Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO

The two German states achieved political reunification only after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to permit the new united Germany to remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Summary of Event

The division of Germany into two rival states in 1949 was a result of the Cold War Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the Western democracies created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, neither German state established a national army until after 1955. The Soviet Union organized the Warsaw Pact Warsaw Pact only after West Germany was rearmed and admitted to NATO in 1955. East Germany also established an army in early 1956, after having been admitted into the Warsaw Pact. The German armies were integrated into rival military organizations in large part because of a fear of German rearmament held by both Western and Eastern European countries. North Atlantic Treaty Organization;German membership
[kw]Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO (July 16, 1990)
[kw]Membership of a United Germany in NATO, Gorbachev Agrees to (July 16, 1990)
[kw]Germany in NATO, Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United (July 16, 1990)
[kw]NATO, Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in (July 16, 1990)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;German membership
[g]Soviet Union;July 16, 1990: Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO[07810]
[g]Europe;July 16, 1990: Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO[07810]
[g]Russia;July 16, 1990: Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO[07810]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 16, 1990: Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO[07810]
[c]Government and politics;July 16, 1990: Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO[07810]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;German membership in NATO
Kohl, Helmut
Genscher, Hans-Dietrich
Maizière, Lothar de

The rearmament of the two German states after 1955 solidified the division not only of Germany but also of Europe. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall Berlin Wall in 1989, many observers discounted the possibility of German reunification, and many argued that the division of Germany was actually “the cornerstone of a stable Europe.” Neither military bloc was willing to give up its German state to the other side. Not until Mikhail Gorbachev gave Germany permission to remain in NATO in July, 1990, was it possible for Germany to complete its political reunification and terminate the special powers exercised by the four major victors of World War II.

The decision to rearm the two Germanies had a dramatic effect on both societies. Rearmament was initially opposed by a majority of Germans in West and East Germany. Although West Germany rearmed in response to American pressures, the West German army was able to fill its ranks with almost equal numbers of draftees and volunteers. In addition, the West German government established a number of guidelines that protected the civil and constitutional rights of soldiers. Everything possible was done to prevent the emergence of a militaristic culture; the emphasis was always placed on the citizen-soldier. By the 1980’s, between 10 and 15 percent of West German conscripts opted for alternative service in the military by declaring themselves conscientious objectors. Most West Germans appreciated the more than one-half million foreign troops stationed in their country as valuable allies against potential Soviet aggression. The additional demand on housing and other vital facilities in such a small country, however, was often a source of friction between West Germans and their NATO allies.

In East Germany, rearmament had a much more negative impact on society. The Communist regime did not dare to introduce conscription until 1962, a year after it had built the Berlin Wall to prevent escape from East Germany. There were few safeguards in the East German army that protected civil and religious rights. Although some conscripts were permitted to perform alternative service with military construction units after 1964, the East German army did not officially recognize the status of conscientious objector. Rainer Eppelmann, Eppelmann, Rainer a Lutheran minister who became defense minister of East Germany after the demise of the Communist government in April, 1990, was imprisoned because he declared that he was a conscientious objector. Furthermore, in 1978 the Communist government introduced compulsory military studies in schools. Almost all East German officers and a majority of noncommissioned officers were members of the official Socialist Unity Party. The presence in East Germany of more than 350,000 Soviet troops ensured that any opposition would be crushed with brutal force.

Both German armies were important to the rival military blocs. The largest Soviet military force in Eastern Europe was located in East Germany, and the commander of that force dominated the East German military establishment. The West German army was crucial to NATO, as it provided half of the ground forces of NATO and 60 percent of the alliance’s tank units. Unfortunately for the Germans, they were in the forefront of any potential conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. Even more disturbing to many Germans was that a conflict between these military alliances would also produce a civil war between Germans.

Although the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 violated the human rights of families and friends on both sides of the wall, West German leaders after 1970 decided to establish closer contacts with East Germany. Willy Brandt, Brandt, Willy the chancellor of West Germany, initiated policies that led to the signing of the Basic Treaty Basic Treaty (1972) between East and West Germany in 1972. This treaty attempted to establish normal relations between the two German states and, at least in the opinion of West German leaders, permit closer contacts between the two peoples.

By 1979, almost eight million West Germans and West Berliners were able to visit East Germany. Unfortunately for intra-German relations, however, in 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Fearing the superiority of Soviet conventional forces, West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt Schmidt, Helmut called for the modernization of NATO weapons. By 1983, Pershing II and cruise missiles were being deployed in West Germany. As a result of this NATO decision, significant peace movements emerged in both West and East Germany. Furthermore, Moscow attempted to prevent further German-German détente by preventing Erich Honecker, Honecker, Erich the leader of East Germany, from visiting Bonn, the West German capital. Not until 1987 was Honecker able to make an official visit to West Germany.

The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 as the leader of the Soviet Union was the most important single event to affect both Eastern European regimes and the relationship between the two German states. Gorbachev called for greater European self-reliance in 1986, and on two different occasions in 1988 he guaranteed Eastern European countries freedom of choice. In effect, he abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine, Brezhnev Doctrine which had threatened Soviet military intervention in the case of any East European Communist regime experiencing domestic upheaval. Gorbachev’s new policy allowed the Hungarians to remove the fortifications between Hungary and Austria. The opening of the Hungarian border undermined East Germany, as thousands of East Germans fled to the West. East Germans were granted automatic citizenship in West Germany. By November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened, and the inevitable process toward German unification was launched by Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of West Germany.

Kohl and the West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, assured their Western allies that a united Germany would remain in NATO. This decision, however, could never be implemented without the permission of the Soviet Union and the removal of Soviet troops from East Germany. Gorbachev had insisted in 1987 that there were two German states and that any attempt to change this historical reality would be dangerous. As late as December, 1989, in a meeting with U.S. president George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] in Malta, Gorbachev insisted on the existence of two Germanies. Only in January, 1990, did Gorbachev change his mind and accept the inevitability of German unification. In February, 1990, he informed Kohl that the Germans could decide on the timing of unification after negotiating with France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Between January and June, 1990, however, Gorbachev continued to argue that Germany could not join NATO.

The two German states moved closer to unification after the March, 1990, election in East Germany removed the Communist government and established a pro-Western coalition government under Lothar de Maizière. In early July, 1990, the West German mark became the official currency in East Germany. Finally, in order to meet one of Gorbachev’s key demands, NATO representatives meeting in London on July 6, 1990, agreed to change the “forward defense theory” and extend a hand of cooperation to Moscow. With this development, Gorbachev could face his domestic opposition and agree with Kohl on July 16, 1990, that a unified Germany would be permitted to remain in NATO.

Kohl agreed that Germany would not acquire nuclear or chemical weapons and that the German army would be reduced to 370,000 soldiers. Furthermore, the Germans would provide massive financial assistance to help the Soviets construct housing facilities for the Soviet troops returning from East Germany. On September 12, 1990, the four powers and the two Germanies accepted this arrangement, and on October 3, 1990, reunited Germany regained its sovereignty.


Gorbachev’s decision to permit Germany to remain in NATO, combined with announcements by East European countries that they intended to withdraw from military commitments to the Warsaw Pact, effectively eliminated the confrontation between the two military blocs. This development had long been demanded by peace and human rights movements in Germany. The unification of Germany also resulted in the elimination of the East German army. Only 50,000 former members of the East German army were to be absorbed by the united German army. Although many East German officers who had belonged to the Socialist Unity Party lost their careers, the militarization of East German society and schools was abolished. The former West German army also felt the impact of unification, as the total size of the German armed forces was reduced to 370,000.

The eventual departure of Soviet forces from East Germany and the reduction of foreign troops in West Germany helped to reverse environmental damage and made additional housing and other badly needed facilities available to the Germans. The absence of Soviet protection after 1994 also made it impossible for Moscow to assist, as it did in the case of Honecker, the escape of former East German Communists from German prosecution.

Reunification posed some problems. East Germans suffered from rising unemployment until East German industries became more competitive. The environmental destruction left behind by the departing Soviet troops required attention. Much of the cost of unification was borne by West German taxpayers.

Ironically, with increased political and civil rights, there emerged a virulent and xenophobic nationalism among some East German youths. This hostility was directed against foreigners in general and Jews and Poles in particular. On the other hand, one positive consequence of the agreement between Kohl and Gorbachev in July, 1990, was a treaty between Poland and Germany that guaranteed Poland’s border. Although West Germany officially accepted the Oder-Neisse line after 1970, the West German constitution did not permit commitment to a final treaty with Poland until Germany had been reunified. In return, the Poles agreed to end the cultural persecution of and discrimination against ethnic Germans living in the Polish region of Silesia.

German reunification within the NATO alliance reassured neighboring countries that Germany would not represent a threat in the future. With the demise of the Warsaw Pact, Europe was no longer confronted with rival military blocs facing each other along the German borders. That lack of hostility facilitated the expansion of tolerance and human rights on both sides of the old Iron Curtain as Eastern European countries, one after another, cast aside their Communist pasts and, like East Germany, cast their lot with the hopeful promise of integration into the Western capitalist economy, with its attendant political liberties. North Atlantic Treaty Organization;German membership

Further Reading

  • Adomeit, Hannes. “Gorbachev and German Unification: Revision of Thinking, Realignment of Power.” Problems of Communism 39 (July/August, 1990): 1-23. Offers one of the best short reviews available of the evolution of Gorbachev’s views on the German issue between 1985 and July, 1990. Informative endnotes include citations to articles in the Russian press that reveal Gorbachev’s views.
  • Frey, Eric G. Division and Détente: The Germanies and Their Alliances. New York: Praeger, 1987. Remarkable work offers a fine survey of the relationship between the two German states. Includes valuable bibliography.
  • Herspring, Dale R. “The Soviets, the Warsaw Pact, and the Eastern European Militaries.” In Central and Eastern Europe: The Opening Curtain?, edited by William E. Griffith. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Informative chapter questions the reliability of the East European military organizations within the Warsaw Pact.
  • Kaltenfleiter, Werner. “NATO and Germany.” In NATO After Forty Years, edited by Lawrence S. Kaplan et al. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1990. Provides basic information on Germany’s role in NATO and offers intelligent interpretations.
  • Kirchner, Emil J. “Genscher and What Lies Behind ’Genscherism.’” West European Politics 13 (April, 1990): 159-177. Reviews Genscher’s impact as German foreign minister and argues that Genscher, a native of East Germany, quickly saw the significance of perestroika to German unification.
  • Macgregor, Douglas. The Soviet-East German Military Alliance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Offers a solid history of the relationship between the Soviet and East German militaries and argues that Moscow would use force to maintain its control of Eastern Europe.
  • Moreton, Edwina, ed. Germany Between East and West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Interesting collection of essays on the German question from the perspective of the mid-1980’s examines in detail the “German plans” of the four major powers and of the two German states.
  • Stent, Angela E. Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Remarkable study addresses Russian-German relations following Gorbachev’s rise to power.
  • Tewes, Henning. Germany, Civilian Power, and the New Europe: Enlarging NATO and the European Union. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Provides analysis of how Germany’s unification affected foreign policy and how institutions such as NATO and the European Union affected German politics.

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