At the Chancellor’s residence in Bonn, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt speaks with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. On the far right is German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel; surrounding them are interpreters and other members of the government, but at the back, you can see another photographer, shooting the back of Brezhnev’s head.
The photograph was taken by Barbara Klemm, chronicler in black and white of West German history. In addition to being in the room with Brandt and Brezhnev, she took the photos of left-winger Joschka Fischer being sworn in as environment minister while wearing trainers; the student revolts in Frankfurt am Main in 1968; and the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the lesser known versions of the above photograph also shows Egon Bahr conversing with Andrei Gromyko on the lefthand side — a true meeting of powers behind their respective thrones.
Bahr devised Brandt’s revolutionary — and domestically controversial — Ostpolitik, the policy of détente with the Eastern bloc. Brezhnev’s five-day visit in May 1973, historic as the first ever by a Soviet leader to West Germany, marked a pinnacle of Ostpolitik, but by this time Brandt had overplayed his hand. He may have been Germany’s first left-leaning chancellor but Brandt proved to be unpopular with his party’s leaders in the parliament. The next year, he resigned, after one of his top aides was arrested on charges of spying for East Germany; however, Ostpolitik survived, in one way or another, until the end of the Cold War.
Brezhnev and Brandt had a great relationship, something akin to what Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin had thirty years later. Brezhnev later noted that Brandt was his favorite head of state to work with.A Western diplomat confided, “It is easier for Brandt to talk to Brezhnev than to Nixon.” Two ambitious politicians who came from lowly backgrounds and who struggled with alcoholism surely must have sympathized with each other a great deal. However, back in May 1973, the press was more concerned with two leaders’ striking similarities than what they actually discussed at the summit meeting. Burly constitutions of two leaders were compared, and the German press remarked upon the fact that Brezhnev was a head shorter than Brandt.
In 1979, Régis Bossu, a freelance photographer for European Stars and Stripes, Stern, Spiegel, and Sygma, went East Berlin to photograph the festivities of the 30th anniversary of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik — East Germany. The celebrations’ guest of honor was the aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
When Brezhnev finished his speech, East German President Erich Honecker opened his arms to congratulate him with a big kiss, a normal ritual for socialist comrades. (But both Honecker and Brezhnev were a little more enthusiastic than your average Communist dictator in kissing. A contemporary joke runs such: Brezhnev was commenting about a foreign leader, “As a politician, rubbish… but what a good kisser!”) A dozen photographers were there to capture this moment, but it was Régis who captured two men at the decisive moment. Many magazines used it immediately, and Paris Match devoted double pages to it, with a caption “The Kiss”.
In the euphoric weeks following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, artists from all over the world gathered flocked to Ostbahnhof to paint on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. In a lampoon of Socialist Realism, a Soviet artist, Dmitri Vrubel, painted the kiss there with a caption: “God help me to survive this deadly love affair.” (Vrubel saw the photo in an old Paris Match). It became one of the most famous pictures on Berlin’s East Side Gallery as that long stretch of wall is now called, and when it was erased by the government in 2009, the public uproar led to Vrubel being invited to repaint it.
Bossu’s and Vrubel’s image was repeatedly copied, re-photographed and re-published, and printed on T-shirts, towels and other memorabilia. A Berlin hotel took it as its logo. According to Bossu, “The Kiss,” has been re-published more than 500 times. See Bossu and Vrubel posing with their respective images in front of the erased section of the Wall here.
In ’76, Democratic nominee for president, Jimmy Carter criticized detente and claimed he would drive harder bargains with Leonid Brezhnev than Gerald Ford had done. Ronald Reagan, who was contesting the Republican nomination, said the same thing, only more vociferously. Going into a defensive crouch, Ford passed up a chance for a strategic-arms pact that year and may have cost himself the election. Jimmy Carter won the election, but continued the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks started by the previous Republican administrations.
SALT II was a nuclear arms treaty which attempted to reduce all categories of delivery vehicles on both sides to 2,250. SALT II helped the U.S. to discourage the Soviets from arming their third generation ICBMs. An agreement was reached in Vienna on June 18, 1979, and was signed by Leonid Brezhnev and Carter. This opened a “window of vulnerability”, opposed by many hawks from the both sides of the aisle in Congress. [Sidenote: in response to the refusal of the U.S. Congress to ratify the treaty, then a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, met with the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko, “educated him about American concerns and interests” and secured several changes that neither the Secretary of State nor President could obtain.] Carter had to appease the conservatives with 200 MX missiles in 4600 silos costing the government $33 billion.
Six months after the signing, the Soviet Union deployed troops to Afghanistan, and in September of the same year, senators including Henry M. Jackson and Frank Church discovered the so-called “Soviet brigade” on Cuba. In light of these developments, the treaty was withdrawn by Carter from the Senate consideration. When the 1980 Presidential Election came, the Reagan campaign made devastating use of the above photograph of Carter embracing Brezhnev at the summit meeting where the arms pact was finally signed, adding a caption, YOU, TOO, CAN KISS OFF CARTER. The irony here was that when the pact was signed inside the ornate Hofburg Palace in Austria, the hearty embrace between two leaders symbolized a new Soviet-Western rapprochement for millions of television viewers around the globe.
The SALT II’s terms were, nonetheless, honored by both sides until 1986 when the Reagan Administration withdrew from SALT II after accusing the Soviets of violating the pact.