Isaac Deutscher 1952

West German Rearmament and the Politburo

Source: The Reporter, 5 August 1952. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The signing of the contractual agreements between the Western powers and the West German Government of Dr Konrad Adenauer has, on the face of it, been the greatest diplomatic defeat Russia has suffered in a decade. The destruction of Germany’s military power was Russia’s most loudly proclaimed purpose in the last war. Yet seven years after VE Day, the ghost of the old Wehrmacht seems about to take on flesh and blood to confront Russia. This, it might seem, should have provoked Moscow to a dramatic reaction.

What has happened so far seems to justify a forecast made in The Reporter of 23 May 1950, when German rearmament and its possible repercussions were becoming a topic of public debate. ‘Should Western Germany... be rearmed and included in the Atlantic bloc, Russia would counter by overtly arming Eastern Germany’, The Reporter said then. ‘It may be doubted whether the Kremlin would counter the revival of a West German Wehrmacht with any military move more drastic than this.’

The government of East Germany has indeed declared that it intends to set up its own army. In addition, it has sealed off the frontier of East Germany and created a ‘security zone’ along it. Walter Ulbricht and Otto Grotewohl have accompanied these moves by warnings about the threat of civil war and by vociferous denunciations of ‘the traitors of Bonn’. But these actions were carried out less firmly than might have been expected. The rulers of East Germany had no sooner declared their intention of creating their own army and decreed tightened security measures on the interzonal line than they announced that these were only temporary measures designed to remain in force as long as the Bonn government persisted in building up a separate army. Moscow apparently had ordered its protégés to burn no boats.

Perfunctory Denunciations: Moscow’s own reticence has been even more striking. The Kremlin has issued no official statement explicitly backing up the action taken by the East German government. It seems anxious to preserve its freedom of manoeuvre and to be able to resume its campaign for Germany’s unification. No suggestion has come from any Russian quarter that the contracts signed in Bonn and Paris have ruled out agreement between Russia and the West over Germany.

The emphasis is still on continued negotiation. The recent reshuffling of ambassadors, with Andrei Gromyko established at the Soviet Embassy in London, may well foreshadow a period of more active diplomatic manoeuvring designed to re-establish contact with the West. The Politburo may well believe that if a limited agreement with the West is still possible, Churchill and Eden are the men to bring it about. Incidentally, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs might well have reminded the British Foreign Office that the decision to rearm Germany openly conflicted with the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1942, an alliance concluded by Churchill and Eden, which is nominally in force for another 10 years. But no such reminder has come from Moscow.

Russian caution over the Bonn agreements is further and even more strongly underlined by the trend of Russian domestic propaganda. The commentators have, of course, duly denounced the ‘conspiracy’ hatched at Bonn and the ‘revival of German militarism and Nazism’. But these denunciations have not gone beyond prescribed routine. They have indeed been so perfunctory as to suggest that the propagandists have been explicitly instructed to play down the event. No real attempt has been made to arouse popular emotions. The question of the North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war on Koje Island and even the arrest of Duclos have overshadowed the Bonn agreements in Soviet domestic propaganda. All over the Soviet Union, in town and country, in factories and on collective farms, meetings have been held to protest against the treatment of the prisoners on Koje. No campaign of this sort has been staged in connection with the arming of West Germany. Yet it cannot be doubted that this was the issue over which much genuine popular emotion could have been stirred: many Great Russian and Ukrainian towns still lie in ruins.

The Open Reasons: There are several reasons, some obvious and others less so, behind Moscow’s comparative silence. The most obvious is the hope that the Bonn agreements may not be ratified. On both sides of the Rhine, strong forces are arrayed against ratification. Neither M Pinay’s nor Dr Adenauer’s government commands a stable majority. The defection of a few deputies from either governmental coalition might suffice to upset the delicate political balance reflected in the Bonn agreements; it might do so much more effectively than any action sponsored by the German or French Communists. The frustration or the shelving of ratification would be a windfall for the Politburo.

Another windfall might be produced by the ‘contradictions in the imperialist camp’. Only quite recently, Bolshevik, still the most authoritative Soviet paper, said:

German imperialism, now in process of resurrection, outwardly reconciles itself with the existing situation, and strives with American help to gather strength. This does not mean, however, that it has renounced its aggressive ambitions and its independent role... and this can only speed up the growth of contradictions between... German imperialism and its protector, American imperialism, not to speak of the English and the French.

In other words, Bolshevik expects the rulers of West Germany, flushed with success, to raise their stakes and step up their demands to an extent which may frighten even their well-wishers across the Atlantic.

It would be unwise, however, to mistake the expectations and arguments of the propagandists for the real calculations of the Politburo. The latter would no doubt welcome delays in the ratification of the Bonn agreements and discord in the Western camp, but it hardly sets great store by these possibilities. In its calculations the Politburo has undoubtedly made allowance for the ratification of the contractual agreements by all the parliaments concerned. On the broader issue of ‘contradictions in the imperialist camp’, Stalin and his closest associates probably reason also more realistically than may appear from the editorial comments in Pravda and Bolshevik. These contradictions have indeed saved the Soviet regime twice: during the wars of intervention and during the Second World War. But in 1918-20 and in 1941-45, the West was divided between different competing or hostile power centres. The present absolute preponderance of the United States in the West and the dependence of Western governments on the United States for their sheer survival make it most unlikely, even in the Politburo’s eyes, that the contradictions between Russia’s adversaries should manifest themselves with their previous vigour and on their previous scale. The Politburo may try to drive all possible wedges into the Atlantic bloc; but unless it has lost all sense of reality, it is making its basic strategic plans on the assumption that it can cause no genuine split in that bloc. It must reckon with the continued cohesion of the West and with the resurgence of Germany military strength.

What, then, accounts for Moscow’s relatively calm reception of the Bonn agreements? Is it sheer embarrassment or cool calculation?

Parallel Strategies: In this writer’s view, even if there is a momentary embarrassment in Moscow, the Politburo and the Soviet General Staff base their policy in Germany, and not only in Germany, on a fairly complex and carefully laid out strategic design. Paradoxically, it is not very different from the strategic design of the West, and indeed runs parallel to it. The Truman-Acheson foreign policy has aimed at the building up of ‘positions of strength’ and has assumed that time is working for the West. The Stalin-Molotov-Vyshinsky policy similarly strives to create positions of strength and assumes that time is Russia’s ally. The main difference lies in the nature of the positions of strength which each side hopes to create.

Seen from Moscow, the postwar balance of strength has been extremely advantageous to Russia in some respects and extremely disadvantageous in others. Since 1945 the Soviet war economy has been only half demobilised, and the Soviet armed strength has been superior to that of the West. The balance of actual military power has favoured Russia, especially since the American and British demobilisation in 1946-47. In combination with the pressure of local Communist parties, Russia’s military strength allowed for the expansion and consolidation of its ‘sphere of influence’ between 1945 and 1950. The balance of potential power, however, has been adverse to Russia.

The rise of the Atlantic bloc and the rearmament of the West have been gradually changing the balance of actual strength to Russia’s disadvantage. The arming of West Germany threatens to carry this process a stage further. Yet Russia’s preponderance in Europe still enables the Politburo and the Soviet General Staff to view this threat with some equanimity. If the Bonn agreements are ratified and if the plans for German rearmament are carried out smoothly, the result will be not more than 12 German divisions by 1955. This addition to Western strength may be largely offset by the divisions which the East German government will place under Soviet command. The wars in Korea, Indo-China and Malaya may continue to drain Western resources to an extent which the West German Army will not make good. But the Politburo apparently hopes that even if there were nothing to offset the German contribution to the European Defence Community, the strategic prospects for Russia would still look better than is assumed in the West.

In the next few years, Russia is likely to compensate any loss in the balance of actual power by gains in potential strength. The one point about which the Politburo is quite clear in its mind – a point which Hitler missed but on which Stalin has dwelt repeatedly – is that actual military power may win battles but that relative potential strengths decide the outcome of wars. That is why the Politburo has so far shown no sign of contemplating an invasion of Western Europe even though the Soviet Army is in a position to carry out such an operation. Stalin is no believer in blitzkrieg, and he has no desire to implicate his regime in a war in which he cannot win the last battle.

Nor does the Politburo believe that Russia or the Soviet bloc can become so strong in the foreseeable future as to defeat the Atlantic bloc either by military or by combined military and political means. It does seem to be convinced, however, that Russia can very rapidly increase its economic-military potential to a point at which the Atlantic bloc would not be able to defeat Russia either. If the Truman-Acheson policy aims at restoring the equilibrium of actual military power between East and West, then Stalin’s policy concentrates on creating something like an equilibrium between the military potentials.

More Steel vs More Divisions: It would be rash to dismiss this as a wholly unrealisable ambition. The momentum of Russia’s industrialisation has been so unprecedented that the West has been slow in gauging its impact upon world policy. Every decade brings radical changes in Russia’s structure and outlook, despite the immutable political façade. At the beginning of the 1930s Russia was industrially much nearer to India than to Germany. By the end of the 1930s Russia’s industrial war potential had almost caught up with Germany’s. After the economic setbacks of the war, Russia has resumed its industrial advance at a pace which has surprised not only Western observers but, to judge from certain indications, even the Politburo. Between 1945 and 1951 the output of steel rose from about 12 million to over 31 million tons. If, as is probable, this rate of expansion is maintained, Soviet steel mills should turn out nearly 50 million tons by 1955.

The policymakers of the Atlantic powers count primarily the divisions they will be able to raise by 1955. The Politburo, not forgetting about the divisions, adds up the millions of tons of steel it will then have at its disposal. Both sides have made their bargain with time, and each believes that it has struck the better bargain.

Even with a steel output of 50 million tons, the balance will still be heavily against Russia. The United State alone can produce more than double this amount of steel. Yet the statistical comparison, all-important from the purely economic angle, is partly misleading from the strategic standpoint. The military potential represented by a million tons of Soviet steel is considerably higher than that represented by its American counterpart. Because of the primitive level of Russian life, the proportion of steel output that goes to satisfy civilian needs is negligible compared with the irreducible minimum of metal the United States must divert to civilian needs in order to keep its complex productive mechanism and social organism functioning.

It is difficult to be precise about this, but it may be assumed that the military yield – that is, the engineering and armament plants and the ready munitions – which Russia may obtain from 50 million tons of steel may be equivalent to the military yield of 70 or 75 million tons in the United States. Thus a Russian output of 50 million tons should go a long way to bridge the gulf between the Russian and the American military potentials.

These purely industrial elements form only part of the power equation. Russia’s geographic position is also a strategic factor of first importance. Russia holds a central position vis-à-vis Europe and Asia. The Soviet General Staff can move its forces along internal lines. The Atlantic bloc, if it were to strike at Russia, would have to do so along external lines – at the other end of enormous transoceanic and transcontinental communications routes.

For effective military action on internal lines, less power is needed than for such action on external lines. It was to a similar geographic advantage that Nazi Germany owed its victories in the years 1938-42. But whereas Hitler only benefited from his central position in Europe, Stalin holds the centre of bicontinental Eurasia.

In short, the Politburo expects that with these and other advantages and with a few years more of industrialisation it can build up positions of strength, potential and actual, from which it will be able to confront the Atlantic bloc with confidence.

Compared with this large purpose, a score more or a score fewer divisions in Western Europe may not, after all, seem vital to Stalin. His main aim is now, as it was in the 1930s, to gain time, time and more time. But as on the eve of the Second World War, he may yet blunder in his calculations.