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The Stalin Note, also known as the March Note, was a document delivered to the representatives of the Western allied powers (the United Kingdom, France, and the United States) from the Soviet Occupation in Germany on March 10, 1952. Soviet leader Stalin put forth a proposal for a reunification and neutralization of Germany, with no conditions on economic policies and with guarantees for "the rights of man and basic freedoms, including freedom of speech, press, religious persuasion, political conviction, and assembly" and free activity of democratic parties and organizations.
James Warburg, member of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, testified before the committee on March 28, 1952 and observed that the Soviet proposal might be a bluff, but it seemed "that our government is afraid to call the bluff for the fear that it may not be a bluff at all" and might lead to "a free, neutral, and demilitarized Germany," which might be "subverted into Soviet orbit". This led to an exchange of notes between the Western allies and the Soviet Union, which eventually ended after the Western allies' insistence that a unified Germany should be free to join the European Defence Community and be rearmed, a demand which Stalin rejected as only a few years previously Germany had caused unprecedented destruction and loss of life in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War.
Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Western allies at the time painted Stalin's move as an aggressive action that attempted to stall the reintegration of West Germany. However, afterwards there were debates on whether a chance for reunification had been missed. Six years after the exchange, two German ministers, Thomas Dehler and Gustav Heinemann, blamed Adenauer for not having explored the chance of reunification.
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After the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into what became eventually a Western and an Eastern Zone. By 1949, Germany had a parliamentary democracy in the West, called the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG - natively BRD), and a communist state in the East, called the German Democratic Republic (GDR - natively DDR). Opportunities for reunification of these two halves appeared unlikely from the Western standpoint because Stalin and the East German communists did not want to allow any free elections in the GDR. The SED feared losing power if free elections were held. At that point in history, Germany had not yet signed a peace treaty for World War II because of the animosity between the three Western Powers and the Soviet Union. It would not sign one until the Two Plus Four Agreement in 1990.
At the beginning of 1950, the USA began negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan, which would also grant them military bases in Japan over a long period of time. This may have had an influence on Stalin's decision to support North Korea when it attacked South Korea, which was pro-USA, however this has not been proven. The Korean War (1950–1953) surprised the USA and formed a deeper rift into the Cold War.
In discussions about the reunification, East Germany stressed the importance of a peace treaty, while West Germany focused on the importance of free elections for all of Germany. Chancellor Adenauer did not believe that reunification was possible under the given conditions. He and his administration pursued a course that allied the FRG with Western Europe, particularly in relationship to military policy. Specifically, Adenauer felt that the FRG should maintain an army, which could be integrated into a larger West European military force. A European Defence Community Treaty was signed in May 1952, after the rejection of the Stalin note, but the proposed EDC never came into being, due to rejection of the Treaty by the French National Assembly.
Stalin and the GDR condemned the EDC, despite the fact that the GDR had created a pseudo-military force called the Kasernierte Volkspolizei. The Stalin notes can be seen as a way of drawing out the propaganda efforts of East Germany so that the reunification would fail.
On September 15, 1951, the East German government offered to discuss holding elections at a meeting with West Germany. However, the West German government refused to hold talks with the SED because this would have meant the actual recognition of East Germany as an equal country. Contact was always maintained through the Western Powers. Instead, West Germany wanted a commission of the United Nations to check whether or not free all-German elections were possible.
Due to the endeavors of the Western Powers, this commission met in December 1951. East Germany refused to let them enter, however. In their opinion, the possibilities of free elections should be investigated by a commission of the four Occupying Powers.
First Stalin Note
At a conference in Paris, the SED emphasized the importance of the two German states discussing a potential peace treaty. The Soviet leadership also encouraged the discussion of a peace treaty with the Western Powers. The Soviet government continued along this trajectory because they were afraid of the Western push for the integration of the West German armed forces into a larger Western coalition.
The government of the GDR appealed to the four powers to allow for negotiations of the peace treaty for Germany. After about two months, in August 1951, Stalin was able to present the first draft of the plan for a peace treaty. After working through numerous corrections and basic conceptual changes, the final version was ready seven months later.
On March 10, 1952, Andrei Gromyko gave a diplomatic note about the solution of the "German problem" to representatives of the three western occupiers (the United States, Great Britain, and France) and called for a four-power conference. The note included the following points:
- A peace treaty with all participants in the war with Germany should be negotiated with a single, united German government. The Allies must agree on the formation of this government.
- Germany was to be re-established as a united state within the boundaries established by the provisions of the Potsdam Conference.
- All occupation forces were to be withdrawn within one year following the date on which treaty came into effect.
- Germany would have democratic rights, such as having freedom of assembly, freedom of press, and freedom to have a multi-party system.
- Denazification would be ended. Additionally, former members of the German armed forces and of the Nazi Party, except for convicted war criminals, could join in establishing a peaceful and democratic Germany.
- Germany was to become officially neutral and not enter into any kind of coalition or military alliance directed against any of the countries whose military forces had participated in the war against it.
- Germany would have access to world markets and there would be no restrictions to these markets.
- Germany was permitted to have national armed forces for its own defense and to manufacture munitions for these forces.
West German reaction
The FRG’s priorities were different from those of the GDR. Chancellor Adenauer’s main priority was the integration of the FRG into the West, and he saw reunification as a rather abstract goal. Specifically, his administration wanted to focus on the re-establishment of Germany into a capitalist Europe, and felt that reunification was not possible until West Germany was securely established in Western Europe. He went so far as to believe that a reunification could only happen at the same time as a radical change in eastern Europe. If the integration of West Germany into the Western Alliance could not be managed, West Germany would be pulled unavoidably in with the Soviet Union. He felt that Germany alone would not be able to afford an army which could provide for the security of a neutral Germany. Thus, Adenauer assumed that two German states would co-exist for an undeterminate amount of time and he followed this goal in the background. For these reasons, Adenauer saw the March note as an annoyance and wanted to continue proceedings with the Western Powers as if there had never been a note at all.
Adenauer's view that Stalin's offer was not meant seriously was widely shared. But there were other views about how to react to the offer. The Minister of All-German Affairs, Jakob Kaiser, had a "bridge theory," which suggested that Germany could be the mediator between East and West. While he agreed with Adenauer about the importance of free elections and the refusal of the Potsdam borders, he took the Soviet offer very seriously. In a radio address on March 12, 1952, Kaiser stated that the note had an important political significance, but he still thought it was important to approach it with caution. He asked that the suggestions of the Soviet Union be carefully explored so that no opportunity for reunification would be missed.
Similarly, other ministers and also members of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) felt that they should at least seriously test Stalin’s proposal so that the world public would not get the impression that reunification fell through because of West Germany. Also, this would quickly prove if Stalin really meant to keep his offer, and if he did not, then his deceit would be unmasked.
However, Adenauer felt that a "test" would have significant disadvantages:
- A conference could be drawn out by the Soviet Union, while the relationship with the West would be delayed at first. If the West finally left the conference unnerved, Stalin could blame the failure of the talks on the West.
- Because of the Second World War (and other German history, such as the Treaty of Rapallo), it was essential that the FRG appear to be a reliable partner to the West. Agreeing with the offer would destroy this impression.
- The GDR would also participate in the conference suggested by Stalin, besides the FRG. The GDR would be recognized by the western side by that fact, and Stalin would have already achieved one of his goals, without having given up anything.
- Even if Stalin's offer were meant seriously, according to the historian, Andreas Hillgruber, Adenauer was worried about a neutral all-Germany. He believed that "the Germans" would not act responsibly in such a difficult situation between the East and the West. Adenauer also shared this with the Western Powers. For that reason, Adenauer was also against neutrality because Germany could not defend itself alone against the Soviet Union.
All in all, Adenauer, his ministers, the opposing Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the population at large were in agreement: Stalin’s proposal was not sincere and the demand for free elections had to be maintained. However, there was still some uneasiness that the FRG could not do anything against the division of Germany.
East German reaction
In the GDR, the note was officially received with excitement. The party organ of the SED, Neues Deutschland ("New Germany"), gave it great importance "for the battle of the patriotic forces of the German people and the peaceful reunification", where patriotic forces meant principally communist forces.
The Prime Minister of the GDR, Otto Grotewohl, indicated how the draft treaty was interpreted by the GDR in a government declaration on March 14. In it, he described the GDR as a democratic and free state and the FRG as undemocratic and fascist. Anti-peace and anti-democratic groups, however, could not be allowed to exist in a united Germany. In addition, a united Germany had to orient themselves with the five-year plan of the GDR. Finally, Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the central committee of the SED, unmistakably spoke about the interpretation of the note. It should be understood as an action against the "general war treaty" (meaning the Germany treaty), through which Germany would become dependent on the West. However, Germany could only develop freely and peacefully in a communist, so-called "world peace bloc".
The Western powers' response
The Western Powers were not completely surprised by the proposition offered by the March note, because Stalin had not yet tried to interfere with the Western integration of the FRG. However, the Western Powers did not want to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union until West Germany was securely integrated into the West. Therefore, the response from the Western Powers attempted to delay the start of negotiations for the Peace Treaty.
After the Foreign Ministers of the Western Occupation had finished their response, they asked Adenauer for his opinion on the matter, in case he had any small changes he wished to make. Although he mistrusted Stalin’s note, he asked that it not be outright rejected in the answering note. He didn't want to create the impression that the West had brusquely refused it.
On March 25, 1952, the first note from the governments of Great Britain, France, and the United States was sent to Moscow. It included the following points:
- In order to begin negotiations on the Peace Treaty, the UN must check that all of Germany had free elections, then free elections would be held, and after that a government for all of Germany would be formed.
- The borders from Potsdam (the Oder-Neisse line) were rejected, since these borders would only be in effect until a peace treaty was worked out.
- Germany would have the right to enter into any alliances within the context of the UN Charter.
- There would be full agreement of the Western Powers for Germany to be integrated into a defensive, European military alliance, which was understood to be a clear reference to the EDC. An independent German military would be a step back into a Europe that was controlled by militaristic and aggressive rivalry.
Further Stalin notes
In the second Stalin Note, sent on April 9, 1952, the Soviet Union stood by its position that negotiations for the groundwork of a peace treaty and for the creation of a unified German government should begin. Stalin accepted that free elections could be the groundwork for a unified German government, but insisted that the four occupying powers oversee the elections rather than the United Nations. On the other hand, Stalin stayed firm on the idea that a reunified Germany should have the borders outlined by the Potsdam Conference, and that, even more generally, an armed Germany could not be in an alliance directed aggressively against other states.
In the second Western note of May 13, 1952, it was again emphasized that a freely-elected all-German government must participate in the treaty negotiations. Additionally, the West accepted that a commission of the occupying powers could oversee the elections, but insisted that the commission not be made up of government officials but rather impartial participants. The matter of dispute remained: free elections first (West) or peace treaty negotiations first (Soviet Union).
A day before the official signing of the European Defence Community (EDC), the Soviet Union sent a third note, on May 24, 1952. In that note, Stalin criticized the creation of the EDC (which according to the Germany Treaty, should be in effect even after the reunification), and accused the Western Powers of delaying the negotiations for a peace treaty. In addition, the all-German government must remain under the control of the occupying powers at the treaty negotiations.
On their part, the West on July 10, 1952, criticized the centralization, the collectivization and the changes in the justice system of the GDR which the SED had previously passed. The note stated that the conference should not yet negotiate a peace treaty, but should decide about a commission to oversee the elections first. There was still a difference of opinion about whether the decisions of Potsdam could be the basis for negotiation - these decisions contradicted all the developments since 1945.
On August 23, 1952, the Soviet Union sent the last note. This note repeated their main positions and accusations. Additionally, although the Western Powers had conceded in allowing the occupying powers oversee the elections, the Soviet Union suddenly refused an international election commission entirely. Instead, both of the German states should be responsible for creating a commission with equal representation. However, this had already been refused by the West in 1951.
For this reason in their answer of September 23, 1952, the West limited themselves to repeating their previous views and to renewing the suggestion of forming a non-partisan commission of the four powers.
If after the first note of the West, the lack of success of the exchange of notes had already been internally determined, in the East as well as in the West, this view was also publicly expressed by the (rather polemic) contents of the last four notes. The signing of the two treaties with the West on May 26 and May 27, 1952, emphasized this even more.
Debate about the "missed chance"
There have been several debates about whether a real chance for reunification had been missed in 1952. There are two main disputes:
- The more concrete and easier to research question revolved around Stalin's motives, around how ready he was to permit a neutralized, democratic, unified Germany (and give up the GDR). Sceptics reject this. A completely independent Germany could be just as unpleasant in principle for Stalin as for the West. But above all, the existence of the GDR had great advantages for Stalin:
- As one of four occupying powers of the Second World War, the Soviet Union enjoyed prestige, to begin with.
- The Soviet right of occupation of East German soil was recognized in general by the Western Powers.
- The GDR was an important Soviet bridgehead in the middle of Europe; and above all at a time when Soviet troops had again left Czechoslovakia and Poland. The GDR was important for holding together the system of the Soviet satellite states.
- Because of its precarious situation, the GDR leadership were (for the most part) especially true vassals of the Soviet Union.
- The GDR could be economically exploited and provide soldiers.
- There is no comparison with Austria—from which the Soviet Union had withdrawn in 1955—since Austria has a lesser strategic and economic weight than Germany. Beside, Austria had already had an all-Austrian government since 1945.
- A more political and more speculative question is whether such a Germany would have been more desirable. The sceptics feel:
- Stalin could have still tried to subjugate all of Germany in a roundabout way through reunification.
- Without the Western Alliance, Stalin could have been able to conquer the western European countries little by little, as Hitler had treated Germany's neighbors.
- Without integration with the West, West Germany or all of Germany would have fared worse economically.
Above all, there is debate about the behavior of the FRG and the Western Powers. The publicist, Paul Sethe, and the historians Wilfried Loth, Josef Foschepoth, Karl-Gustav von Schönfels, and especially Rolf Steininger belong to the critics. Their views are answered by Hermann Graml, Gerhard Wettig, and Gottfried Niedhart.
The critics alleged again and again that Adenauer, who came from Catholic Rhineland, did not want reunification with the Protestant, Prussian East at all. The opinion of Adenauer in the Weimar Republic (he wanted an independent Rhineland inside of the German Empire) was used against him. The allegations were wrong, but Adenauer could have had a political motive also: many of the traditional supporters of the SPD were in the GDR. With the East zone, Germany would have become more Protestant and more Social Democratic than the FRG of the three Western zones.
In essence, the debate had two peaks: at the end of the 1950s and then again after the opening of the archive of the Western Powers in the middle of the 1980s. Newer research since the 1990s also takes into account the archives of the former Eastern Bloc and thus brings up further discussion. Finally, a book on the analysis of the Stalin notes was published in 2002. During the reunification itself (1989–1990), the debate about the Stalin notes played no part.
Discussion in the 1950s
The American historian Ruud van Dijk remarked that in the later discussions much more sincerity was attributed to Stalin than in 1952. The clearer it became that the chances for German reunification were dwindling, the stronger the debate about whether or not an important chance had been missed in 1952. According to Manfred Kittel, the discussion increased in extent as the chances for reunification decreased.
Within journalism, it was Paul Sethe who most sharply criticized Adenauer's non-acceptance of Stalin's offer. Sethe was the co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung in the beginning of the 1950s and had always spoken out in his commentaries for at least checking into the seriousness of Stalin's notes. Thus he saw the neutralization of Germany as an appropriate price for reunification. He completed the thesis of the "missed chances" in his book, "Von Bonn nach Moskau" (From Bonn to Moscow) and thus he lay the cornerstone for a debate about the Stalin notes that lasted for decades.
The idea of the "missed opportunity" received attention through a debate in the Bundestag on January 23, 1958. The CDU/CSU had a government coalition with the small DP, when two former Ministers asked to speak, Thomas Dehler (FDP) and Gustav Heinemann (first CDU, now SPD). Both of them had left the government in the dispute with Adenauer at that time. They accused Chancellor Adenauer of not having done enough for reunification.
Discussion in the 1980s
The debate came up again in the 1980s, when the Western archives were opened for historians. The archives of the Soviet Union and the GDR were not yet accessible to researchers at that time. The historian, Rolf Steininger, asked in his article, "Eine Chance zur Wiedervereinigung?" (A Chance for Reunification?) in 1985, which is based predominantly on Western sources, whether an important chance had been missed at that time. Steininger and others disputed the question whether it would have inevitably led to a divided Germany and whether the course of Adenauer was the best possible way. His argument is based on three assumptions:
- Stalin's offer was meant seriously
- The Western powers intended to sound out Stalin's offer
- Adenauer attempted to stop any attempt in this direction
The historian, Hermann Graml, on the other hand, justified the actions of the Western Powers. Quite the opposite and also on the basis of the Western archives, he attached little importance to Adenauer's influence on the negotiation. Graml interpreted the note itself and the "planned" failure of the negotiations as more or less that the Soviet Union wanted to create an alibi for being able to push forward on the integration of the GDR into the Eastern Block.
- Steininger, Rolf (1990). The German Question: The Stalin Note of 1952 and the Problem of Reunification. New York: Columbia University. ISBN 0-231-07216-3.
- Walko, John W. (2002). The Balance of Empires: United States’ Rejection of German Reunification and Stalin’s March Note of 1952. Parkland. ISBN 1-58112-592-5.
- Smyser, W.R. (1999). From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-23340-X.
- Bürger, G.A.: Die Legende von 1952. Zur sowjetischen März-Note und ihrer Rolle in der Nachkriegspolitik. Leer (East Friesland) 1962.
- Graml, Hermann: Nationalstaat oder westdeutscher Teilstaat. Die sowjetischen Noten vom Jahre 1952 und die öffentliche Meinung in der Bundesrepublik. in: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (VfZ, Quarterly Journal of Contemporary History) 25 (1977), p. 821–864.
- ibid.: Die Legende von der verpaßten Gelegenheit. Zur sowjetischen Notenkampagne des Jahres 1952. in: VfZ 29 (1981), p. 307–341.
- Loth, Wilfried: Stalins ungeliebtes Kind. Warum Moskau die DDR nicht wollte. 1996. ISBN 3-423-04678-3
- Niedhart, Gottfried: "Schweigen als Pflicht. Warum Konrad Adenauer die Stalin-Note vom 10. März nicht ausloten ließ." (Die Zeit, March 13, 1992)
- Schwarz, Hans-Peter (publ.): Die Legende von der verpaßten Gelegenheit. Die Stalin-Note vom 10. März 1952. Stuttgart/Zurich 1982.
- Steininger, Rolf: Eine Chance zur Wiedervereinigung? Die Stalin-Note vom 10. März 1952. Bonn 1985.
- Wettig, Gerhard (1995). "Stalin – Patriot oder Demokrat für Deutschland". Deutschland Archiv 28 (7): 743–748.
- Zarusky, Jürgen (publ.): Die Stalinnote vom 10. März 1952. Neue Quellen und Analysen. Munich 2002.