Egon Bahr

Memorial Remarks for Egon Bahr

Egon Bahr signed letters to me “In alter Verbundenheit” and, in 2013, inscribed his book, Erinnerungen an Willy Brandt, with “Es war ein langer Weg bis zur bleibenden Freundschaft.” I am proud of these sentiments growing out of fifty years of debate and collaboration.

Egon was my friend. We disagreed from time to time, particularly at the beginning of our acquaintance almost exactly fifty years ago. We went on to collaborate closely on behalf of a policy that reconciled the hopes of Willy Brandt with the geopolitics of Richard Nixon.

Journalists will have no difficulty finding critical comments we may have made about each other under the pressure of long-established controversies. I am here today to affirm how moved I was by Egon’s leaving us and how much emptier the world will be for me without the dialogue of decades.

We first met in 1965, when neither of us had an official position. Egon came to Harvard University, where I was a professor, to convince me that Germany would never achieve unity except through a negotiation leading to the withdrawal of foreign troops and a guarantee of a unified Germany by the four countries then occupying Berlin. My view was traditional, that unification could only be fostered through full adherence of Germany to the Atlantic Alliance, and that a Germany conducting an autonomous policy in the center of the Continent would run the risk of isolating itself.

We next encountered each other in 1969 when Willy Brandt was elected Chancellor. I had been appointed Security Advisor to President Nixon a few months earlier. Shortly after his election, Brandt sent Egon to visit the White House. Brandt, Egon told us, would pursue a policy of reconciliation with Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Soviet Union. He would accept the borders with Germany’s neighbors left by the war and seek a dialogue with Moscow. In view of its recent history, Germany had an obligation to undertake its own initiatives, but he would conduct them within the framework of Germany’s NATO obligations. Bahr undertook to keep us and other allies meticulously informed.

We at the White House were not as convinced that the objectives of reassurance and Allied solidarity were always reconcilable. Too many memories might inhibit the requisite trust. And we were uneasy that Moscow might seek to manipulate the process. Still, upon further reflection, Nixon and I came to see how Bahr’s message could fit within a wider strategy: to combine Ostpolitik with our planned opening to China to pull the Soviet Union into negotiations on a wide range of East-West issues.

Central among these was to reduce the risks of the nuclear age. We felt we owed it to our people—and the rest of the world—that, while undertaking a policy of deterrence, we would simultaneously be seen to reduce its risks. Arms control thereby became a key subject of East-West dialogue. That is why I said to Egon after one of our discussions: “Much success. Your success will also be ours.”

Both these dialogues required meticulous consultation and, as far as communications with Washington were concerned, Egon played an essential role.

Inevitably what started as a German initiative evolved into a multilateral enterprise to safeguard Berlin. Having gone through the blockade in the 1940s and two Soviet ultimatums in the 1950s, relaxation of tensions had to have as a precondition a new status for Berlin guaranteeing its links to the Federal Republic. But since Berlin was under the Four-Power jurisdiction, the Western allies became organically connected to Ostpolitik. A new status for Berlin would have to be negotiated by the four occupying powers—that is, France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—technically with the Federal Republic only in an advisory role.

To establish a further linkage, we made U.S. attendance at a European Security Conference—strongly desired by Moscow—conditional on a settlement of the Berlin issue.

The result was a plethora of multilateral and bilateral negotiations. To bring coherence to the process, we invited Egon to work with us to establish a system of back-channel communications. Synchronizing the Four-Power efforts, the German bilateral efforts with the Soviet Union, and America’s bilateral contacts with the Soviet Union produced a wondrous diplomacy. Students of governance will someday disentangle the web of official and back-channel discussions from which the Berlin agreement emerged in 1972 and preserved Berlin free of Soviet pressure until the unification of Germany. Egon Bahr conducted, on behalf of Brandt, the journey through this maze with skill, honor, and reliability.

Fifteen years later, Germany was unified, the result of Allied unity and strength and facilitated by German diplomacy. Egon retired from government in 1974, and I three years later. Our friendship had endured. Indeed, it was enhanced by the occasional emphatic expression of differing views. We had developed confidence in each other. On practically every visit to Berlin over the ensuing decades, I met with Egon to compare interpretations of events, exchange reflections about the future, and perhaps indulge in a little gossip, as do veterans of long-ago battles who are proud of shared memories.

We exchanged letters about each other’s writings. And we trusted each other enough to be frank. Of my own memoirs, Egon wrote: “The first volume was a great book; the second was a long book.”

For those of us who managed aspects of the Cold War, preventing its reappearance will always remain a profound cause. In January of this year, Egon wrote me a long letter. He expressed his concern over the growing tension between Russia and the West. He warned of the asymmetric warfare conducted by ISIS and described the defeat of it a joint strategic obligation. He thought it vital to restore Russia to the Western community and described America’s role as indispensable. He called for strategic solidarity before events would overwhelm us.

Egon returned to this concern in my last meeting with him three months ago at the Adlon Hotel. As was by now our custom, we agreed on the objective but not on all the solutions. It did not affect our shared commitment to eliminate the danger of nuclear war and to prevent irreversible fissures on this Continent. I was confident that, in this crisis, we would learn from each other as we always had before.

There may be a certain meaning in this friendship for American-German relations today. Given our different histories, it is inevitable that each side will discover aspects of the other’s conduct or policies with which it may disagree. Egon’s contribution to this was to have a vision of the future, and the strength of will to persist along a rough and difficult road. He had a great ability to take small steps that can lead to a large consequences, and throughout, to develop enough trust to transcend the mood of the moment and to remember our common necessities and shared aspirations. In this sense, his inscription to me, “Es war ein langer Weg bis zur bleibenden Freundschaft,” had a meaning not only for our personal friendship, but also for the connection between Germany and America, and indeed for an approach to all the world’s peoples. Our ultimate task is to eventually tame suspicions and submerge ambivalence in friendship.

Permit me to thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to pay my respects to Egon Bahr, my respected and valiant colleague in a period critical for the future of Germany and the world, who remained my friend for a lifetime thereafter.