The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 marked the start of an ice age in East-West German relations (Chapter 1). Rendering the internal German border more permeable – and thus more humane – was a central concern of Social Democrat Egon Bahr, whose idea of “change through rapprochement” was gradually accepted by all sides and became the central pillar of West Germany’s changed relations with Communist states in general and the GDR in particular. Thanks to several travel agreements, West Berlin citizens were permitted to visit relatives in the eastern part of the city on set days between 1963 and 1966. Slowly, new momentum also propelled West Germany’s Ostpolitik; new impulses originating with church groups were discussed, and efforts were made to improve relations with individual East European states. Nonetheless, relations between West and East Germany remained deadlocked. The GDR insisted on formal international recognition, and the Federal Republic of Germany refused to renounce its claim to sole representation of the German people. The latter was supported by the Hallstein Doctrine, a policy which intended to prevent the international recognition of the GDR by other countries. When more and more Third World states recognized the GDR under international law, however, West German foreign policy came under increasing pressure. Even before the end of the Grand Coalition, these developments led to a modification of the Doctrine, though not without heated exchanges between the political parties.
A breakthrough in relations with the Eastern bloc and the GDR ensued only with the change of government and the election of Willy Brandt as chancellor. The reference to “two states in one nation” in the chancellor’s address to the Bundestag provided de facto recognition of the GDR for the first time since 1949. Brandt nonetheless emphasized the continued existence of a single German nation, thus adhering to the goal of German reunification.
A new policy towards the Soviet Union, rooted in the recognition of the postwar borders of 1945, set the stage for rapprochement between the two German states. Within the space of just one year, treaties were negotiated with the Soviet Union and Poland. The federal government made ratification contingent upon progress in the so-called Berlin Question. While emphasizing the special status of the divided city, the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin, among other things, eased travel restrictions inside Berlin and between West Germany and Berlin.
Although Willy Brandt’s contribution to the process of European détente received international acclaim when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971, he came under heavy domestic fire from opponents in the CDU/CSU for his “policy of renunciation.” The government lost its majority when representatives from its camp deserted for the CDU/CSU in protest against the treaties. For the first time in West German history, a constructive vote of no confidence was introduced in 1972 by the CDU/CSU and just barely defeated by a narrow two-vote majority. A new election the same year, spurred by the no-confidence vote, confirmed the government’s course. The Basic Treaty between the two German states, signed in 1972, was equally controversial among the parties – but not even the opposition’s appeal to the Federal Constitutional Court could keep it from going into effect. The treaty put an end to the GDR’s international isolation. In 1973, both East and West Germany became members of the United Nations and were internationally recognized as two separate German states.
Relations to the “other Germany” also sparked controversy within the GDR. Willy Brandt’s visit to Erfurt, where he was cheered by GDR citizens, was just one indication that the end to international isolation posed certain dangers. Disagreement among GDR leaders over relations with West Germany contributed to Walter Ulbricht’s removal from power, and hopes for a thaw in East-West German relations ended when Erich Honecker underscored a policy of stricter demarcation [Abgrenzungspolitik] from the Federal Republic at the 8th Party Congress of the SED (Chapter 1). But even Honecker could not evade the European détente process espoused by the world’s two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This policy required the SED to walk a tightrope in its relations with West Germany, finding the right balance between demarcation and cooperation. Gestures toward the latter stirred hopes and ratcheted up the pressure on the SED regime.
The Basic Treaty became the cornerstone of East-West German relations. A series of additional agreements between the two German states was signed in its wake, covering everything from economic issues to environmental protection. Most importantly, however, it rendered the border more porous. Youth and athletic exchange programs were initiated, and cultural matters were negotiated. Travel between the two states also increased. But with the exception of East German retirees, most of the visitors were West German citizens or West Berliners, who, in accordance with changing SED demands, were required to exchange a specific amount of West German marks each day so as to fill East Germany’s state coffers with hard currency. Despite harassment by the East German Ministry for State Security and the risk of imprisonment, a growing number of GDR citizens applied for exit visas, causing alarm among party leaders.