‘Never speak of reunification’When U.S. President Richard Nixon first met Egon Bahr, he called him the “Kissinger of Germany.” He may be on par with Kissinger when it comes to policy planning and vision, but as a negotiator, Kissinger cannot be compared to Bahr. Bahr reminds me of Churchill’s saying that no great work could be accomplished without imagination. First comes creativity, then follows efforts to realize it. Bahr’s capacity for both planning and fantasy is incredible. As Ministerial Director of the Planning Staff for Chancellor Willy Brandt, he encouraged his team to think the unthinkable.
On November 12, 2014, the day I interviewed him, Berlin was in a festive mood, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But when I met Bahr in his office on the fourth floor of the Social Democratic Party headquarters, he showed no signs of excitement. To the person whose long-term vision and outstanding planning made the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification possible, the event 25 years ago must have been the normalization of the abnormal. He didn’t seem to be someone who would pass away in nine months although he was 92 years old at the time. His back was bent a bit but his voice was dignified.
In the divided Berlin, he began a career as a reporter, and after working for a number of newspapers, he served as a reporter, editorial writer and chief editorial writer for RIAS, a radio and television station in the American Sector of Berlin during the Cold War. After listening to his radio commentaries, Chancellor Willy Brandt scouted him to head the broadcasting bureau of Berlin in 1960. In retrospect, it must have been a fateful encounter for the future of Germany. Without Bahr, Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” wouldn’t have been promoted the way as we know it and the fast track for reunification wouldn’t have been possible.
“Change through Rapprochement,” a symbol of Ostpolitik, was first used by Bahr at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing in 1963, six years before Brandt came to power in 1969. Bahr’s insight was that reunification was only possible through a long process of changes, and the changes were only possible through rapprochement. Bahr promoted a pragmatic policy to progress towards reunification over the long run. Having witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, he started with the premise that no one would remove the wall. If the wall couldn’t be torn down, he thought, a small passage should be opened up to make Berliners’ daily lives more comfortable and also psychologically comfort the people of West Berlin, living in an “isolated island” in the middle of the European continent. After a series of meetings with East Berlin authorities as head of the Press and Information Office, the famous Permit Agreement was signed in December 1963, allowing 1.2 million West Berliners to visit families in East Berlin for Christmas. The number was 40 times bigger than the East Berlin authority’s estimate of 30,000.
When I asked him about examples of “change through rapprochement,” he answered, “Passierscheinabkommen,” which emphasized “small steps” over “loud noises.” It was a homeopathic treatment of changing one’s constitution by gradually using a small dose of poison.
In 1969, Willy Brandt became the Chancellor backed by the Social Democratic Party and Free Democratic Party coalition, and Bahr became the Secretary of State of the German Chancellery. He changed Konrad Adenauer’s plan of “unification first then easing tension” to “easing tension first, followed by reunification.” He passionately pursued German reunification policy as tension in Europe was easing. Brandt fully trusted Bahr’s loyalty, patriotism, planning, imagination, negotiation tactics and strategy. They were friends on a first-name basis.
Bahr believed that German reunification started from Moscow. He was criticized as a traitor and the United Kingdom, the United States and France were not pleased. But he successfully facilitated the Treaty of Moscow after three 50-hour-long meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in 1970. In the same year, he negotiated for a treaty with Poland, accepting the Oder-Neisse line as the Western border of Poland.
He also accomplished “modus vivendi,” a collaborative peaceful coexistence with the Basic Treaty of 1972. Bahr’s strategy of changing the status quo by acknowledging it may seem like a paradox, but it was his unique dialectical approach. He saw that reunification through annexation was not a policy but a miracle.
When President Park Geun-hye visited Berlin in March 2014, she met Lothar de Maiziere - a puppet of Helmut Kohl who led an interim East German government in 1990 - instead of Bahr. It was a joke among those who know Germany.
If she had met Bahr, he would’ve said, “You need to always have reunification in mind but never speak of reunification.”
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 24, Page 29
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie