Peter Ruggenthaler. Stalins großer Bluff: Die Geschichte der Stalin-Note in Dokumenten der sowjetischen Führung. Schriftenreihe der Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte. Munich: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2007. 256 pp. EUR 24.80 (paper), ISBN 978-3-486-58398-4.
Reviewed by Thomas Maulucci (Department of History, American International College)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Skeptics Strike Back
The 1952 Stalin Notes have remained a matter of political and historical controversy up to the present day. Did these four diplomatic notes to the American, British, and French governments represent an honest proposal to create a unified but neutral Germany, or did the Soviet Union simply intend to disrupt the Federal Republic of Germany's rearmament and integration into the European Defense Community? Did the Konrad Adenauer government, with its emphasis on western integration, miss a chance to reunify Germany when it encouraged the Three Powers to reject the proposal? Finally, would Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders really have been willing to sacrifice the construction of socialism in the German Democratic Republic in order to unite the state that had invaded the USSR in 1941? By the 1990s, historians had accurately reconstructed the position of the concerned western states and statesmen, and the collapse of communism seemed to present the opportunity to settle the discussion about Soviet and East German motives once and for all. Although the weight of the new evidence suggested that Stalin had no intention of abandoning the GDR, however, no consensus could be reached. Access to the papers of high-ranking Soviet officials in the Russian archives, and in particular to those of Joseph Stalin himself, has remained frustratingly limited, and even the available documents, such as GDR president Wilhelm Pieck's meeting notes, were often open to contrary interpretations. In 2006 and 2007, respectively, Geoffrey Roberts and Wilfried Loth argued that the Stalin Notes--or in Roberts's case, the first note--were indeed sincere.. Now Peter Ruggenthaler seeks to resolve the debate in favor of the skeptics with his edited collection of 141 documents from the papers of Vyacheslav Molotov.
Although Stalin had dismissed him from the post of foreign minister in March 1949 and further humiliated him by arresting his wife, Molotov continued to function from the fall of 1949 until late 1952 as the key conduit between the Central Committee and the Soviet Foreign Ministry and intelligence services. All important papers concerning foreign policy crossed his desk. In 2004, Molotov's papers were transferred from the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation to the Russian State Archive of Social-Political History, where historians had access to complete finding aides for this collection for the first time. Ruggenthaler has edited the internal letters, reports, and notes best suited to clarify the actual goals of Soviet German policy. This work can best be described as an interpretive study with a substantial documentary supplement, however, as opposed to a mere edition of documents. Ruggenthaler's argument--reflected in the book's title--that the Stalin Notes were a "great bluff," depends on his impressive knowledge of the international literature and other archival materials just as much as it does on the published selection of Molotov's papers.
The first part of the book presents the prehistory of the notes from February 1951 to March 1952. Soviet leaders clearly knew that the governments of the Three Powers as well as the most influential politicians in the Federal Republic, including those in the SPD, opposed the neutralization of Germany, which they feared would open up the entire country to Soviet influence and perhaps even allow a repeat of the 1948 "Prague Coup." Nor did the KPD seem powerful or organized enough to mount a successful neutrality campaign. Moreover, throughout 1951, reports based in part on espionage in France (which the collection repeatedly demonstrates was an important source of Soviet information about western policies) indicated that the western powers, in particular the United States, were intent on rearming the Federal Republic. The Soviet Foreign Ministry reported in February 1951 that SED chairman Walter Ulbricht himself was convinced that the United States was going to implement its plans for a West German military, no matter what happened. The revelations from Molotov's papers make it difficult to believe that Soviet policymakers could harbor any illusions that either the Three Powers or the Adenauer government would seriously consider the proposals later contained in the Stalin Notes.
However, not only Soviet diplomats but also Pieck and Ulbricht believed that supporters of German neutrality, both in Germany and western Europe, should be encouraged in order to create complications for West German rearmament. Ulbricht even suggested in early 1951 that the USSR make a declaration in support of German neutrality in order to expose the American "war-mongers" (p. 57). Ruggenthaler therefore sees Ulbricht as one of, if not the, originators of the idea behind the Stalin Notes. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Foreign Ministry began working on a neutralization proposal and then a peace treaty for Germany. Despite considerable pressure from the SED, for tactical reasons the USSR nonetheless made no formal proposal until March 1952, letting the East German government take the lead with initiatives like the "Germans at One Table" campaign. In late 1951 and early 1952, reports about difficulties in the negotiations between the Three Powers and the FRG and in NATO planning provided the immediate context for the first note. None of the documents speculates about abandoning the GDR, a step that obviously might have been a consequence of a serious neutrality proposal.
The second part of the book concerns the Three Powers' March 1952 proposal for a "Short" or "Abbreviated Treaty" to restore a united Austria. Soviet leaders decided to ignore these appeals, fearing that negotiations would expose the true intentions behind the Stalin Notes and perhaps create pressure for a unified Germany. In 1955, when the division of Germany seemed permanent, the USSR would readily agree to a united and neutral Austria, in no small part to keep Austrian manpower and resources out of the western bloc. This section is the one most dependent on Ruggenthaler's introductory essay, which provides the essential context for understanding the documents, but it also makes an important connection between Soviet policy on Austria and Germany that has been neglected in the past.
The final part of the study handles Soviet German policy from the first Stalin Note to October 1952. During this period, Soviet leaders were clearly concerned about strengthening the GDR's borders and defenses. On March 31, barely three weeks after the first Stalin Note, Pieck, Ulbricht, and GDR minister president Otto Grotewohl were already in Moscow to discuss preparations for the SED's Second Party Conference. The documents reveal that Pieck argued for "countermeasures" in the GDR as soon as the Three Powers granted the FRG sovereignty and allowed it to set up armed forces. Moreover, in July, the Soviet Central Committee formally, albeit cautiously, approved measures to build socialism in the GDR, a policy Ulbricht announced at the Second Party Conference the same month. He later praised the fourth Stalin Note in August, since it answered critics who said that the SED's "construction of socialism" had ended any chance for reunification. This evidence from the Molotov documents clearly supports the thesis that the notes were merely a disruptive tactic and that developments in the GDR followed a course, often driven by SED leaders, which bore no relation to them. Further reports detailed rising American impatience with slow progress in rearming West Germany and increasing French fears about the same process. Ruggenthaler emphasizes that in September 1952, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Vyshinskii thought the notes a success because they had delayed the implementation of American policies.
It is probably premature to claim, as the book's back cover does, that "with the present documentation the decades-long argument about the Stalin Notes has been decided." Most importantly, the views of Stalin and the Central Committee rarely appear directly in the Molotov documents. As the author himself acknowledges, reports from the Foreign Ministry--the vast majority of the sources reprinted in the collection--cannot be taken as representative of the deliberations at the highest decision-making levels in the USSR. Nonetheless, Ruggenthaler supports his case well and, in my opinion, convincingly. And he does attempt to reconstruct those events, especially the visit of the SED leadership to Moscow in March and April of 1952, for which documentation on Stalin's views exist. Yet only full access to Stalin's papers and the records of the Central Committee is likely to settle the debate on the Stalin Notes, especially on the first note of March 10, 1952, once and for all. With its concentration on the years 1951 and 1952, Ruggenthaler's study also cannot claim to have demonstrated that Stalin had wanted the division of Germany since 1945. A recent major study by Gerhard Wettig argues that Stalin certainly would have greeted a Soviet-controlled united Germany (however unrealistic this goal may have been). Only in 1951, after the onset of the Korean War, did the German unity campaign clearly become window-dressing. These criticisms aside, with this volume Ruggenthaler undoubtedly has strengthened the argument the Stalin Notes were a delaying tactic and not a serious proposal to unify Germany. His study is the most comprehensive and compelling discussion of the notes currently available and will be a valuable read for foreign policy experts, postwar historians, and Cold War specialists.
. Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 350-359; and Wilfried Loth, Die Sowjetunion und die Deutsche Frage: Studien zur sowjetischen Deutschlandpolitik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007). See also Wolfram von Scheliha, Review of Loth, Wilfried, Die Sowjetunion und die deutsche Frage: Studien zur sowjetischen Deutschlandpolitik. H-German, H-Net Reviews. August, 2009, URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24359 .
. Strangely, Ruggenthaler does not quote Stalin's comments directly from the minutes of these meetings, first published by the historian Bernd Bonvech in the Russian journal Istochnik in 2003, although they vividly support his argument. They are, however, cited at length in Gerhard Wettig, Stalin and the Cold War in Europe: The Emergence and Development of East-West Conflict, 1939-1953 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 222-225.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Thomas Maulucci. Review of Ruggenthaler, Peter, Stalins großer Bluff: Die Geschichte der Stalin-Note in Dokumenten der sowjetischen Führung.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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