West Berlin Was Nearly Sold Out, 1961/62

Based on recently declassified documents, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reports that West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer secretly suggested to U. S. President John F. Kennedy that they offer to give up West Berlin to East Germany in exchange for territories in Thuringia, Mecklenburg, and Saxony. The French magazine Le Point elaborates on the report, explaining how Adenauer thought that even if the “beneficial exchange” did not go through, the mere proposal of a deal would ease tensions with the East and might sow discord within the Soviet bloc: East Germany would surely want the entire city under its control, while the Soviet Union would be reluctant to give up important industrial territories in exchange. It was Kennedy who finally vetoed the idea.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into three (later four) zones of occupation. The former capital city of Berlin, which lay entirely within the Soviet zone, was also divided into subzones. As Cold War tensions increased, the American, British, and French subzones became increasingly isolated in the East. In June 1948 the Soviets attempted to force the Western allies to leave the city by cutting off all ground supplies.

"Attention! You are now leaving West Berlin."

The Americans responded with the famous Berlin Airlift, supplying the Western zones of the city by air transport for almost one year. The general occupation ended in 1949 and the dispute over Berlin cooled as the new states of West Germany and East Germany were founded. But in August 1961, East Germany ratcheted up tensions by constructing the Berlin Wall, which closed the border between East and West. It was at this point that Adenauer suggested his deal to the Americans.

What if the proposal were publicized? What if it were actually accepted? Surely the course of the Cold War would have been altered. The West would have been deprived of its most symbolic place of protest against communist dictatorship, and the wall actually would have come down much sooner, but under quite different circumstances than the celebrated “Mauerfall” in November 1989. But the more interesting implications of Adenauer’s suggestion are not in the realm of counterfactual speculation. Had the West German government given up on Berlin? Was it willing to renounce the historic capital in the interests of immediate political expediency? Did the reunification of Germany always remain the goal of the West, or were there moments during the Cold War when permanent division was accepted as the likely reality? These questions tend to undermine the heroic narrative that started with the Berlin Airlift: the West as constant champion of democracy in the East.

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