Up against the wall

Neal Ascherson

  • My Life in Politics by Willy Brandt
    Hamish Hamilton, 498 pp, £20.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 241 13073 5

On 19 March 1970, Willy Brandt went out on the balcony of a hotel at Erfurt and the East German crowd roared: ‘Willy, Willy!’ Some famous photographs show him looking down at them gravely, almost in meditation. This was one of the grand moments in postwar European politics, or so it then seemed. A Chancellor of the Federal Republic had broken through the Cold War barricades and visited the German Democratic Republic for the first time. He writes in these memoirs:

Can there have been any other [day] in my whole life charged with more emotion? On the other side of the border between the Germanies, the road was lined with people waving, although the People’ Police was supposed to have stopped them. Women waved from windows; their husbands waved from or outside their workplaces I was travelling through the heartland of German Protestantism and of the labour movement.

Later that spring, his counterpart Willi Stoph, the East German prime minister, returned the visit and came to Kassel. This was a less promising scene: large crowds of right-wing extremists turned up with posters demanding Brandt an die Wand (Brandt up against the wall), and there was fighting with the police. Little came out of that encounter. Brandt had to take Stoph for a walk in the gardens, out of range of the microphones, to get anything sensible out of him. But the two meetings combined seemed to be the beginning of something. In literal terms, they were not: there were no further official meetings between East and West German leaders on German soil for a long time. But the real questions – the Erfurt question and the Brandt question – are much wider. Did that sort of rapprochement help to prepare the ground for the collapse of the GDR 19 years later, and indeed for the end of the Communist epoch in East Europe? Or did Brandt’s whole Ostpolitik actually help to grant the Soviet imperium in Europe an extra lease of life?

Some interesting documents about the Erfurt meeting were recently fished out of the East Berlin archives and published. The Foreign Policy Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) made an evaluation and concluded that on balance the encounter was positive for the GDR. Relying on the obligatory Marxist-Leninist jargon, the Committee suggested that Erfurt had helped the GDR towards its goal of international recognition, and had produced ‘possibilities for the exploitation and deepening of divergences within West German monopoly capital ... A segment of the grand bourgeoisie fears the failure of the new Ostpolitik, and the sharpening of internal contradictions within West Germany ...’ It was also possible that the survival of the Brandt government would increase ‘the influence of the GDR on the West German working class and other democratic forces’. The disadvantages included ‘the growing danger of nationalism intruding into the GDR; the danger that illusions about the character of West German imperialism may increase and that its character as the main disturber of European peace may become obscured; the danger that in tactical matters a differentiation will be applied between individual socialist countries.’

The paper concluded that ‘in the long run, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.’ But the case for Willy Brandt, for whom the Ostpolitik was the main project of his life, is that the SED were quite wrong. The process of ‘change through increasing closeness’ (Wandel durch Annäherung, the phrase invented by Brandt’s old friend Egon Bahr in 1963, is hard to translate more neatly) was gradually successful. Its strategy was to reduce tension between East and West and specifically between West Germany and individual Communist states. This would permit ‘closeness’ to increase, with several effects. The first was to increase direct Western influence and contacts, especially with West Germany, spinning all kinds of cultural and personal and economic threads to bind the two halves of Europe together and make a renewed confrontation more difficult. The second was – as the SED perceived – to ‘differentiate’: to reward more liberal Communist systems with a variety of privileges and to isolate the hard-line states (like the GDR). The third was to persuade Communist countries responsive to the Ostpolitik to put their own pressure on the East Germans, inducing them to relax the dictatorship and permit steadily wider contact and movement between the two German states.

This book is, of course, out of date. It was first published in Germany in 1989, and then a hasty postscript was added in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall – but before the revolution in Prague. For this edition, Brandt has written a new preface, done last September, which surveys benevolently but rather mistily the new and unfamiliar political landscape. Almost all the geography in which he made his career has gone. Berlin is united, and Germany is united in the sense that West Germany has effectively annexed East Germany. Communism has collapsed throughout Europe. The Soviet Union has fallen and disintegrated.

Mikhail Gorbachev – a figure who appeared as Brandt was leaving the stage, but who seemed for a time to incarnate everything the old Social Democrat had ever hoped for – has fallen too, and gone to that well-paid limbo in lecture-land where Brandt’s old rival Helmut Schmidt also wanders. Curiously, Brandt does not use this preface for the obvious purpose: to measure his own policies against the way the Cold War ended, and to answer his critics. Instead, he gives a strikingly mild assessment of how Chancellor Kohl handled the unification of Germany, and directs some equally mild warnings towards the future. ‘It may be said that Germany – historically, geopolitically and as a part of Europe – does have more responsibility than it could bear on its own. Incidentally, Bismarck in old age advised his compatriots not to try to be everywhere at once; he said it would be against the real interests of Germany. In today’s context, that means not aspiring to outdated Great Power status, but letting our own interests ... become a part of the development of European objectives.’

It seems to me, as somebody who watched both its beginning and its end, that the Ostpolitik was justified. It did not overthrow Communism, but it was not meant to do that. It did not bring about the revolutions of 1989; indeed, its assumption was that the Soviet empire in Europe would endure for a long time and must be lived with rather than assaulted frontally. But, like the Helsinki process, which was also angrily criticised when détente went out of fashion, the German Ostpolitik helped to change the political chemistry in a way which accelerated the internal decay of the Communist regimes. That was not obvious at the time. The SED were not the only ruling Communist Party who thought that the West’s informal recognition of the European status quo actually strengthened their internal position. With hindsight, though, the damage done to their authority throughout the later Seventies and the Eighties can be seen to have been steadily more devastating as time passed. Above all, the widening of economic contact was to prove decisive. In conditions of détente, East European economies became rapidly more dependent upon world trading conditions and the state of the markets. After the oil price rises of the early Seventies, those economies began (some more rapidly than others) to import inflation and to pile up unmanageable hard-currency foreign debts. In consequence, the technology of the Communist bloc fell behind that of the West by a whole generation: a lag which had never been anything like as wide before, and which could patently not be closed by Communist planning solutions. By 1980, when Gierek’s Poland went broke and was overwhelmed by the first Solidarity revolution, the writing was on the wall. The political part of the inscription was difficult to read. But the lines which warned that Communism as a mechanism of economic growth was dead or dying – they were legible enough.

In deriding détente, those who tend the shrines of the Reagan-Thatcher cult argue that force – nuclear force – brought Gorbachev to the negotiating table and Soviet Communism to its knees. It is fairly respectable to argue that the arms race exhausted the Soviet Union and helped Gorbachev to recognise that he must end the whole competition. What is nonsense is the set of claims made for Nato’s 1979 decision to deploy a new generation of medium range missiles (cruise and Pershing II) in Europe. As Brandt writes here, ‘in retrospect, the dispute about medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe looks grotesque.’ So it does, and so it was. The decision was never really about what it pretended to be about: the threat posed by the Soviet deployment of SS20 nuclear missiles targeted on Europe. Instead, as the demonstrating thousands in both Britain and Germany dimly understood, it was primarily a hysterical episode of anti-American mistrust within Nato. Brandt goes on: ‘Even more misleading ... was the assumption that Western armament brought a new leadership to the fore in the Soviet Union.’ Gorbachev was not the child of Pershing, and neither did the new American missiles persuade him to negotiate. It was his own missiles, inherited from the absurd policies of his predecessors, which he wanted to be rid of, and when he began talking about missile reduction to Reagan above the heads of the Europeans, ‘the agreement had little to do with any decisions taken by the Bonn government or by Nato in Brussels.’

Willy Brandt evidently finds it difficult to write about himself. The cliché of ‘a mask of impassivity’ is in Brandt’s case a close description of his appearance. When I watched him speaking in public, he would stand ramrod-stiff and put on his best cigar-store Indian expression. He would bellow away in his deep, gravelly voice in the old SPD open-air tradition, but every so often, as he came to some passage of irony, an enchanting silent-movie comic’s grimace would transform that iron visage: eyebrows up, mouth corners down. It was hard to know what was really going on in there, because his instinct of privacy was and is so strong. In consequence, this long book is not so much dull (although there are boring tracts where all but the specialist will get lost) as gnomic. There are, for example, a good many passages which are worth reading carefully because of what they indicate rather than what they say outright. Among them are Brandt’s account of his relationship to De Gaulle and Gaullism and his many-layered reactions to the United States. (Britain and British politicians scarcely figure in these memoirs, which in itself indicates something about the real weight carried by the United Kingdom in West German affairs.) But the most intriguing indirect speech occurs as Brandt discusses – at great length, and well – the circumstances of his own fall in 1974.

One of his closest advisers, Günter Guillaume, proved to be a long-standing East German agent. Although it was never demonstrated that Guillaume had in fact seen papers of high security importance, or at worst more than extremely few, his position at the Chancellor’s elbow on various journeys was alleged to have given him knowledge of ‘indiscretions’. All that is well-known. The mystery, pointedly revived here by Brandt himself, is why the West German security services kept for so long to themselves the knowledge that Guillaume was a spy. In Bonn at the time, it was rumoured that the Minister of the Interior, Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Free Democrats, had decided to keep the lid on the pot for a little longer until the goose in it was well and truly cooked. And it proved to be quite a meal: Brandt resigned, to the consternation of Europe and the world, while Genscher became Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor for the next 18 years. Brandt makes no accusations in this book, but his account presents Genscher with a long bill of unanswered questions.

There are, however, memorable chapters here in which Willy Brandt writes without caution or inhibition. Some clever portraits occur: John Kennedy and Franz-Josef Strauss. In the Sixties, many democratic-minded Germans threatened to emigrate if Strauss ever returned to power, but Brandt understood his combination of piercing, analytic intelligence with fatal thuggery in practical politics. It would be too much to say that Brandt liked him, but at least he saw the joke. His antipathy to Henry Kissinger, by contrast, returns Willy Brandt to his cigar-store Indian mode: all is implied rather than openly stated.

The best part of the book is about his youth. The ‘mysteries’ about his birth, which gave rise to so much unkindness and guesswork when I lived in Germany, are no longer mysteries. Brandt himself had known since shortly after the war that his father was a Hamburg book-keeper named John Möller, but characteristically kept the fact to himself. Born in Lübeck and named Herbert Frahm, after his mother, the boy was introduced by his grandfather Ludwig Frahm to the elaborate world of working-class culture which the Social Democrats had constructed. It was not enough for him. He broke with the SPD’s stolid complacency in 1931, when he joined the left-wing Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP); he broke with the old party’s isolationism when he escaped from the Nazis and found in Norway a socialism which did not regard the existing constitutional state as alien to it; he broke with German left-wing sectarianism when (as ‘Willy Brandt’ among other cover names) he returned secretly to Germany to carry on a clandestine struggle in alliance with socialists of every kind.

He did not rejoin the SPD until after the war, some time after his return from Scandinavian exile. But all those breaks with the past helped him to set the Party on new tracks. At first he was regarded with suspicion as leader of the so-called ‘American’ faction in the Berlin SPD. Gradually, though, the realities of Germany in the Cold War (the remoteness of an old-fashioned Marxist transformation of society, the impracticality of German reunification in the near future) worked on the Party’s thinking, and in Brandt’s favour. He became governing Mayor of Berlin in 1957, Chairman of the SPD in 1964, Foreign Minister in 1966 and Chancellor in 1969.

It was because of Willy Brandt that after about 1960 the SPD became the most important political party in Western Europe. It remained so for almost thirty years, and only the end of the Cold War plunged it into a time of confusion and temporary irrelevance. But Brandt’s achievement was not so much a matter of personality as of the lessons he learned from experience – lessons drawn from the Norwegian and Swedish models of democratic socialism, which were simply not available to party members who stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi period. Those lessons are spelled out here, in this book. But the personality is painfully withheld. The reader gets only glimpses of this warm, funny, gregarious man who has lived so dangerously in so many different ways. It is a pity. Brandt was not only the man with the best policy for his times. He was also the most spontaneous and decent and affectionate statesman of those times. The grey men got him in the end, of course. But Germany was infinitely lucky to have been ruled by him at all.