Modern history


Politics in a New Key

‘Je déclare avoir avorté’ (“I have had an abortion’).
Simone de Beauvoir (and 342 other women), April 5th 1971

‘Within a generation at most, the French and Italian Communist parties
will either break their ties with Moscow or shrivel into insignificance’.
Denis Healey (1957)

‘With this Treaty, nothing is lost that had not long since been
gambled away’.
Chancellor Willy Brandt, August 1970

‘When two states wish to establish better relations they often reach for the
highest common platitude’.
Timothy Garton Ash

In the 1970s the political landscape of western Europe started to fracture and fragment. Since the end of the First World War, mainstream politics had been divided between two political ‘families’, Left and Right, themselves internally split between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’. Since 1945 the two sides had drawn ever closer, but the pattern had not radically altered. The spectrum of political options available to European voters in 1970 would not have been unfamiliar to their grandparents.

The longevity of Europe’s political parties derived from a remarkable continuity in the ecology of the electorate. The choice between Labour and Conservatives in Britain, or Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in West Germany, no longer reflected deep divisions over particular policies, much less profound ‘lifestyle’ preferences as they would come to be known. In most places it was an echo of longstanding, trans-generational voting habits, determined by the class, religion or locality of the voter rather than by the party’s program. Men and women voted as their parents had voted, depending on where they lived, where they worked and what they earned.

But beneath the surface continuity a tectonic shift was taking place in the political sociology of European voters. The block vote of the white, male, employed working class—the universal bedrock of Communist and Socialist party support—was contracting and splitting. In much the same way, the ‘ideal-typical’ conservative voter—older, female, churchgoing—could no longer be counted upon to furnish the core electorate of Christian Democrat or Conservative parties. To the extent that they persisted, such traditional voters were no longer the majority. Why?

In the first place, social and geographical mobility over the course of the postwar decades had diluted fixed social categories almost beyond recognition. The Christian voting bloc in rural western France or the small towns of the Veneto, the proletarian industrial strongholds of southern Belgium or northern England, were now fissured and fragmented. Men and women no longer lived in the same places as their parents and often did very different jobs. Unsurprisingly, they saw the world rather differently as well; their political preferences began to reflect these changes, though slowly at first.

Secondly, the prosperity and social reforms of the Sixties and early Seventies had effectively exhausted the programs and vision of the traditional parties. Their very success had deprived politicians of moderate Left and Right alike of a credible agenda, especially after the spate of liberal reforms of the Sixties. The institutions of the state itself were not in dispute, nor were the general objectives of economic policy. What remained was the fine-tuning of labour relations, legislation against discrimination in housing and employment, the expansion of educational facilities and the like: serious public business, but hardly the stuff of great political debate.

Thirdly, there were now alternative denominators of political allegiance. Ethnic minorities, often unwelcome in the white working-class communities of Europe where they had arrived, were not always invited into local political or labour organizations and their politics reflected this exclusion. And lastly, the generational politics of the Sixties had introduced into public discussion concerns utterly unfamiliar to an older political culture. The ‘New Left’ might have lacked a program, but it was not short of themes. Above all, it introduced new constituencies. The fascination with sex and sexuality led naturally to sexual politics; women and homosexuals, respectively subordinate and invisible in traditional radical parties, now surfaced as legitimate historical subjects, with rights and claims. Youth, and the enthusiasms of youth, moved to center stage, especially as the voting age fell to eighteen in many places.

The prosperity of the time had encouraged a shift in people’s attention from production to consumption, from the necessities of existence to the quality of life. In the heat of the Sixties few troubled themselves much over the moral dilemmas of prosperity—its beneficiaries were too busy enjoying the fruits of their good fortune. But within a few years, many—notably among the educated young adults of north-west Europe—came to look upon the commercialism and material well-being of the Fifties and Sixties as a burdensome inheritance, bringing tawdry commodities and false values. The price of modernity, at least to its main beneficiaries, was starting to look rather high; the ‘lost world’ of their parents and grandparents rather appealing.

The politicization of these cultural discontents was typically the work of activists familiar with the tactics of more traditional parties in which they or their families had once been active. The logic of politics thus changed relatively little: the point was still to mobilize like-minded persons around a program of legislation to be enacted by the state. What was new was the organizing premise. Hitherto—in Europe—political constituencies had emerged from the elective affinities of large groups of voters defined by class or occupation, bound by a common, inherited, and often rather abstract set of principles and objectives. Policies had mattered less than allegiances.

But in the Seventies policies moved to the forefront. ‘Single-issue’ parties and movements emerged, their constituencies shaped by a variable geometry of common concerns: often narrowly focused, occasionally whimsical. Britain’s remarkably successful Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) is a representative instance: founded in 1971 to reverse the trend to gaseous, homogenized ‘lager’ beer (and the similarly homogenized, ‘modernized’ pubs where it was sold), this middle-class pressure group rested its case upon a neo-Marxist account of the take-over of artisanal beer manufacture by mass-producing monopolists who manipulated beer-drinkers for corporate profit—alienating consumers from their own taste buds by meretricious substitution.

In its rather effective mix of economic analysis, environmental concern, aesthetic discrimination and plain nostalgia, CAMRA foreshadowed many of the single-issue activist networks of years to come, as well as the coming fashion among well-heeled bourgeois-bohemians for the expensively ‘authentic’.206 But its slightly archaic charm, not to mention the disproportion between the intensity of its activists’ engagement and the tepid object of their passion, made this particular single-issue movement necessarily somewhat quaint.

But there was nothing whimsical or quaint about other single-issue political networks, most of them—like CAMRA—organized by and for the middle class. In Scandinavia a variety of protest parties emerged in the early seventies, notably the Rural Party (later the Real Finn Party) in Finland; Morgens Glistrup’s Danish Progress Party and Anders Lange’s Norwegian Progress Party. All of them were energetically and at first uniquely devoted to the cause of tax reduction—the founding title for the Norwegian party in 1973 had been ‘Anders Lange’s Party for a Drastic Reduction in Taxes, Rates and State Intervention’, its program a single sheet of paper reiterating the demands of its name.

The Scandinavian experience was perhaps distinctive—nowhere else were tax rates so high nor public services so extensive—and certainly no single-issue parties outside the region ever did as well as Glistrup’s party, which won 15.9 percent of the Danish national vote in 1973. But anti-tax parties were not new. Their model was Pierre Poujade’s Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans (UDCA), founded in 1953 to protect small shopkeepers against taxes and supermarkets and which won brief fame by securing 12 percent of the vote in the French elections of 1956. But Poujade’s movement was singular. Most of the protest parties that emerged after 1970 proved enduring—the Norwegian Progress Party achieved its strongest vote to date (15.3 percent) a quarter of a century later, in 1997.

The anti-tax parties, like the agrarian protest parties of inter-war Europe, were primarily reactive and negative—they were against unwelcome change and asked of the state above all that it remove what they saw as unreasonable fiscal burdens. Other single-issue movements had more positive demands to make of the state, or the law, or institutions. Their concerns ranged from prison reform and psychiatric hospitals through access to education and medical services and into the provision of safe food, community services, the amelioration of urban environments and access to cultural resources. All were ‘anti-consensus’ in their reluctance to confine their support to any one traditional political constituency and their willingness—of necessity—to consider alternative ways of publicizing their concerns.

Three of the new political groupings—the women’s movement, environmentalism, and peace activism—are of particular significance, for their scale and their lasting impact. For obvious reasons, the women’s movement was the most diverse and far-reaching. In addition to the interests they shared with men, women had distinctive concerns that were only just then beginning to enter the European legislative arena: childcare, wage equality, divorce, abortion, contraception, domestic violence.

To these should be added the attention paid by the more radical women’s groups to homosexual (lesbian) rights, and the growing feminist concern with pornography. The latter illustrates rather well the new moral geography of politics: sexually explicit literature and film had only recently and partially been liberated from the control of the censors, thanks to the concerted efforts of old liberals and new Left. Yet within a decade it was again under fire, this time from networks of women’s groups, often led by coalitions of radical feminists and traditional conservatives who united around this one issue.

The women’s movement in Europe was from the outset a variable mix of intersecting objectives. In 1950, one quarter of West German married women were in paid employment outside the home, by 1970 the number had risen to one married woman in two; of one and a half million new entrants to the labour force in Italy between 1972 and 1980, one and a quarter million were women. By the mid- 1990s women constituted over 40 percent of the total (official) labour force in every European country except Portugal and Italy. Many of the new women workers were employed part-time, or in entry-level clerical jobs where they were not entitled to full benefits. The flexibility of part-time jobs suited many working mothers, but in the straitened economic circumstances of the Seventies this did not compensate for poor wages and job insecurity. Equal pay and the workplace provision of childcare facilities thus emerged early as the main demands of most working women in the West and have remained at the forefront ever since.

Working (and non-working) women increasingly sought assistance in caring for their children; but they did not necessarily wish for more children of their own. Indeed, with increased prosperity and more time spent working outside the home, they wanted fewer—or at least more say in the matter. The demand for access to contraceptive information, and contraceptives, dates to the early years of the twentieth century, but it gathered speed within a decade of the peak of the baby boom. The French Association Maternité was formed in 1956 to press for contraceptive rights; four years later it was succeeded by the Mouvement Français pour le Planning Familial, the change in name a clear indication of a shift in mood.

As pressure grew through the liberalizing Sixties for sexual freedoms of all kinds, laws regulating contraception were everywhere relaxed (except in certain countries of Eastern Europe like Romania, where national ‘reproduction strategies’ continued to forbid it). By the early seventies contraception was widely available throughout Western Europe, though not in remote rural districts or regions where Catholic authorities held moral sway over the local population. Even in towns and cities, however, it was middle class women who benefited most from the new freedom; for many working-class married women, and the overwhelming majority of unmarried ones, the leading form of birth control remained what it had long been: abortion.

It is thus not surprising that the demand for reform of abortion laws became a leitmotif of the new women’s politics—a rare point of intersection where the politics of radical feminism encountered the needs of apolitical everywoman. In Britain abortion had been decriminalized in 1967, as we have seen. But in many other places it was still a crime: in Italy it carried a five-year prison sentence. But legal or otherwise, abortions were part of the life experience of millions of women—in tiny Latvia, in 1973, there were 60,000 abortions for 34,000 live births. And where abortion was illegal the risks it entailed, both legal and medical, united women across class, age and political affiliation.

On April 5th 1971, the French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a petition signed by 343 women declaring that they had all had abortions, and thus broken the law, and demanding revision of the penal code. The signatories were all well known, some of them—the writers Simone de Beauvoir and Françoise Sagan, the actresses Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Marie-France Pisier, the lawyers and political activists Yvette Roudy and Gisèle Halimi—very well known indeed. And they were joined by obscure but militant activists from the feminist movements that had sprung up in the wake of 1968. Although over three hundred women had been found guilty of the crime of abortion in the previous year, the government prudently forbore to prosecute the signatories of the open letter.

The petition had been organized by the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), founded the previous year; the political stir aroused by their action prompted Halimi and de Beauvoir to form Choisir, a political organization dedicated to ending the ban on abortion. In January 1973, at a press conference, French President Georges Pompidou conceded that French law had fallen behind the evolution of public opinion. He could hardly do otherwise: in the course of 1972-73, over 35,000 French women made their way to Britain to undergo legal abortions. Pompidou’s successor, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, instructed his health minister, Simone Weil, to present parliament with a revision of the law and on January 17th 1975, the Assemblée Nationale legalized abortion (during the first ten weeks of pregnancy) in France.

The French example was studied closely by women throughout Western Europe. In Italy the newly-formed Movimento della Liberazione delle Donne Italiane (Italian Women’s Liberation Movement) joined forces with the small Radical Party to raise 800,000 signatures on a petition to change the law on abortion, supported by a march on Rome of 50,000 women in April 1976. Three years after the belated introduction in 1975 of a new ‘family code’ to replace that of the Fascists, the Italian parliament voted—on May 29th 1978, three weeks after the discovery of Aldo Moro’s corpse—to legalise abortion.

The decision was indirectly confirmed at a national referendum in May 1981, when Italian voters rejected both a proposal to loosen further the existing restrictions on legal abortion and a move to re-criminalize it, proposed by a newly formed Pro-Life Movement. If the pace of reform in Italy lagged somewhat behind Britain or France, it was less through the opposition of the Catholic Church than because so many Italian feminists had cut their teeth in the movements of the extra-parliamentary ‘autonomous’ Left (revealingly, the first Lotta Femminista manifesto of 1971 had focused upon the demand for salaries for housework—a ritual extension to the domestic realm of an older, ‘workerist’ vision of modern society as one huge factory). They were thus slow to exploit established political institutions in pursuit of their goals.

In Spain, the French strategy was followed more closely still, accelerated by the energies released by the collapse of the old regime. The first feminist demonstration in Spain was organized in January 1976, within two months of Franco’s death. Two years later adultery was de-criminalized and contraception legalized. In 1979 one thousand women, including prominent public figures, signed a public statement declaring themselves to have broken the law by undergoing an abortion—a reminder that Spain under Franco’s rule had one of Europe’s highest rates of illegal abortion, comparable to those of Eastern Europe and driven by the same authoritarian, pro-natalist disapproval of all forms of birth control. But even in post-Franco Spain the cultural pressures working against abortion-law reform remained strong; when the Cortes finally approved a law permitting abortion in May 1985, it restricted permission to cases of rape, a deformed foetus, or where the mother’s life was at risk.

Together with the right to divorce, the successful battle over abortion rights was the main achievement of women’s political groups in these years. As a consequence, the personal circumstances of millions of women were inestimably improved. The availability of abortion, in conjunction with effective and available contraception, not only improved the life chances of many, especially the poor, but also offered working women the option of postponing their first child to a historically late point in their childbearing years.

The result was a steady fall in the number of children born. The Spanish birth rate per woman fell by nearly 60 percent between 1960 and 1996; Italy, West Germany and the Netherlands were close behind. Within a few years of the reforms of the Seventies, nowest European country except Ireland had a birthrate sufficient to replace the previous generation. In Britain the annual birthrate fell in the three decades after 1960 from 2.71 children per woman to 1.84; in France from 2.73 to 1.73. Married women were increasingly choosing to have one child or none at all—were it not for extra-marital births the rates would have been lower still: by the end of the 1980s, extra-marital births as a percentage of the annual total were at 24 percent in Austria, 28 percent in the UK, 29 percent in France and 52 percent in Sweden.

As the economy slowed and the emancipation of women gathered pace, the demography of Europe was changing—with ominous implications for the welfare state in years to come. The social changes wrought by the women’s movement were not, however, mirrored in politics itself. No ‘women’s party’ emerged, capable of si-phoning off votes and getting its representatives elected. Women remained a minority in national legislatures and governments.

The Left proved generally more open to electing women than the Right (but not everywhere—in both Belgium and France, Christian parties of the Center-Right were for many years more likely than their Socialist opponents to nominate women to safe constituencies), but the best predictor of women’s prospects in public life was not ideology but geography. Between 1975 and 1990 the number of women in Finland’s parliament rose from 23 percent to 39 percent; in Sweden from 21 percent to 38 percent; in Norway from 16 percent to 36 percent; and in Denmark from 16 percent to 33 percent. Farther south, in the parliaments of Italy and Portugal, women constituted just one in twelve of parliamentary deputies in 1990. In the UK House of Commons they were just 7 percent of the total; in France’s Assemblée Nationale , a mere 6 percent.

Environmentalists, men and women alike, had considerably more success in translating their sentiments into electoral politics. At one level ‘environmentalism’ (a neologism dating from the Thirties) was indeed a new departure: the collective expression of middle-class fears about nuclear power stations and galloping urbanization, motorways and pollution. But the Green Movement in Europe would never have been so effective had it been just a footnote to the Sixties: well-heeled weekend Luddites in stone-washed natural fibres triangulating between their instincts and their interests. The longing for a more ‘natural’ world and the search for a personal politics of ‘authenticity’ had deep roots on both sides of the ideological divide, traceable to the Romantics and their horror at the depredations of early industrialism. By the early twentieth century both Left and Right had their cycling clubs, vegetarian restaurants, Wandervogel movements and ramblers, affiliated variously to socialist or nationalist dreams of emancipation and return.

The German nostalgia for uniquely German landscapes, for the mountains and rivers of the Harz and the Pfalz, for Heimat; the French nationalist dream of peasant harmony in la France profonde, unsullied by cities and cosmopolitanism; the English reverie of a once and future country harmony, Blake’s lost Jerusalem: these had more in common than any of their followers might have felt comfortable admitting. And whereas the Left had for many decades watched in admiration as Communist ‘output’ strove to outstrip that of the West, by the Seventies voices on Right and Left alike were starting to express some unease at the collateral costs of progress, productivity and ‘modernity’.207

The modern environmentalist revolution thus benefited twice over: it was a break from the callous nostrums of the recent past—and it had roots in a more distant history, unremembered but atavistically reassuring. Environmentalism (like pacifism) often aroused in its wake a revival of nationalism—or regionalism—but with a human face. The ‘Alternativen’ of West Berlin, or the anti-nuclear protesters of Austria who won a 1978 referendum forbidding their government from activating the nuclear power station at Zwentendorf, would never have identified themselves as nationalists or even patriots. But their anger against the pollution of the local environment above all (and their relative indifference to similar havoc being wreaked elsewhere) suggests otherwise. The ‘not in my backyard’ quality of the incipient Green Movement harked back to an earlier model.

There was thus nothing contradictory in the enthusiasm with which Portugal’s ageing dictator António Salazar enforced the same environmental controls being urged upon their democratic governments by post-’68 radicals in Vienna or Amsterdam. Distrustful of ‘materialism’ and determined to keep the twentieth century at bay, Salazar was, in his way, a genuine enthusiast for ecological objectives—attained in his case by the simple expedient of maintaining his fellow countrymen in a condition of unparalleled economic torpor. He would certainly have approved of the achievement of the French protesters who in 1971 blocked a planned military base at Larzac, on the high plains of south-central France.

The symbolism of Larzac—where uninhabited grasslands were defended against the massed power of the French state by an insurgent regiment of environmentalists—was immense, and not just in France: an emotional victory had been secured less for the indigenous sheep of the Massif uplands than for their distinctly un-local shepherds, many of them young radicals who had only recently left Paris or Lyon to recycle themselves as farmers on the wilder shores of ‘deep France’. The battlefront had decidedly shifted—at least in Western Europe.

In Eastern Europe, of course, the doctrine of unrestricted primary production—and the absence of any official countervailing voices—left the environment at the mercy of official polluters of every sort. Whereas Austria might be constrained by internal opposition to abandon nuclear power, her Communist neighbors had no such compunction about building nuclear reactors in Czechoslovakia, planning massive dams just downstream along the Danube, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, or steadily increasing output and air pollution a few dozen miles north in Nowa Huta, Poland’s ‘purpose-built’ steel town. But for all that, the moral and human costs of rampant industrial pollution and environmental degradation had not passed unnoticed in the Eastern bloc.

Thus the cynical indifference of the post-’68 Husák regime in Prague—its willingness to wreak havoc along the common Danube frontier in pursuit of domestically generated kilowatts—triggered a rising backlash among otherwise politically quiescent Hungarians. Implausible as it would have seemed in earlier days, the proposed Gabčikovo-Nagymaros dam was to become a significant source of domestic opposition to the Budapest regime itself—as well as a major embarrassment to relations between the two ‘fraternal’ neighbors.208

In Czechoslovakia, an older distaste for technological modernity had passed to a new generation of intellectuals via the writings of the philosophers Jan Patočka and Václav Bělohradský especially; the latter working from exile in Italy after 1970, his neo-Heideggerian musings read in samizdatback in his country of origin. The idea that the effort to subdue and dominate nature to human ends—the project of the Enlightenment—might come at too high a price was already familiar to readers on both sides of the Cold War divide through the writings of the Frankfurt School, notably Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment , published in 1944. With a Heideggerian twist—the suggestion that Communism itself was an illicit Western import, touched with the hubristic illusion of endless material progress—these ruminations formed the basis of an intellectualopposition that would surface in the Seventies, combining ethical dissent with ecological critiques, and led by Patočka and one of Bělohradský’s most enthusiastic readers, the playwright Václav Havel.209

In time, a common environmentalist critique would serve as a bridge between new forms of protest in East and West. But in the circumstances of the early Seventies neither side yet knew—nor in the Western case cared—much about the views or problems of their counterparts across the Iron Curtain. The west European environmentalists especially were far too busy building their local political constituency to pay attention to international politics, except in so far as these affected the unique object of their attentions. In this, however, they were singularly successful.

It was in 1973 that the first ‘ecology’ candidates stood in local elections in France and Britain—the same year that saw the founding Bauern (farmers’) Congress in West Germany, forerunner to the Greens. Fuelled by the first oil crisis, the West German environmental movement moved rapidly into the political mainstream. From sit-ins, protest marches and citizens’ initiatives at the start of the decade, the Greens—variously backed by farmers, environmentalists, pacifists and urban squatters—had progressed by 1979 to the point of securing their own representation in the parliaments of two of the German Länder. Four years later, in the wake of the second oil shock, their support at the Federal elections of 1983 increased from 568,000 to 2,165,000 (5.6 percent of the vote) and won them parliamentary representation (twenty-seven seats) for the first time. By 1985 the Greens were in a major regional government, ruling Hesse in coalition with the SPD (and with the young Green politician Joschka Fischer as Hesse’s Minister for environment and energy).

The German Greens’ success was not immediately repeated elsewhere, although in time the Austrian and especially the French parties would do quite respectably. West Germans were perhaps unusual. In these years they were growing averse to the very sources of their own post-war revival: between 1966 and 1981 the share of the population that looked favorably upon ‘technology’ and its achievements fell precipitately, from 72 percent to 30 percent. The West German Greens also benefited from the German system of proportional representation, whereby even quite small parties could make their way into the regional and Federal parliaments—although a roughly comparable system in Italy did little for environmentalists there: by 1987 the Italian ‘Greens’ had secured less than a million votes and just 13 seats out of 630. In Belgium the two ecological parties (one French-speaking, one Flemish) also improved steadily: from 4.8 percent of the vote at their first appearance in 1981 they rose steadily, passing 7.1 percent in 1987. In Britain, however, the voting system was designed to disadvantage small or fringe parties and did just that.

In Scandinavia, the prospects for single-issue parties like environmentalists (or pacifists, or feminists) were restricted by the ecumenical range of the existing political groupings—why ‘waste’ a vote on the Greens when Social Democrats, or Agrarian Parties, purported to share similar concerns? Environmentalism in Norway, for example, was at least as widely embraced as in Germany—as early as 1970 the Labour government’s plans to exploit Northern Europe’s largest waterfall, at Mardola in the Arctic Circle, for hydro-electric power provoked widespread national outrage and prompted the emergence of environmental politics in Norway. But neither the Mardola affair nor subsequent protests at the prospect of nuclear power stations ever translated into a separate political movement: protests—and compromises—were negotiated within the governing majority.

Greens did a little better in Sweden, where they finally entered Parliament in 1988; and in Finland, where individual environmentalists first won election in 1987 and only then formed the Green Association, an environmental party, the following year (not surprisingly, perhaps, the Finnish Greens did far better in the prosperous, urban, ‘yuppie’ south of the country than in the poorer, rural center and north). But Finland and Sweden were unusual: pacifists, feminists, environmentalists, the handicapped and other single-issue activists were so sure of a generally sympathetic cultural environment for their concerns that they could afford to split from the mainstream and risk dividing their own supporters without jeopardizing either the governing majority or the prospects for their own agenda.

Single-issue parties, as we have seen, often emerged in the wake of a crisis, a scandal or an unpopular proposal: thus Austria’s environmentalists, to the extent that they became a national force, owed their rise to bitter confrontation with the authorities over a 1984 proposal to build a hydro-electric plant in a wetland forest at Hainburg in eastern Austria. The Green cause received a strong boost from the ensuing confrontation between the Socialist-led coalition government and environmental activists: and even though the government subsequently backed down, the incident led to a sharp increase in support for the Greens from disillusioned Socialist voters, notably among intellectuals and liberal professionals.

The proliferation of single-issue parties and programs, and their steady absorption into mainstream public life, took its toll upon the traditional organizations of the Left in particular. Communist parties in Western Europe, undermined by the steady erosion of their proletarian constituency and discredited by the invasion of Czechoslovakia, were most vulnerable. The French Communist Party was led by semi-unreconstructed Stalinists who had never really taken their distance from the events of 1956, much less those of 1968. Inherently conservative and suspicious of any issue or person it could not subordinate and control, the Party saw its share of the vote fall steadily at every election: from a post-war peak of 28 percent in 1946 to 18.6 percent in 1977 and thence, in a vertiginous collapse, to under 10 percent in the elections of the 1980s.

The Italian Communists did rather better. Where the French Communist hierarchy was almost universally mediocre and unattractive—reflecting in this, as almost everything else, the PCF’s slavish imitation of the Soviet example—the PCI, from Palmiro Togliatti to Enrico Berlinguer (Party Secretary from 1972 until his early death, at the age of 62, in 1984), was blessed with intelligent and even appealing leaders. Both parties, like every other Communist organization, were deeply dependent on Soviet funding: between 1971 and 1990 Soviet agencies channeled $50 million to the French Communists, $47 million to the Italians.210 But the Italians did at least express public disapproval for egregious Soviet actions—notably the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The (relative) autonomy of the Italian Communists was complemented by Berlinguer’s 1973 decision to commit his party to the defense of Italian democracy, even if it meant abandoning its outright opposition to the Christian Democrats: this was the so-called ‘historic compromise’. This shift was driven in part by the shock of the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, which convinced Berlinguer and other Communist intellectuals that even if the Communists won a parliamentary majority they would never be allowed—by the Americans, or their allies in Italian military, business and Church circles—to form a government of their own. But it was also a reaction, as we saw in the previous chapter, to the very real threat to Italian democracy itself from Right and Left terrorists for whom the Communist Party was as much the enemy as the Italian state.

These changes brought temporary electoral dividends. The Communist electorate in Italy grew steadily—from 6.7 million votes at the elections of 1958 to 9 million in 1972 and reaching a peak four years later, in the elections of June 1976, when the PCI culled 12.6 million votes and 228 parliamentary seats. With 34.4 percent of the votes cast, it was just four percentage points and 34 seats short of the ruling Christian Democrats, an unprecedented score for a Western Communist party. The PCI was making a credible attempt to present itself as a ‘system’ party, perhaps even (as Henry Kissinger and many foreign observers feared) an alternative government-in-waiting.211

The new approach of the Italian Party, and rather less convincing efforts by the French Party to emulate its success if not its ideas, became known as ‘Eurocommunism’—a term first coined at a November 1975 meeting of Italian, French and Spanish Communists and given official currency by the secretary-general of the Spanish Communists, Santiago Carrillo, in his 1977 essay Eurocommunism and the State. The Spanish Party was only just emerging from decades of clandestinity and its leaders were keen to establish their democratic credentials. Like their Italian comrades, they understood that the best way to achieve this was by taking their distance, both from the contemporary Soviet Union but also, and more significantly, from their common Leninist past.

‘Eurocommunism’ proved briefly seductive, though less to electors than to intellectuals and academics who mistook for a political revival of Marxism what was in fact an expression of doctrinal exhaustion. If Western Communists were to overcome the burden of their history and reprogram themselves as a—the—democratic movement of the Left, they needed to jettison more than just ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and other rhetorical dogmas abandoned in a bonfire of the ideological vanities during the course of the 1970s. They also needed very publicly to abandon their association with Soviet Communism itself, and this even Berlinguer and Carrillo were unable to do.

Eurocommunism was thus a contradiction in terms, despite the best efforts of its spokesmen. Subordination to Moscow was, as Lenin had always intended, the primary identification tag of any Communist party. Until the disappearance of the Soviet Union itself the Communist parties of Western Europe were shackled to it—if not in their own eyes then most assuredly in the opinion of voters. In Italy, where the PCI had uniquely succeeded in establishing itself in certain regions as the natural party of (local) governance, the Communists held on to a sizeable vote, though never again scaling the heights of their 1976 successes. But elsewhere Eurocommunism’s steady decline continued almost uninterrupted. The Spanish Communists, who invented it, saw their share of the vote fall to just 4 percent by 1982.

Ironically, Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow actually gave his blessing to the Eurocommunists’ efforts to secure their local base by distancing themselves from him. The Soviet move, a by-product of the strategy of international détente then being pursued, did little for the would-be Communist reformers. But then, for all the support they continued to furnish in cash and kind, the Soviet leaders were losing interest in Western Communist parties, who had limited political impact and seemed unlikely to take power in the foreseeable future. Social Democrats, however, especially those in positions of influence, were another matter. And Social Democrats in Germany, still the crucible of a divided continent, were of very particular interest indeed.

In 1969, the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by Willy Brandt, won a majority at the Federal elections and took office in a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, pushing the conservative Christian Democrats into opposition for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic. Brandt had already served three years as foreign minister in Kiesinger’s Grand Coalition, and there, in close collaboration with the head of his policy-planning staff, Egon Bahr, he had begun to formulate a new departure for German foreign policy, a new approach to Germany’s relations with the Soviet bloc: Ostpolitik.

Hitherto, West German foreign policy had been dominated by Adenauer’s view that the new Republic, firmly tied to the West through the West European Union, the European Economic Community and NATO, must be unwavering in its refusal to recognize the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to its east. Claiming that the FRG alone represented Germany, Adenauer had also refused to recognize states that had diplomatic relations with the GDR, with the exception of the Soviet Union. His successor, Ludwig Erhard, had opened trade missions in Bucharest, Sofia, Warsaw and Budapest; but the first real breach of the principle had come only in 1967, when at Brandt’s encouraging Bonn established diplomatic relations with Romania, followed a year later by Yugoslavia.

Adenauer had always insisted that the division of Germany, and unresolved frontier disputes to its east, had to be addressed before there could be any détente or military disengagement in central Europe. But by refusing to contest the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the United States had demonstrated its unwillingness to risk war to keep the Berlin frontier open: and America, as President Lyndon Johnson confirmed in October 1966, would no longer allow its foreign policy to be held hostage to the principle of future German reunification. The message was clear: instead of insisting on the resolution of the ‘German problem’ as a precondition for détente, a new generation of German diplomats would have to reverse their priorities if they wished to achieve their objectives.

If Willy Brandt was willing to risk a breach with the conventions of West German politics it was in large measure because of his experience as Mayor of West Berlin. Indeed it is no coincidence that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of Ostpolitik in all its forms were former mayors of Berlin—Brandt himself, future Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Hans-Jochen Vogel, Brandt’s successor at the head of the SPD. To these men it was obvious that the Western Allies would take no untoward risks to overcome the division of Europe—an interpretation reconfirmed by the West’s passive acceptance of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. If West Germans wanted to break the central European stalemate, they would have to do it themselves, by dealing directly with the authorities in the East.

With these considerations always in mind, Brandt and Bahr devised their approach to the east in order to achieve what Bahr called ‘Wandel durch Annäherung’—change through rapprochement. The aim was to ‘overcome Yalta’ through a multitude of contacts—diplomatic, institutional, human; and thereby to ‘normalize’ relations between the two Germanies and within Europe, without provoking disquiet at home or abroad. In a characteristic rhetorical innovation, Brandt quietly abandoned West German insistence upon the illegitimacy of the GDR and the non-negotiable demand for reunification. Henceforth, Bonn would continue to affirm the fundamental unity of the German people, but the undeniable facticity of East Germany would be acknowledged: ‘one German nation, two German states’.212

Between 1970 and 1974 Brandt and his foreign minister, Walter Scheel of the Free Democratic Party, negotiated and signed a series of major diplomatic accords: treaties with Moscow and Warsaw in 1970, recognizing the de facto existence and inviolability of the post-war intra-German and German-Polish frontiers (‘the existing boundary line . . . shall constitute the western state frontier of the People’s Republic of Poland’) and offering a new relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbors ‘on the basis of the political situation as it exists in Europe’; a quadripartite agreement over Berlin in 1971, in which Moscow agreed not to make any unilateral changes there and to facilitate cross-border movement, followed by a Basic Treaty with the GDR, ratified by the Bundestag in 1973, in which Bonn, while continuing to grant automatic citizenship to any inhabitant of the GDR who succeeded in coming west, relinquished its longstanding claim to be the sole legitimate representative of all Germans; a treaty with Prague (1973); and the exchange of ‘Permanent Representatives’ with the GDR in May 1974.

For these achievements, and in the aftermath of a moving pilgrimage to Warsaw, where he knelt in homage to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto, Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He triumphed at home, too—in the elections of 1972 his SPD emerged for the first time as the leading party in the Federal Parliament. Despite side-stepping Bonn’s longstanding insistence that no final settlement of frontiers and peoples had been reached, that the Yalta divisions had no de jure status, and that the legal fiction of the continuity of the December 1937 frontiers of Germany must be maintained, Brandt was very popular at home in Germany. 213 And not just in the West: on his journey in 1970 to the city of Erfurt, the first visit to East Germany by a West German leader, Brandt was greeted by rapturous crowds.

After Brandt was forced out of office by a spy scandal in 1974 his successors in the Chancellery—the Socialist Helmut Schmidt and the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl—never deviated from the general line of Ostpolitik, pursuing it not only in public diplomacy but also through multiple links with the GDR, official and unofficial, all designed to facilitate human contacts, smooth relations, alleviate fears of West German revanchism and generally ‘normalize’ Bonn’s relations with her eastern neighbors—accepting, in Brandt’s words after signing the Moscow Treaty that acknowledged Germany’s post-war frontiers, that ‘with this Treaty, nothing is lost that had not long since been gambled away’.

There were three distinct constituencies whom the framers of Ostpolitik had to consider if they were to succeed in their ambitions. Western Europeans needed reassurance that Germany was not turning East. French President Georges Pompidou’s first response to the Moscow Treaty had been to make encouraging overtures to Great Britain—British membership of the European Community now held out the attraction of providing a counterweight to a less pliable Germany. The French were eventually appeased by German promises to anchor the Federal Republic ever more firmly in West European institutions (much as Pompidou’s successors would be reassured by Germany’s commitment to a common European currency following German unification two decades later); but in Paris as in Washington, remarks such as those of Finance Minister Helmut Schmidt in 1973, depicting a ‘changing world’ in which ‘the traditional categories of East and West’ were losing significance, were not soon forgotten.

The second constituency was Germans on both sides of the divide. For many of them Brandt’s Ostpolitik brought real dividends. Contact and communication between the two Germanies burgeoned. In 1969 a mere half-million phone calls had been placed from West to East Germany. Twenty years later there were some forty million. Telephone contact between the two halves of Berlin, virtually unknown in 1970, had reached the level of ten million calls per year by 1988. By the mid-Eighties most East Germans had virtually unrestricted access to West German television; indeed, the East German authorities even went so far as to lay cable into the ‘valley of the clueless’ around Dresden (so-called because of local topographical impediments to West German television signals), in the wishful belief that if East Germans could watch West German television at home they would not feel the need to emigrate. These and other arrangements, including the reuniting of families and the release to the West of political prisoners, redounded to the credit of Ostpolitik and reflected the Communists’ growing confidence in the West German policy of ‘stability’ and ‘no surprises.’

The rulers of East Germany had particularly good reason to be pleased with these developments. In September 1973 the United Nations recognized and admitted East and West Germany as sovereign states; within a year the German Democratic Republic was diplomatically recognized by eighty countries, including the USA. In an ironic echo of changes in Bonn, the GDR’s own leaders stopped referring to ‘Germany’ and instead began speaking with growing confidence of the GDR as a distinctive and legitimate Germanstate in its own right, with a future of its own—rooted, they now insisted, not just in ‘good’, anti-Fascist Germans but in the soil and heritage of Prussia. Whereas the 1968 constitution of the GDR spoke of a commitment to unification on the basis of democracy and socialism, the phrase is absent in the amended constitution of 1974, replaced by a vow to remain ‘forever and irrevocably allied with the USSR.’

There were also more immediate and mercenary grounds for official GDR interest in Ostpolitik. Since 1963 the GDR had been ‘selling’ political prisoners to Bonn for cash, the sum depending upon the ‘value’ and qualifications of the candidate. By 1977, in order to obtain the release of a prisoner from East German jails, Bonn was paying close to DM 96,000 per head. Among the diplomatic achievements of the new policy was the institutionalizing of cross-border family reunification: for this the authorities in Pankow charged an additional DM 4,500 per head (a bargain—in 1983 the Romanian dictator Ceauşescu was charging Bonn DM 8,000 a person to allow ethnic Germans to leave Romania). By one estimate, the total amount extracted from Bonn by the GDR, in return for releasing 34,000 prisoners, reuniting 2,000 children with their parents, and ‘regulating’ 250,000 cases of family reunification, was by 1989 close to DM 3 billion.214

One of the unintended consequences of these developments was the virtual disappearance of ‘unification’ from the German political agenda. To be sure, reunification of the divided country remained the Lebenslüge (‘life-lie’) of the Federal Republic, as Brandt put it. But by the mid-Eighties, a few years before it unexpectedly took place, re-unification no longer mobilized mass opinion. Polls taken in the Fifties and Sixties suggested that up to 45 percent of the West German population felt unification was the ‘most important’ question of the day; from the mid-Seventies the figure never exceeded 1 percent.

The third constituency for Bonn’s new approach, of course, was the Soviet Union. From Willy Brandt’s first negotiations with Brezhnev in 1970, through Gorbachev’s visit to Bonn nearly two decades later, all West German plans for ‘normalization’ to the east passed through Moscow and everyone knew it. In Helmut Schmidt’s words, ‘naturally, German-Soviet relations stood at the centre of Ostpolitik .’ Indeed, once the West Germans and Russians had agreed on the permanence of Poland’s new frontiers (respecting long-established European practice, no one asked the Poles for their views) and Bonn had consented to recognize the People’s Democracies, West Germans and Russians found much common ground.

When Leonid Brezhnev went to Bonn in May 1973, the first such visit by a Soviet Communist Party leader, he and Helmut Schmidt even managed to share warm memories of their common wartime experiences—Schmidt conveniently recalling that he ‘fought for Germany by day and at night privately wished for Hitler’s defeat’. In his memoirs Willy Brandt, who really had opposed the Third Reich from beginning to end, coolly observes that ‘when war reminiscences are exchanged, the fake and the genuine lie very close together’. But if the reminiscences were perhaps illusory, the shared interests were real enough.

The USSR had for many years been pressing for official recognition of its post-war gains and the new frontiers of Europe, preferably at a formal Peace Conference. The Western Allies, the US especially, had long been unwilling to go beyond de factoacknowledgement of the status quo,pending resolution of the ‘German Question’ in particular. But now that the Germans themselves were making overtures to their eastern neighbors, the Western position was bound to change; the Soviet leaders were about to realize their hopes. As part of their ambitious strategy of détente with the USSR and China, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, were more open than their predecessors to negotiations with Moscow—and perhaps less troubled by the nature of the Soviet regime: as Kissinger explained to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sep 19th 1974, international détente should not be made to wait upon Soviet domestic reforms.

Thus, in December 1971, NATO ministers met in Brussels and agreed in principle to take part in a European Security Conference. Within a year a preparatory session was under way in Helsinki, Finland; and in July 1973, still in Helsinki, the official Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe opened. Thirty-five countries (including the US and Canada) participated—only Albania declined to attend. Over the ensuing two years the Helsinki conferees drew up conventions, drafted agreements, proposed ‘confidence-building’ measures to improve East-West relations and much else besides. In August 1975 the Helsinki Accords were unanimously approved and signed.

On the face of things, the Soviet Union was the major beneficiary of the Accords. In the Final Act, under ‘Principle I’, it was agreed that the ‘participating States will respect each other’s sovereign equality and individuality as well as all the rights inherent in and encompassed by its sovereignty, including in particular the right of every State to juridical equality, to territorial integrity.’ Moreover, in Principle VI, the participating States undertook to ‘refrain from any intervention, direct or indirect, individual or collective, in the internal or external affairs falling within the domestic jurisdiction of another participating State, regardless of their mutual relations’.

Brezhnev and his colleagues could not have wished for more. Not only were the political divisions of post-war Europe now officially and publicly accepted, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the GDR and other satellite regimes officially conceded; the Western powers had for the first time foresworn all ‘armed intervention or threat of such intervention against another participating State’. To be sure, the chances that NATO or the US would ever actually invade the Soviet Bloc had long since been negligible: indeed, the only country that had actually engaged in such armed intervention since 1948 was the Soviet Union itself . . . twice.

But it was an illustration of Moscow’s endemic insecurity that these clauses in the Helsinki agreements, together with Principle IV affirming that ‘the participating States will respect the territorial integrity of each of the participating States’, were accorded such significance. Between the agreements with West Germany, and the Helsinki Accords’ retrospective confirmation and acceptance of Potsdam, the Soviet Union had finally achieved its objectives and could rest easy. In return, as it seemed, the Western participants in the Conference had sought and obtained little more than unobjectionable pro forma clauses: social, cultural and economic cooperation and exchanges, good faith collaboration to address outstanding and future disagreements, etc, etc.

But also included in the so-called ‘third basket’ of Helsinki principles was a list of the rights not just of states, but of persons and peoples, grouped under Principles VII (‘Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief’) and VIII (‘Equal rights and self-determination of peoples’). Most of the political leaders who signed off on these clauses paid them little attention—on both sides of the Iron Curtain it was generally assumed that they were diplomatic window dressing, a sop to domestic opinion, and in any case unenforceable: under Principles IV and VI, outsiders could not interfere in the internal affairs of signatory states. As one embittered Czech intellectual remarked at the time, Helsinki was in practice a re-run of Cuius Regio, Eius Religio: within their borders, rulers were once again licensed to treat their citizens as they wished.

It did not work out that way. Most of the 1975 Helsinki principles and protocols merely gift-wrapped existing international arrangements. But Principle VII not only committed the signatory states to ‘respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.’ It also enjoined all thirty-five states to ‘promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms’, and to ‘recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience’.

From this wordy and, as it seemed, toothless checklist of rights and obligations was born the Helsinki Rights movement. Within a year of getting their long-awaited international conference agreement, Soviet leaders were faced with a growing and ultimately uncontrollable flowering of circles, clubs, networks, charters and individuals, all demanding ‘merely’ that their governments stick to the letter of that same agreement, that—as enjoined by the Final Act—they ‘fulfill their obligations as set forth in the international declarations and agreements in this field’. Brezhnev had been right to count upon Henry Kissinger and his hard-headed successors to take seriously the non-intervention clauses at Helsinki; but it had never occurred to him (nor indeed to Kissinger) that others might take no less seriously the more utopian paragraphs that followed.215

In the short run the Soviet authorities and their colleagues in eastern Europe could certainly suppress easily enough any voices raised on behalf of individual or collective rights: in 1977 the leaders of a Ukrainian ‘Helsinki Rights’ group were arrested and sentenced to terms ranging from three to fifteen years. But the very emphasis that Communist leaders had placed upon ‘Helsinki’ as the source of their regimes’ international legitimacy would now come to haunt them: by invoking Moscow’s own recent commitments, critics (at home and abroad) could now bring public pressure to bear on the Soviet regimes. Against this sort of opposition, violent repression was not just ineffective but, to the extent that it was public knowledge, self-defeating. Hoist by the petard of their own cynicism, Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues had inadvertently opened a breach in their own defenses. Against all expectation, it was to prove mortal.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!