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East Germany - Relations With the Soviet Union

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, East Germany managed to make itself economically and politically indispensable to the Soviet Union in a variety of ways. Economically, East Germany demonstrated to the world that a centralized, planned economy modeled on that of the Soviet Union can work. East Germany, for example, boasted the highest standard of living among the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Its economy was highly developed, and chemicals and machinery constitute its most important products.

It was the first among the socialist economies to move into the field of high technology and other intensive forms of production. East Germany was also important to the Soviet Union because it acted as a conduit between the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and the European Economic Community (EEC). The origin of this role lay in West Germany's desire to facilitate an eventual German reunification. In the West German view, creating a special economic relationship with East Germany was one means of achieving this objective. This relationship eased the transfer of EEC goods to East Germany. From East Germany, the merchandise could be exported to other Comecon countries. Equally important, the special relationship between the two Germanies also provided East Germany (and hence Comecon as a whole) with a much-needed source of hard currency.

Throughout its existence, East Germany proved to be a vital political ally of the Soviet Union. In 1956 the Ulbricht regime roundly condemned the Hungarian revolt. Twelve years later, East German troops, together with those of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, marched into Czechoslovakia to quell the reform movement initiated during the Prague Spring. The East Germans also heavily criticized the Solidarity labor union movement in Poland as well as the Polish United Workers Party, which allowed the Solidarity reform movement to persist on Polish soil.

The East Germans routinely called for tighter integration of the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe and for adoption of a unified position on political issues ranging from the United States Strategic Defense Initiative to those of strategy and tactics in the Soviet-led world communist movement. Indeed, because East Germany had so often followed the Soviet political lead and has continually tried to persuade other Soviet allies to do so, Western observers described East Germany as the Soviet Union's "junior partner" within the Warsaw Pact.

East Germany's role as the Soviet Union's junior partner also came into play in the Third World. Here, East Germany carved out a role for which it had no peer in the Soviet alliance. East Berlin provided many forms of military and economic assistance, police training, and technical education to selected Third World allies of the Soviet Union. To be sure, in extending this aid East Germany gained political recognition from other countries as well as access to raw materials. However, in undertaking these activities East Germany acted for the Soviet-dominated socialist community. East German aid served primarily as a means to extend Soviet influence throughout the world.

In the 1980s, other events diminished East Germany's status as a model ally of the Soviet Union. East Germany derived many economic and political benefits from its relations with West Germany. As a result, East Germany's desire to maintain good relations with West Germany clashed with the Soviet interest in curtailing relations between Warsaw Pact countries and those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Soviet policy changed because of a general cooling of superpower relations brought on by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Poland, and NATO's decision to deploy Pershing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in West Germany. In this public quarrel, Hungary backed the East German position, while Czechoslovakia, East Germany's hardline ally in alliance affairs, together with Poland, supported the Soviet position. The disagreement culminated in 1984 with Honecker's indefinite postponement of a planned trip to West Germany.



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