Wolfgang Thierse is shocked. He recently had to read in a newspaper: Willy Brandt was yesterday. Should the former SPD chancellor’s Ostpolitik and his adviser Egon Bahr’s “change through rapprochement” approach be outdated? Are they the real reason for the mistakes and mistakes in German Russia policy over the past twenty years?
After all, this Ostpolitik is an integral part of the SPD’s creed; from a social-democratic point of view, it was she who first made peace in Europe and German unity possible.
Thierse sees these foundations in danger. “Is that really a historical aberration?” asks the 79-year-old former President of the Bundestag. It is obvious that he does not like the latest analysis by his party leader Lars Klingbeil that Germany is facing the ruins of its Russia policy.
Organizing security and stability no longer “with Russia”, but only “before and against Russia”, as Klingbeil recently said, that “probably” applies to the Putin regime today. But in the future, Thierse hopes, Brandt and Bahr’s concept of joint security will be given another chance. That’s probably how it is for most of the primarily gray-haired men and women who came to IG Metall’s Mendelsohn building in Berlin that evening.
“Change through rapprochement” has become obsolete
How closely intertwined is Brandt’s Ostpolitik with the course towards Moscow that Germany has pursued since SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was in office? The historian Andreas Wirsching, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, conveys a supposedly redeeming message to the community of social democrats who have been thrown into doubt.
The concept of “change through rapprochement” was based on the motivation to overcome the division of Germany; this motive has not existed since 1990. And the CSCE process, which was supposed to break the ice between East and West with regard to politics and human rights in the 1970s, seems “today like a distant utopia”.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union had a kind of collective leadership that made it predictable. That is something completely different from Putin’s personal dictatorship.
Policy towards Russia remained stuck in the “old CSCE world”.
But Germany failed to recognize that Putin’s nationalist Russia has long since moved away from the same historical era. The Ostpolitik of Brandt and Bahr and also the NATO double-track decision, invented by SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and enforced by his CDU successor Helmut Kohl, had a clear goal, namely mutual renunciation of violence; Schmidt and Kohl courageously pushed them through against widespread protest.
The later policy towards Russia, on the other hand, lacked sober analysis and political courage. She remained attached to the “old CSCE world” in which balance and stability were to be created through diplomatic communication and economic cooperation.
“The idea that communication is always good, and that if you communicate long enough, it can at least not get any worse,” is a misjudgment, Wirsching wrote to former Chancellor Angela Merkel in her Putin dossier – but he did not mention the special case of Gerhard Schröder.
Dependence on Russian energy increased late
But what about the dependence on Soviet energy supplies, which was initiated at the time of Brandt’s Ostpolitik with the natural gas pipe business in 1971? A path for today’s dependency was laid at that time. Brandt told Der Spiegel in 1973 that ten percent of the energy imported into Germany could come from the Soviet Union, “a little more or a little less”.
But “no particular dependency will arise from this”. In fact, a decade later, only 7.5 percent of the energy-generating raw materials used in West Germany came from the Soviet Union.
Last year, on the other hand, 34 percent of the oil demand and 55 percent of the gas demand were imported from Russia. Energy dependency was therefore chosen much later. According to Wirsching, it was “the most economically tempting and at the same time politically most risky choice”. In other words: Germany could have turned around in time if Berlin had looked at Putin’s Russia soberly and given politics priority over the economy.
The influence of Egon Bahr
Egon Bahr’s role makes it clear how much the classic Ostpolitik has had an impact on the SPD to this day. According to the Social Democrat and last GDR Foreign Minister Markus Meckel that evening, he had an office in the Willy-Brandt-Haus until his death in 2015. Bahr sat “on the lap” of every party and faction leader of the SPD and convinced everyone “that Moscow is the center of German foreign policy”. Bahr’s fixation on Moscow, who advocated purely superpower politics, had fatal consequences for the SPD, since many viewed him as a crucial advisor.
The listeners, some of whom belong to traditional social democratic associations such as the Erhard-Eppler circle, do not like such insights. Their world view corresponds to what the political scientist Johannes Varwick from Halle says. He would like a “new Egon Bahr” who knows “that it makes no sense to ignore zones of influence”.
You have to have a “sober view of Russia’s sense of security” and accept that Ukraine is a “special case” from Moscow’s perspective and that it can never be allowed to become a member of NATO. There is a lot of applause for that. It seems that the reformed party leader Klingbeil still has a long way to go.