while the superpowers played their war game … Germans should deal with each other and keep [their] heads down.”[19] Both sides knew that Germany was at the geopolitical forefront of this US-Soviet conflict. Germany’s safety was their utmost priority, not their allegiances to their overseers.

During the early 1980s, East and West Germany were pressured by Moscow and Washington respectively. However, the “more threatening the international situation became, the more intensely Honecker and Schmidt worked at improving their personal relations. They kept contact on a special telephone line.”[20] When Schmidt was forced by the United States to cancel his visit to East Berlin, his thoughts were still “focused on maintaining the German relationship rather than playing the superpower game.” Schmidt straightforwardly cancelled his visit “rather than trying to maneuver Honecker into a situation where the East would have to withdraw the invitation.”[21]

John F. Kennedy meeting with Willy Brandt at the White House (March 1961) Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress cph.3c34151 (Wikimedia Commons)

Constructive Cooperation

Beyond just security concerns, Ostpolitik achieved a heightened level of German unity and understanding. Even during the 1970’s, Willy Brandt’s government was already in negotiations with East Germany with regards to “trips for tourism.” Brandt also welcomed an initiative that during “family emergencies the authorities on the other side will enable trips to the Federal Republic.”[22] The first was implemented in the 1971 Four-Power Agreement, while the latter was implemented in the 1972 Transit Agreement between the two German states (along with a joint initiative to reconstruct parts of the Autobahn from Berlin to Helmstedt).[23] An agreement to construct a Berlin-Hamburg Autobahn soon followed.[24]

These agreements fostered goodwill, but also produced the palpable result of increasing intra-German communication and trade. By 1984, there was “intensive dialogue between the two German states…diverse contacts and constructive cooperation in numerous areas… the network of relations [had] become firmer.”[25] Even more agreements followed, such as the cultural agreement of May 6, 1986, which encouraged “the development of cultural relations and … led to a clear increase in cultural exchange.”[26] These programs were highly effective. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a stalwart opponent of the Soviet bloc, saw the benefits of communication over just confrontation. In his famous speech at Brandenburg Gate, Reagan told the crowd: “it’s my hope that an authority can be found in East Berlin to sponsor visits from young people of the Western sectors.”[27]


Ostpolitik helped foster a sense of trust between West Germany and the countries in the East. It positioned West Germany as a major actor on the international affairs stage and, in Brandt’s own prediction, allowed the country to “contribute to the equilibrium of forces between the West and East.”[28] The policy not only accomplished many of its original aims, but it also set up arguably vital conditions for Germany’s eventual reunification in 1990 (which by 1989 was a real and likely possibility[29]). Though arguably slow at times, it did move the long process of reunification forward. Thanks to Ostpolitik, a brighter future for Germany slowly but surely appeared on the horizon.


[1] “Modifying the Hallstein Doctrine (June 4, 1969),” June 4, 1969, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=917.

See also Markus Wolf and Anna McElvoy, Man Without A Face: The Autobiography of Communisms Greatest Spymaster (New York: Public Affairs, 1997), 323.: “Bonn refused to recognize any country that recognized East Germany”

[2] Willy Brandt, “Two States, One Nation,” October 28, 1969, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=86.

[3] David Binder, “Willy Brandt Dead at 78; Forged West Germany’s Reconciliation With the East,” The New York Times, October 9, 1992, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/09/world/willy-brandt-dead-at-78-forged-west-germany-s-reconciliation-with-the-east.html.

[4] Angela E. Stent, From Embargo to Ostpolitik: The Political Economy of West German-Soviet Relations, 1955–1980 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 185.

[5] Wolf and McElvoy, Man Without A Face, 172.

[6] Brandt, “Two States, One Nation.”

[7] Bill Niven and J.K. A. Thomaneck, Dividing and Uniting Germany (London: Routledge, 2002), 33.

[8] Egon Bahr, “Change through Rapprochement,” July 15, 1963, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=81.

[9] Wolf and McElvoy, Man Without A Face, 248.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Werner D. Lippert, The Economic Diplomacy of Ostpolitik: Origins of NATO’s Energy Dilemma. (New York: Bergdahn, 2011), 60–61.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., xi.

[14] Ibid., 60–61.

[15] Bahr, “Change through Rapprochement.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wolf and McElvoy, Man Without A Face, 172.

[18] Helmut Kohl, “Freedom as the Core of the German Question: Report by Federal Chancellor Dr. Helmut Kohl on the State of the Nation in Divided Germany” (German History in Documents and Images, March 15, 1984), http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1144.

[19] Wolf and McElvoy, Man Without A Face, 245.

[20] Ibid,

[21] Wolf and McElvoy, Man Without A Face, 246.

[22] Willy Brandt, “Vote of No Confidence: Speech before the German Bundestag,” April 28, 1972, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=1680.

[23] Eric Solsten, ed., “Germany: A Country Study,” in Ostpolitik, Area Handbook Series (Washington: Government Printing Office for the Library of Congress, 1995), http://countrystudies.us/germany/62.htm.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Phillip Jenniger, “Billion Mark Loans and Humanitarian Concessions: Declaration on the Development of Intra-German Relations,” July 25, 1984, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1145.

[26] Helmut Kohl and Erich Honecker, “Joint Communiqué by Erich Honecker and Helmut Kohl,” September 8, 1987, German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=108.

[27] Ronald Wilson Reagan, “Speech at the Brandenburg Gate” (United States Government, June 12, 1987), http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/speeches/reagan_berlin.htm.

[28] Brandt, “Two States, One Nation.”

[29] Kohl, “Freedom as the Core of the German Question.”

#Germany #helmutkohl #ostpolitik #willybrandt

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