German-German Environmental Politics, 1970-1990

Sophie Lange | 29 January 2024

Book Launch | Cold War History | Environmental History | German History 

Image: Reichelt (right) in conversation with Federal Environment Minister Klaus Töpfer (left) and the Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic to the GDR Hans Otto Braut ,1988. 

Discussions regarding the environment and climate change are omnipresent today in a way that they have not been for some time. However, the 1970s also saw much attention being paid to the environment, with the decade marking the beginning of this political field in most industrial countries. The study The Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows et al published in 1972, analyzed the exponential growth of the economy and population with decreasing resources. Meadows concluded that a continuing growth habit would consume the resources within a hundred years. These result created a sense that doomsday was approaching Western societies. This fear led to a strong environmental movement.

Despite its prevalence today therefore, there have been several waves of environmental political action over time and across different countries. My research on these different waves of environmental political action led me to consider the nature of what the historical environmental relations between East and West Germany looked like. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the socialist regime in East Germany collapsed, the environmental contrast to the capitalist system could not have been more apparent. On the one hand, there was the clean and tidy Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), on the other the heavy pollution in air, water and soil in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). How come this stark contrast had not been addressed when environmental concerns had been prominent since the 1970s?

Between confrontation and cooperation in the Cold War

In 1972, the United Nations (UN) staged their first international Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. This conference was supposed to be global, but had been boycotted by almost all of the Eastern Bloc Countries. Despite a growing Détente at this time, the Cold War tensions between East and West were still apparent. The official story of the boycott had been the non-admission of the GDR to participate as an equal member.

However, at the same time the East and West German governments conferred within the frame of Willy Brandt’s New Ostpolitik and finally concluded the Basic Treaty by the end of 1972. In this treaty the FRG and the GDR also agreed to talk about the environment in a seperate agreement.

Therefore, the beginning of the 1970s marked the beginning of German-German environmental relations. The now published study Deutsch-deutsche Umweltpolitik 1970-1990 narrates these German-German environmental political relations during the Cold War between tension and détente. GDR and FRG officials met in November 1973 for the first time in a relaxed meeting to talk about their environmental issues.

It could have been the start of sound cooperation. However, the Cold War tension kicked in again: The FRG established in West Berlin their “Federal Environmental Agency“ in 1974. This caused another small crises over Berlin. The GDR interpreted this action as a breach of the Quadripartite Agreement over Berlin. Berlin was regarded by the GDR as a third German entity. A federal agency within West Berlin meant govermental activities by the Federal government there. West Germany sought to strengthen their ties to West Berlin with this agency and proof West Berlin’s external representation by the FRG. This was not accepted by the GDR, wherefore it stopped the talks about the environment with the FRG.

 It was assumed for a long time that the GDR used this occasion to exit this topic mainly because of its potential financial costs. But, the GDR was not the only party in this relationship who wanted to reduce spending. Facing the oil crisis, the FRG had also lost interest in fostering costly environmental relations with its neighbour. Furthermore, the Federal Environmental Agency was also used politically by the GDR to torpedo eventually environmental action on the bilateral or international level.

The 1970s and the time of Détente had therefore not been a productive time for East and West Germany to cooperate on the environmental field together – quite the opposite.

The rise of nuclear confrontation in the 1980s - in Germany also referred to as a Second Cold War - inspired German-German environmental relations again as a soft power possibility to keep the superpowers in discussion which the environment as a proxy for the cancelled  nuclear disarmament talks. To keep in touch, though, was at the same time not enough when facing a growing environmental movement in both the West and the East, which demanded political action. Within this new contextual framework, the GDR and the FRG talked about the heavily salt polluted river Werra, the waterways in Berlin, a small river close to the Bavarian Border called Röden, and, later they even talked about the Elbe. Moreover, they also talked with experts about the transportation of waste by the West into the GDR. On the international level they mainly talked about air pollution. They both signed a contract within the Economic Commission for Europe, which forced the GDR to reduce heavily their sulfur dioxide emissions. This led eventually the GDR to forge their emission results.

The time was “ripe“

These small steps and single talks eventually led to overall environmental talks in 1985 as had been the aim of  the Basic Treaty in 1972. It took almost 15 years for the GDR and the FRG to conclude an environmental treaty, finally agreed in 1987. However, the path towards it had been plastered with Cold War tensions.

My book Deutsch-deutsche Umweltpolitik 1970-1990 follows these political advancements and regressions within the Cold War context, alongside the environmental realities like the flow of a river, West wind, or the movement of chemicals underground, bringing them together in this entangled asymmetrical, environmental history. The German-German environmental relations were subject to change over the course of time, when for instance the GDR finally realises its advantages by the mid-1980s, and then again the FRG occurred as a brakeman which had been the other way around in the 1970s. The book cannot deny the GDR’s heavy environmental pollution in comparison to the efforts of the FRG in the 1980s to become the master class student in environmental policy. However, it takes a different perspective in not just comparing the two German countries one with another, but to follow arguments, sediments, pollutants, experts and environmental activists. Therefore, the result of the book rests in the details it describes.

Lange, Sophie: Deutsch-deutsche Umweltpolitik 1970–1990. Eine Verflechtungsgeschichte im internationalen Kontext des Kalten Krieges (Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte), DeGruyter Oldenburg 2023.

Sophie Lange studied History and European Ethnology at Humboldt University, where she also completed her PhD in 2021. She now holds a Post-Doc position in Volkswagen foundation’s project 'Towards Illiberal Constitutionalism in East Central Europe' at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam.



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