East Germany and the United States

A Non-Relationship?

Thursday, December 4, 2014, 5:30 - 7:30pm
Panel Discussion at the GHI - Directions
Speakers: Brandon Grove (chargé and then Deputy Chief of Mission in East Berlin 1974-1976), Rozanne Ridgway (Ambassador 1983-1985), Hope M. Harrison (George Washington University), Robert Gerald Livingston (GHI), and Christian Ostermann (Moderator, Woodrow Wilson Center)

  • Event Report

    This panel discussion, organized by Robert Gerald Livingston (GHI) and Uwe Spiekermann (GHI), addressed the relationship between the United States and East Germany on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1974. After words of welcome from GHI director Hartmut Berghoff, the speakers were introduced by Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center), who moderated the panel. The first speaker was Robert Gerald Livingston, Senior Research Fellow at the GHI, founding director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), and a former foreign service officer serving in West Germany. Drawing on his recently published article on "America's Relationship with the GDR" in the volume The Stasi at Home and Abroad: Domestic Order and Foreign Intelligence, edited by Uwe Spiekermann (Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Supplement 9 [2014]), Livingston gave a brief account of the major milestones in the relationship between the United States and the German Democratic Republic. Highlighting the fact that East Germany was not recognized by the United States until 1974 (25 years after its founding), Livingston proposed several reasons for this diplomatic neglect: first, on all matters relating to Berlin, Washington dealt directly with the Soviet Union; second, the wall and GDR shootings at the wall served as a symbol of the moral bankruptcy of communism; finally, since West Germany was a key U.S. ally, the United States deferred to West Germany's policy of isolating the GDR internationally. Even after West Germany's Ostpolitik and the establishment of formal relations between the two Germanies in the early 1970s made U. S. recognition of the G.D.R. unavoidable, these fundamentals did not change, and the GDR remained of minor importance in American foreign policy.

    The next speaker, Ambassador Brandon Grove, was the first American diplomat accredited to East Germany. Drawing on his autobiography Behind Embassy Walls: The Life and Times of an American Diplomat (University of Missouri Press, 2005), from which he read some excerpts, Grove reflected on his time as chargé and then Deputy Chief of Mission in East Berlin from 1974-1976. Grove noted that by 1974, when the United States established diplomatic relations with East Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, the British and the French already had diplomatic representation in the GDR - West Germany in the form of a permanent representation (Ständige Vertretung). President Nixon nominated a middle-of-the-road Republican senator, John Sherman Cooper to serve as the first American ambassador to East Berlin. The ceremony establishing diplomatic relations between East Germany and the United States that took place in Washington DC was purposely kept low-key. Grove served as the advance man, who arrived in East Berlin, two months before the U.S. embassy opened. The embassy had to contend with difficult security concerns. The East German Stasi tapped the embassy's phones and opened its mail, but they did not succeed in "bugging" the Embassy.

    Next, Ambassador Rozanne Ridgway, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs from 1985-89, spoke about her years as U.S. ambassador to East Germany from 1983 to 1985. In her first meeting with East German head of state Willy Stoph, she reiterated the set of demands that the US had been making for some time, including: the GDR must support the reunification of families; it must pay the compensation claims of U.S. citizens and Jewish victims of the Nazi regime; in particular, it must return of a set of Feininger paintings owned by the family of Lionel Feininger, who was a U.S. citizen. Since the East German response, predictably, inquired what the United States might be able to do for East Germany in return, Ridgway tried to put together a trade agreement, which was, however, vetoed at an interagency meeting in Washington. The United States did start to consult directly with the East Germans about the implementation of the Helsinki Act, and that interaction eventually led to the return of the Feininger paintings. Generally, however, Ridgway concluded, the stubbornness of the political attitudes in Washington prevented the United States from intensifying its contacts with East Germany and thus led the U.S. to miss opportunities that could have benefited its interests. She also noted that her work in the GDR led to her being branded as a communist sympathizer by some in Washington who sought to (unsuccessfully) prevent her appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs following her East Berlin assignment.

    The last speaker was Hope Harrison, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (2003), who stressed four points in order to sketch out the broader context. First, the only direct interest that United States had in East Germany was to ensure that the GDR did not threaten American access to West Berlin. Second, initially Brandt's Ostpolitik was treated skeptically by Nixon and Kissinger, who were worried that West Germany was "going rogue" and becoming too cozy with the communists. Third, the counterpart to the US-GDR relationship, that between West Germany and the Soviet Union, was much stronger because the FRG was convinced that it needed Moscow's trust to improve relations between the two Germanies and because the Soviets had significant interests in trade with West Germany. Finally, U.S. relations with East Germany became more important during the period of the "Second Cold War" (late 1970s / early 1980s), when the prospect of the deployment of SS 20 missiles in East Germany threatened the strategic balance in central Europe.

    The presentations of the panelist were followed by a lively question-and-answer session. During the discussion a former foreign service officer who had served in a more junior position in the US Embassy in East Berlin noted that, while it may have been boring to be the American ambassador to GDR, more junior members of the embassy staff were able to develop an extensive network of contacts with East German citizens, which allowed them to keep abreast of dissident activities, as they coalesced into an opposition movement in the second half of the 1980s. The future release of embassy cables back to Washington, he argued, would show that, even though the State Department seems to have ignored this information, the U.S. embassy in East Berlin informed Washington about the gathering storm of dissident activity in East Germany.


  • Invitation

    The German Democratic Republic, East Germany, was not recognized by the United States until 1974, 25 years after its founding, and was always of minor importance in American foreign policy. On all matters relating to Berlin, Washington dealt with the Soviet Union. That continued even after West Germany's Ostpolitik and establishment of formal relations between the two Germanies in the early 1970s made U. S. recognition of the G.D.R. unavoidable.

    Please RSVP (acceptance only) by Dec. 1. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437

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