Cultural Bridges and Cold War Alliances: Lessons from the GDR’s Diplomatic Dance with Japan

As countries of strategic importance on opposing sides of the Cold War divide, the domestic and foreign policies of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Japan were expected to align closely with those of their respective superpower hegemons. At the same time, West Germany’s Hallstein Doctrine threatened to cut ties with any country that recognized the GDR as a legitimate state, severely restricting East Germany from establishing diplomatic relationships with states outside of the Soviet sphere of influence. Yet, despite these seemingly impermeable geopolitical barriers, the GDR and Japan managed to forge a mutually-beneficial relationship through the use of culture.

This talk will explore both top-down government initiatives and grassroots interactions between the GDR and Japan, illustrating how culture—whether through deliberate soft power strategies or through ‘incidental’ diplomatic exchanges—can play a pivotal role in bridging divides even in the most polarized global contexts.

Bethan Winters is a social and cultural historian of the Cold War, specialising in the German Democratic Republic and its international relations. Bethan is currently a Lecturer in Music at Magdalen College, Oxford, where she was previously a Lecturer in History. She teaches across the music, history, and politics departments.