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SPD faces the ruins of its Russia policy

March 22, 2022

"Change through rapprochement" was the slogan with which the Social Democrats once advocated more detente with the Soviet Union. In the face of the Russian war in Ukraine, it looks like it has failed.

Egon Bahr, Willy Brandt, Walter Scheel, (left to right) outside the Kremlin in 1970
Chancellor Willy Brandt and his government delegation traveled to Moscow in 1970Image: Sven Simon/IMAGO

Admitting you were wrong is never easy; doing so publicly as a politician is even less so. That's why a speech recently given by Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Lars Klingbeil in commemoration of the 100th birth anniversary of party legend Egon Bahr seemed noteworthy. 

Bahr is considered the architect of Chancellor Willy Brand's "Ostpolitik", the detente policy that resulted in treaties with the Soviet Union, Poland, and the communist East Germany (GDR). As early as 1963, Bahr advocated "change through rapprochement," which outraged many in the still young Federal Republic of Germany only two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the Cold War. But the SPD strategist believed that the hardened fronts could not be dissolved by even more pressure and counterpressure.

The policy was based on recognizing the status quo and the assumption that economic openness would lead to political and social openings, as well. For Egon Bahr, successful diplomacy was the sober balancing of interests. "International politics is never about democracy or human rights," he once told schoolchildren. "It is about the interests of states. Remember that, no matter what they tell you in history class."

Scholz: EU needs new approach in Eastern Europe

Until his death in 2015, Bahr argued that even the increasingly authoritarian Russia should be integrated into the European security order, finding many supporters among Social Democrats. That was a mistake, according to the SPD's current leader Lars Klingbeil. "'Change through trade' was the order of the day," he said at the commemorative event at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin. "This concept has failed."

Were people in the SPD too naive? "In retrospect, of course, we have to ask ourselves whether we should have assessed the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, or the Russian contract killings in London and Berlin differently," Klingbeil asked self-critically. "Whether we misjudged the signs of the times."

Those who have consistently had an excuse and explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions have often been called "Russland-Versteher" (Russia understanders). Those same people have brushed aside concerns about Germany's ever-increasing dependence on Russian energy. There were many in Germany who held such views — especially in the eastern German states that constituted the territory of the former GDR.

Lars Klingbeil at a party conference, the letters #SPD visible on a red background
SPD co-chair Lars Klingbeil has admitted mistakes in his party's approach to RussiaImage: Hannibal Hanschke/AFP/Getty Images

Warning against Nord Stream

But the biggest "Russia-understander" was and is the SPD's Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor who governed Germany from 1998 to 2005. Together with Putin, he was instrumental in driving forward the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which connects Germany and Russia directly through the Baltic Sea, making other gas pipelines that run through Ukraine and Poland less important. "We always warned against Nord Stream," says Ukrainian Lyudmyla Melnyk, a research fellow at the Institute for European Politics (IEP) in Berlin.  "We said that if the pipeline was built, Russian troops would come to us."

There is now contrition in the SPD. Nevertheless, the party does not want to forget the successes of its Ostpolitik. Bahr and Brandt, many insist, lived in a different time and were far-sighted strategists and reconcilers. Moreover, they understood that rapprochement and cooperation require their own strength, emphasized Klingbeil. "In Willy Brandt's time, the defense budget represented well over three percent of our economic strength," he said.

Political turning point

In recent decades, Germany has never met the NATO-agreed target of spending 2% of its gross domestic product on the military. That is now set to change. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has spoken of a "turning point" in foreign and security policy and announced an extra €100 billion ($110 billion) for arming the German military. In addition, energy dependence is to be reduced, new suppliers for gas and oil are to be found, and renewable energies are to be expanded.

At the commemorative event at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Scholz said he wondered what Brandt and Bahr would advise in the current circumstances. Despite the war, the chancellor said that he still considers Bahr's statement that peace in Europe is only possible with and not against Russia, to be true.

"But, at the same time, we must recognize that the current policy of the Russian leadership is a real threat to security in Europe," the chancellor said. "That is the regrettable starting point of a Russia policy that must begin with a sober look at reality, entirely in the spirit of Egon Bahr, but which does not stop there." He added that anyone who wants peace must be prepared to negotiate. "We, too, keep channels of talks open and use every possibility of mediation," he said.

Gerhard Schröder embracing a smiling Vladimir Putin in 2004
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) long supported Vladimir PutinImage: H. Hollemann/dpa/picture alliance

Distinguishing between Putin and the Russians

It is quite important for Scholz not to equate Putin with Russia. "It was not the Russian people who made the fatal decision to invade Ukraine," he said. "This war is Putin's war." This differentiation, he underlined, is important "in order not to jeopardize the reconciliation between Germans and Russians after World War II." But in his view, it is also important for those demonstrating in Russia against the war and Putin.

During his visit to Moscow in mid-February, Scholz also spoke with representatives of Russian civil society. One of them told him: "You know, democracy grows out of us people," the chancellor recalled. This was a realization that Bahr and leading West German Social Democrats struggled with when the Wall fell. 

In 1989, at which point tens of thousands had long demonstrated in the streets of the GDR, the SPD still clung to the ruling Socialist Unity Party as its preferred dialogue partner in East Berlin. Bahr later described that as a mistake. Too little attention had been paid to the burgeoning opposition, East Germany's civil rights activists. 

This article was translated from German.

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