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US Interference in Cold War Germany, and the Right-Wing Abortion Policies That Followed
At the dawn of the Cold War, the US funded election interference campaigns to build a right-wing West Germany. The consequences for abortion rights today, there and here, are still being unearthed.
What your country is willing to do to people overseas it can do to you here.
It’s an uncomfortable fact, but dissidents in every country know it’s true. The protections your nation grants for being a citizen go out the window when you threaten the real source its power.
This is why it’s so important to look at what the United States has done in other countries. It’s also why Washington has worked very hard to hide that history, to replace it with histories which frame this country as moving, sometimes stumbling, but always progressing, toward peace and justice.
As we watch that lie become more apparent than ever at home, specifically, as the corporate interests who control the US Supreme Court undo a half-century of protections for the right to abortion, I want to pick a little at some Cold War history tonight, that of our secret election interference in West Germany.
Understanding what we did there might help us understand not just how Washington helped restrict abortion somewhere else, but how and who is doing it in the here and now.
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West Germany was a country which succeeded in crushing socialism and failed to crush fascism. This is a simplification, but only a little.
Its borders and laws, its military and intelligence agencies, its domestic political parties and its international alliances were all built in no small part by the United States, and to serve US corporate, military, and political interests.
I’d like to introduce you to three people who’ll help make sense of this:
The first is Lucius D. Clay, who in 1945 was appointed head of the Office of Military Government - United States.
A senator’s son, Clay was also a psychological warfare and propaganda expert who helped assemble the guard rails of American power in Western Allied occupied areas — the American, British and French sectors of postwar Germany. He’d step down in 1949 after the Berlin Airlift to serve his country at American Express, Chase Bank, the Business Council, and Lehman Brothers.
In 1949, the US army handed authority over our country’s German occupation zone to the US State Department.
This change appointed the first United States High Commissioner for Germany, our newsletter’s second guy, a Harvard-educated Philadelphia banker named John J. McCloy.
McCloy was a jovial and well-loved confidant to America’s power brokers, and much like his earlier work for them, overseeing the internment of Japanese Americans, he was given free rein. He was the American in charge of building a newer and more humane Germany.
Despite running a country and advising many presidents, loyalties were loyalties, and McCloy never forgot who helped him rise to power. He later helped his patrons in the Rockefeller family run their foundation, as well as the Ford Foundation, and Chase Manhattan Bank. There as in West Germany, McCloy leaned heavily on his connections in America’s corporate and intelligence networks to exercise his (and let’s be honest, their) power.
During and after the US’s official occupation governments, McCloy worked closely with the first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who created the religious right political party, the Christian Democratic Union. Their politics have changed a bit these days, but for context, that’s former chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.
Based on his experience with Naziism and Prussianism (the whole obsessive German military order thing goes way back, well before the Nazis) Adenauer believed the only way to stamp out both German communism and Naziism was to build a Catholic and Protestant religious majority in Germany. He also fought to divide the country from its Soviet occupied east.
Adenauer’s ideal of a divided, religious Germany ushered in decades of traditionalist rule, limiting women’s role in the state, their families, and the economy.
TEN EASY INSTALLMENTS OF $150,000
Chancellor Adenauer’s conservative political vision was lucky for Washington, but like most cases of luck, the US made sure it was in the right place at the right time to reap the benefits.
Between 1945 and 1952, McCloy and the Office of Strategic Services allocated $1.5 million in secret funds to a campaign of election interference against the German left, targeting Adenauer’s main competitors, the German Social Democrats.
These folks wanted a unified, neutral, socialist Germany. Adenauer and the Americans, as we said earlier, wanted to split the country to fight the Cold War. To get it done, America took it upon itself to soften the German left’s attitudes toward it, driving a wedge between Germany and communism.
This funding —along with hand-picked lists of candidates, chosen by McCloy’s aide, the CIA agent and journalist Shepard Stone— would help America ensure the Germans had the right set of politicians to elect in their first free election since Hitler.
US cash also bought American-friendly newspaper and radio coverage. It founded anti-communist refugee organizations, and helped print western-friendly left publications like Der Monat.
Sometimes it just went straight into politicians hands, as much as $50,000 in certain cases. In the early 50s especially, the American money printer was cranking, and corruption — long held to be a feature of “totalitarian” countries — was the stated objective of US foreign policy.
That money even erected dozens of State Department-run libraries, called Amerika Haus centers, designed to show West Germans the benefits of a society which was free, at least as far as they could tell, from propaganda.
This emphasis on propaganda wasn’t just some kooky freelance operation by Stone & McCloy either. In fact, it went all the way to the top. After meeting with President Eisenhower, a senior executive at Time Magazine (and a spook himself) summed up the president’s feelings on the matter pretty well:
“[Eisenhower] is convinced that psychological warfare should not be the pet mystery of one or more Departments of the Government, but should be the entire posture of the entire Government to the entire world.” - C.D. Jackson
For their hard work, McCloy, the State Department and the OSS helped the Social Democrats take second in West Germany’s parliamentary elections. Their softened stance to US control would be softened further still, by being in the government of US-friendly Konrad Adenauer’s religious right coalition, led by the Christian Democratic Union.
ABORTION POLICY, EAST AND WEST
Washington’s influence campaign in West Germany wasn’t just about the fate of capitalism and communism. The United States had supreme veto power over even things like which basic, seemingly non-ideological laws the new country Germany would have.
Wanting to remove all public traces of Naziism (private traces were just fine, but that’s another newsletter for another day), Washington chose for West Germany to adopt the original legal framework of the Weimar Republic, the government which came before the Nazis.
Critically, that original West German legal framework included Section 218 of the old Weimar penal code, which banned abortion in the whole country, with very limited exceptions. That clause would become a lightning rod for pro-choice abortion activists there for decades.
In the decades following the US military occupation government, and its heavily-influenced West German state, we can start to see the effects of pulling that country toward the right-wing, and compare it to what happened in the Soviet-backed east.
IN THE WEST, ABORTION RIGHTS DEFEATED
In West Germany, abortion was made illegal from day one.
The rightward swing encouraged by United States propaganda and election interference were successful. It inflated the power of a coalition including members of the traditional German business elite, as well as conservative religious institutions like the Catholic Church.
This combination of corporate and religious right-wing power has been a disastrous combination for democracy as anyone who’s followed US Republican politics can attest. The reasons given at the time were to support the traditional family, and to increase the working population of the country after the war.
But as the global feminist movement surged throughout North America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, West German leftist feminists took up the reasonable position that the country’s need to develop economically couldn’t come at the expense of their right to their own bodies, and their role in society.
The cover of this weeks issue is an example of one of those campaigns. In 1974, 374 West German women appeared in an issue of a magazine called Stern. At the time, the West German constitutional court was considering loosening its criminal restriction on abortion, and so participating in this article were women from all walks of life, engaging in a radical act of civil disobedience, since at the time acknowledging you had received an abortion carried a criminal sentence and up to five years in prison. Many were criminally investigated. This was a watershed moment in the West German feminist movement.
Despite brave campaigns like these, the West German movement was overpowered and outmaneuvered.
In 1975, after pressure from the politically influential Catholic Church to denounce pro-choice politicians, the West German high court re-affirmed its original anti-abortion stance, keeping abortion illegal across West Germany.
Before and after that ruling, tens of thousands of West German women would travel across the German border to the neighboring Netherlands, to seek legal abortions in Amsterdam. If caught by border security, or if these women revealed the purpose of their journey, they were removed from vehicles and interrogated, and could even face criminal penalties.
This was the state of affairs in US-influenced West Germany from 1952 until 1992, when, during re-unification of the two countries, West Germany had to soften its stance to integrate with pro-choice government in the East.
IN THE EAST, ABORTION BEGRUDGINGLY LEGALIZED
I don’t have time to talk about the complete history of the Soviet-backed socialist East Germany. But what happened there, in broad strokes?
Well, it’s worth saying, at first the country overseen by the Soviet Union was no paradise for abortion rights either. The socialist politicians of East Germany, predominantly men, were also confronting the need for a growing population to develop their economy. Unsurprisingly, when faced with the dual constraint of treating women first as fellow workers, or as people who produced workers, the East German government decided women would be instruments of birth first, and comrades second.
But despite neither system beginning from just foundations, there is a key difference in their attitudes toward abortion. In West Germany, the anti-abortion government was par for the course with its Western European and North American allies, most of whom also opposed abortion at the time. But in the East, the government was already one of the most conservative socialist states on abortion. The USSR was the first country on earth to legalize abortion in 1920, and after a period where it was rolled back, was legalized again in 1955, long before most “developed” western nations.
Because it was accountable to other Soviet states, the East German state was forced to respond, partly to the pressures of the global feminist movement, partly to other pro-choice socialist countries like Poland, and partly to the noble ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, which these countries pointed to regularly as a point of differentiation from the capitalist west.
By 1972, East Germany could just no longer maintain its position as one of the last conservative holdouts in the communist bloc.
And so, in 1972, in the only non-unanimous vote in the chamber’s history, the East German Volkskammer legalized abortion on request, no questions, no tests, no counseling, for all women in the country in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
BRING IT HOME ALREADY, WILL
This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve written for CI. The history is complicated, full of twists and turns, and it bears almost no resemblance to what you’re taught in high school, or even in college. I feel responsible for getting the facts right here, and the research was exhaustive, and exhausting. If you’ve stayed with me this long, thank you. I put a lot into it and would love to know what you think down in the comments.
What would abortion rights have looked like in Germany if Washington hadn’t broken Germany’s left-wing movements after WWII?
How many abortions could have been performed more safely?
How many women wouldn’t have had to face the fear and secrecy and shame of having to cross the border for a standard medical procedure?
These are questions for historians, but here are a couple for you and me:
Do you see connections between corporate and religious power in the US?
Do you see financial interests buying out our political system?
Would the enemies of abortion stoop to clandestine interference to sabotage pro-choice movements?
How do left movements like the Democratic Socialists of America and liberal feminist organizations like Planned Parenthood work together? Do they? Are they divided? And if so, why?
These are the kinds of questions that are important to ask when we think about US foreign policy. It affects real peoples’ lives, not just nations or populations. For Washington, none of that mattered. What mattered above all else was that the United States economic, military, and political power over the globe was allowed to grow. Everything else came second to that historic mandate.
This kind of indiscriminate suppression of left-wing movements in general brought decades of reproductive injustice to feminist movements West Germany. They’re always a casualty in our country’s tireless war against communism and socialism abroad — and more recently, one waged at home.
Without oversight of US financial, intelligence, political and military networks, like the kind which established these systems in West Germany, it’s tough to say precisely how likely it is that similar policies are happening here. But many of us can think of examples of our government’s overt and covert promotion of the right, and sabotage of the left.
Our government knows how to do it, and they’ve been willing to do it all over the world. Maybe you can say it’s different now. I’d love to hear your thoughts if so. But the question I’ll leave you with is this one:
How much longer will the privileges of our citizenship protect us from our own economic, military, and political empire?
This article cites heavily from the book by Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy & The Making of the American Establishment
West German men could unilaterally remove their wives from the workforce until 1977. Bank accounts, etc.
and whose earliest years featured the Zhenotdel, the women’s department of the Central Committee, established by feminist revolutionaries who advocated for the economic and political freedom of of women across Russia.
A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 by Marc Trachtenberg
Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party by Carol Hayden
Britain and the Cold War by Victor Rothwell