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ity of Warsaw Pact intervention. 9
Given the importance of the 1953 East German crisis, it is little surprising that Soviet policy towards Germany and the East German uprising in the spring and summer of 1953 have come under intense scholarly scrutiny since the opening of the Russian and East German archives in 19901992.10 Yet key aspects of this episode of the Cold War remain controversial. Historians, in particular Germans, still fiercely debate the essential character of the crisis: was it basically labor unrest against industrial norm increases or a failed popular rebellion?ll Even more controversial are the international ramifications of the East German crisis in the spring and summer of 1953. What were the intentions of Stalin's successors with regard to Germany? Did Beria favor “a grand bargain that would reunify Germany as a capitalist, neutral government?"12 What role did the German question play in the post-Stalin succession struggle. What effect did the East German uprising have on the policy-making process in Moscow?
The documents edited below, obtained in preparation or as a result of the November 1996 conference on “The Crisis Year 1953 and the Cold War in Europe,” cosponsored by the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Studien (Potsdam), the National Security Archive (Washington), and the Cold War International History Project, shed new light on these questions and contribute in important ways to our understanding of the 1953 crisis. 13 The following essay will briefly introduce the documents, highlighting the significance of the new evidence.
Soviet policy toward Germany after 1945 has been a hotly contested field of research. Recent studies on the Soviet occupation zone in Germany have revealed that Stalin's policy was deeply conflicted and inherently contradictory. Soviet policy options in postwar Germany - the Sovietization of the Eastern occupation zone, the creation of a unified, socialist Germany, or the establishment of a demilitarized “neutral” Germany remained essentially unresolved during the early years of the Cold War. 14 Even after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, run by the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands = SED), Stalin's policy remained, by all indications, torn between the full satellization of the new state and all-German aspirations. Stalin's hopes for gaining influence over all of Germany notwithstanding, by early 1953 his policies had driven East Germany's economy into the ground, and socio-economic conditions had become critical.
Reparations and occupation costs had taken a heavy toll on East Germany's economic resources since the end of the war. 15 In early April 1952, Stalin had told visiting East German leaders that “you must organize your own state," demanding that they turn the relatively open demarcation line between East and West Germany into a “frontier” and that everything be done to “strengthen the protection of this frontier.”16 Stalin apparently also decreed the creation of an East German army — "Every
thing without clamor but persistently”. and announced that the “pacifist period” was over. He also sanctioned the socialization of GDR agriculture and industry, again “without much clamor.”
That summer, at its Second Party Conference (July 9-12), the SED announced the policy of “the forced construction of socialism,” following final approval by Moscow on July 8. The crash socialization and collectivization course quickly aggravated economic dislocations and popular discontent. Extraordinarily harsh regimentation and persecution, massive arrests and trials accompanying the new policy added to the strains on the social and economic fabric of the GDR. By early 1953, East Germans were fleeing their homeland by the thousands.
The mounting crisis in the GDR coincided with a change of leadership in Moscow: Stalin died on 5 March 1953. Even as the dictator was still dying at his dacha in the Moscow suburb of Kuntsevo, Beriia and Georgii Malenkov plotted to seize the reins of power. The two quickly coopted Nikita Khrushchev, Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, into the leading “troika," and secured the state and party apparatus under their control. Lacking both stature and legitimacy, they put Viacheslav Molotov in charge of foreign affairs, leaving the defense ministry to Nikolai Bulganin. Breaking with the hard-line and paranoid policies that had put Soviet policy on the defensive worldwide, the new leadership immediately moved to put Soviet foreign policy on a more calm and flexible track. Shortly after Stalin's death, Malenkov announced a "peace initiative," arguing that there were “no contested issues in U.S.-Soviet relations that could not be resolved by peaceful means." Within weeks, the Soviet leadership indicated its desire to end the Korean War, and deal with lingering disputes such as those over Austria, Iran, and Turkey. While terrified to let any internal dissension leak out to the West, Malenkov and Berija soon began to press the more conservative “Stalinist” Molotov to reconsider Soviet policy on these critical issues. Slowly but persistently, Malenkov and Beriia sought to limit Molotov's prerogative over foreign affairs.
Germany loomed large in the minds of the Soviet leaders in those days. In March, the Deutsche Bundestag, the West German parliament, had sanctioned the Bonn Treaty (General Treaty) which provided the Federal Republic with a broad degree of sovereignty, and it had passed the government's decision to join the European Defense Community (Paris Treaty). Brainstorming within the Soviet Foreign Ministry, therefore, was initially concerned with finding a response to the Bonn and Paris Treaties, with regaining the initiative on the German question, rather than with solving the East German crisis per se. Initial memoranda were drafted in the Foreign Ministry by German specialists Georgii Pushkin and Jakob Malik on April 18 and 21 for the Presidium meeting on April 22. They suggested a nation-wide plebiscite on the “immediate establishment of a provisional all-German Government appointed by the parliaments of the GDR and
West Germany, while preserving Germany's two existing Semenov continued to draft memoranda which sought governments." Expecting that the measure would be to conceptualize the ministry's approach to the German opposed by the Western powers, the memoranda suggested question.21 Thus, in line with earlier planning papers on as an alternative option a GDR government appeal to the May 2, he suggested the elimination of the Soviet Control Soviet government for the conclusion of a treaty of
Commission, the domineering presence of which friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. Wary of the "emphasiz[ed) the inequality in relations between the possibility, as remote as it may have seemed, that the West USSR and the GDR,” and reflected a degree of “political might take the Soviets up on their proposals, Molotov mistrust" in the SED regime, impeding the development of remained skeptical of the exercise, reminding his subordi- qualified East German cadres. Semenov also argued in his nates at one point that they “failed to understand the May 2 memorandum, in a statement that in retrospect essence of the policy of the three [Western powers) – to turned out to be a gross miscalculation, that the SED had pull Germany to the bourgeois rails."18
“strengthened and matured enough to manage on their own Significantly, the proposal for a separate treaty with the leadership of the country."22 Semenov's insistence on East Germany did not contain any references to the crisis reducing reparations apparently proved successful. On in the GDR, but rather assumed the continued existence, May 4, Molotov forwarded to Malenkov another draft of even strengthening, of the East German regime until the the proposals on Germany for discussion at the May 5 conclusion of a peace treaty. As early as the beginning of Presidium meeting, according to which reparations from April, Moscow had apparently hinted at a relaxation of the the GDR for the 1953/55 period would be limited to the harsh socialization measures (only to be ignored by
“sum of payment set for 1953” and terminated altogether Ulbricht), and on April 18, the Soviet government prom- by 1956. The document also suggested June as the date for ised aid in copper, steel and other raw materials to the the official state visit by an East German delegation, GDR. 19 Only after Vladimir Semenov, the Political
23 Adviser to the Soviet Control Commission in Germany,
Sometime after mid-May 1953, the Soviet Foreign had been recalled to Moscow on April 22 to head the Third Ministry altered — or was forced to alter — its position, European Division within the Foreign Ministry, did further now taking a more critical attitude towards Ulbricht's concerns about the GDR enter the policy-making process. policy of the “forced construction of socialism.” Historians The April 28 version of the memorandum on Germany, have long wondered what might have caused this entitled “Further Soviet Measures on the German Ques- change. 24 In light of the documents presented below, one tion,”:20 continued to call for the formation of a provi- very probable explanation is the growing number of sional all-German government by the East and West reports critical of the deteriorating situation in the GDR German parliaments “while preserving the existing
and the SED's handling of crisis. The crucial point is that governments of the GDR and West Germany" for an these reports emanated not only, and perhaps not even interim period. The provisional German government primarily, from the MID representatives in Germany, many would draft an all-German electoral law, carry out free all- of whom were ideologically committed to the GDR and German elections and represent Germany in the quadripar- inclined to underestimate the problems, but from the tite peace treaty negotiations. Once a provisional German Soviet intelligence community. As early as March 9, government had been formed, the occupation powers Soviet intelligence officials in Berlin sent a pessimistic would be obliged to withdraw their troops simultaneously. report to Berlin pointing to the “worsening class conflict in To raise the GDR's international prestige, however, the the GDR."25 On May 6, Beria circulated an intelligence draft memorandum also called for the elimination of the report among senior members of the CPSU presidium that Soviet Control Commission, the establishment of a Soviet argued that the dramatic rise in the number of refugees 26 embassy in its place and the return of German prisoners of could not only be explained by the hostile propaganda war. It also suggested reducing reparation payments by directed by West German organs at the population of the 50%, returning all Soviet-owned enterprises in Germany to GDR.” Rather, it was the “unwillingness of individual the GDR, and inviting a GDR government delegation to groups of peasants to enter the agricultural production Moscow.
cooperatives now being organized, the fear on the part of MID officials believed that such a proposal would not small and middle-level businessmen of the abolition of only “represent a new concrete step by the Soviet Govern- private property and the confiscation of their goods, the ment” on the issue of reunification and evoke a “broad desire of the youth to avoid military service, and the positive response among the German people,” but also difficulties experienced in the GDR in supplying the "expose" the Western opposition to German unification on population with foodstuffs and consumer goods” that a "peaceful and democratic basis." Since it was likely that caused the mass exodus. The Beria report blamed the SED the Western powers would reject a troop withdrawal and GDR government of not conducting “a sufficiently which, as the MID planners clearly recognized, would active fight against the demoralizing work carried out by effectively upset “the aggressive plans of the North
the West German authorities," and charged that the SED Atlantic bloc in Europe,” the Soviet Union would gain “falsely assume[d] that as long as free circulation exists considerable propaganda advantages.
between West Berlin and the GDR, such flights are
inevitable.” Beria hence proposed to ask the SCC to submit proposals on ways to gain control over the mass flight "in order to make the necessary recommendations to our German friends."27
Given the later accusations against Beria, it is interesting that Beria apparently managed to receive the Presidium's approval for his initiative on Germany. Very likely in response to the May 6 report, the head of the Soviet Control Commission (SCC), Vladimir Chuikov, Deputy Political Adviser to the SCC, Pavel Iudin, and USSR mission chief Ivan Il’ichev sent a memorandum to Moscow that criticized the SED's handling of the implementation of “accelerated construction of socialism.”:28 Significantly, the memorandum was not addressed to Molotov but to Premier Malenkov, perhaps reflecting the impatience and annoyance of the Soviet representatives in Germany with the staunchly orthodox position of the Soviet Foreign Ministry on the German question (and Semenov's key role in shaping that position). 29 Chuikov's, Iudin's and Il’ichev’s lengthy report on developments in the GDR gave an in-depth analysis of the mounting crisis and was highly critical of the SED, particularly its indifference to the mass flight of East Germans to the West. Foreshadowing the new course adopted in early June, Chuikov, Iudin and Il’ichev recommended an increase in consumer goods production, support of private artisanal production and individual farmers, a decrease in agricultural requisitions and a termination of the ration card system on basic foodstuffs. Nevertheless, the three Soviet officials eschewed more radical recommendations, and instead sought to suggest ways which would improve the efficiency and success of the socialization program.
On political administrative issues, the May 18 report similarly recommended changes while avoiding a call for more drastic steps. Thus, Chuikov, Iudin and Il’ichev wanted the SED to acknowledge the serious problem posed by the mass exodus of East Germans, reduce the massive number of those arrested as a result of excessive and arbitrary criminal codes, and reinstall some sense of reason, moderation and lawfulness in judicial and criminal procedures. At the same time, however, they emphasized increased and improved propaganda efforts as adequate ways to deal with the mass flight and opposition sentiment within the population. Chuikov, Iudin and Il'ichev hence seemed to have embraced Ulbricht's witch hunt policies which blamed foreign propaganda, especially the UScontrolled radio station in West Berlin, RIAS,30 and internal subversion for the problems in the GDR.31
The discussion of the German problem among the Soviet leadership reached a climax in late May, at a meeting of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers, which, chaired by Malenkov, had for a short time surpassed the CPSU Presidium as the main collective decision-making body.32 At the May 27 session, called to “analyze the causes which had led to the mass exodus of Germans from the GDR to West Germany and to discuss measures for correcting the unfavorable political and
economic situation in the GDR,” the Presidium members apparently agreed that the policy of the “forced construction of socialism" had to be terminated in order to avert a full-blown crisis. 33
According to the testimony by Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin and Khrushchev at the July 1953 CPSU plenum as well as later accounts by Khrushchev, Molotov, and Gromyko, Beriia was not satisfied with solely adjusting the pace of socialization in East Germany. Instead of terminating the forced construction of socialism, he allegedly shocked his colleagues with a proposal to abandon socialism in the GDR altogether in favor of the creation of a united, neutral and non-socialist Germany. **We asked, "Why?,” Molotov later recounted: “And he replied, “Because all we want is a peaceful Germany, and it makes no difference whether or not it is socialist.":34 According to Molotov, Beriia kept insisting that "it made no difference whether Germany was socialist or otherwise, that the most important concern was that Germany be peaceful.” Beriia's proposal was reminiscent of Stalin's earlier musings on Germany, but since then had been superseded by Soviet
indeed Stalin's own commitment to the build-up of the Communist German state. The proposal, moreover, ran counter to the German initiative that Molotov's foreign ministry had been carefully and stubbornly drafting. Molotov, therefore, raised strong objections to Beriia's proposal. A special committee consisting of Berija, Malenkov and Molotov was created to consider the matter, and, following several discussions and a late evening phone conversation, Berica finally gave in: “To hell with you! Let's not go to another meeting. I
»35 stand.” your Beriia's alleged zigzags on policy towards the GDR conform to what we know about his views. Much less ideologically committed than Molotov, or, as Molotov put it himself, "lacking deeper interest in fundamental policy decisions,” Beriia would not shy away from unorthodox, "heretical" solutions. 36 With a wide-ranging intelligence apparatus at his command, Beriia was better informed about the growing crisis in the GDR than many of his rivals, even Molotov, and he used his unmatched sources to challenge Molotov in the field of foreign policy.3) His unique knowledge of the recent strides in the Soviet nuclear weapons development (later that year the USSR successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb) might have caused him to experience less concern about the wider repercussions of any radical solution in Germany.
It was also fully in line with what we know about his personality to withdraw proposals as soon as he faced fierce opposition, such as Molotov and Khrushchev seem to have mounted within the Presidium.
Declassified documents and more recent recollections seem to confirm the existence of divisions within the Soviet leadership on Germany. In his letters from prison,39 Beriia acknowledged having displayed “inadmissible rudeness and insolence on my part toward comrade N.S. Khrushchev and N.A. Bulganin during the
discussion of the German question” while “along with all of you" introducing “initiatives at the Presidium aimed at the correct solution of issues, such as the Korean one, the German one." A year-and-a-half later, at the January 1955 CC CPSU Plenum, Beriia's ally in 1953, Malenkov, now under attack by Khrushchev and Molotov, “admitted” that he had been wrong in 1953 when he held the view that "the task of socialist development in Democratic Germany" was "incorrect.” “Today I admit that I essentially took a wrong position on the German Question.":40
Additional evidence is provided by secondary figures such as KGB operative Pavel Sudoplatov, a close collaborator of Berija. In his memoirs Special Tasks, Sudoplatov recounts that as early as April, “[p]rior to the May Day celebration in 1953, Beriia ordered me to prepare topsecret intelligence probes to test the feasibility of unifying Germany. He told me that the best way to strengthen our world position would be to create a neutral, unified Germany run by a coalition government. Germany would be the balancing factor between American and Soviet interests in Western Europe. East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, would become an autonomous province in the new unified Germany." According to Sudoplatov, Berija intended to air the idea through his intelligence contacts in Central Europe and “begin negotiations with the Western powers. Vladimir Semenov, who, as head of the responsible division within the Soviet Foreign Ministry, participated in the key meetings of the Soviet leadership on Germany (as well as the later meetings with the SED leaders), charges in his 1995 memoirs that Beriia was pursuing a line on Germany which would have disrupted the continuity of our policy on the German question and aimed at shocking the Soviet Union and eliminating the GDR." Semenov reports that during a Presidium meeting in the second half of May, 1953,” Berija, once called on, “took a paper out of his jacket pocket, without haste, as if he was the master of the house, put on his glasses and read his own draft on German policy. It differed fundamentally from the one which I carried in my bag.":42
Serious doubts, however, have been raised about the existence of a “Beriia plan.” Thus far, the evidence on Beria's role in the decision-making process within the Kremlin is fragmentary, biased and contradictory. The transcript of the May 27 Presidium meeting at which Beriia supposedly made his proposal remains classified in the Presidential Archive in Moscow. Mention of Beriia's alleged initiative on the German question was first made by his opponents at the July 1953 CPSU Plenum that condemned him, following his arrest on June 26.43 It is probable that the charges about Beriia's views on the German question, made by Khrushchev and others at the Plenum, were motivated largely by a desire to portray Beriia in most sinister ways and to characterize him as a traitor to the socialist cause, as a Western agent and provocateur. United in their fear of the brutal KGB chief and desirous to eliminate a strong competitor in the
struggle for supremacy within the Kremlin, Beria's opponents might well have fabricated, distorted or
44 exaggerated any difference of opinion on his part.
The documents presented here suggest a somewhat different interpretation. They certainly reflect Beriia's activism in the foreign policy field, especially on the German question. What is striking, however, is the fact that Beriia managed to gain Presidium approval for the demarche to the Soviet Control Commission, which in turn, with its May 18 critique of the SED's indifference and mishandling, set the tone for the May 27 meeting and the June 2 “New Course” document. Berija's initiative in early May thus turned into a Presidium-approved SCC investigation into and review of the situation in Germany which most likely forced the Foreign Ministry to take a much more critical attitude towards the SED's policy. At least initially, therefore, Beria's views on Germany apparently corresponded with the thinking within the SCC and were not blocked within the Presidium. Beria's continued prominence in foreign affairs after the May 27 meeting see his active participation in the discussions with the German and Hungarian leaders — also lends weight to this argument.
The available documentation through May 27, of course, does not preclude the possibility that Beria put forth a more drastic approach to the German problem at the Presidium meeting. Whether he did so or not, within days the Council of Ministers agreed on a draft resolution, which was adopted as an order "On Measures to Improve the Health of the Political Situation in the GDR,” dated June 2. Thus far, only draft versions of the document and its German translation have been available to scholars. 45 For the first time, an English translation of the original Russian version is printed below. Sharply criticizing the "incorrect political line" of forced construction of socialism in the GDR, the resolution called for an end to the "artificial establishment of agricultural production cooperatives” and to the prohibitive taxation of private enterprise, for support of small and medium-size enterprises, for an increase in mass consumption production at the expense of heavy industry as well as for the elimination of the ration card system. The resolution also recommended strengthening democratic rights in East Germany, changing the excessively punitive criminal code, ending the crude interference in church affairs, and "eradicating" the brutal administrative methods by which the SED regime had been ruling. Significantly, the order also emphasized that it was necessary to put the "tasks of the political struggle to reestablish the national unity of Germany" at the center of attention.
The same day, the Moscow leaders expressed their concerns about the GDR to an arriving East German delegation, composed of Ulbricht, GDR Premier Otto Grotewohl and Fred Oelßner, confronted it with the resolution and, after Oelßner had translated the document, asked for a response by the next day. According to Grotewohl's fragmentary notes, the East German propos
als, half-heartedly drafted during the night and tabled the next day in their meetings with Malenkov, Berija, Molotov, Khrushchev, Bulganin, Mikoian, Kaganovich, Semenov and Grechko, apparently fell short of Soviet expectations. “Our document is a reversal, yours is (just) reform," an exasperated Kaganovich exclaimed. 46 According to the memoirs of SED Politburo member Rudolf Herrnstadt, the editor of the party organ Neues Deutschland, the SED leaders had to take quite a beating as all of the Soviet comrades rejected the superficial draft. Berija displayed particular aggressiveness, allegedly throwing the documents at Ulbricht across the table with the words: “This is a bad remake of our document!"47
The Soviet leaders acknowledged that "we all have made mistakes” and that the recommendations were not meant as "accusations," but insisted that everything has to be based on a change in the conditions in the G.D.R.” Demanding that the SED leaders should not worry about (their) prestige," Malenkov warned that if we don't correct (the political line) now, a catastrophe will happen." The Soviet leaders appealed to the Germans to “correct fast and vigorously.” “Much time has been lost. One has to act quickly." And in a manner, as Molotov curiously added, “that all of G[ermany] can see it. "48
The June 2-4 talks with the East German leaders have to be viewed against the background of a larger effort by the post-Stalin Soviet leadership to halt and mitigate some of the worst excesses of Stalinist rule in East Central Europe. Similar talks, which, in each case, resulted in the announcement of a “New Course” program were held with the Hungarian leadership (13-16 June 1953)49 and the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha later that month. transcript of the Soviet-Hungarian talks on June 13-16,51 are instructive for several reasons: Much fuller than the fragmentary Grotewohl notes, 52 the transcript of the Soviet-Hungarian meeting is striking for its similarities: as in the German case, the discussion focused on the “audacious” industrialization and socialization drive and the abuses of power (especially by the security police), though cadre questions received considerable attention, too. As before with the East Germans, the Soviet leaders “urgently” demanded changes and warned that “a catastrophe will occur if we do not improve the situation.” Once again, Malenkov and Beriia were harshest and most “passionate” in their criticism, though Molotov and Bulganin did not lag behind. Unlike the earlier talks with the German leaders, however, Soviet criticism was vented primarily at premier and party chief Matyas Rakosi, the leading proponent of Stalinist rule in Hungary. Criticism of Rakosi's rule, his personal involvement in most political issues, and his personality cult” quickly produced changes within the leadership: within days of their return from Moscow, Rakosi resigned from the premiership which was given to the agrarian specialist Imre Nagy (though Rakosi stayed on as party leader).53
Grotewohl's notes of the June 2-4 Kremlin meetings do not reflect any personal criticism of Ulbricht, who had
stood for the accelerated socialization program. Following their return to Berlin on June 5, however, discussion within the SED Politburo of how and when to publicize the New Course document quickly turned into criticism of Ulbricht's dictatorial leadership style. During SED Politburo meetings on June 6 and 9, fellow Politburo members vented their dissatisfaction with the Ulbricht's personality cult and management of the Secretariat. Semenov, who had returned with the SED delegation from Moscow and participated in the sessions, seemed increasingly inclined to support Ulbricht's critics. 54 Arguing against any great celebration planned for Ulbricht's 60th birthday (June 30) during the forthcoming 13th Central Committee Plenum, Semenov recommended that the SED leader celebrate the way Lenin did his 50th birthday, by “inviting a few friends to drop in for dinner.”
The Politburo finally decided to draw up a comprehensive statement on “the self-criticism of the work of the Politburo and the Secretariat" which would be presented to the CPSU Central Committee Presidium. It also resolved to set up a commission, composed of Ulbricht, State Security chief Wilhelm Zaisser, Oelßner, Herrnstadt, and Berlin SED boss Hans Jendretzky, to “prepare an organizational reform of the working methods of the Politburo and
A recently declassified report to the USSR Minister of Internal Affairs, S. Kruglov by the KGB deputy resident in Berlin, Ivan Fadeikin, throws new light on the events within the SED Politburo. In a June 30 conversation with Soviet officials, the GDR Minister of Trade and Supply Curt Wach reported on the opposition which the New Course instructions from Moscow, particularly the shift of resources from the heavy to consumer goods industries, had encountered within the SED Politburo on June 9. Just about everybody seemed to oppose a plan tabled by the Minister of Machine Construction, Hermann Rau according to which 1.3 billion marks would be reallocated to light industries. Key members of the SED leadership — Rau himself, Wilhelm Leuschner, Chairman of the State Planning Commission, Fritz Selbmann, Minister for the Ore-Mining Industry, Fred Oelßner, Anton Ackermann — opposed the plan to cut back on heavy industry. According to Wach, Ulbricht most vehemently spoke out against the plan, arguing that “[w]e cannot free up such resources. Rau's plan disorganizes the national economy, and our economy is already disorganized as it is." With the GDR lacking sufficient resources, Ulbricht instead favored a different approach. Shifting the burden to the Soviets, who after all, had decreed the policy shift, he argued that “we should turn to the Soviet government with the request that they lower the reparations payments.” A fellow Politburo member succinctly pointed to the thought that must have been on everybody's mind: the only way “to get out of this catastrophic situation and improve our position" was for the Soviet Union to “[render) us the same help that the USA is giving Western Germany through the Marshall Plan." As Wach recounted, “[n]oone reacted to this