Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Egon Bahr’s Tutzing speech

15.03.2017 - Speech

Mr Schmitz-Schwarzkopf,



Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for your invitation! It is a great honour for me as Egon Bahr is someone with whom I not only shared historical ties, but also a mutual friendship.

Calling to mind the Tutzing speech in these weeks and months is something quite special. We just heard this impressive speech. And so I want to take a leaf from what Egon Bahr himself said in Tutzing: “I won’t give a rival speech”!

He was, of course, referring to Willy Brandt, the then mayor in another Berlin city hall somewhat further west, who had spoken before him in Tutzing. Egon Bahr certainly did not give a rival speech. It was much more than that, of course! Or, as he himself put it in his inimitably pointed way in a note to Willy Brandt, he could, as Bahr wrote to Brandt prior to his speech in Tutzing, chime in with Brandt’s speech and say “controversial things” if “you were not able to say them yourself”.

And he certainly more than acquitted himself on that score! He sketched out a bold and radical new start, elaborating on the conceptional basis of the later “new Ostpolitik” of Willy Brandt’s SPD government. This was Egon Bahr wearing both the master builder and architect’s hats. The new policy cast off the ideological ballast of the post-war era. It replaced it with a policy founded on the understanding that it would be impossible to achieve détente in inner-German relations and, moreover, East-West relations through power politics, but rather through pragmatic rapprochement – without abandoning the long-term aim of a reunified Germany and overcoming the division of Europe. In 1963, the last year of Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship, this was nothing short of revolutionary thinking.

And this was perhaps not all that apparent to him when he was giving the speech. Egon Bahr recalled that the actual break with tradition took place long before the Tutzing speech – in the minds of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr, who had worked on these ideas for months. The revolutionary had become a matter of course. “When I dictated the words ‘change through rapprochement’”, said Egon Bahr, “I didn’t have the impression that I was being brave”.

Incidentally, this was about “change through rapprochement” and not about “rapprochement through change”. So this was not an appeal along the lines of “change yourself and then we can become closer to one another”, but rather had to do with the conviction that much would change when we became closer to one another. This is perhaps the most important lesson at a time in which we are currently witnessing how those who call loudest for others to change get the most headlines and the biggest applause – yet without displaying the willingness to engage with others.

Once it was made public, this break with tradition was the subject of heated criticism. “Aggression in carpet slippers” was the slant that East Berlin put on it, while the CDU decried it as “change through ingratiation”. Meanwhile, Herbert Wehner railed that the proposals were “total rubbish” (“ba(h)rer Unsinn – a play on Egon Bahr’s name) and a folly!

Egon Bahr would probably have heard very little of this at first as he went on holiday right after giving his speech. While there, he received a message from Willy Brandt: ”You’ve not been in touch at all, you rascal. We have to talk about the Tutzing issue. I wasn’t aware that you would have the speech published by the press office...“

Such things are wholly unimaginable these days. Firstly, Willy Brandt would have known him well enough. And secondly, Egon Bahr would have wanted his speech to be publicised, of course.

Ladies and gentlemen,

At any rate, the shock waves that this speech caused back then were incredible. I myself didn’t take much notice of the speech – I was just four years old at the time. But I was its beneficiary later on. After all, I grew up right on the inner-German border. We had actually grown to accept the division of Germany. We took advantage of the minor cross-border traffic, but we didn’t believe that this frontier would disappear one day. Bahr and Brandt, on the other hand, more than anyone else among Social Democrats, always held firm to the idea of a reunified Germany. Many people of my generation already took a different view.

But the thoughts that he articulated in Tutzing had a profound impact on us all, of course. And he also influenced coming generations of politicians with his understanding of politics. Egon Bahr combined a most pragmatic political approach with a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve for our country in the long term not only in his Tutzing speech, but also throughout his long political career. Keeping the bigger picture in mind and yet taking concrete steps in the here and now is a particular skill. This is a combination that is still much in demand today, especially in such a complex and confusing state of global affairs.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I therefore wish to try at least to look at today’s world through the eyes of Egon Bahr.

Simple historical parallels are off limits in all this, of course. The complexities of a divided Germany that Brandt and Bahr had to deal with are, fortunately, a thing of the past today – also thanks in large part to the policy of change, which was informed by rapprochement and not by confrontation.

Of course, other new challenges have taken their place today. Egon Bahr’s piercing glance can help us enormously in our efforts to understand what is happening in our volatile world right now. Firstly, he was not afraid to look reality squarely in the eye. He didn’t make wishful thinking, but rather reality the plank of his policy. Secondly, he unflinchingly drew the political consequences from this.

If we genuinely want to understand the changes in the world, then we must first readjust our own measuring instruments. In some cases, or so it seems to me, these seem to be calibrated to wishful thinking and not to reflecting reality.


Ladies and gentlemen,

As Germans and Europeans, we must acknowledge that tectonic shifts and a recalibration of the world as we know it are under way. Moreover, we must acknowledge that these shifts do not necessarily entail Europe emerging from these global developments as a winner. This is what I mean by the wishful thinking that we must cast off.

What do I mean when I speak of a recalibration of the world?

These shifts are visible throughout the world. Asia, Latin America and Africa are growing while Europe is shrinking. For decades, we thought of Asia, and especially China, as the place to sell our goods, as cheap production sites. China has long been on track to become an exporter of technology. Today, we must acknowledge that Asian countries are not only trading partners, but have long since become competitors – not only in economic terms, but also coupled with the, to my mind, entirely understandable desire to help shape our globalised world politically.

Another area is the role played by Russia. Egon Bahr’s insight regarding Moscow was always particularly sharp – he precisely gauged the former Soviet Union’s interests. We must acknowledge today that Russia yearns for a ”post-western age“, that it is pursuing its foreign policy interests more aggressively and that it is restricting the freedom of dissenters on the domestic stage. We mustn’t simply sweep this under the carpet. On the contrary, we must address this openly. And, at the same time, we must – without any illusions like Egon Bahr – seek scope for cooperation. That was the hallmark of Bahr and Brandt’s policy. It was entirely clear what their own political position was. It was entirely indisputable that they belonged to the Western Alliance and that they considered freedom, democracy and human rights to be universal values. It was also clear that those with whom they conducted negotiations had entirely different perceptions regarding how people should coexist. And yet, from their firm position, they sounded out scope for cooperation where stable solutions were possible only with Moscow and not against Moscow. This is no different today. This applies to the conflict in Ukraine, of course, and also to the conflicts in Syria, Libya and in other parts of the world. Allow me to quote Egon Bahr here as well: ”Russia is immovable.“ Incidentally, this applies to all neighbours that we have. And we Europeans only have one genuinely unproblematic neighbour – in the Arctic, at the North Pole, the polar bears. Russia, Turkey and North Africa are all our neighbours. And in all of this, we must take care not to make wishful thinking the primacy of politics. We should also be mindful that only change through rapprochement is possible here – and that rapprochement through change is not a winning formula. And I see no other option than to try to seek scope for cooperation with these neighbours.

Egon Bahr also helps us to comprehend the shifts that we are currently observing in the US. ”Consideration“, or so Egon Bahr wrote about the US, ”has a limited term of application for tactical reasons. Consideration with regard to NATO is limited for reasons of practicality. Consideration with regard to the UN is only an issue when this organisation can be turned into an instrument for implementing American objectives. Consideration for Europe appears to be the least of Washington’s worries“.

That sounds like an up-to-the-minute assessment. Yet Egon Bahr penned this analysis more than twenty years ago, back when Donald Trump was, first and foremost, someone familiar to TV viewers of ”The Apprentice“.

In light of this American approach, which is nothing new but which is now more clearly coming to the fore, invoking the past and reaffirming our common values is not enough. While this is important, we need a new European approach that can show us the way forward for our transatlantic relations.

A clear and brutally honest analysis also includes the realisation that we as Europeans have not yet completed the transition from the old to the new, constantly changing world order. And I don’t mean this as an accusation. After all, it is true that the European Union was not designed to be a global player. It was intended to ensure peace and prosperity for its members.

However, what we haven’t managed to do is to learn how to get on top of the reality of the crises and wars in our neighbourhood outside the EU.

At the same time, we must keep a further point in mind, which has to do with a development at the heart of Europe. We are – and it is no exaggeration to say this – experiencing what can be termed a crisis of confidence. Instead of rapprochement in Europe, we are witnessing new levels of drifting apart every day.


All of this, ladies and gentlemen, are the ”recalibrations“ that we Europeans must deal with. Egon Bahr comes to our aid here too. He was not only a brilliant analyst of international policy, but he also – and this never ceases to impress me – didn’t allow himself ”to be paralysed by reality“. He sounded out the possible, consistently drawing the political conclusions, even when they were ”outrageously uncomfortable“, as he put it in his speech in Tutzing.

I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that we need precisely this mentality in Europe today – assessing the developments in the world without any fear and sounding out possible improvements.

If we Europeans intend to continue to play an influential role in a changing world, then we must change ourselves and develop a strong Europe ready to shoulder responsibility. Above all, we need to change the narrative about Europe, particularly in our country.

For decades, the dominant interpretation of Europe, especially shortly before election campaigns, also in this country, has been that Germany is the packhorse of the European Union and that we are net contributors. This is simply not the case. This is a false narrative about Germany’s role in Europe. And so almost every member state has developed its own narrative, which have, at their core, always remained national narratives. And I think that we must make a start here in Germany before talking about instruments for changing these narratives. Simply telling the truth – that we are the great winners of European integration. Not only politically, through reunification, but in real terms in daily life in our economy. You can’t become a European or world champion in the export market without being a country that sells more goods than it buys. And, incidentally, only if the others are rich enough to afford our goods will there be jobs in our country. Cars, machine tools, steel and electrical engineering products are not manufactured in the low-wage sector, but relatively expensively, thank goodness. And quite well at that, I’ll admit. We therefore depend on Europe’s future development in all areas –politically, economically and culturally, as well for the preservation of peace and prosperity.

And the second story that we must tell, and there are many young people in the audience here today, is that this is actually about them, about the next generations. When they’re our age, they will only have a voice in this world if it is a common European voice. Even a strong Germany wouldn’t be heard in this world. Only when ours is a European voice will we have a say over decisions, and only then will we be part of the international community.

The Europe that we are talking about now is the Europe of our children and grandchildren. They will curse us if we fail to continue to develop what was established under much more difficult circumstances following the Second World War. And it must have been pretty damn difficult after the Second World War.

When I hear about the many problems surrounding how to explain and make Europe a reality, then I sometimes wonder how difficult it must have been for the French, Danes, Belgians, Luxembourgers, Dutch and Italians to invite us Germans of all people to the table not long after the War and to build up a common Europe. These countries must have shown a great amount of understanding as the Germans had pillaged, burned and murdered their way through their countries only shortly beforehand. And these were precisely the countries to invite us back to the fold of civilised peoples. That must have been incredibly difficult. I at any rate cannot imagine that the populations of these countries applauded their politicians all that much for doing that.

So the difficulties were much greater then than they are now. It is for this reason that I believe that we Germans bear a particular responsibility because we know that this project will be of great importance especially for our children and grandchildren. We know that this is the greatest project of the 20th century promoting Western civilised values and that this continues to be the case in the 21st century. There is no region in the world in which people can live with as much freedom, democracy and security as they can in Europe. This is, I believe, the changed narrative that we must relate especially in our country.

And, by the way, I believe that we must not succumb too often to the temptations coming to us variously from Washington, Moscow and Beijing – voices that always mean us when we’re talking about Europe and which tell us that we should take the lead. Europe doesn’t consist of a single country with the others in tow, but rather it is made up of many small countries that are equal partners, as well as many medium-sized and, admittedly, the relatively large country that is Germany. Yes, Germany has a responsibility and is an anchor of stability for many other countries. And we want to take this responsibility. However, Germany is not the answer to everything at the end of the day. After all, the EU consists of all of the countries that it is made up of. If it were up to me, this would be 28 member states; we will now be 27, however.

And we are discussing issues in Europe that Egon Bahr would have been aghast about. For example, when we no longer talk about disarmament, but about an arms race. And not only here, but also in Russia, of course. There is no justification whatsoever for the things that are happening in the region of the Baltic states. However, Egon Bahr would tell us to stand up to this and not just to take it on the chin. And, by the way, I’m not so sure that those who currently expect Germany to double its military spending in eight years will still be happy about that in a few years from now. Building up a military power at the heart of Europe – that’s not how I interpret Bahr’s legacy at any rate. I think the opposite is the case.

The Tutzing speech and many other speeches by Egon Bahr offer us guidance in quite different ways. Firstly, there is the mantra of change through rapprochement – reaching out to the other side and not always waiting for them to change. Secondly, the conviction that this rapprochement will lead to success – when this will come to pass is uncertain, but we are confident that it will happen. And, thirdly, always having the courage to develop visions about the peaceful coexistence of our peoples here on this continent – and to pursue these visions.

Egon Bahr shows us many ways to approach the challenges of today. Also because he, much earlier and more radically than others, tore down the façade of authoritarian states. ”The Wall“, he said, ”is a sign of weakness“, ”a sign of fear“. This thought should also encourage us not to take the power game of self-styled strongmen at face value. Rather, we should, fearlessly and boldly, stand up for our liberal, open and democratic societies.

”Since otherwise“, as Egon Bahr proclaimed in his great Tutzing speech, ”we would have to wait for a miracle, and that is no policy at all.“

Thank you very much!

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