Book Review: “Between Containment and Rollback: The United States and the Cold War in Germany”

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


Sixty-eight years ago this week, thousands of Germans living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) rebelled against their government and brought East Germany to the edge of collapse. That episode became a symbol of the Cold War—as would the construction of the Berlin Wall eight years later—not only for Germans but for those eastern Europeans behind the Iron Curtain.

The legacy of the Cold War told from American perspectives is often one of triumph epitomized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 leading to the unification of Germany in 1990. While the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic formed the front line of the Cold War for four decades between 1949 and 1990, the story of the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States in the immediate postwar years and the initial period after the two states emerged in 1949 tells of initial goals of both the American and Soviet strategies in dealing with the division of Germany and how they evolved. A pivotal point in that evolution was the uprising of East Germans in mid-June 1953. Demonstrations emerged all over the German Democratic Republic against increased industrial quotas and the Socialist Unity Party (SED) itself. It was brutally put down by Soviet tanks in Berlin and mass arrests elsewhere in the GDR. But it was a tipping point for both East and West Germany as well as for Moscow and Washington, DC, and deepened the ice of the Cold War between the two Germanys.

Competition for Influence

In his latest book, Christian Ostermann has opened the immediate postwar story with new revelations about the strategies and tactics used in the early years of the Cold War as the Americans and the Russians competed for leverage in a divided Germany. His research has offered a much more detailed picture of how American thinking and policy evolved and, in particular, what efforts were made to roll back Soviet influence in East Germany while strengthening West Germany’s role. It is also a story of the concerns the Americans had, not only about the Soviet Union but also about the Germans on either side of the Cold War divide.

The book begins with the division of Germany in the early part of the postwar period with the United States and the Soviet Union positioning themselves to secure their respective zones. U.S. policy was aimed at consolidating a defeated Germany into a strong and stable West German state firmly integrated into the West, while Moscow sought to stabilize its zone as the front line of its eastern European empire. Efforts to sustain an all-Germany approach were quickly stymied by Russian resistance and by American policies focused on maintaining a foothold in West Berlin, anchoring it in the emerging security and economic architecture in Western Europe.

Christian Ostermann has managed to unravel parts of the relatively unknown early years of the Cold War. Having had access to recently released archives in the United States, Russia, and Germany, he has portrayed the debate in Washington over the postwar policy toward Germany as shaped by rollback and containment. The rollback strategy was designed to weaken the Russian hold on the East German public as well as efforts in Moscow to influence the West German public. The containment approach argued that the establishment and sustainment of a strong West German state was the foremost priority in light of Soviet aggression elsewhere in Europe. That included worries about efforts in Moscow to influence West German public opinion regarding the issue of German unification which remained of great relevance to both East and West Germans. The lure of German unity among West Germans was of concern to Americans who worried that the Soviets would attempt to neutralize Germany by appealing to the prospect of unification, as demonstrated by the Stalin note in 1952 proposing a neutral Germany.

Over the years prior to and following the establishment of both German states, the American strategy was to secure its Western European alliances, with particular focus on the key role of West Germany. That included an extensive effort to impact the “hearts and minds” of both the East German leadership and the population. Apart from American tools to advance that strategy, such as RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), there were many other attempts to employ covert initiatives in efforts to undercut Soviet propaganda and the dominant role of the SED. Additional emphasis on using economic policy strategies to take advantage of the weaker situation in East Germany and its dependence on trade with West Germany was another tool, thinking that the economic strength of the west would act as an increasingly attractive magnet for East Germans. The objective was to continually seed questions about the legitimacy of the government leadership in the east.

The Dilemma of Engagement

Ostermann emphasizes there were concerns in West German circles as well as among the British and French allies that American policies could potentially harden the divide and risk escalated conflict with the Soviets. German unity as a goal was written into the German Basic Law and the West German leadership was sensitive about any signals undercutting it. There were concerns about walking a thin line between supporting resistance to the Soviet-supported regimes without inciting full-scale rebellion and risking more repression as well as possible direct east-west military confrontations.

The book follows these developments with a final chapter focused on the regional uprising in the GDR in June of 1953, which Ostermann argues was not instigated by the Americans. In fact, it was not anticipated in Washington nor in Moscow. But it did represent the dilemma the Americans had been facing for several years. As Ostermann writes, “As a corollary to U.S. containment strategy which prioritized the integration of West Germany with the West to bolster both German and European prosperity and defenses, the Truman and Eisenhower administration had launched a broad counter offense to keep the spirit of resistance alive behind the Iron Curtain, raising expectations among East Germans (and others in the Soviet orbit) that the West would come to their aid opposing the SED government and other Moscow imposed Communist regimes.” Yet as the uprising in East Germany unfolded, Ostermann adds, “Concerns that the crisis might escalate into a major military conflagration tempered the extent to which American officials in Germany actively interfered in the turmoil…Nor was Washington sure how far it wanted to push for German unity… the crisis revealed the very potential as well as the limits of, a policy of rolling back Soviet power in Germany and Europe.”

The June uprising was to impact the American options throughout the Cold War in Europe, specifically in similar circumstances in Hungary three years later. In Washington the realization that, in light of the risk of military conflict, the possibilities of German unification were severely limited and would depend on changes in Soviet policies toward Germany. The efforts to dislodge Moscow’s client government in East Berlin were always tempered by the twin goals of strengthening the West German Republic as well as keeping a foothold in and access to West Berlin.

The Legacy of June 17

Following the 1953 brutal repression of the uprising, East Germans faced the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 followed by another nineteen years before the dream of German unity could be achieved. 1989 was a year during which they would be faced with the same threats a generation earlier had confronted in 1953, but at that point, the changes in Moscow, as well as the courage of East Germans, enabled a new chapter for Germany to be written.

The official American stance during those intervening years remained in full public support of German unification, and the presence of U.S. troops stationed in the Federal Republic was evidence of that commitment. But the realities of the Cold War held that opportunity back until Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on the scene.

Ostermann concludes his book by citing President Eisenhower in 1953. He professed “to be quite certain that future historians, in their analysis of what causes will have brought about the disintegration of the Communist Empire, will single out those brave East Germans who dared to rise against the cannons of Tyranny with nothing but their bare hands and their stout hearts as a root cause.” So it was to be in 1989.

Ostermann tells a story that remains relevant today. In a world where Americans again face the clash of authoritarian governments and democracies, debates about the parameters of American policy and the potential and limits of engagement are no less challenging.

Dr. Christian F. Ostermann has served as director of the History and Public Policy Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the recipient of a Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. His book, Between Containment and Rollback: The United States and the Cold War in Germany, was published in April 2021 by Stanford University Press.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.