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.