Willy Brandt aide and architect of detente

Egon Bahr: March 18th, 1922 - August 19th, 2015

Egon Bahr, who has died aged 93, was a prominent social democrat politician whose efforts to improve West Germany’s relations with the Soviet bloc helped pave the way for German reunification.

Bahr – a journalist and later a key aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt – never lost hope that his country would one day be reunited. He believed that the best way to narrow, if not erase, Germany's division was through patient negotiations on the basis of shared interests rather than by a show of overwhelming strength.

He called his approach Ostpolitik (eastern policy), and it aimed at normalising relations with all of West Germany's communist neighbours to the east. The policy was at first denounced as appeasement by the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which governed West Germany for most of its first 20 years and which refused to deal with any country that recognised East Germany. But under Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1980s the Christian Democrats were, nevertheless, to see the policy through.

Bahr’s moment had arrived two decades earlier, in 1966, when Brandt was appointed foreign minister in a coalition government. He made Bahr, who had been his press secretary when he was mayor of Berlin, his chief of planning. Three years later, when Brandt became chancellor, Bahr was his chief of staff.


Bahr was convinced that the key to unification lay in Moscow, and his first step under Brandt was to open talks with the Soviet Union. He also began talks with the East German communists, successfully negotiating a treaty in 1973 on governing a divided Berlin.

But when in 1974 Brandt resigned after the arrest of his personal secretary as a communist spy, Bahr also quit, though a few months later Helmut Schmidt, the new social democratic chancellor, appointed him a minister.

Jewish connection

Egon Karlheinz Bahr

, an only child, was born in Treffurt in Thuringia. His father, Karl, a secondary school teacher, was dismissed from his job when the Nazi authorities learned that the mother of his wife, Hedwig, was Jewish.

The family moved to Berlin, where Egon was denied admission to a university to study music. Nevertheless, years later, he recalled being “thrilled” as a teenager by Hitler’s military successes.

Called up for military duty in 1942, he was assigned to the Luftwaffe. But when it was discovered that he had a Jewish grandmother he was discharged in 1944 and his rank as officer cadet was erased. He ended the war as a factory office worker while his father, refusing to leave his half-Jewish wife, was conscripted into forced labour.

After the collapse of the Third Reich, Bahr became a reporter for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. He later worked for the Allegemeine Zeitung, an American-licensed paper, and the Tagesspiegel, which in 1949 sent him to report from Bonn, the new West German capital.

He came to think of himself, he said, not as a conquered German but as a liberated German determined to gain equal treatment for all Germans ultimately through reunification. “As long as Germany is divided, we are not a nation,” he said at the time.

His hopes of seeing communism rolled back were dashed, however, when East Germany, with Moscow’s blessing, began sealing off its borders and building a wall through the middle of Berlin. And when the western allies responded in a way that he perceived as weak, he despaired, concluding: “Nobody is going to help us Germans if we don’t help ourselves.”

By this time, in 1961, he was the chief political adviser, speechwriter and press spokesman for Brandt, West Berlin’s mayor.

Brandt and Bahr laid out a series of small, practical steps to open barriers between East and West Germany in areas like transportation, communication and trade, and to allow family members to visit one another across the Berlin Wall. The first fruit of the “small steps” was an agreement on passes permitting 1.2 million visits by West Berliners to relatives in East Berlin.

Its success inspired Bahr to pursue a larger vision of reducing East-West tensions, and when Brandt became chancellor in 1969 he was able to begin putting their ideas into action, ultimately as minister for special affairs, a cabinet post.

Arms reduction

He continued to press for reunification after Brandt’s resignation in 1974, remaining in the cabinet for two years under Schmidt. And he continued to hold top leadership posts in the Social Democratic Party after Schmidt lost office. He was the principal organiser of direct discussions about arms reduction between Social Democrats and the East German Communist Party, which continued almost until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

He held on to his seat in the Bundestag until 1990, after which he wrote and lectured, publishing his memoirs in 1996. He was director of the Institute for Peace Studies at the University of Hamburg for 10 years and was named an honorary citizen of Berlin in 2002.

Bahr held fast to one other vision: that a reunited Germany should not be a member of Nato. Though he opposed neutrality, he was wary of seeing Germany’s security inextricably linked to that of the United States. That was not to be. Germany became the closest of US allies, and Bahr’s preferred alternative, an “all-European security system” receded to a distant horizon.

Bahr received glowing tributes on his death from fellow social democrats Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. By contrast, a statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel consisted largely of a list of the posts he had held.

Bahr continued his personal Ostpolitik to the end. He visited Moscow last month to join Mikhail Gorbachev in a public plea for continued detente between Germany and Russia – the cause to which he had devoted much of his life.