• share:

Germany and NATO

Did you know that Germany was the front line of the Cold War in Europe for 40 years? Or that REFORGER, an annual NATO military exercise, stood for the REturn of FORces to GERmany? Check out this page to view photos of these exercises, find out why an East German amateur pilot decided to land his plane near Moscow’s Red Square in 1987, and much more...

The objectives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – in particular its purely defensive tasks – are, in view of the world wide political tension, in full harmony with the natural interest of the German nation which, after a dreadful experience gained in two World Wars, is longing as ardently as any other nation in the world for security and peace.

Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany speaking at the accession of West Germany to NATO Paris, 9 May 1955


Just like NATO itself, the Federal Republic of Germany (also known as West Germany during the Cold War) was created in 1949 as a result of rising tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. For the next 40 years, West Germany was the front line of the Cold War in Europe – hosting NATO troops to deter aggression from the East, contributing one of the largest militaries in the Alliance and ultimately reunifying with East Germany in 1990.

For the Alliance, parallels between North and South Korea, and East and West Germany were too obvious to ignore: without a strong military presence in West Germany, NATO would leave both the Federal Republic of Germany and its own Western European Allies vulnerable to invasion from the East. But where would these additional troops come from?

German rearmament, although prohibited after the war, seemed the obvious solution to counterbalance the Soviet military build-up; however, there was overwhelming opposition – both externally and within Germany itself. But strategic considerations eventually prevailed: NATO Allies knew they needed more troops to form a credible deterrent and West Germany knew it needed protection from communist influence. Through its membership of an alliance, a controlled and integrated rearmament was possible, while West Germany regained national sovereignty and became an Ally among Allies.


American artist Manuel Bromberg immortalises the invitation and accession ceremonies for West Germany. Outside of the journalistic press, Bromberg was apparently the only civilian who was allowed in the headquarters of the Alliance during the ceremonies of 23 October 1954 and 6 May 1955. His charcoal sketches capture the atmosphere and excitement of these events.

To get a snap-shot of West Germany in the 1950s, view the film below. “Introducing Germany” was part of a series created by NATO on each one of its members; these films were projected in cinemas so that citizens across the Alliance could get to know each other.



NATO’s Cold War frontier in Europe

NATO Intelligence reports of possible Soviet military campaigns into Western Europe, 1953 (The Soviet bloc strength and capability)

When the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO on 6 May 1955, its membership eventually translated into a very substantial contribution to the Alliance’s military strength in Europe. Starting from literally zero military personnel, within two years of its accession West Germany was able to contribute tens of thousands of additional forces to NATO’s ranks. They were completely integrated into NATO’s structures while fulfilling two roles: securing the defence of the country and contributing to a restored sovereignty. Within 10 years, the Bundeswehr (created in 1955) had become the backbone of NATO’s defensive forces in Europe. Alongside their European and North American Allies, these forces stood at the epicentre of the Cold War in Europe, guaranteeing peace and security despite turbulent East-West political relations. Throughout the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany was the Western European country with the densest concentration of military forces on its territory and the highest frequency of exercises.                                           

West Germany’s accession to NATO marked a turning point in the Cold War. Little more than one week later, on 14 May 1955, the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact, which included the German Democratic Republic (also known as East Germany). The Iron Curtain had well and truly descended, drawing a harsh and well-armed line between Western and Eastern Europe – and nowhere was this line more pronounced than in Germany. The only exception remained Berlin: a city divided into an Eastern and a Western part, and an enclave within the German Democratic Republic. 

As West Germany recruited and equipped forces for the Bundeswehr throughout the late 1950s (see a NATO poster showing German uniforms), it seemed that the Soviet Union and other communist forces were on the rise everywhere around the world, with communist revolutions as far afield as Vietnam and Cuba. Some countries resisted, however: in 1956, there was a popular uprising in Hungary against the repressive, Soviet-backed government, but it was rapidly crushed by Soviet troops. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, accelerating the space race with the United States; the Americans created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the following year. Then, on 13 August 1961, came one of the cruellest acts in Cold War history: at the peak of the Berlin crisis, rulers of East Germany ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, physically tearing families and communities apart. The Wall in all its different forms would carve up Berlin and extend beyond the city to fracture the entire country, becoming the sinister and enduring symbol of the Cold War. This justified more than ever the need for NATO Allies to maintain military forces in West Germany; an era of multinational exercises and forward-deployed military commands ensued.

Berlin – an enclave within Soviet-dominated territory

Berlin – an enclave within Soviet-dominated territory Berlin was a special case during the Cold War. Although the city was deep within East German territory, it was administered by the four powers (France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – USSR) that had governed Germany after the Second World War. As the Cold War heated up, Berlin was often used as a pressure point by the Soviets, who hoped to leverage their position encircling the city in their favour. The NATO Allies, for their part, used Berlin as a display of determination and unity, showing that even this disconnected city would not be abandoned. Sadly, there were multiple Berlin crises throughout the Cold War.


The father of Germany in NATO

Konrad Adenauer served as West Germany’s first Chancellor and was instrumental in negotiating the country’s entry into NATO. Formerly Mayor of Cologne, in 1933 his assets were frozen by the Reich and he spent 12 years of Nazi rule trying to survive. After the war, he surprised most political observers by leading his newly created Christian Democratic Union party to victory in West Germany’s first democratic elections. Shortly thereafter in 1949, the 73-year-old Adenauer – nicknamed “der Alte” or “the old man” on account of his advanced age – was voted Chancellor in the Bundestag by one vote – his own!

Read Adenauer’s inaugural speech!

With the help of Minister of Economic Affairs Ludwig Erhard, Adenauer oversaw the West German Wirtschaftswunder or "economic miracle" of the 1950s. It had been triggered by the American Marshall Plan (1948), which provided financial aid to the war-torn European countries that wished to receive it. In the first decade of the Federal Republic, the country's GDP rose by 8 per cent per annum and standards of living doubled. The country rapidly caught up with its Western European counterparts, swiftly becoming an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse. Famous German companies like Volkswagen saw explosive growth, and international trade tied West Germany even more securely into its alliance with the West.

The iconic Beetle

Berlin – an enclave within Soviet-dominated territory The Volkswagen Beetle became a symbol of West Germany's economic recovery. The year the country joined NATO, in 1955, the one millionth Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line. To celebrate this milestone, the car was painted gold and its bumpers were studded with rhinestones.


Adenauer's economic and social policies brought West Germany back from total desolation, but the most significant policy decision of his Chancellorship was to choose Western integration over German unification. In choosing to align West Germany with NATO and the Western Allies, Adenauer sacrificed any potential for a short-term reunification with East Germany – a domestically controversial position. His thoughts on this dichotomy were made most clear in a statement he made to the French High Commissioner to West Germany in 1954: "Do not forget that I am the only Chancellor Germany has ever had who preferred the unity of Europe to the unity of his country."

An artist's representation of NATO

Berlin – an enclave within Soviet-dominated territory "The praying woman" or Die Betende was given to NATO on 20 February 1960. Chancellor Adenauer commissioned this work of art from the celebrated German artist Yrsa von Leistner. The main themes of the artist's work revolved around peace, spirituality and memory; this bronze represents NATO's mission of hope and peace, and is displayed at NATO Headquarters. Ysra von Leistner produced other sculptures for international sites such as the Madonna of Nagasaki. One of her more famous works was a bust of the Chancellor, which resides in the Adenauer Haus Museum near Bonn, Germany.


A military bastion

With NATO's decision to engage in a strategy of "forward defence", this meant placing its defences as far to the east in Europe as possible. The Federal Republic of Germany's military role was discussed by planners even prior to its accession (read the document from 1954). NATO's main defence line was first on the Rhine-Ijssel, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. The NATO commander, General Lauris Norstad, was able to move this defence line further east to the Weser and Lech rivers from 1 July 1958 onwards; full forward defence was reached when it was moved a second time in September 1963 to the demarcation of the Iron Curtain itself.

A back-up plan for West Berlin

The 1963 line of defence brought NATO Allies as close to Berlin as possible. Berlin had sustained two crises: the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the crisis that culminated in the construction of the Wall (1961). In 1958 the Soviet leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, had issued an ultimatum for Western Allies to exit Berlin. With the city ever more threatened by a Soviet attack, the three Allied powers administrating West Berlin – France, the United Kingdom and the United States – formed a covert military planning staff called LIVE OAK. Its commander was the same American general who assumed the duties of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) in NATO. LIVE OAK was charged with protecting Western access to West Berlin by air, rail and road, and did so until the end of the Cold War.

The line of defence was several things: the stationing of hundreds of thousands of troops, numerous commands and headquarters, weapons systems, vast equipment storage facilities and countless military manoeuvres. This was an incredible concentration of military activity in one country; American support was vital and the German contribution was massive. The Bundeswehr could reach a maximum of 500,000 service personnel and was supported by additional civilian defence workers and reservists, with the same numbers maintained until the reunification of Germany; these forces were at the disposal of the Alliance, without any intermediate organisational structure. The Bundeswehr was also a huge contributor to NATO's ground-based air defence system, its combat aircraft, naval forces and, in particular, its naval forces in the Baltic Sea.

In 1957, Gen. Hans Speidel (left), was the first West German officer to hold a NATO position; he became Commander of LANDCENT.

Military personnel and their families from six other Allied countries (Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States) lived and worked alongside German forces and the local population to secure the line of defence. Approximately 400,000 foreign service personnel and almost as many dependents were in West Germany, while there were almost 10,000 in West Berlin alone.

The commands played a key role in the Alliance’s strategy of “forward defence”. Initially, NATO created two military headquarters out of British and American force structures already set up in West Germany: the Northern Army Group (NORTHAG), co-located with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in Rheindahlen; and the Central Army Group (CENTAG), co-located with the US Army Europe in Heidelberg. Both came under the command of Allied Forces Central Europe (AFCENT), which was first based in Fontainebleau, France, then in Brunssum, the Netherlands, from 1967 onwards. NORTHAG and CENTAG were decommissioned in 1993, but remained active NATO bases until 2013, when a major restructuring of the NATO Command Structure returned both sites to the German government.

Gen. Johannes Steinhoft (left) with NATO Secretary General Manlio Brosio in 1971. Gen. Steinhoff was one of several German generals to serve as Chairman of NATO's Military Committee.

Many other Allied commands were established in West Germany, and Allied forces such as the quick reaction multinational force –  or Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force – were hosted on German territory (its headquarters were in Mannheim). The NATO E-3A base for the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft was set up in Geilenkirchen in 1980 and is still there today, as is the NATO School established in 1953 in Oberammergau in the Bavarian mountains. The Federal Republic of Germany also participated in NATO’s integrated air defence system – NADGE – that has been operational since 1971. With all of these major NATO bases and forces in Germany, German generals were able to hold some of the leadership positions in NATO commands or take on responsibilities within the broader NATO structure.


Exercises, exercises, exercises…

For the two superpowers – the Soviet Union and the United States – exercises were a display of intent and capability. During the Cold War, West Germany was the scene of hundreds of exercises; in 1982 alone, 85 major NATO exercises were held on German soil. They were a combination of NATO-led and national exercises, all working toward the same objective: demonstrating the political will and military means to defend against an adversary. American support was essential, and showing that the United States would be present was vital to the credibility of the Alliance’s deterrence and defence. Exercise Operation Big Lift (22-23 October 1963) was a prime example of that: 14,500 US troops were flown to Europe from Texas in record time to demonstrate rapid reinforcement in an emergency. In 1969, the REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany) exercise series started and continued through to 1993; every year, REFORGER demonstrated the United States’ commitment and ability to reinforce Allied forces stationed in West Germany. Other Allies held similar exercises in the Federal Republic of Germany.  

In 1975, when NATO considered the Warsaw Pact to be conventionally superior, it launched the Autumn Forge exercise series. These exercises helped to reinforce the Alliance’s defence and deterrence and fell under the “SACEUR 3R programme” (Readiness, Reinforcement and Rationalisation) initiated by General Alexander Haig when he became the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Each year, some 20-30 exercises were conducted by NATO commands and national headquarters across Western Europe, from Norway to Turkey, under the one single umbrella of Autumn Forge, helping reinforce synergies between them. Exercise Autumn Forge 1980 is caught below on camera.  

Watch the film entitled “Four days in Autumn”!

This massive military presence was accepted by the population and political circles alike because it was the living proof that everything possible was being done to deter an attack from the East. Meanwhile, daily life continued in West Germany, as depicted by this film entitled “A town in Germany”, which follows the journey of a refugee adapting to life in a new country in the 1960s.

Watch the film entitled “A town in Germany”!

Looking East

In the late 1960s, a new generation of West German leaders sought to normalise relations with Eastern Europe and, in particular, with the German Democratic Republic. Willy Brandt was the first leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to become Chancellor since 1930. He was a former journalist who had fled Nazi Germany and became one of the longest-serving Governing Mayors of West Berlin. His Secretary of State, Egon Bahr, was the architect of the Neue Ostpolitik (1969). The Ostpolitik sought to establish “change through rapprochement” and was a means to initiate détente between the two blocs. While maintaining a strong military defence, the Federal Republic of Germany reached out to the German Democratic Republic to normalise relations as a step towards an all-European peace order. These efforts culminated in 1973 in the signing of the Basic Agreement between the two Germanys, recognising the inviolability of existing borders and the status quo of a divided Germany; the agreement also opened the way for the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe to take place in the summer of 1973 in Geneva – an initiative that eventually led to the creation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The two Germanys became members of the United Nations in September 1973.

Willy Brandt attending a meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

The young country had broken the mould and asserted itself on the international scene. It set the trend for greater détente with the Soviet Union while stabilising its relations with East Germany. Cooperation remained, however, limited: the Soviet Union agreed to work together in certain fields (economic and technological), but not others (political and cultural). This was still a huge step forward.

Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for having increased cooperation among members of the European Economic Community and for trying to reconcile East with West. He resigned in 1974 when it transpired that one of his personal assistants, Günter Guillaume, was spying for the HVA, the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi, the East German security services. Spying ran rife during this era. One of the HVA’s spies was caught operating at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium: Rainer Rupp – alias TOPAZ.

Olympian arm wrestling

Shortly after the rapprochement between East and West Germany, relations between the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – became tense once again. This time, hostility went beyond the political and military fields and spilled over into sport: in 1980, as a result of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and other Western countries boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow; in retaliation, the Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984.

Nuclear: an explosive issue!

“Better a Pershing in the garden than an SS-20 on the roof!”

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a difficult period for West Germany as well as NATO, as the period of détente gave way to what some called a “second Cold War”. The collapse of the disarmament talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces, and Moscow’s deployment of a new generation of nuclear missiles (SS-20) burdened East-West relations. To maintain a credible deterrent in light of the Soviet build-up in nuclear and conventional arms, NATO decided to deploy new nuclear missiles and cruise missiles in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherland and the United Kingdom. The so-called “dual-track decision” combined NATO’s nuclear deployments with an arms control offer to the Soviet Union. In December 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, which required both countries to eliminate their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.

NATO’s initial deployments had given rise to massive peace demonstrations, particularly in Northern Europe, and are remembered as the “Euro-missile crisis”. Opposition to nuclear weapons was far from new in West Germany, but it now took on a whole new dimension, frequently bringing together tens of thousands of fervent protestors. The Green Party emerged from the peace movement and strongly voiced its opposition to nuclear weapons. It became a powerful political force in the early 1980s, garnering massive public support. In 1983, the iconic anti-war pop song “99 Luftballons” by the German band, Nena, hit the charts worldwide and encapsulated the fears of the time.

The Krefelder Appeal

© Ursula Stock
In 1992, Petra and Gert were found lifeless, lying next to each other. The mystery surrounding their death has never been elucidated.
While West Germany allowed the stationing of nuclear missiles on its territory, the peace movement created the Krefelder Appeal, which called for the Federal Government to retract its endorsement of deploying Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Central Europe. The appeal also called for the government to adopt a position that could not be suspected of leading to a renewed arms race.

Two protagonists are remembered from that era: a retired military Major General, Gert Bastian, who joined the peace movement and became an elected member of the Green Party, and Petra Kelly, a peace and environmental activist. Both were vehemently opposed to the stationing of nuclear missiles in Europe and supported the Krefelder Appeal. Depicted together in the image (left), Petra and Gert continued their battle side by side throughout the 1980s.


Many other developments shaped this turbulent period. Helmut Schmidt, who was Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, had to contend with the excessive violence of the Red Army Faction. This far-left militant group perpetrated terrorist attacks across the Federal Republic of Germany and even attempted to kill the Commander-in-Chief of the US Army in Europe, General Frederick Kroesen, near his headquarters at Heidelberg. On the European front, Helmut Schmidt was successful in driving efforts, together with France, to further consolidate the European Economic Community. His support of the missile deployment, however, cost him the chancellorship.

The road to reunification

A taste of things to come?

Mathias Rust surprised the world on 28 May 1987. This amateur pilot from East Germany took off from the Finnish capital Helsinki and landed near the Red Square in Moscow. He had wanted to create an "imaginary bridge" and, through this symbolic feat, help to reduce tensions between East and West. In fact, this teenager's whim did more than that: he showed that the Soviet air defence system was far from impenetrable and consequently several senior officials were dismissed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev was at the helm of the Communist party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and started to introduce far-reaching reforms. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan and sought to reduce tensions with the United States. With these initiatives and his domestic policies of glasnost (freedom of speech) and perestroika (restructuring), Mikhail Gorbachev set the tone for a radical change in international relations – a change that cleared the way for German reunification.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher at a NATO meeting in Halifax, Canada, in 1986.

Under Helmut Schmidt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher had led initiatives to cooperate with the Soviet bloc rather than treat it with hostility, and actively helped to facilitate reform processes in communist Eastern Europe. Genscher was Germany’s longest serving Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Chancellor of Germany, serving an 18-year stretch from 1974 to 1992! Helmut Kohl, who later became known as the “Chancellor of Unity”, came into power in 1982, after Genscher’s Free Democratic Party had left the coalition with Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democrats. Genscher was able to negotiate the peaceful reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the German Democratic Republic. One of the more memorable moments was Genscher’s speech from the balcony of the German embassy in Prague on 30 September 1989: he announced that East German refugees trying to reach West Germany would be given permission to make their way. The rest of the speech was drowned by cheers; three weeks later, on 9-10 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.

With the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990, Berlin was reinstated as the capital city of united Germany (20 June 1991) and the Länder of the former German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany, thereby becoming a member of NATO.

Our man disappears…

As the wall was being torn down, Manfred Wörner could not contain himself. The first German to serve as NATO Secretary General (1988-1994) jumped into his car and drove to Berlin to witness firsthand the fall of the Berlin Wall – a wall that had traumatised Berliners, wrenched families apart and claimed victims for 28 very long years.

As the story goes, Wörner had not wanted to wait for the next flight to Berlin. However, in his haste, he did not warn anybody of his whereabouts. He reappeared at NATO Headquarters in Brussels two days later, tired but ecstatic. A page in history had been turned...and he had been there!

Manfred Wörner was the first NATO Secretary General to visit the Soviet Union (photo). After the historic collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Alliance immediately welcomed these former adversaries by engaging in a unique partnership with them.

Today, a piece of the “Wall of shame”, as Willy Brandt called it, adorns an entrance to NATO Headquarters. It serves as a reminder of Europe’s recent past and the value of freedom, democracy and human rights.