The first time this reviewer learned of the project that has resulted in this very fine study was in 1994, when under the auspices of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) an international cast of established and upcoming specialists gathered for not one, but two conferences on the German question in the early Cold War, first in Essen, next in Potsdam. Christian Ostermann, a doctoral student based in the United States but pursuing his degree at Cologne, participated with a remarkable paper examining the United States response to the June 17, 1953 uprising in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The paper was remarkable not just for its original research, but perhaps even more for its perspective: at a meeting organized to consider the significance for familiar Cold War histories of new evidence from "the other side," i.e. archives in formerly communist countries, it served to remind everyone that much useful work remained to be done in Western archives too. (Which is not to say that the author then or ever since, and least of all in this book, has neglected to make inventive use of the new material originating in collections from behind the Iron Curtain.) We had all heard of, or written about, the U.S. "roll-back" strategy, but who knew much, or anything, about the debates and dilemma's surrounding the Eisenhower administration's food relief program in the summer of 1953?
The conference paper soon became a frequently-cited CWIHP Working Paper, and the author went on to a distinguished career (still going strong) as director of CWIHP, and more recently director of the History and Public Policy Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
"1953" long remained a work-in-progress amid many other activities, but with beneficial results. In 2001, for example, Ostermann was the editor of the volume on the East German uprising in the National Security Archive Cold War Reader series published by the Central European University Press.
The passage of time also allowed the author to await rulings on many a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the release of a great variety of U.S. government documents. Not all of these have been honored, and, as usual, much intelligence-related material remains off-limits to scholars. At the same time, some of the documents that have been released in response to Ostermann's FOIA requests add important new information on U.S. policy at many levels, from many perspectives, and for issues going well beyond "1953." The same could be said of papers from the archives of the former GDR and Soviet Union. Especially in respect to the latter, Ostermann has made excellent use of the series of documents on Soviet German policy during the 1940s, prepared by Jochen Laufer and Georgij Kynin, next to his own research in SED and GDR papers.
Another benefit of the passage of time is that where in the 1990s and early 2000s the issue of so-called "missed opportunities" for German unification was being re-litigated over and over again, today much less seems to be at stake in these debates. For no insignificant part, this is thanks to works such as the one under review here, studies that show the complexity and contingency of so much of the history of the division of Germany during the first post-war decade. Regardless, Ostermann seems much less interested in yet another intervention in long-standing debates than in presenting his own story.
And of course, the core subject of this work is not the "missed opportunities," it is U.S. policy--not toward "the German question" (even though the reader will learn much about that problem from this book), but the Soviet zone of occupation, later GDR. This angle indeed has remained under-studied, as the author shows in an efficient discussion of the important literature published since the end of the Cold War (although the work of Gerhard Wettig is curiously missing here). This book shows how much the gap needed to be filled, also for the benefit of "missed-opportunity" afficionados.
But the story indeed is original, even if many familiar episodes from the 1945–1953 years are part of it. Right from the opening pages, describing the destruction caused by the Nazi armies in the Soviet Union, the story is told with ease and lucidity, displaying an impressive mastery of both the era and the primary and secondary source material. And while the focus is firmly on U.S. policy toward Soviet-occupied Germany, there is much insight into the crucial Soviet and East German context for that policy. Throughout we learn how U.S. policies were partially based on intelligence and other sources inside the Soviet zone/GDR, at times quite relevant, at other times falling far short in offering insight in developments on the other side. Thanks to Ostermann's effective use of scholarship and sources on Soviet and East German policy, we also learn a good deal on how U.S. policies were perceived by communist leaders in Berlin and Moscow.
This integrated discussion of communist and U.S. policies is one of the most revealing aspects of this history, and its biggest contribution to our knowledge. It shows the extent to which each side frequently tended to misread the other's intentions or actual predicament and thus also the true strengths or weaknesses in its own camp, and how this led to policies that then got mixed up in a tense and constantly evolving set of interactions between the two Germanies. It happened during the crisis in 1948 over Berlin; it happened again in 1950 in the run-up to the Deutschlandtreffen in East Berlin organized by the Freie Deutsche Jugend; once more in 1951 with the GDR national referendum campaign; and again, of course, in the run-up in early 1953 to what became the June 17 uprising.
For the West, this is primarily a story of U.S. policy, a joint endeavor by Washington and the office of the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany. The other Western allies, Great Britain and France, only make occasional appearances, usually as sceptics or outright opponents of what they viewed as unhelpful American ambitions for the "rollback" of communist power in East Germany. Appropriately, a much more prominent role is reserved for Germans allied in one way or another with the Americans. The book shows how Germans soon became important sources of information on the Soviet zone, but also how activist Germans, and Western German organizations such as the Untersuchungsausschuss freiheitlicher Juristen, became allies in efforts to undermine communist power. In a particularly interesting chapter on economic interactions between Eastern and Western Germans, Ostermann shows how Germans down from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to ordinary businessmen often would refuse to be part of American schemes to pressure the communist part of the country.
A relatively short review can barely do justice to the richness of a learned and readable study such as this one. But there can be no doubt that with this book we have a rare and most valuable piece of work: a monograph on a thoroughly researched subject that manages to tell an original and highly insightful story. It has been well worth the wait.