One of the key events which is often talked about in western (particularly American) histories of the Cold War is the rearmament of Germany. During the early 1950s as the Cold War was ramping up, the West German military was rebuilt following its dissolution at the end of WWII, which ultimately culminated with the country’s entry into NATO in 1955. This is talked about in a positive light in most history lessons, as if it was a sort of democratic response to the communist takeover of Eastern Europe during the late 1940s. At the same time, it usually goes unquestioned and unopposed by most students learning it. Even though they know about Germany’s heinous role in the Second World War, usually learning about it right before they learn about the Cold War, most never even stop to question it. After all, Germany never started a war again, so their rearmament was clearly an act of national reconciliation, with it also serving the purpose of countering Communism in Europe.
However, as with most mainstream narratives on foreign policy, the truth of the matter is usually far from what we’re taught in schools. In reality, West Germany’s rearmament was not in reaction to Soviet aggression, nor did it serve to increase peace and stability in Europe. What it actually did was put the people who were just fighting the Second World War right on top of the political system one again, with reactions from the Soviet Union that one would expect. These events are key to understanding the escalation of the Cold War, negative perceptions about the US and NATO during the Cold War period, and modern American international relations.
To fully understand the context of the situation, one must rewind a few years to the Second World War. For roughly the first two years of the war, from September of 1939 until June of 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union were essentially allies. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact dictated that the USSR and Germany would work together to conquer Poland (1939 borders), as well as much of Europe. Germany used this pact to conquer western Poland, much of which was part of the German Empire prior to the Treaty of Versailles being signed at the end of WWI, as well as Western Allies such as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Keep in mind that the United States had not yet entered WWII, while British Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand did. Meanwhile, the USSR conquered regions that had been part of the Russian Empire prior to the Russian Civil War, such as Eastern Poland, parts of Finland, and the Baltic states. This alliance, however, was broken on June 22, 1941, when Germany launched operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union to fulfill their philosophy of Lebensraum and causing the USSR to join the Allied Powers.
While June 22, 1941, is a date which has little presence in the minds of most Americans, for Russian and former Soviet citizens, it’s a date which often strikes grief, anger, trauma, and emptiness into those who hear it. The Soviet Union lost 13% of its population during WWII, 26 million people, almost all of whom died as a result of the Axis invasion. Compare this France, which lost 1.4%, the UK, which lost 0.9%, and the US, which lost 0.3%, most of whom were soldiers, and you can see why this date and event evoke a much stronger emotional response from Russians and Soviets than Pearl Harbor would to Americans. The technological, economic, and military advantage Germany had over the hardcore Communist Soviet Union, as well as the massive tactical blunders made by Stalin refusing to withdraw troops and civilians to a better front line in the early days of the war, leading to them being outflanked and encircled, all contributed to the massive losses sustained by the nation. In 1946, there were few people in Moscow, Leningrad, Krasnodar, or Stalingrad who hadn’t lost a son, daughter, mother, or father to the war. PTSD did not simply affect soldiers and others at the front line, it was an almost collective ailment affecting the entire nation and anyone who managed to survive the war, with the starvation, bombings of civilians, and mass executions that happened during it. At the same time, the USSR killed almost 80% of the European Axis troops who died during WWII, undoubtedly sparing millions of lives in France, England, and the other western Allied countries. It also essentially divided WWII into two periods; prior to and following the USSR’s declaration of war on Germany.
Given this, as well as the fact that Germany was essentially a "repeat offender" after World War I, it is understandable that the USSR and other Allied powers wanted the country to be severely punished for its role in the war, and made so that it could never again fight a war of this scale. The original plan agreed to by all Allied powers at the Yalta conference was to substantially reduce the industrial components of the German economy, and de-Nazify German society, followed by a reunification of the country’s occupation zones. However, the Soviets also would expel all ethnic Germans from German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line, as well as Czechoslovakia, while annexing Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) and giving the rest of the territory to Poland, and enslaving approximately 4 million German citizens to help reconstruct Eastern Europe. Additionally, the eastern border of Germany was redrawn at the Oder-Neisse line, which was the narrowest available land border available in the region, with the intention of containing another eastward-directed German offensive in the future.
While the USSR essentially adhered to the initial economic plan laid out at the Yalta conference, the western Allies largely did not. Initially, many German factories, mills, and production plants were disassembled. However, this process largely ended in 1947, with Western Germany still having a large industrial base. At this point, the Cold War had already begun to escalate. Many countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, had already become Communist. Furthermore, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states, which it had conquered prior to Operation Barbarossa, a move that the Western Allies did not recognize. The USSR deported large portions of these nations’ population and moved ethnic Russian settlers into them in an attempt to "Russify" the region. Additionally, all the other territories which the USSR conquered prior to Barbarossa were also annexed by the country, including even more of Finland, with the official reason for these annexations being to replenish the massive population losses of the Soviet Union during the war. However, these latter annexations were recognized by the Western Powers, so they were not as controversial at the time.
Furthermore, the Chinese Civil war was becoming the Cold War’s first proxy conflict at this time. The USSR invaded Manchuria at the end of WWII, allowing them to back the Chinese Communist Party, which already had the disproportionate support of the country’s population. Meanwhile, the US backed Chiang Kai-shek, whom they had already been supporting prior to WWII against the communists. It is important to note that Chiang Kai-shek had an appalling human rights record, having massacred his political opponents by the millions and engaged in scorched-earth policies during WWII, as well as the preceding Civil War period, which killed millions more. The United States and other western powers backing Chiang sent a strong signal to the USSR; that they did not approve of their political system, increasing influence throughout Eurasia or the rest of the world and that they would counter it through whatever means necessary, even if it meant backing some of the worst people on the planet. Additionally, the development and usage of nuclear weapons by the US, as well as the drafting of Operation Unthinkable by the UK were additional actions which led the USSR to know that the Western Powers would make an enemy out of them in the coming years. As such, they responded by further backing far left elements in Eastern Europe during the late 1940s, ultimately resulting in many of them becoming communist.
By this point, the Cold War was already underway. In March of 1947, US president Harry Truman announced the "Truman Doctrine" in a speech to congress, where he pledged to contain communism anywhere it may spread. This doctrine was first exercised on July 4, 1948, when Truman pledged to put down communist uprisings in Turkey and Greece. In September of 1947, the US passed the National Security Act of 1947, significantly expanding the powers of the president to wage war, creating the US Air Force while integrating the Strategic Air Command, responsible for delivering nuclear weapons, and restructuring the US government in a way which would make foreign interventions much more easy, in direct contradiction to the non-interventionist philosophy which had been laid out by the Founding Fathers and largely adhered to for the first 150 years or so of America’s existence. This is considered by many as the point at which the Cold War began. At this point, the Western Powers saw West Germany as a potential asset in opposing international communism, leading to them stopping short of the agreed-upon demilitarization and de-industrialization of the country.
The Marshall plan was approved by the United States in April of 1948, sending out billions of dollars in aid money to Western Europe, ostensibly to aid in post-WWII reconstruction efforts. However, Western Europe was already well on its way to economic recovery by this point and the actual primary goal of this act was to integrate the region into an American-centric world order which would "counter" the Soviets. Increasing tensions between the two sides over the fate of Germany and the introduction of the Western Deutsche Mark in West Berlin ultimately led to the Berlin Blockade which began in June of 1948. In this incident, the Soviet Union blockaded virtually all means of ground shipping to West Berlin through its occupation zone, restricting shipments into the city to those done by plane. The blockade lasted until the 12th of May 1949 and is considered the first major international incident of the Cold War. It was during this incident that the United States first seriously considered going to war with the Soviet Union and deployed nuclear weapons to Europe. Operation Half Moon was the official war plan put in place by Harry Truman in 1948. It would have involved dropping 50 nuclear bombs on Soviet and Soviet-allied cities, as well as launching a full scale invasion of the Eastern Bloc, which had already reached its largest extent following a series of communist takeovers in Eastern Europe between 1945 and early 1948.
1949 was a key year in the buildup of the Cold War. In April of 1949, NATO was formed, guaranteeing that the US and other western countries would oppose the USSR in Europe. On the 23rd of May, 1949, less than two weeks after the Berlin Blockade ended, the portions of Germany occupied by the Western Allies were unified into one country: West Germany. To the Soviet Union, this was an extremely provocative action. It ran directly contrary to the plans of unification laid out at the end of WWII. Furthermore, the Soviets knew that the only Germans with any political experience had been leaders of the Nazi party, which had murdered 26 million Soviet citizens just a few years prior. In August of 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, RDS-1. Up until this point, the United States had been the only country in the world with nuclear weapons. As such, further countering the Soviet Union and increasing western military presence in Europe was seen as necessary by the western military establishment. At this point, pursuing a rearmament of West Germany became formal policy of the US and other western powers, in order to provide an avenue for the US to move air bases containing nuclear bombers all the way up to the borders of the Eastern Bloc. In December of 1949, the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war, further fueling the American and western motivation to "contain" communism.
It should be noted that many in West Germany at this time did not favor German rearmament themselves. Left-wing elements and other antiwar groups viewed rearmament as a resurrection of Nazi ultra-nationalism, while right-wing elements thought that the military would never be an adequate fighting force without the reformation of the Wehrmacht. Furthermore, France, which had been occupied during WWII, was also opposed to West Germany’s rearmament. As a result, it is unlikely that West German rearmament would have happened without outside intervention. However, the western powers were dedicated to "countering" communism in Europe and were willing to work with West Germany towards this goal. In 1950, the West German government under chancellor Konrad Adenauer announced a number of concessions to the country which the Western Powers would have to fulfill in exchange for their rearmament and entry into the Cold War.
These concessions included:
- The release of all German soldiers convicted as war criminals
- The official defamation of German soldiers by the Allied powers would end
- Measures to assure the welfare of former soldiers and their widows would have to be taken
Ultimately, the western powers conceded to most of these demands, ending their de-Nazification programs and releasing numerous Nazi war criminals convicted during the postwar trials, including Hermann Reinecke, who administered the system which handled Soviet POWs, that killed over 3 million people, and Hermann Hoth, who played a key role on the Eastern front. In 1951, rearmament of West Germany began. Furthermore, many other former Nazis were now playing key roles in the West German government and society. Hans Speidel, a former Lieutenant General in the Nazi Army, had been appointed as the military adviser to Adenauer’s government and played a key role in promoting German rearmament. Hasso von Manteufell, another former Nazi General, was elected to the West German legislature.
These actions enraged the Soviet Union. It was the strongest indication possible to them, short of declaring war on the country, that the Western Powers were not, in fact, interested in having the USSR be a free, prosperous nation. Instead, the United States and NATO were interested in doing exactly the same thing the Nazis did: invading their nation, slaughtering civilians by the tens of millions, and annexing much of their territory in the name of "liberating" the Soviets from Communism. After all, why would they be backing their former leaders?
It is important to note here that, following the death of Joseph Stalin in March of 1953 and particularly under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev starting in September of that year, the USSR became much more devoted to preserving international peace, arguably as much as the United States. The USSR frequently tried to make it clear to the west that they did not want war. Khrushchev frequently criticized the USSR’s role in the Cold War, and substantially reduced the size of the nation’s military. He was also a critic of Mutually Assured Destruction and released many political prisoners jailed during the Stalin era. A reunification of Germany and equitable end to the Cold War almost certainly could have been achieved at this time, as long as a proper power sharing agreement was negotiated and respected by the parties involved. Even Stalin was willing to negotiate for German reunification.
Despite this, the United States and NATO continued to push for the rearmament of Germany. The Korean war further increased the desire to bring West Germany into NATO. This war began with a Sino-Soviet-North Korean offensive to topple the US-backed, right-wing dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, which had been massacring its opponents since it was founded. The western military establishment proceeded to label this as proof that the Soviet Union and communist China were exactly like Nazi Germany and that any intervention of theirs which was not countered by NATO was the equivalent of appeasement. Of course, they did not care that the difference between the two was that the United States was on the other side of the world from Korea, the USSR had an economy substantially smaller than Western Europe’s, and they had lost 13% of their population to WWII just a few years prior.
Ultimately though, the rearmament of Germany was completed, with the country joining NATO on May 9, 1955. Former Nazi generals such as Hans Speidel and Adolf Heusinger now held high-ranking positions in the West German military, or Bundeswehr, which was officially formed in November of 1955. Keep in mind that these were not "rehabilitated" individuals who were now unapologetically devoted to world peace. Almost all of them wanted to regain the eastern territories of Germany which were lost following WWII, through military force, if necessary. As late as 1990, leadership in the Christian Democratic Union, one of the major political parties in Germany, rejected officially recognizing the Oder-Neisse line as the country’s eastern border. They had no concern for the lives and well-being of the Poles and Russians who now lived in these territories, or conceding that accepting this border was key to leaving WWII in the past. Instead, they were just as bellicose, corrupt, and militant as the rest of the Western military establishment was.
The entry of West Germany into NATO was the largest provocation made by the Western Powers in the early Cold War period. The same people who, just a decade earlier, were killing innocent Soviet Citizens by the tens of millions now made up the very highest ranks of West German government and military. The fact that this happened on May 9, 1955, the ten-year anniversary of the end of WWII in the USSR, was even more symbolic to the Soviets about NATO’s intentions of invading and conquering the Soviet Union. It’s also important to remember that, at this time, the United States had a significant advantage in nuclear weapons technology over the USSR. The US had over 2400 nuclear weapons at this time, had already developed fusion bombs by 1952, and already had hundreds of them in their arsenal, as well as hundreds more fission weapons in addition to those developed by the UK. The USSR, on the other hand, only had about 200 nuclear weapons, most of which were fission bombs, as they had not developed fusion weapons until 1953 (and those were relatively primitive compared to American ones). NATO also had a substantial edge in weapon delivery technology.
All of this led to the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries forming the Warsaw pact on May 14, 1955, just five days after West Germany’s entry into NATO and set the stage for the remainder of the Cold War. From here, all future Soviet leaders assumed a policy of countering NATO and the west, just as the other side was doing to them. In 1958, the United States very nearly used nuclear weapons against China when they attempted to invade Kinmen island (not Taiwan itself), which had been under the control of the Republic of China (Taiwan) with US support since 1949, only avoiding doing so because of intervention by President Eisenhower. The USSR attempting to place nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, with America already having such weapons in Turkey, led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. After this, Leonid Brezhnev became leader of the USSR and both Cold War powers soon entered the Détente period, instead focusing on various regime change efforts and proxy conflicts throughout the world. This ended with the start of the 1979 Afghanistan war and election of Ronald Reagan, who took the Cold War to its absolute height, often risking nuclear confrontation with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads.
This brings up an important concept. We are often taught that the reason the Cold War occurred is because the Soviet Union wanted the entire world to be communist, and that America and other western countries had to fight them in order to prevent communism from spreading all over the world. However, this explanation of the Cold War is as ridiculous as saying that 9/11 happened because Osama bin Laden was mad that Americans wouldn’t convert to Islam. While Osama bin Laden would have liked to see everyone in the world convert to Islam, that was not his main motivation for attacking the US on 9/11. Likewise, people such as Khrushchev would have liked to see the world become communist, but they weren’t willing to make it so by force, nor was it why they were involved in the Cold War. The reality is that, following WWII, the Soviet Union was not in any military or economic shape to expand its influence anywhere beyond Eastern Europe and other countries it shared a border with. Furthermore, the post-Stalin Soviet Union was completely unwilling to invade the Western Allies.
At no point during the Cold War was the USSR willing or able to conquer Western Europe, much less the United States and Canada. Khrushchev, who was a peacenik in comparison to Stalin, was always willing to de-escalate the Cold War if the Western allies went along with it, just as the Western allies were willing to do so if the Warsaw pact did the same. All the future Soviet leaders, while very authoritarian in their domestic policies, always valued international peace just as much as the NATO countries did. Risking nuclear war and the deaths of a substantial percentage of the human race for the last 70 years was completely unnecessary. One must remember that, when Mikhail Gorbachev proposed ridding the world of nuclear weapons in 1986, it was Ronald Reagan who turned him down, as he thought it would kill support for his Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars missile defense project. Of course, he was either too dumb or had too much money behind him to care that such a system would be necessary once nuclear weapons and missiles were eliminated. This brings up another important point, and that is that all military decisions are ultimately influenced in one way or another by the military-industrial complex. Ever nation that has ever existed has had a military-industrial complex.
The MIC in the Soviet Union was just as powerful as the MIC in the United States, with exactly the same goals of increasing the quality of life of those at the top at the expense of everyone else. They pay bribes, buy up media outlets, donate to think tanks, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that the foreign policy which gets implemented is utterly opposed to de-escalation and disengagement from conflicts, and instead justifies as much military spending as possible. The military-industrial complex in both the US and USSR was at its absolute height following WWII, having been funneled as much money as the economies of these nations could muster during the war years. The only difference between the two sides is, again, that one had completely exhausted their human, economic, and natural resources fighting the war, while the other’s homeland went virtually untouched during the conflict. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had already been communist for 22 years prior to the start of WWII, under extremely authoritarian leaders such as Lenin and Stalin, yet there was no Cold War during that time period. The reason for this, of course, was that the United States was not constantly trying to provoke and escalate tensions with the USSR. The United States backing fascists and war criminals such as Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, and Adolf Speidel are what provoked the Soviet Union and led to the Cold War. The Western Allies were just as, if not more responsible for this conflict as were the Soviets.
Even now, the United States often backs some of the worst people on the planet to achieve its political aims. From Jihadists in Syria and Yemen, to warlords in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is simply how American foreign policy has functioned since WWII. America’s rearmament of Germany and the people it put in power is still a shadow over US foreign relations to this day. The reality is that trying to "bring democracy" to a non-offending country simply causes opposition leaders to be seen as foreign puppets and opposed by those in the nation who want political independence. Furthermore, a moral hazard is created for the people the US is backing. They know the US will support them and their quests to take political power no matter what, so they have no reason to moderate any of their positions and can be as corrupt as they please. As such, even when US regime change has "worked", it has only either decreased the quality of life for people living in the country, such as in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Chile, or had wider-reaching provocative consequences with other powers which made the efforts not worth it, such as in Korea or Taiwan.
The US and NATO have broken nearly every promise they have made since the end of the Cold War and show no signs of stopping. At the same time, they helped in completely destroying the former Soviet economy with the failures that were Perestroika and "Shock Therapy" reforms. While ending communism makes sense economically, the way these programs were implemented with influence from the West made the former Soviet monetary and economic system rife for corruption and inflation. Following the massive economic growth Russia sustained during Putin’s first administration in the 2000s, modern Russians now often view Americans with distrust, while Chinese do the same. The military-media-industrial complex has managed to make people around the world dissociated and apathetic towards foreign policy, which has the effect that you would expect. The foreign policy establishment does not care whether Democrats or Republicans are in office, as long as they are pro-war and pro-establishment. When it comes to debates over Crimea, Taiwan, Georgia, or any other contentious foreign policy issue, one must remember the appalling reputation America has gained in these matters and that the countries involved will not be afraid to escalate. The United States should not be backing the Speidels, the Chiangs, the Batistas, the Pinochets, and the Yeltsins of the world to achieve its aims. This is true now, it was true in 1945, and it will be true at any point in the future.
Starté Butone was born in the United States and is interested in foreign affairs. He regularly listens to the Scott Horton show and reads Antiwar.com.