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.’

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