The Pro- Détente Position of Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’

Open Letter signed by 40 top former diplomats, military officers and political scientists condemning U.S. belligerence and drumbeats of war

Many of us were surprised and impressed by the bold statements on behalf of common sense dealings with Vladimir Putin to de-escalate the conflict over Ukraine made by the German navy chief Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach during his visit to New Delhi on 21 January. Moreover, when his remarks were disseminated on social media and elicited a storm of protest from the German mainstream, not to mention from the Kiev regime, Schoenbach very honorably tendered his resignation. In our day and age of moral and intellectual Lilliputians in high office most everywhere on the Continent, it was inspiring to see that there is at least one resister to political correctness in high office and that an old fashioned sense of honor can even direct the actions of generals and admirals.

To those who believe Vice Admiral Schoenbach’s actions were strictly idiosyncratic and have no broader significance, another development in German political life yesterday proves them wrong and provides us all with a glimmer of hope in this time of high anxiety over the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the US-led Collective West.

In what follows, I first set out the main theses of an Open Letter by leading German political scientists, retired ambassadors and high military officers that was published yesterday in mainstream German and Russian media, with further reposting on French and other portals. I then offer a brief retrospective, taking the thinking in this Open Letter back to the chancellorship of Willy Brandt and to the pen of his assistant Egon Bahr. That period established a pro-peace wing within Germany’s socialist party (SPD) and also among non-partisan Germans of good will. The last public demarche of that movement was in the autumn of 2016 and found supporters in the United States at the time. I know, I was there at its launch in Berlin.

The more than forty signatories of the Open Letter published yesterday are all the more important given that they are connected with the international politics institute or think tank WeltTrends, which publishes its journal on the right of center, mainstream publisher Axel Springer Verlag. The most widely known names of signatories include former ambassadors Arne Seifert, Wolfgang Grabowski and Otto Pfeiffer; former Bundestag deputy Dr. Norman Paech; and retired colonel Wilfried Schreiber. Among them also is Dr. Alexander Rahr, who has long been a business adviser to Russian-German industrial projects including Gazprom-Wintershall, and is Research Director of the German-Russian Forum.

The Open Letter, which has the title “For a German security policy that serves Peace” was prompted by the publication on 14 January in the online news portal of a very different kind of Open Letter by self proclaimed experts in Eastern Europe and security policy which in the view of the WeltTrends group “would promote an Ice Age, a new Cold War” and “would add to economic extortion a strongly confrontational policy of Germany towards Russia, heating up the Ukraine conflict and extending NATO right up to Russia’s borders. That letter on Zeit denounced peaceful settlement of conflicts and building trust…” The new Open Letter of the WeltTrends group intends to address the falsehoods, half-truths of their opponents, delivering a response based on building peace and friendly coexistence.

Indeed, the text of this Open Letter is remarkable in its boldness and clarity. We read the following:

“It is possible to lessen the severity of the conflict between NATO and Russia, at the center of which at present is the Ukrainian conflict, only by issuing guaranties of security for all involved states and building trust between NATO and its partners, Ukraine and Russia and with all the remaining European states. At the same time, it is essential to revive or create anew both international formats of negotiations and agreements, as well as measures for creating trust.”

“We stand before a choice: to ignite conflict or to extinguish the flames.”

The authors of the Open Letter blame the United States for taking the initiative to exert pressure on the Russian Federation, and the United States for imposing its will on its allies. The text emphasizes that the Western policy of confrontation with Russia does not correspond to the German and European interests; rather it panders to the US desire to keep Western Europe under its control: “The demand that Germany strengthen its pressure on Russia still further subordinates German foreign policy to American policy. The so-called conflict between the West/Europe and Russia was always a conflict between the USA and Russia.”

The Open Letter continues:

‘’Russia preparing to straighten all this out. This is only possible with the withdrawal of the United States from Russia’s borders (or with the placement of missiles on Washington’s doorstep). The United States (President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) seem to have understood this fully – otherwise they would not have reopened the negotiating formats that Russia did not close. Direct talks between Russia and the United States remain the key to solving the problem.”

The reference in the Open Letter to the Eastern Policy of the socialist chancellor Willy Brandt (1969-74) is highly significant even if the thinking of the authors of this Letter marks a radical departure from the underlying motif of the détente of Brandt and Bahr, their Entspannungspolitik, which was to recover relations with the Soviet Union after the harsh reality of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The logic of Brandt was to moderate Soviet policy by exercising a force of attraction instead of the brinksmanship and negotiations from a position of strength that underlay American policy then (and now.)

The Open Letter sets out a brief overview of how following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA took advantage of the moment to continue unabated its containment policy, to leave its forces and nuclear weapons in Germany/Europe, to integrate a number of East European states into its advance organization and to bring its attack forces to the Russian borders.  In this perspective, the conflict between Russia and NATO/West Europe over Ukraine is not a separate conflict but is at the heart of the conflict with the USA.

The Open Letter then cites the updated thinking of Egon Bahr in the 1990s:

“The whole of Europe is larger than the European Union can ever become, so stability for this great Europe requires “the inclusion of Russia and the republics that used to be part of the Soviet Union, as far as they want it. Not without or against Russia, not without or against America, is pan-European stability to be achieved.

“Bahr pointed to a fundamental difference in the interests of Germany and the United States: ‘Perhaps America believes that it can gain advantages from the continuing internal and external weakening of Russia, as long as chaos is avoided and the nuclear factor remains controllable. For Germany and the EU, on the other hand, ‘a Russia that consolidates is preferable.’ Western confrontation policy against Russia is thus more in the interest of the US and the desire to keep Western Europe under US control than in the German and European interest.

The concluding paragraph of the Open Letter is dramatic and impressive:

“We therefore call on the new German government to return to the cornerstones of the peace policy of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr. Security for Germany and the EU is only possible together with Russia. This requires equality and equal rights, as laid down in the Charter of the United Nations, the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris and the NATO-Russia Founding Act. On these bases, it is indeed necessary to assume more responsibility for peace and security.”

It must be said that the authors of the Open Letter have in common expertise in international affairs. They are not speaking as members of any political party.  In this sense the pro-peace policy invented by Brandt has left a legacy bigger than the party he led.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to deny détente a home base in the SPD. Indeed, it was precisely a socialist chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder (1999-2005) who stood up to America and its war of aggression in Iraq, joining France and Russia in rejection of the American call for United Nations cover, and compelling Washington to resort to an ad hoc and patently illegitimate “coalition of the willing.”

It was also Gerhardt Schroeder who promoted the Nord Stream I gas pipeline over American opposition. And after leaving office following his brave decision to impose austerity on Germany as the bitter medicine to cure economic woes resulting from post-unification overspend, at foreseeable political costs in popularity, Schroeder accepted an offer to join the board of the pipeline’s operating company.

The conservative CDU dominated government which took the reins of power had no such commitment to strategic partnership with Russia, notwithstanding the oft-repeated characterization of Mutti Merkel in the American and European press as a Russian speaker who had a rapport with the Russian president. Her background as an Ossie made Merkel more a condescending superior than an equal partner of the Russians. When then President Dmitry Medvedev presented his draft treaty revising the security architecture of Europe, Merkel was among the first to dismiss the Russian initiative out of hand, saying that “we already have a security architecture – NATO – and have no intention of replacing it.”

When US and European relations took a sharp turn for the worse after the fateful coup d’etat in Kiev in February 2014 that placed a viscerally anti-Russian government in power, triggering the independence of Crimea and its annexation by Russia, then the rebellion against Kiev of the Donbas oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk with Russian backing, Merkel applied the brakes to American sanctions, but then quickly sought to maintain prestige by becoming the sanctions’ enforcer within the EU.

Against this background of rising tensions, in November 2016 the intellectual heirs of Egon Bahr, who died in 2015, came out of the shadows and issued a call for Détente Now! (Neue Entspannungspolitik Jetzt!). I was present in Berlin at the public launch of this initiative which had at its core one of Egon Bahr’s assistants, Wolfgang Biermann, former secretary general of the World Council of Churches Konrad Raiser, chairman of the German Trade Unions Federation Reiner Hoffmann, and Member of the German Bundestag, SPD, member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Deputy Chairperson of the Subcommittee on Arms Control and Disarmament in the Bundestag Ute Finckh-Kraemer. 

In the United States, the declaration of this group won the support of the Association of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, Veteran Intelligence Officials for Sanity, Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky, among other notables. The appeal for a new détente was carried by the progressive American journal The Nation.

However, in 2016 the SPD was a minority party with steadily diminishing electoral support and this initiative led to nothing.  Today, of course, the stakes of war and peace are that much higher than back then and the standing of the SPD is now that of majority party in the new governing German federal coalition.  Within that coalition, there are signs that the Chancellor Olaf Scholz has a good memory for his party’s traditional commitment to détente. If he can overcome the hawkish, anti-Russian coalition partners in the German Greens, perhaps the latest Open Letter will do some good.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

2 thoughts on “The Pro- Détente Position of Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’”

  1. Biden is causing tension with Russia to counteract his opponents objection to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
    Germany is the best nation in Western Europe, it should go a step further by withdrawing from NATO, shutting down its US Bases and withdrawing aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
    You mentioned Willy Brandt as being a former chancellor of Germany, wasn’t he a former chancellor of Austria?

  2. Lord Ismay – first NATO General Secretary – summarized the purpose of NATO as follows: “Keep America in, keep Russia out, and keep Germany down.” It’s about time for Germany to step up, as Russia has done, against US/NATO imperialism. And it is beyond ironic that the Greens – of all people! – are turning out to be warmongers.

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