Was Russia Today’s Politics Settled?: When the Eastern Treaties Became a Critical Test for Brandt

Is Russia’s politics flat today?
When the Eastern treaties became an ordeal for Brandt

“Change through rapprochement” was the slogan when a new political approach to the Soviet Union was decided in Bonn in 1972. The government surrounding SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt nearly collapsed. Even 50 years later, the controversy over the Eastern Treaties and their outcome continues.

It was a historical, heated, hurtful, argumentative argument. Foreign Minister Walter Scheele stated in the Bundestag on May 17, 1972: “Never before has any question so excited the minds of our people, and never before has opinions confronted each other so relentlessly.” Again the debate raged there, and again he was pointing at the button. Then the Social-Liberal Alliance succeeded in ratifying the treaties of Moscow and Warsaw that day – the Middle East Treaties of Chancellor Willie Brandt’s government.

Fifty years later, in times of the Ukrainian war, there was much talk of Brandt’s proactive policy – either as a direction-setting achievement or as the basis for the “lost concepts of Russia” in the SPD. “Change through Convergence” is the slogan coined by Brandt advisor Egon Bahr. Or, as Shell, the FDP politician put it: “It’s about trying to move from confrontation to cooperation.” This sounds familiar from the Russian controversy of recent years. But is the comparison good?

The ratification of the treaties was a major challenge for the SPD-SPD alliance.

(Photo: dpa)

“If you look at Ostpolitik, you’re not going to get too deep into the question of the Ukraine war these days,” says historian Bernd Rother, who was a long-time scholar at the Willie Brandt Foundation. “The ‘tipping point’ also includes the question of whether Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik can still be applied to this day.” Before the Russian war against Ukraine, negotiations were on the table – many of them were also held in Moscow. But the Russian attack on Ukraine has now created an entirely new situation, says Rother.

Small steps, big questions

Strictly speaking, the initial position in which Brandt sought closer understanding with Moscow at the end of the 1960s differs significantly from Russia’s post-Cold War policy. The most important impetus for Brandt, the former mayor of West Berlin, was the improvements in the daily life of East and West Germany separated by the Wall. Common phrase: “small steps policy”, eg in the case of visits and transit traffic.

To do this, Brandt had to address the big political questions that have remained unanswered since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949: Is the GDR recognized as a state — the “phenomenon of the East,” as Christian Democratic chancellor Kurt-Georg Kissinger called it? Do you accept the post-war frontiers, i.e. the territorial losses in the world war started by Nazi Germany? In any case: Is it permissible for you to negotiate with the Communists?

Brandt eventually answered all of these questions in the affirmative, thus beginning a historic change of course. The recently deceased contemporary historian Manfred Welk said in a series of articles: “The new policy of the Social-Liberal Alliance led by Chancellor Willie Brandt broke the deadlock between Bonn and Moscow and ended the insistence on the impasse of the Ostpolitic policy of demands in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In Ostpolitik Policy of the Federal Agency for Political Education.

Tangible results were the Treaty of Moscow with the Soviet Union on August 12, 1970 and the Treaty of Warsaw with Poland on December 7, 1970, two stunning short papers in just a few articles. Central messages: Renunciation of violence, respect for the borders applied in Europe, including those of the Oder-Neisse, and the renunciation of any territorial claims.

Stacey keeps Brandt in office

Brandt had already paved the way for the new line as Secretary of State in the Grand Coalition led by Kissinger from 1966 and won the federal election of the Social Democrats in 1969. The chancellor had a mandate but sparked an internal political crisis. When Brandt submitted the treaties to the Bundestag for ratification on February 23, 1972, opposition leader Rainer Berzel bitterly rejected the agreement, peppered with accusations such as “sophisticated propaganda”, “incorrect” claims, and disregard for German interests.


The then Federal Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt discussed it with opposition leader Rainer Parsel in the plenary.

(Photo: dpa)

What followed was a 22-hour battle of letters. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and (FDP) still have majorities of confidence in each. But things went differently. Many members of the coalition defected to the Union in protest of the Eastern treaties, and the liberal social majority went. Berzel, the CDU man, felt an opportunity to change the government and on April 24, 1972, tried to elect a chancellor by a constructive vote of no-confidence. It failed for reasons that were baffling at the time, due to the loss of two votes.

Only decades later it became clear: State Security in the GDR bribed CDU MP Julius Steiner with 50,000 marks and CSU MP Leo Wagner was listed as an unofficial employee. The Stasi had an interest in keeping Brandt in office and saving the Eastern treaties. This was achieved on 17 May with a parliamentary settlement. A “joint resolution” on the ratification law was passed and approved by the coalition and the union – clarification of criticism points.

Almost all MPs from the CDU and CSU abstained from voting on the treaties, and they were ratified. It was a close result, which also relied on those who pulled the strings in the GDR. However, the policy of détente, for which Brandt was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, soon became a consensus in German foreign policy. CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl continued this after 1982. The fall of the Berlin Wall, German unification, and the end of the Cold War: Everything was often described as a feature of Brandt’s Ostpolitik policy, Brandt revered as an icon in his party.

When it comes to Russian energy, Germany has gone further

The situation changed after the end of the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union. Germany was less dependent on Moscow’s generosity, and instead of being at the front, it sat comfortably in the middle of Europe. “After 1989, there was a new European peace order,” says SPD-affiliated historian Rother. “She looked good in the ’90s.” Only at the end of the 2000s did Russia’s relationship with the West become more confrontational.

The fact that Germany still wants to stay in touch with Moscow, says Rother, “I don’t see it basically as a direct line of Brandt’s osteopolitical policy.” It was not only Germany, nor by any means the Social Democratic Party, that chose to conduct negotiations with Russia. But in its dependence on Russian energy, Germany has gone further than other EU countries. This, in turn, is actually up to Brandt, because in 1970 the Eastern Contracts also saw the first gas pipeline deal, which brought Russian gas to Western Europe on a large scale.

But here, too, the following applies: For a long time, there was broad consensus on these deals, including the Nord Stream pipeline, with the support of former Chancellor Angela Merkel. When the Social Democratic Party is especially vilified today for being too pro-Russian, Chancellor Olaf Schulz was not alone in annoyed. “Since Adenauer’s time there have been these false statements and slanderous statements about the European and Russian policies of the SPD, which bothers me,” Schulz told Spiegel newspaper.

The party does not want to give a bad name to Ostpolitik. However, he started thinking big a long time ago. “If the SPD’s platform says that security in Europe can only be achieved with Russia, then we see that against the current background of the war, that is no longer true,” SPD leader Lars Klingbeil told Welt am Sonntag. The foundations are shaking – perhaps as violently as it was under Willie Brandt.

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