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At the root of the Cold War was the German Question

By BeatriceStewart Apr 19, 2015 4103 Words
‘At the root of the Cold War was the German Question.’ Discuss. 1945 was a momentous year for change; the war was over, an atomic bomb had been used Germany was divided, decolonisation had created a power vacuum, and a harrowing symbiosis between America and the USSR had developed. The Cold War which subsequently arose was not like the other endemic wars of the past millennium, it was a combination of two kinds of war; it was both an ideological confrontation and a struggle to maintain the balance of power. Many historians agree that the Cold War was magnetised towards Germany, and thus the ‘German Question’ was at the root of the War. However, others regard the fact that because the Cold War expanded over such vast frontiers for such a long period of time meant that the roots of the war lay somewhere much deeper and complex than the issues in Germany. Their ideological differences meant the two superpowers could not comprehend the idea of cooperation after 1945, causing them to compete for domination across the globe and space in order for their ideology to be exported around the world. It was their insistence in maintaining the balance of power which would fuel the Cold War and cause the Allies to turn against one another in deciding how to deal with Germany at the post-war peace conferences.

‘Who has Germany, has Europe’, Lenin allegedly claimed. Into the gap that Hitler’s defeated fascist regime had left stepped the two candidates most able in exercising a predominant economic and political influence over their former enemy; America and the USSR. During the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in 1945 the ‘Big Three’ concurred on a number of principles and practical steps regarding the post-war direction of Germany. The Allies’ main intention was to prevent Germany ever becoming a threat to European peace and security, in order to achieve this they composed a programme consisting of four fundamental aims; denazification, demilitarisation, decartelisation and decentralisation. They also agreed on the division of Germany and Berlin into four separate occupation zones. However, the rest of the Peace Talks did not unfold in such a smooth manner; it was these talks over how to deal with Germany which highlighted the profound disparity between the USSR and America. The war aims of the two superpowers in relation to Germany diverged fundamentally from one another; America sought reconstruction of its former trading partner into a prosperous democracy ready for business again, conversely the USSR sought rich compensation to match the disproportionate loses it had faced during the war; in this way Germany would be weakened and could therefore act as a buffer zone rather than as a potential threat of invasion. Disagreement gave way to mutual antagonism as the former allies took practical steps to realise their vision for Germany. By 1946 tensions between the various occupying countries were mounting; it was clear to the USSR that reparations were not to be delivered from the western zones. During the spring of 1946 British and American concern over Soviet practices in East Germany were aroused when the East German Communist and Social Democratic parties were merged and their authority was seized by the newly formed Socialist Unity Party. Suspicions were not to end there; in the autumn of 1946 Stalin was alarmed by the discovery of Anglo-American discussions over the practicalities of fusing their zones into a Bizone. The coalition of Anglo-American zones acted as a catalyst towards the formal division of Germany two years later.

Relations continued to dampen during 1947 when West Germany was offered Marshall Plan aid, and in 1948 when all three western zones instituted a currency reform. In response the Stalin cut off rail and road links to West Berlin. The western powers realised the importance of keeping control of Berlin. Thus, in response the West initiated a massive airlift of supplies to Berlin so that the Soviets couldn’t starve West Berlin into surrender. When Stalin abandoned the blockade in May 1949 the result was a deepening of the East-West divide, and the eventual creation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. As Stalin’s Iron Curtain became ‘permanent’ the Cold War became more confrontational and the rival superpowers embarked on an arms race. In 1949, in attempt to resist the USSR the Allies set up an intergovernmental military alliance, NATO, which would act as a system of collective defence against any external party. Six years later Khrushchev would set up a similar organisation for eight Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact. All of a sudden the war had become much colder as the former allies faced one another with large scale, military alliances for which Germany was expected to provide a likely battleground. As time progressed the differences between East and West Germany become increasingly apparent; unlike the democratic West, the GDR was monopolised by the Soviet-backed Communist party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. In June 1953 the uprising of East Germany was violently supressed by the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany and Volkspolizei. Matters in East Germany continued to deteriorate, and the problem of emigration from East to West became increasingly severe, hindering the East’s economic growth even further. In an extreme attempt to rectify East Berlin’s diminishing population, Khrushchev prevented people from leaving by fortifying Western borders with the Berlin Wall in August 1961. The Berlin Wall was the symbol which characterised the East-West division; an ominous manifestation of an ideological divide in the form of bricks, mortar and barbed wire. ‘The wall not only divided Berlin. Over the following years, it became a symbol of division - the division of Germany, the division of Europe, the division of communist East and democratic West. The Communists presented the wall as being a protective shell. The West presented it as a prison wall.’ Many perceived the ‘temporary’ division that the wall created as a permanent division. As a result it tackled the issue of East Germany’s declining population, and subsequently stabilised the Cold War in Germany. Although Germany still remained very tense and sensitive, Khrushchev describing it as ‘the testicles of the West’, it was a managed tension which allowed for increasing contact and trade. As focused switched from Germany to elsewhere in the world, a Berliner in 1961 may have viewed events from then onwards in Germany with mild surprise. In just four years after the surrender of Germany to the Grand Alliance the allies had turned against one another, polarising Europe into an East-West divide which would remain at the centre of the Cold War until the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. From a European perspective Germany would have appeared very much at the centre of the Cold War tensions; symbolically it was where the Cold War both started and ended with the tense Potsdam Conference in 1945 and then the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. To those expecting superpower confrontation, Germany seemed like the ideal battleground. However, looking at the Cold War on an international scale it is evident that there were roots elsewhere. Despite the continued East-West tension in Berlin, the second half of the Cold War was relatively peaceful in Germany compared to the rest of the world where the Cold War ravaged the homes and lives of non-Europeans. But what was it that spurred the Cold War on for so many years and when did it actually start?

Many historians trace the origins of the Cold War back to when the Grand Alliance fell apart at the end of the Second World War. In some respects, both superpowers were very similar to one another; they both entered the war due to surprise attack, and had each been born in revolution. Both states also advanced across vast frontiers and were the first and third largest countries in the world. Finally, both superpowers embraced ideologies with global aspirations and had leaders who believed their ideology was superior and should be exported and who perceived the other as an expansionist security threat. However, this is as far as their commonalities stretched. Lenin had overthrown the Provisional Government in the October Revolution. The USSR became an authoritarian society; its highly centralised command economy, single-party regime stood for everything America’s democratic government did not. Later, in March 1947, Truman announced his ‘Truman Doctrine’ which depicted a frightening world in which the US faced the evil communist ideology, and stated that America was obliged to ‘support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’. Truman believed that ‘totalitarian regimes’, such as the Soviet Union’s, coerced the ‘free peoples’ within, and that by doing so international peace and the security of the United States was threatened. The disparity between the two nations ultimately meant that under natural circumstances they were better suited as rivals rather than allies. Their incompatible systems meant that the victors would either have to cease being who they were or give up much of what they’d hoped to attain by fighting the war. What the superpowers were aiming to attain was superficially very similar; their post-war objectives were both based around obtaining security. Stalin believed security for himself, his regime, his country and his ideology were the four most essential objectives. He was well aware that in order to obtain security in this form he would need continued Anglo-American goodwill. However, he was also acutely aware of the self-destructive cycles of ‘boom and bust’ that Marxist theory said that capitalism seemed to move in. Stalin believed another capitalist crisis was about to arise, in which case the capitalists would then rely on the communists. Stalin’s grand vision therefore was to restore the balance of power in Europe in such a way that most benefitted himself. Similarly, America’s key objective was obtaining security. In order to serve as a model for the rest of the world to prevent future wars and keep peace, the US could no longer remain apart from it; it would therefore have to abandon its policy of isolationism. This was a fundamental turning point in US foreign policy, and it would soon have its effect on the Cold War, as it meant that presidents no longer were restricted on how far and when they could commit the US overseas. Relations within the Grand Alliance were already tense in to October 1944 when Churchill agreed that the USSR would have predominant influence in the European countries it had occupied during the war. Roosevelt, angry that he had not been consulted on the Stalin-Churchill deal, protested against it. Matters worsened when Stalin insisted on taking a third of Poland’s territory and imposed a pro-Soviet government there, against plans for a government of ‘national unity’ made at Yalta. Britain and America were becoming increasingly wary of Stalin. Two weeks before his death, Roosevelt described Stalin as having ‘broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta’.

The flaws within the Grand Alliance had proved too much once the war was over. It had been an alliance based on negative cohesion in order to defeat common enemies. Each of its members used the Alliance as an instrument to position themselves for maximum influence in the post war world and to ensure that the balance of power wasn’t tipped out of their favour. Had their ideologies been less adversarial then perhaps the alliance may not have fragmented and turned against one another in the way that it did. However, communism and capitalism were such polar opposites on the political spectrum that the probability of the allies continuing to cooperate in post-war conditions was very unlikely. Thus, many of the roots of the Cold War lay in the chasm between the two competing ideologies, who each saw the world as too small for both to coexist. For the superpowers, the Cold War became a religious crusade for their ideology, and for the next four decades each fought the Cold War in order to become the unrivalled doctrine of the world. This crusade would never manifest itself into the German war so many expected, it would take the form of proxy wars and races to be the paramount figure in nuclear science and space.

The Soviet-American rivalry over nuclear weaponry and scientific ventures symbolised the bipolarity of the Cold War and changed the politics of war completely. The American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 placed America in a position of nuclear domination. Feelings of animosity and suspicion which had been cast aside during the Second World War were awakened once again. Truman had seen the bombing as an ideal opportunity to showcase the military strength of the US whilst making Stalin more amenable in Europe. But this alienated Stalin, who had not been enlightened of the news that America had acquired the nuclear bomb at either of the Big Three Conferences, even more. However, Soviet espionage meant that America’s nuclear monopoly did not last for very long. After the Soviet revealed their first atomic bomb in 1949, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy made considerable political capital by fuelling scares of communist subversion. Once America’s nuclear monopoly had been nullified they became far more fearful of the USSR, and the communist witch-hunt that McCarthy’s claims instigated only intensified America’s Red Scare. Both superpowers felt the need to keep nuclear parity with the other, and the Arms Race which developed from this belief triggered the return of fear which much of the Cold War fed off. Although in 1949 the US and USSR were nuclear powers, the US seemed to be consistently one step ahead. Eisenhower’s administration therefore relied heavily on the notion of massive retaliation; a strategy of military counterattack in which the US threatened to react to any type of military offensive from communist powers with nuclear weapons. However, the perception of American nuclear superiority did not extend for the entirety of the Cold War, and thus nor did its strategy of massive retaliation. In 1957 the USSR launched the first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and sent the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into space. It seemed as if a sudden shift of rocket technology and intelligence capabilities had taken place. When America launched the first American satellite into space in January 1958 it did little to close the fears of a ‘missile gap’ between the USSR. This missile gap continued to widen in April 1961 when the USSR sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The US responded by sending Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, one month later. Kennedy then went on to promise to put a man on the moon by 1969. Although the missile capabilities of the US far exceeded those of the USSR, the Americans were wary that Soviet ICBMs could easily reach their territory. The Arms Race tipped the Cold War onto the verge of a Hot War. The fear of nuclear war which was created almost became reality in October 1962. In 1959 rebel Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and Cuba became communist. Alarmed, Kennedy backed an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 in an attempt to overthrow Castro. It proved to be a momentous failure. In May 1962 Khrushchev publicly proposed the idea of placing Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter future invasions. In October 1962 American U-2 spy planes located various nuclear missile sites in Cuba; these sites brought every US town within range of Soviet nuclear missiles. The US responded by imposing a military blockade and demanded the missile sites be dismantled. Khrushchev warned that he would view a naval blockade as an act of war and Soviet forces were put on alert. Kennedy responded duly, putting US planes with nuclear bombs in the air. Moscow and Washington were engulfed by the fear of a potential third world war. The crisis was not to prove explosive however; Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the Cuban bases and Kennedy agreed that he would lift the blockade and stay away from Cuban shores, whilst also agreeing, privately, to remove nuclear bases in Turkey. The original Japanese bombings were to prove the only two uses of nuclear weapons to date, though at times the atmosphere of the Cold War became incredibly tense. The superpowers’ transfixion on attaining nuclear supremacy led to the development of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy, which was used to prevent any direct, full-scale conflict. The advances in weapons were very much at the root of the Cold War; they created the possibility in which full scale use of nuclear weapons would effectively result in the annihilation of both sides, thus becoming a war with no victors and only reciprocal destruction. As Historian Taylor Downing wrote, ‘for forty-five years the world held its breath’. No side wanted to be the first to use their newfound weaponry, but neither side wanted to be the last. Though these weapons were never to be used, they gave reason for the superpowers to interfere with the post-war world and led them both to step into the new power vacuum in order to compete for ideological dominance across the globe.

The Second World War had changed the world in two significant ways; the first was the spread of the Soviet Union’s communist-dominated governments, the second was the decline of empires, particularly the British and French. Communist-dominated governments took power in countries that the Red Army had ‘liberated’ during the war. Westerners perceived the communist takeover in this region between 1944 and 1949 as frightening and a gradually escalating sign of Stalin’s true intentions. Throughout the second half of the 1940s Stalin built up his Eastern European hegemony by converting every geographically strategic Eastern country into Soviet satellites. During this time, in 1946, Churchill declared that an ‘Iron Curtain’ had descended upon Europe and that the growing Soviet power must be halted. Churchill’s contemporary, Truman, spoke of the need to ‘roll back’ communism before it spread across the rest of Europe like a disease. In 1947 Stalin set up a Comintern which was designed to make sure all the communist countries in the Eastern Bloc obeyed Soviet rule. In April 1948 George Marshall conjured up a plan to help Europe recover from the war. Like many other American policy-makers, Marshall was keen to prevent a return to the conditions of the 1930s in which the Great Depression and rise of right-wing totalitarian powers had prompted the onset of the Second World War. Marshall believed that Europe was so poor that the rest of it would soon surrender to communism. In order to prevent this Marshall Aid would provide seventeen billion dollars to assist non-communist economic recovery. Stalin, perceiving this as capitalist enterprise forbade the Comintern countries to apply for Marshall Aid, and set up the Soviet version of Marshall Aid, COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) the following year. By 1955 matters had changed, new Soviet leader Mikhail Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s legacy as tyrannical and a personality cult. For many Eastern Europeans, Khrushchev’s promise of de-Stalinisation gave false hope of a new era of liberation. The expectations of Khrushchev’s new leadership were not met, and subsequently the Soviet Union faced a series of revolts. In 1956 both Poland and Hungary attempted to overthrow their communist governments, and in both cases they were repressed by Soviet troops. Revolts in Czechoslovakia followed in 1968. After four months the revolt was repressed by half a million Warsaw Pact troops, and Czechoslovakia was returned to communist rule. Such actions led to widespread horror and a further polarisation of the Cold War as leaders became increasingly determined to contain communism. Although European empires gradually disappeared in all continents during the Cold War, the emergence of an assertive communist China was an important factor in what might otherwise have been being ‘developed’. In 1949 Mao’s communist forces were triumphant and he declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the world’s second great Communist state. Shortly after, Mao travelled to Moscow to conclude a treaty with the Soviet Union. With the formation of the Sino-Soviet Alliance and the prospect that an apparent ‘red tide’ was about to sweep across the rest of Asia, the Cold War stakes were manifestly increased. America chose not to recognise Mao’s Republic, and in order to counter the spread of communism they began increasing aid to the European colonial powers and new non-communist governments. Having ‘lost’ China to communism, Truman faced severe Republican criticism. Truman ordered the State and Defence departments to conduct a full review of national security policy; the result being a massive build-up of America’s military in order to protect itself against the expanding communist bloc. The overall result of China turning ‘red’ was that it brought the Cold War to Asia, and subsequently two major proxy wars were fought between the Cold War opponents here. The changing nature of warfare meant that the US and USSR pitted their conventional weapons against one another on behalf of different countries. As a result, Germany was not the only country to be divided by the frictions of the Cold War. Both the proxy wars fought in Asia resulted in the divide of a country along a physical parallel; Vietnam temporarily along the 17th, Korea along the 38th. Truman had viewed American involvement in Vietnam as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam, and subsequently as a way to continue their policy of containment. Successive presidents escalated the guerrilla war against the Vietcong to such an extent that the US found itself in a military Quagmire. Both wars demonstrated how the superpowers could be drawn into a struggle in former imperial possessions which neither could have possibly foreseen in 1945. The transition of China to communism and subsequent confrontations in Korea and Vietnam show the Cold War as an international conflict rather than a purely European one. It made the US more concerned about Eisenhower’s ‘Domino Effect’, whereby if one country fell to communism, others would quickly follow suit. Through both Asian wars the USSR faced the realisation that America’s policy of isolationism had truly come to an end, and the two superpowers world grapple for influence on every continent. From 1949 the Cold War extended itself all around the world; thanks to the atomic bomb and to America’s new foreign policy it was no longer simply a matter of who dominated Europe. As historian Martin Walker described, it was now a war between ‘two distinct theories of social and political organisation [who] believed that they were grappling for nothing less than inheritance of the planet’.

So, looking at the Cold War from a counterfactual perspective, if plans for German neutrality had been successfully achieved at the end of the Second World War and there had been no physical manifestation of the ideological divide in Europe, would there have been a Cold War? The answer is probably yes. Although Germany was the genesis of the confrontation and the permanent front line between the US and Soviets, there were many other things happening in the bipolar world of the superpowers that became more important than the ‘German Question’. Cold War rivalry focused on attaining nuclear superiority and domination of the global balance of power in order for one ideology to ultimately triumph over the other. Therefore, it is true that many of the features of the Cold War were found in Germany, but if the roots lay solely in Germany the War could not have escalated to the extent that it did. The founding ‘roots’ of the War were far deeper than the East-West divide seen in Europe. They lay with the innate desire of men and countries for power; the Cold War was a consequence of two power-thirsty nations coming into conflict, and the German Question was a substantial but smaller reason as to why these nations were so opposed to one another.

Bibliography and webography

The Cold War by John Gaddis
The Cold War by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing
The Cold War by Martin Walker
The USA in Asia 1945-75 by Vivienne Sanders
International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Second Addition) by Antony Best, Jussi Hanhimӓki, Joseph Maiolo and Kirsten Schulze Wikipedia
BBC Bitesize
(Uncredited quote ‘The wall not only divided Berlin. Over the following years…’ can be found on BBC website.)

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