The West German politician Egon Bahr (born 1922) made significant contributions to the lessening of tensions between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, which eventually led to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification a year later.
Egon Bahr is a typical representative of the generation of Social Democratic leaders who rose to prominence in West Germany in the years immediately following World War II. Like Willy Brandt, his long-time mentor and associate, Bahr was too young to have been active in the politics of the Weimar Republic.
Bahr was born on March 18, 1922, in the small Thuringian town of Treffurt. After obtaining his high school diploma (Abitur), he was immediately drafted first into the compulsory labor service in Nazi Germany and later into the Wehrmacht. He served in the German army from 1942 to 1944, when he was dismissed because of his Jewish heritage. (Under the scheme of "racial" classifications introduced by the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws, Bahr counted as "partially Jewish.")
After the war Bahr turned to journalism. Although he had no formal training in this field, he was a natural talent. His first job was with the Neue Zeitung, the German-language newspaper founded by the American occupation forces. (The Neue Zeitung was a major nurturing ground for postwar German literary and journalistic talent. Its writers included, in addition to the brilliant editor Hans Habe, such later luminaries as the East German dissident novelist Stefan Heym). After the Neue Zeitung ceased publication, Bahr moved to West Berlin where he worked first for the newspaper Tagesspiegel and later became the Bonn correspondent for the West Berlin radio station RIAS (Radio in the American Sector).
Launching a Political Career
It was in Berlin that Bahr met Willy Brandt, whose "idealistic alter ego" he was to become. Brandt, too, started out as a journalist, although by the early 1950s he was already a rising star in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). When Brandt was elected mayor of West Berlin in 1960, he appointed Bahr his press secretary, a position that Egon Bahr was to keep until Brandt became the West German foreign minister in 1966. As Willy Brandt's close personal friend, Bahr managed Brandt's public relations and more. Along with a group of other young Social Democrats in Berlin, which included Klaus Schütz and Heinrich Albertz, Bahr was a member of Willy Brandt's "brain trust," a group of informal advisers which the mayor used as both a sounding board for his own ideas and as a source for generating new initiatives.
It was from the specific vantage point of politics in the former German capital after the building of the Berlin Wall that Bahr made his contributions to the theory and practice of East-West relations, the field in which he was to achieve his greatest triumphs. The building of the Berlin Wall demonstrated the futility of hoping for the success of "rolling-back" Communism in East Germany. At the same time, as leaders of West Berlin, Willy Brandt and his associates were acutely aware of the human consequences which the wall brought for the average citizen of the now completely divided city. It was to alleviate these human tragedies without yielding on matters of principle that Brandt and his "brain trust" developed the policy of dealing with, rather than attempting to ignore, the East German authorities. The aim was not to challenge the wall, but to make it more porous. The most important outcomes of that policy were the agreements at Christmas 1962 and Easter 1963 which allowed more than one million West Berliners to visit close relatives in East Berlin during these two holidays.
When Brandt became West German foreign minister in 1966 he appointed Bahr chief of the planning staff in the foreign office. After Brandt was elected federal chancellor in 1969, Bahr became his chief of staff in the chancellor's office. It was in the foreign ministry and later the chancellor's office that Bahr elaborated the ideas and diplomatic tactics that were to result in the series of treaties between West Germany, the Soviet Union, the East European countries, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that collectively became known as the Ostpolitik.
Bahr had aired the ideas that underlay the Ostpolitik concept some years before he and Brandt moved to Bonn. In retrospect, a famous speech which he delivered in July 1963 represented a turning point in the conceptualization of West Germany's foreign policy. Bahr summed up his ideas with the catchy slogan "Wandel durch Annäherung" (change through contact). Rejecting the earlier policies of confrontation with the East as counterproductive, Bahr argued that only by recognizing both the GDR's existence and acknowledging the Soviet Union's key role in the evolution of the relationship between East and West Germany could West Germany hope to overcome the division of the country. Put in the terms of old-fashioned diplomatic history, the road to East Berlin lay through Moscow.
In retrospect, of course, later changes in Germany and Eastern Europe proved Bahr right, but at the time his ideas aroused a great deal of controversy. The Christian Democrats accused him of deserting the united anti-Communist front of all West German political groups and of giving in to Moscow's demands for control of Eastern Europe and East Germany.
Bridging the Two Germanys
After 1969 Brandt, now chancellor, and Bahr had a chance to put their willingness to "recognize the realities of 1945" into practice. The Ostpolitik was a complicated process, but it was Bahr who played a crucial role in bringing about the most important of the so-called Eastern treaties, the pact between West Germany and the Soviet Union. Beginning in January 1970 Bahr was in charge of handling negotiations with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko. The talks with Gromyko resulted in the so-called Bahr-Gromyko paper, the basic outline of an agreement that became the basis for the formal treaty signed by West Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1970. Once that treaty had been achieved, the subsequent pacts with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary proved less difficult.
Bahr had in the meantime turned his attention to the East Germans. In 1972 he was appointed a member of the cabinet as minister for special affairs, and it was in this capacity that Bahr and his East German counterpart, Michael Kohl, sought to put relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic on a new footing. The result was a package of agreements that ranged from treaties on transport between East and West Germany and between West Germany and the isolated West Berlin to the so-called Basic Treaty, which specified the terms of mutual recognition between the two countries.
These pacts laid the groundwork for the special relationship (for example, the West Germans insisted that the two states exchange "permanent representatives" rather than ambassadors) between East and West Germany that was to prevail until the Communist regime in East Germany was toppled in the fall of 1989. Under the terms of the agreements West Germany recognized the existence and boundaries of East Germany, although the West Germans did not yield their claim that there should be a united Germany at some point in the future. In return, East Germany gave up its attempt to interfere in the relations between West Germany and West Berlin and permitted greater freedom of travel by West Germans in the GDR.
Willy Brandt was forced to resign as chancellor in 1974 after one of his personal assistants was unmasked as an East German spy. Egon Bahr stayed on in the cabinet of Helmut Schmidt as minister for economic cooperation, but he and Schmidt did not get along particularly well and after only two years Bahr resigned from the cabinet.
When Willy Brandt left the government he retained his position as chairman of the SPD, and Bahr's next major appointment, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, once again brought him into close contact with Brandt. Unfortunately, Egon Bahr proved a far less successful party administrator than diplomat and international relations theorist. In the 1983 federal election the SPD suffered its worst defeat since 1961, and Bahr resigned as general secretary. He remained active in politics, however. In 1990 he was a member of the West German Bundestaq and an alternate member of the European Parliament. In addition, he continued his writings on the problems of future European security arrangements.
Bahr's most important legacy was undoubtedly the Ostpolitik. Commenting in 1982 upon the treaties that he had helped to negotiate ten years earlier, Bahr took pride in the fact that the Ostpolitik had begun the process of reducing tensions between East and West and that this process, in turn, had made possible increased contacts and travel between East and West Germans. By 1990 he could go a major step further and point out that the Ostpolitik also began the process which undermined the viability of the East German regime. The developments that had made the Berlin Wall porous also inaugurated the process that would eventually make it crumble.
Further Reading on Egon Bahr
There is no full-scale English-language biography of Egon Bahr, but there are two good German-language introductions to his life and work. One is Karsten Schröder, Egon Bahr (Rastatt: 1988); the other is the chapter on Egon Bahr in Otto Borst, editor, Persönlichkeit und Politik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Göttingen: 1982). Two English-language analyses of Bahr's role in the Ostpolitik are Lawrence L. Whetten, The Ostpolitik (1983); and Timothy Garton Ash, In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent (1993).