“Bordered entirely by old beeches whose branches, drawn down by their own weight, touch its water with their tips, it lies between flat banks [...N]ot a single boat leaves its wake and no bird may be heard to sing. Only rarely does a hawk pass overhead to leave its shadow on the surface. Everything is silence here.”
My dear Adelheid, it was there, on Lake Stechlin, that Egon spent his final hours with you. He enjoyed that view, though I’m sure he didn’t take as many words to say so as Fontane did. That wasn’t his way. What might he have said? Maybe he gave his typical “Doll hier” (“nice place”) – or maybe even the highest praise he had in his vocabulary: “Donnerwetter” (“Blimey”).
That was where Egon Bahr spent his final hours before he was parted from us, after a full and fulfilled life of 93 years. He was close to all of us to the last. Many of us here today were still laughing and arguing, eating and drinking with him in the days before he passed away. I myself spent some time with him shortly before his last trip to Moscow. He was very worried about relations with Russia and the new east-west divisions, and rightly so. Our discussions were serious, searching for ways to curb the reemerging estrangement between Germans and Russians. And we were supposed to talk again a few days ago. We had planned to meet, but fate intervened. He wanted to pass on his impressions after his talks with Gorbachev and other experienced Russian contacts – as he had so often done in recent years. Now I must do without hearing his voice and, what is even harder, his advice. I will miss both.
But that’s not all. I’m also going to miss our regular, familiar little tobacco time. Every few months, he would announce a visit: “I’ll need one hour precisely!” He’d arrive five minutes ahead of time, sit down in the big armchair on my right, dig his cigarettes and lighter out of his coat pocket and wave them under my nose. This was always followed by the same ritual. I’d say, “Egon, you know I worked hard to become a non-smoker.” To which he’d reply, “And you can remain so – but take one. It makes the talk flow better, you’ll see.” And there we’d sit together, smoking and talking the hour away, until he said, “I’m leaving now; you’ve got more important things to do.” And he’d be off again, resolute and as punctual as he’d arrived, with his familiar short stride, promising to report later – whether on an upcoming trip, an important speech or his next book project.
Each of us, like me, will have been remembering encounters with Egon, public appearances and speeches over the last few days. But most of us have more than mere memories of him; far more than that, Egon Bahr left his mark on us!
He certainly and primarily did so through his politics. The new Ostpolitik, his idea of “change through rapprochement”, started with his speech in Tutzing in 1963; from 1966 on, he planned it in minute detail on the Policy Planning Staff at the Federal Foreign Office; and it became a reality under Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt, in the “policy of small steps”, coming to fruition in the Eastern Treaties, the CSCE process and, ultimately, in German reunification and European coalescence.
With a great sense of humility, Egon said of himself that he had put his ear to the tracks of history. In reality, however, he was the signalman who set the course for the journey towards our reunified, peaceful German present in a united Europe. That is his political legacy, which they write about – quite rightly – in the newspaper obituaries.
But as I have thought about him in the last few days, something else has stood out even more clearly. His influence on us came not just from his politics, but from his attitude and his personality too. It may seem ironic for someone who saw himself in more of a backstage role in the really big political arena, who prized his political independence above all else, who never let himself be instrumentalised by the media, who relished his get-away in suburban Berlin with Adelheid and the view into their beautiful garden, and who was happy surrounded by his books, his wonderful pictures, including the Chagall Brezhnev gave him, and the music that he loved – this extraordinary person remains one of our great influences.
It is above all as a person that he has rubbed off on us. Consider, for example, the three-word sentences of Franz Müntefering or the unembellished determination of Gerhard Schröder. Sigmar Gabriel too, indeed every one of us, will have taken on something from Egon Bahr! I suspect that Egon was not only a friend and advisor to everyone in this room but a benchmark and inspiration as well. Anyone who had much to do with him politically must have admired his wonderful ability to listen, his willingness to look at the world through the other person’s eyes and his patience in the probing search for common interests – without which, after all, political solutions could never come into being. How to find those common interests and how essential they are formed the ongoing basis of our discussions.
And it wasn’t just my generation, already going grey or white ourselves; in his 80s and 90s, Egon Bahr was fascinating and inspiring hordes of young people too. No‑one, staff or visitor, could go up to the fourth floor of the Willy-Brandt-Haus without hoping to find the coffee machine bubbling and the smoke wafting along the corridor – because that meant Egon was in his office. Even the absolute spring chickens doing internships in my Bundestag office – they go on tours of the Reichstag building and sit in on committees because that’s just part of the programme, but you see what really matters when they ask questions like this: “Is it OK to visit Egon Bahr, and do you think he’d take a selfie with me?” That always gave me pleasure. At a time when not many young people are entering politics any more, let alone joining parties, how immeasurably valuable it is to have role models like Egon Bahr.
Egon Bahr was one of the greats of German foreign policy. Or rather, he was a true seeker of peace through politics. That quest kept him going. Asked why he joined the Social Democratic Party in 1956, he once said, “It wasn’t that I wanted to change the world, or that I wanted to nationalise the banks. I just wanted to help make sure the peace lasted.”
For peace, he walked untrodden paths. He and Willy Brandt dared to embark on a policy that was hotly disputed at the time, the tenets of which are now practically immutable cornerstones of our foreign policy. People described his political ideas as realpolitik – some admiringly, some with an undertone of accusation. Those who presumed to criticise and say his readiness to look realities in the face was a betrayal of his convictions probably never understood or wanted to understand his political beliefs. His creed was that we should never resign ourselves to the way things are; he was convinced that you have to take the world as you find it – but you mustn’t leave it that way. That was a quote he liked repeating. As he put it in his own words, you need to know what the status quo is before you can overcome it. And that means you have to talk to people who don’t share your opinions. It means you have to keep on talking, because what follows once talking stops is usually worse.
It is no coincidence that he gave his last major speech in Moscow, reminding us all once more of those convictions in, of all places, the city that symbolises landmark moments not only in his own political career but also in German-Russia relations. This is a legacy that gives us hope in these difficult times – the conviction that he and Willy Brandt agreed on so fully, namely that strength of mind is more powerful, in the end, than strength of arms.
Another part of his legacy is the warning never to take the easy way out in politics. For Egon, politics was all about competing to find the best answers to unresolved questions. The difficult conversations were the ones he loved best. Unthinking agreement and yes-men bored him. Let me give you another quote from Fontane’s novel, this time from the description of Dubslav von Stechlin: “He derived pleasure from hearing any plain-spoken opinion, the more drastic and extreme, the better. That said opinion should concur with his own, was far from his desire. Indeed, almost the opposite.” My dear Adelheid, Fontane might as well have been writing about Egon, don’t you think? I know Fontane’s character there is a Prussian aristocrat who even stands for the Conservative Party, but still – he does lose the election to a Social Democrat and is even happy about it... That’s how Egon’s mind worked too: he was level-headed, infinitely wise and wonderfully humorous. At the end of 1972, when he had negotiated the Treaty on Basic Relations and the journalists thought the Brandt Government would really milk it as a success, Egon simply said, “We used to have no relationship at all with the GDR. At least now we have a bad one.”
Behind that quick mind and sharp tongue, Egon had a warm heart.
Every conversation we had – nearly always about foreign policy and Eastern Europe and transatlantic affairs – he always opened with the same question: “Frank, how’s your wife?” And he wasn’t just making small talk. He had a genuine, undisguised interest in people. His line was, “What’s the point of politics if it doesn’t serve the people?” That was how Ostpolitik started too: it grew out of the Berlin agreement on travel passes, which tangibly improved life in the East after the shock of the Wall going up.
Ultimately, it was that sensitivity, that heart – more than his level-headed cleverness – which enabled him to find solutions that others couldn’t and become the successful negotiator and patient bridge-builder that he was.
That heart also made him vulnerable, though. He could take criticism, but the slander that some levelled at him for years, accusing him of treason, wounded him deeply and stayed with him for a long time. Knowing that, my friends, we must be all the more thrilled to know that his vision was realised. Not many politicians live to see that happen. History proved him right. Even Henry Kissinger and the Christian Democrats admitted as much in the end. And you know only two of those three can possibly be wrong at once.
Talking about his experience of war, Egon once said, “I remember one day, when the war was already clearly lost, we shot down a British Lancaster, and that night I lay in the straw thinking, ‘You should really be ashamed of yourself, but you’re not.’ The veneer of civilisation is thin.” And so he was driven, to the last, by the pursuit of peace, nurturing our society’s capacity for peace both inwardly and in foreign relations. That’s what made him keep thinking and stay active, speaking to young people, brimming with ideas.
Karin Seidel told me that recently, after a stressful day when he had kept his people pretty busy, a couple of colleagues were gathered in the staff kitchen after Egon had gone home, and one young staffer sighed, “How will Egon manage when we’re gone?”
Egon had a good laugh when he heard. He knew that it was more likely to be the other way around – and now indeed, all of a sudden, we need to manage without him. And to do that, we should gratefully and affectionately accept both the gifts he has left us: Egon’s political legacy to our country and his personal legacy in each of us. Ladies and gentlemen, we stand today at Egon’s coffin, mourning him. We are going to miss him immeasurably – his conversation, his advice and his presence. Our comfort is that he is not entirely gone. He will live on in our memories. We will not forget him.