Egon Bahr April 28, 1994
Interviewer — Metta Spencer by phone. He was in Germany, I in Toronto.
Bahr: I was a member of the Palme Commission. Olof Palme, who was a personal, long-time friend of mine, asked me at the end of ’80, Egon, could you start thinking about the rules of security in the nuclear age? So I did. And I came to a very astonishing result at that time. I thought, based on the mutual assured destruction, it’s quite obvious that neither side in a major nuclear exchange can win a war.
So if this is true, then the result is in the political sphere — that the potential enemy becomes the partner of your own security and the other way around. In other words, despite the fact of the East-West conflict, both sides can live together or can die together. If this is true, we live in a period de facto of common security.
And when I reached this result, I was surprised because this was against the experience of history. In history, when you fought, you had to beat the enemy. To become secure, you had to win a war. So, I wrote this down and I thought, better think it over.
So I left it on my table for two months. And then I read it again and I could not find a mistake. And then I asked one of our most brilliant brains in Germany, Karl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. He is a philosopher, the brother of the president. He is a physician, and belongs to the people around Heisenburg (sp??). I asked him to review this paper and he came back into my office and said, “I could find only one single mistake. The mistake is that I have not [thought of] this [instead of] you. Otherwise you are correct.”
Then I gave it to Olof. He read it and thought, “This is very interesting. This could be the leading idea of the commission.” So we introduced this into the commission and had a long controversial debate. At the end, it was accepted unanimously. The American representative in the commission was Cyrus Vance. The British commissioner was David Owen. The Soviet commissioner was Georgy Arbatov.
At a Palme Commission meeting I had a private exchange with Arbatov, whom I knew before. He told me, “By the way, you should follow the [activities] of a very promising young man in our country.”
I asked, “What is his name?”
“Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev.”
I had never heard this name. And I asked him, “What is his job?”
He answered, “He is responsible for agriculture,” so then I decided immediately to forget the name, because a man who was responsible for agriculture would have no future in my country.
And then I learned that the man with this name came to power in the Soviet Union. I met him in a long conversation in, I suppose, April, 1985, just a few weeks after he became number one.
To my deep surprise, he developed the idea of common security. He wanted to teach me, to explain it, as if it were his personal idea! I didn’t react, but I told him after ten or fifteen minutes, “I agree completely. Now please tell me, what are your intentions in domestic political affairs?”
Spencer: Wait a minute. What had he experienced up to that point? Had Arbatov brought your ideas to him?
Bahr: Later on, I met Arbatov and asked him, “Can you explain how Gorbachev came to these ideas? You know the source very well.”
He said, “Yes, no miracle at all. As I told you some years ago, I have personal relations with this man, and whenever I came back from the Palme Commission, I explained to him our discussions and our ideas. He accepted these ideas so that he got the impression that these are his ideas. I didn’t want to argue against him! The interesting result, I think, is that when he came to power, he had a concept of Common Security concerning Soviet foreign policy and the consequences. He had a foreign policy concept but not a domestic political concept. He had very vague political ideas. He told me to get used to the words glasnost and perestroika, without explaining what he meant. But on the scene of foreign policy [Gorbachev] was clear and decided.”
So the result of this came, I think, in January. He made his proposals concerning stopping the nuclear race. This was the last time a meeting of the Palme Commission was held with Olof. It was in Delhi, and Arbatov came from Moscow and explained the ideas.
I said, “This is all right, but we need an addition concerning the conventional forces in Europe, where the Soviet Union has the superiority.”
He replied, “Yes, this has to be admitted, but this will follow.”
In my discussions with Gorbachev I had told him, you do not need any nuclear superiority because, as long as you maintain mutual assured destruction, nothing can happen. You should not start a race with the Americans concerning SDI either. Because even with SDI, the Americans cannot reach superiority as long as the present existing mutual assured destruction is maintained. And if you really want to reach peace or stability, you can get rid of all conventional superiority; we fear this superiority. If you want to convince us, the Soviet Union can get rid of superiority in the conventional field. So in these frank discussions, he accepted these points to such a degree that I was not surprised at all when the Soviets made their proposals.
I cannot remember the exact dates but sometime I was at a Bilderberg conference where Henry Kissinger was and I had a dispute with him. … I told him, “I will not be surprised if they offer real balance on both sides in the conventional field.”
And Henry said, “Impossible, unthinkable!”
I said, “But please, [what if this were to] be a Soviet offer?”
“I cannot imagine it! “
“But take the case they do it.”
“Then,” he said, “we will be at the eve of a new era. This will change the whole world policy situation.”
So, when it came, I think the West as a whole it was a bit surprised. We were not surprised at all.
Spencer: By “we,” whom you mean?
Bahr: People in Germany. My party, of course. To some degree also, the minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Genscher, whom I informed about my experience. He went around convincing the rest of the Western world that Gorbachev should be taken seriously, that one should rely on what he is saying or offering. This was called “Genscherism,” you remember.
And this is [a] story in which you can really follow ideas that were developed in the West in conformity with ideas of the peace movement that had a real, direct influence on Soviet thinking and Soviet policy.
Spencer: Tell me the background of your thinking on this subject. What brought you, yourself, to see this?
Bahr: I started when Olof asked me to think about this special case of nuclear age regulations and security, but I had worked, of course, much earlier on the issue of security. It was based on my conviction that security might be the key to peace. So I had developed here in Germany in the early ’60s the idea: “change by rapprochement.” This is the basis of what later has been called ostpolitik.
So to make treaties (Moscow Treaty, Four-Power Agreement, Basic Agreement with the GDR, and [finally] the CSCE Helsinki Treaty in 1975), [we intended to create] a situation based on renunciation of force concerning the border lines — all existing borders, however they have been developed and whatever has been the source of the existing borders. Even if we don’t like them where they are, we have to respect them. Our first principle was renunciation of force concerning the borders. Plus equal rights for minorities on both sides.
Spencer: So you were involved in the Helsinki Accords.
Bahr: Yes. And at the end of this process, and after we had made the Moscow treaty, Chancellor Willy Brandt and I went to Mr. Brezhnev and started talking about the military forces. We were convinced after we had covered the basic ground in the political field, one has to add the real military hardware and overcome the situation in which we felt threatened by the East. So we had long discussions about this and came to a formula to start negotiations on conventional forces with the intention of reaching reductions, and keeping in mind that it should give no profit to one or the other side. This was the content. A little later this was developed into the formula MBFR — Mutual, Balanced Force Reductions.
These negotiations for Mutual Balance Force Reductions started then in Vienna — the place in which East and West met. There, military people, including generals started talking about their interests, their fears, their arguments, and so on. So they learned to feel for each other. And we, by the way, for the first time, became a little familiar with people whom we had never seen before: Soviet Generals. And we learned that even these terrible Soviet Generals are human beings with fears, intentions, hopes, and interests.
Besides the conference in Vienna, we had a lot of contacts. Delegations were exchanged. I said, “Can we talk about defensive defense? Or can we talk about sufficient defense? And if this is acceptable for you, what does it mean concerning the number of troops and weapons in the respective fields?”
This process took years and years. They were slow because they were skeptical. They knew, by the way, that they were superior as far as numbers were concerned but not as far as quality was concerned — firepower and so on. So, when we talked about this here in public, we met suspicion. People said we would become prisoners of Soviet propaganda and so on. But … as we learned years later, even the Soviet conventional military machinery was not as powerful as Western propaganda said at that time.
Spencer: In about what year did you decide that?
Bahr: This must have been in the years ’85, ’86 and ’87. In this period we was really disturbed by the so-called NATO double track decision. The Americans intended to place here new missiles which could be targeted at Moscow. This caused additional trouble for Gorbachev because his military people became nervous and said, “Then we must react.”
I am still convinced that, [because of] this double track decision, we lost between two and three years. But this is pure speculation. You can also speculate that Gorbachev might have been more successful in his domestic politics without this double track decision. The military people became more influential based on two factors: SDI and the double track decision because Gorbachev had give the military something — at least money, which he needed in the economic field. … In ’89, Gorbachev [made] the statement: “Every people has to decide for itself, and we will not intervene.” And the result was that the wall came down, and after the wall came down, it was the start of the unification of Germany, and the similar developments in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, and all the other former satellite countries.
METTA: By the way, I had my research assistant interview Mr. Falin yesterday, and one of the questions I asked was whether the Soviets had played a active role in encouraging those developments. He gave a guarded answer. One hear lots of rumors about how, for example, Honecker would have crushed the uprisings in Leipzig if he would have been to get troops in but that the Soviets controlled the road and wouldn’t let the troops go through and so on. Do you think there was any real evidence that Gorbachev directly tried to encourage these changes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, etcetera?
BAHR: No. This is a very complicated, or has been a very, very complicated process, I think. On one hand, we know that Mr. Honecker was rather reluctant against the domestic political changes in the Soviet Union. He didn’t want to make the same ones because he feared: I know where I start, but I do not know where to end. So, it was quite clear, let me say in ’89, even at the end of ’88, that there was an increasing split between East Berlin and Moscow. This is one factor. The second factor was that Gorbachev made clear when he came to East Berlin in October, 1989, the East Germans are responsible for the situation in East Germany. In other words, Soviet troops will not come to maintain order. Just contrary to what happened in ’53. In ’53 when he had an uprising, there was a case of emergency, and Soviet tanks came out in the street and said, finished. So in this case, the Soviet tanks would remain in their barracks. And of course, he said, “who comes too late will be punished by life.” This was understood, by leading people in East Germany, as a kind of a signal that this old man Honecker has to be replaced. We, in the GDR, are the main partner for the Soviet Union and as a main partner, we have to accept the changed policies so we have to start reforms. And when they started to make reforms in the GDR, it came out, whatever they decided, it was not enough. And so the whole procedure was accelerated between the 4th in October, when Gorbachev came to Berlin and the 9th of November when the wall came down. But even this, what was I have told you, is only rather a rough description about the complexity of these things.
METTA: So you think that there wasn’t anything more that the Soviets did to encourage those events. Anything more than we already know. Nothing hidden about it?
BAHR: No. Surely not. Gorbachev had not the slightest intention or will or temptation to give the GDR away.
METTA: I see, okay. Would you go back and tell me a little bit more about your place in developing the ideas of the Helsinki Process? How did you play into that, the CSCE and so on?
BAHR: At that time, preparing the Helsinki process. We were in government. It was at the end of the bilateral treaty era after we had made our renunciation of force agreements with Moscow, with Poland, with the GDR, with Czechoslovakia, we said, now we have approach the multi-lateral phase. The multi-lateral phase in our view would have to have the intention to make the renunciation of force agreement into a renunciation of force rule for Europe. CSCE, in other words, for all countries in Europe and if you would compare you will see that our renunciation of force formula of the Moscow treaty has been accepted word for word in the Helsinki agreement, and of course, we had our German delegation in this, made a lot of proposals, and were a little bit nervous because it was widened and widened and widened up. Detailed and detailed in the sphere of economic cooperation and not only security and human rights. It was so detailed that we thought we are losing time, but we couldn’t stop it. We could go along, we could press a little bit, for speeding up, but nevertheless, it took all together then, with the, until ’75, before the final act in Helsinki was signed.
METTA: When did it start. When did the whole process of trying to…
BAHR: Where? Where or when?
METTA: Yes, when. If it started, if it finished in ’75, when did it start?
BAHR: No, it started in ’72.
BAHR: Ms. Spencer I have to leave, unfortunately.
METTA: Okay. Fine. Are there other people I should speak to about these changes. Other Germans for example or other people in Moscow who you think is important. Everyone seems to have had their influence through Arbatov. Is there anybody else besides Arbatov who played the same kind of role?
BAHR: I know only Arbatov in this specific way concerning the Palme Commission. Of course, we had a lot of other (not a lot, but some other people) in the foreign policy field. Falin was a man. Really, Yakovlev was a man. Some Generals — Akhromeev, for example, which is dead. Some of the high-ranking Generals which was in the delegation in Vienna. Of course, Kvitsinsky was a man, especially before and while he was a negotiator with Paul Nitze in Geneva.
METTA: Do you know how you can contact him. I am going to Moscow in a month and…
BAHR: I do not know where he is by now.
METTA: Okay. This is extremely useful and very important, so I am delighted.
METTA: Thank you very much. Goodbye.