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Fellow Travelers

In February, 1990 the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant published several op-ed articles about the attitude if the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) towards Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The discussion started actually with a contribution by the then party president Marjanne Sint and myself as PvdA international secretary. We wrote the article because social democrats were publicly accused of having neglected human rights issues in their past relations with the communist parties of the region.  Social democrats were depicted as fellow travelers  who had engaged in an uncritical dialogue with ‘socialists’ from the GDR, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

I happened to be present at the start of this dialogue in 1985 when – in a Dutch beach resort – a meeting took place between representatives of SCANDILUX and the communist parties of the countries mentioned. SCANDILUX was an ad-hoc coalition of social democratic parties of the Benelux, Norway and Denmark - with the Germans, lead by Egon Bahr (the architect of Willy Brandt’s Ost Politik) as active observers. The purpose of SCANDILUX was to coordinate the political fight against the deployment of new nuclear weapons in Western Europe.  The intention of the meeting in the Netherlands  was to convince the counterparts to do the same since the Warsaw Pact planned to follow whatever NATO would do.

There were several of these meetings, but without concrete results as the communist parties in general supported the line of Moscow. After 1986 the changes in the USSR and the talks between Gorbachov and Reagan made the dialogue obsolete. After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the PvdA was blamed for its contacts with the communists . Maybe we had been naïve. But the 1980’s were marked by a big and dangerous controversy about nuclear re-armament and many feared a total collapse of cooperation between East and West. That was for us the background of the dialogue.

However, the PvdA did not neglect human rights issues. The Helsinki agreements gave us a valid excuse to introduce them in the discussions with our counterparts. We hoped that would stimulate change from within. But with the exception of the Hungarians, these talks lead nowhere. What was more important was the active and open  support of the PvdA to Solidarnosc (Poland) and Charta’77(Czechoslovakia) .

Our dual approach was an attempt to combine the promotion of peace and security with a serious human rights agenda. Some said this was not tough enough and partly gave legitimacy to communist regimes. With the knowledge of today, we might have done things differently. In 1985 nobody predicted that the communist system would start to collapse less than 5 years later.

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