East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations

East and West Germany established diplomatic relations in a watershed of the détente era, one symbolizing the acceptance of the post-World War II European order by the two blocs.

Summary of Event

The Treaty on the Basis of Relations Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the so-called Basic Treaty, was signed on December 21, 1972, and entered into force on June 21, 1973. This treaty was the instrument through which the two German states formally recognized each other as sovereign entities. The termination of the strict nonrecognition policy pursued by the American-allied Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany) opened the door for the worldwide de jure recognition of the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany). The establishment by the German states of mere “permanent representations” in each other’s capitals, instead of full diplomatic embassies, was a concession to the West German position on the state of the German nation. This position insisted on the continued existence of two German states within one German nation. Accordingly, the relationship between the two German states would have to be of a special nature, for the two entities could not deal with each other as if they were foreign states. Diplomatic relations;East Germany and West Germany
Basis of Relations Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, Treaty on the (1972)
Basic Treaty (1972)
West Germany;East-West German relations[East West German relations]
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[kw]East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations (June 21, 1973)
[kw]West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations, East and (June 21, 1973)
[kw]Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations, East and West (June 21, 1973)
[kw]Diplomatic Relations, East and West Germany Establish (June 21, 1973)
Diplomatic relations;East Germany and West Germany
Basis of Relations Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, Treaty on the (1972)
Basic Treaty (1972)
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[g]Germany;June 21, 1973: East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations[01190]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 21, 1973: East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations[01190]
Bahr, Egon
Brandt, Willy
Kohl, Michael
Stoph, Willi

The Basic Treaty was a significant milestone in Chancellor Willy Brandt’s innovative Ostpolitik
Ostpolitik (literally “East politic,” or Eastern policy), aiming toward normalization of affairs with the East and the softening of the harsh impact of the division of Germany. The new Eastern policy represented a complete turnabout from the earlier West German posture, expressed by the so-called Hallstein Doctrine. Hallstein Doctrine This doctrine pursued as its principal objective the prevention of diplomatic recognition of the GDR by the non-Communist world. The West German government’s earlier position maintained that Germany continued to exist in its 1937 borders. It also claimed that the German state, continuing as a subject before international law, was recognized in reorganized form in 1949 as the Federal Republic of Germany. This legal standpoint, according to which the FRG represented the whole of the German nation, assumed that the borders of the former German Reich of 1937 maintained full validity in the legal sense, in spite of the fact that the constitution of the FRG could not be extended over the same area. A further deduction was that the FRG should pursue a foreign policy that would enable the other parts of Germany to enter into the realm of the Basic Law of the FRG. Thus reunification of Germany within the 1937 borders was among the expressed goals of the West German government.

The new West German flexibility began to emerge with the “Grand Coalition” government in November, 1966, formed by the two largest West German political parties: the Christian Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). As a junior party in the coalition, the SPD was able to play a significant role in outlining a common denominator for the new West German policy thrust toward achieving normalized relations with Eastern Europe. The foremost goal would continue to be the construction of a satisfactory solution to the German problem, but the approach would be changed. Later, the parliamentary elections of 1969 enabled the SPD to form the government, in coalition with the small Free Democratic Party (FDP), and to determine the basic guidelines of public policy.

West German chancellor Willy Brandt (right) greets East German prime minister Willi Stoph at the main station of Erfurt on March 19, 1970, in the first meeting since Germany was divided in 1949.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The new government, led by Willy Brandt, fully conceded the reality of the two German states and abandoned the earlier legal claims. The new foundation regarding the German national question was: “Two states within one nation.” Although it did not totally eliminate the core of the earlier posture, this new formulation buried the West German government’s claim of superiority over the East German regime.

West Germany’s new position, making both states equal, was consistent with an earlier East German position respecting the German question. The East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) had often expressed its commitment to the reestablishment of national unity. When Brandt began his new Ostpolitik initiatives, however, the GDR changed its position. Where before it had spoken of itself as a socialist state of a German nation, reference was now made to a “socialist German nation-state.” The new East German posture was designed to make possible a sharper ideological demarcation, to protect against possible undermining influences resulting from increased contacts with the West. With the Soviet Union’s course set on détente, the East German regime had little choice but to respond to the West German policy initiatives, lest it face the prospect of isolation within the Communist camp.

Toward the end of 1969, the GDR expressed readiness for talks with the FRG, no longer insisting on its earlier precondition of formal diplomatic recognition. These developments led to the historic meeting between Brandt and Willi Stoph, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the GDR, in Erfurt on March 19, 1970. The subsequent negotiations between the two German states were very difficult and often intractable. Simultaneously, the West German government conducted talks with other Warsaw Pact states. Treaties with the Soviet Union and Poland were concluded, entailing the acceptance of the existing frontiers in central Europe, particularly the Oder-Neisse Line, thereby formally conceding the loss of the former German eastern territories. In return, the Eastern Bloc was expected to accept certain realities as well, such as West Berlin being a de facto part of the FRG.

To some extent, Bonn’s concerns regarding the security of West Berlin were accommodated by the Four Power Agreement on Berlin Four Power Agreement on Berlin (1971) signed on September 3, 1971. Essentially, this agreement reaffirmed West Berlin’s special status. In addition, it made possible the achievement of practical improvements involving civilian traffic between West Germany and West Berlin, the facilitation and simplification of border clearance, and the general expansion of freedom of movement for West Berliners, all to be settled through specific arrangements between the governments of the GDR and the FRG or the Senate of West Berlin.

On November 8, 1972, Egon Bahr and Michael Kohl, the two principal negotiators in the West German-East German talks, initialed the Basic Treaty. The document provided for relations based on sovereign equality, peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for the signatories’ territorial integrity, mutual support of arms control and disarmament, resolution of all problems of a practical and humanitarian nature, and the establishment of permanent missions in the respective capitals. A number of issues, varying in importance and scope, were treated in supplementary protocols. These included the resolution of problems relating to the border line, the creation of additional border crossings, the easing of travel restrictions for West Germans, the reuniting of families, the improvement of traffic in noncommercial goods, the working conditions for journalists, and the simultaneous application for membership in the United Nations.


The question regarding the continuing existence of the German nation was not settled by the Basic Treaty; it merely made it possible for both sides to maintain their differing legal positions. For West Germany, it was imperative to uphold the concept of one German nation, to insist that the relationship between the two German states was of a special nature. There was no formal reference anywhere in the document to diplomatic relations. The substantial trade between the two states was to continue to be conducted on the basis of existing agreements. These agreements considered it to be intra-German, rather than foreign, trade. The GDR quietly accepted this arrangement because it provided substantial economic benefits. Nevertheless, the Basic Treaty entailed the mutual recognition of the signatories as sovereign states, irrespective of the specific terminology. The subsequent wave of de jure diplomatic recognitions of the GDR by Western and Third World countries and the existence of two German ambassadors in the capitals of the world legitimated and finalized the partition of Germany. In that sense, the German problem appeared to have been solved. A tolerable coexistence, rather than hostile confrontation, was given precedence. In short, the normalization of affairs and the attendant easing of the daily lives of the people of West Germany and East Germany was made possible.

The normalization of relations between the two Germanies was symbolic of the stabilization of relations between the two military-ideological blocs in Europe. However, normalization also facilitated the increased exposure of East Germany to Western visitors and media. Toward the end of the following decade, East Germans’ dissatisfaction with their living conditions would contribute to the overthrow of their Communist government and the subsequent absorption of the GDR by the FRG. Diplomatic relations;East Germany and West Germany
Basis of Relations Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, Treaty on the (1972)
Basic Treaty (1972)
West Germany;East-West German relations[East West German relations]
East German-West German relations[East German West German relations]

Further Reading

  • Birnbaum, Karl E. East and West Germany: A Modus Vivendi. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1973. A concise review of the so-called détente treaties of 1970-1972, including texts of the treaties.
  • Brandt, Willy. People and Politics: The Years 1960-1975. Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. The author of the new Ostpolitik describes the era of détente. A highly readable, personal account.
  • Drath, Viola Herms. Willy Brandt: Prisoner of His Past. 1975. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Books, 2005. Biography of the former chancellor of West Germany.
  • Hanrieder, Wolfram F. “A New Ostpolitik for the 1970’s and 1980’s.” In Germany, America, Europe: Forty Years of German Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. Chapter 7 in Hanrieder’s work provides penetrating analysis of the German problem in the late détente period. The entire book offers valuable historical background and contemporary evaluation of intra-German relations.
  • Hess, Frederick W., ed. German Unity: Documentation and Commentaries on the Basic Treaty. East Europe Monographs series, #4. Kansas City, Mo.: Park College Governmental Research Bureau, 1974. Includes text of the Basic Treaty and analysis by scholars.
  • McAdams, A. James. Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Examines intra-German relations from the 1960’s until reunification in 1990. Heavy emphasis on the events leading up to and surrounding the Basic Treaty. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • Sarotte, M. E. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. An engaging look at public and secret negotiations between East and West Germany during Brandt’s chancellorship.
  • Whetten, Lawrence L. Germany’s Ostpolitik: Relations Between the Federal Republic and the Warsaw Pact Countries. London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1971. Although published before the signing of the Basic Treaty, this volume presents a valuable analysis of the logic behind Bonn’s Ostpolitik.

Détente with the Soviet Union

Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany

Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO

Dissolution of the Soviet Union