Egon Bahr

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Egon Karl-Heinz Bahr
Journalist, Philosopher, Politician
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Egon Karl-Heinz Bahr (18 March 1922 – 20 August 2015) was a German SPD politician.

The former journalist was the creator of the "Ostpolitik" promoted by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for whom he served as Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office from 1969 until 1972. Between 1972 and 1990 he was an MP in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany and from 1972 until 1976 was also a Minister of the Federal Government.

Bahr was a key figure in multiple negotiation sessions between not only East and West Germany, but also Germany and the Soviets. In addition to his instrumental role in Ostpolitik, Bahr was also an influential voice in negotiating the Treaty of Moscow, the Treaty of Warsaw, the Transit Treaty of 1971, and the Basic Treaty of 1972.

Life and career

After completing his secondary education in 1940, Bahr continued his education as an industrial specialist at the Rheinmetall-Borsig armament corporation in Berlin. During World War II, Bahr served as a soldier in the Wehrmacht from 1942 until 1944, ultimately in the capacity of “Fahnenjunker” (cadet) in the Luftkriegsschule VI in Kitzingen. He was, however, demoted after being accused of being non-Aryan (on account of his Jewish grandmother) and, thus, having “snuck into the Wehrmacht”. Thereafter, he received a posting as an armaments worker at Rheinmetall-Borsig.

After the war, Bahr worked as a journalist at the Berliner Zeitung, one of West Berlin’s prominent daily newspapers. He later worked at two other West Berliner periodicals, the Allgemeine Zeitung (West Berlin) and Der Tagesspiegel (West Berlin). From 1950 to 1960, he served as chief commentator of the Bonn bureau of RIAS, (“ Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor”, or “Broadcasting in the American Sector”). In 1959, he received his posting as press attaché to the West German Embassy in Ghana. From 1984 to 1994, Bahr served as the Director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, from which he received an honorary professorship in 1984.

Bahr is married and has three children.

Political affiliation

Bahr has been a member of the SPD since 1956. From 1976 until 1981, he served as executive director (Bundesgeschäftsführer) of the SPD. During his tenure in that position, Bahr drew attention amid the uproar surrounding the expulsion of Klaus Uwe Benneter, who at that time had been serving as the Federal Chairman of Jusos (JungsozialistInnen in der SPD, or “Young Socialists in the SPD”. Benneter had piqued much political ire by expressing the view that the German Communist Party could be a potential coalition partner for the SPD, a statement that put the status of the youth organization into jeopardy.

Member of the Bundestag

Bahr served from 1972 until 1990 as a member of the German Bundestag. He was directly elected in 1976 and 1980 as the representative of the Schleswig-Flensburg electoral district; in the remaining elections, he was elected as part of the SPD’s party list. Bahr also served as chairman of the Sub-Committee for Disarmament and Arms Control.

Other public offices

From 1960 to 1966, Bahr was the head of the Press and Information Office for the Land of Berlin (at that time, West Berlin). In that capacity, Bahr served as the spokesman for the Senate of Berlin, which was led at that time by Mayor Willy Brandt. From 1966 to 1969, Bahr served as an ambassador and as Ministerial Director of the Planning Staff of the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt).

Bahr is considered to have been one of the most important and most influential advisors of Willy Brandt, especially with respect to the latter’s policy of Ostpolitik (“Eastern Policy”, also known as “‘’Entspannungspolitik’’”, the German equivalent of "détente").

Following the West German federal election of 1969, Bahr became Secretary of State of the German Chancellery as well as Bevollmächtigter (“commissioner” or “appointed representative”) of the Federal Cabinet of Germany in Berlin. It was in this capacity that Bahr served as an emissary and negotiator with Moscow with respect to the Treaty of Moscow, the Treaty of Warsaw, as well as the Transit Treaty of 1971 and the Basic Treaty of 1972 that were concluded with the German Democratic Republic. On the basis of his success in guiding these treaties to successful conclusion, Bahr is often referred to as “Architect of the Eastern Treaties”. He is also credited with two of the Brandt government’s most influential mottos describing West Germany’s relationship with the German Democratic Republic, “Wandel durch Annäherung” ("change through rapprochement") and “Politik der kleinen Schritte” (“policy of small steps”).

With respect to Ostpolitik, Bahr's field of work was mostly behind the curtains to prepare treaties. This secrecy was broken once, however. Bahr was in Moscow holding talks with Gromyko, and materials from these talks found their way, via an unknown leak, to the tabloid newspaper Bild. On July 1, 1970, they appeared in two issues. This unauthorized publication became known as the "Bahr Paper".

Following Willy Brandt’s resignation of the Chancellery, Bahr also relinquished his position in the cabinet. He was, however, reappointed by Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt (SPD), to the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. On 14 December 1976, following the federal elections that had taken place two months earlier, Bahr left his position in the Federal Government permanently.

Other political activities and initiatives

In 1980, Bahr became a member of the Independent Commission for Disarmament and Security under the chairmanship of Swedish politician Olof Palme. The Commission published its findings in a 1982 report titled “Common Security”. Among the report’s recommendations was the concept of a nuclear-free corridor in Central Europe.

Bahr went on to publish various writings about the future of German foreign policy following the end of the Cold War (see “Publications” below). He advocated among other things for Europe and Germany to exercise greater influence in the world as a “Civilian power” (“Zivilmacht"). In 1991, Bahr promoted discussion of the creation of a potential German peace corps.

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2005, Bahr confessed that, as a teenager, he had felt a “certain pride” that Poland, France, Denmark, and Norway had been conquered so quickly by the German Wehrmacht. According to a book by German politicians Bernhard and Hans-Jochen Vogel, Bahr reportedly said at the beginning of November 1989, “For heaven’s sake, let’s stop dreaming and blathering about German unity”; the Berlin Wall fell only days later on 9 November 1989.


  • "I have only ever been interested in ‘’Deutschlandpolitik’’. I didn’t become a Social Democrat in order to socialize banks. No, I became a Social Democrat because I was of the opinion that Adenauer did not really mean it [that Germany should be reunited], and that Schumacher really did mean it. I was always certain that Reunification would finally be achieved. I never lost that conviction."

  • "Through all that has happened, I have all that I [ever] wanted. The decisive point in the change of mentality was that Wall. We determined in 1961 that everybody was content, that nobody wanted to change the status quo. Nobody was going to help us simply to make holes in it or to make it permeable [referring to his “policy of small steps”]. So it began. And since one could not get travel visas [by negotiating with] Bonn or America or Moscow, one had to negotiate with those who were authorized to give them out."

Selected honors

In 1973, Bahr was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (“Federal Cross of Merit”). He was also named an honorary citizen of Berlin in 2002. In 2007, Bahr was honored with the Willy Brandt Prize by the German-Norwegian Willy-Brandt-Foundation and in 2008 with both the Göttingen Peace Prize and the Marion Dönhoff Preis. Bahr also received an honorary doctorate in 2008 from the Internationales Hochschulinstitut Zittau in recognition of his service to the process of unifying Europe. In January 2010, he received the Order of Merit (‘’Verdienstorden’’) by the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia.


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