Driving the Soviets up the wall: Soviet-East German relations, 1953-1961 by Hope M. Harrison
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2003
Pages: 345. $42.50
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 80, Issue 3, Pages 535-579
In Driving the Soviets up the wall Hope Harrison examines the dynamics of Soviet-East German relations in the Cold War years 1953 to 1961, focusing in particular on 'three cases of the East German leadership resisting, hindering, and changing Soviet policies' (p. 224). Harrison, an assistant professor of history at George Washington University, shows how, in 1953, the East German communist leader Walter Ulbricht resisted the Soviet 'New Course', seizing upon the reformist programme as an opportunity to demote his rivals Wilhelm Zaisser (Minister of State Security) and Rudolf Herrnstadt (editor of the party newspaper Neues Deutschland). Harrison documents carefully how Ulbricht likewise resisted open discussions in 1956 and 1957 about the implications of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Always the inveterate opportunist, Ulbricht again took advantage of the moment to oust those favouring a liberal approach, such as Karl Schirdewan (SED Politburo member and Central Committee Secretary for Cadre Questions) and Ernst Wollweber (Zaisser's successor as Minister of State Security). Harrison argues, controversially, that during the Berlin Crisis of 1958-61 Ulbricht acted more or less independently, 'ignoring Khrushchev's pleas not to take any unilateral action in Berlin while the Soviet leader sought an agreement with the West' (p. 224). She claims that the East Germans, not the Soviets, formulated policies and executed them often against Soviet wishes.
Harrison thus urges a new approach to the study of the Cold War, one that focuses more on 'factors that the traditional, realist account of international relations rejects as unimportant', i.e. 'the nongreat powers, personality, ideology, and domestic politics' (p. 231). In this sense, Harrison's book is part of a growing body of revisionist Cold War scholarship that emphasizes the influence of the so-called 'satellites' on, and the fallibility of, Soviet policy-making. See, for example, studies by Kathryn Weathersby (Korean War), Bernd Bonwetsch and A. M. Filitov (Berlin Crisis), Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali (Cuban Missile Crisis) and the Vietnam War (Ilya Gaiduk).
The book contains an introduction and four chapters focusing on different time periods (1953, 1956-8, 1958-60, and 1960-1 respectively). The reader will also find a useful essay on sources (pp. 311-14), as well as a map, index and bibliography.
No book is without flaws. While the writing style is a bit dry, and parts of the book contain identical sentences (e.g. p. 9 and p. 225), Driving the Soviets up the wall is nevertheless a valuable contribution and should be added to syllabi for graduate and undergraduate courses on East European history and international relations.