Détente from Below: How an East-West People's Alliance was created in the 1980s

By Lawrence Wittner | 2015-04-01 12:00:00

In the early 1980s, as the US-Soviet military confrontation grew more intense, with massive weapons buildups and threats of nuclear war by government officials on both sides of the Cold War, an enormous campaign of popular protest erupted. Calling for nuclear disarmament, this campaign mushroomed into the largest social movement of modern times, with some five million people participating in antinuclear demonstrations during the fall of 1983 alone. In the West, it revived or spawned such mass organizations as the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (in the United States), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in Great Britain), No to Nuclear Weapons (in Denmark and Norway), the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament in Europe (in France), and comparable groups in many other nations. In the East, however, the movement was much smaller. Although Peace Councils and Peace Committees in the Soviet Bloc claimed millions of members, these were official entities, directed by government officials, and did little more than parrot the government line. Those individuals in the East Bloc who dared to criticize militarism on both sides of the Cold War experienced severe repression. Even so, an East-West people’s alliance against the escalating nuclear arms race became an important force.

European Nuclear Disarmament

Although the concept of a transnational people’s movement resisting wars among nation-states can be traced back at least to the worldwide peace organizations founded in the early twentieth century, it received an enormous boost and acquired a radical slant with the launching, in 1980, of a new organization, European Nuclear Disarmament (END). In April of that year, the British historian E.P. Thompson and a group of veteran antinuclear activists from Bri-tain and Europe issued an Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament. In it, they not only assailed governments on both sides of the Cold War for waging “a demented arms race” that was increasingly likely to lead to a third world war, but declared that “the remedy lies in our own hands.”

They envisaged a Europe-wide campaign, in which exchanges took place “between universities, churches, wom­en’s organizations, trade unions, youth organizations, professional groups, and individuals, … with the object of promoting a common object: to free all of Europe from nuclear weapons.” In their view, this should be a grassroots movement that transcended Cold War or national loyalties. As the Appeal declared: “We must learn to be loyal, not to ‘East’ or ‘West,’ but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state.” Speaking at a massive antinuclear rally in Bonn during October 1981, Mary Kaldor, another top END leader, highlighted the new movement’s commitment to promoting peace through civil society. “We must build our links across borders between East and West through every possible channel,” she remarked. “We must, in effect, create our own alternative international system based on communications between peoples and not governments, on bonds of personal friendship, on a new sense of identity.”

The phrase “détente from below,” often employed to describe this developing East-West alliance, came into vogue a few years later. The term was probably first used by—and was most closely associated with—the Inter­church Peace Council (IKV), a key member of the END family from the Netherlands. In a July 1984 interview, Wim Bartels, IKV’s international secretary, proclaimed that IKV’s “overall approach is best summed up by the phrase ‘détente from below.’” According to Bartels, it entailed “attempts to create new types of East-West structures between groups, organizations, and institutions in which peace and security and the future of Europe can be discussed, new ideas can be developed, and programs planned.”

That same summer, in a message to other disarmament groups, Mient Jan Faber, the IKV general secretary, also championed “détente from below,” claiming that it was “the next phase in the détente process.” Détente policy among governments, he argued, was “limited, too much geared to the ‘top dogs.’” Although promoters of “détente from below” did not oppose disarmament negotiations among governments or occasional contacts with the official peace councils of the East bloc, they focused their efforts on building alliances among grassroots activists, whom they saw as the only effective bulwark against militarism and war.

In its efforts to build an East-West people’s alliance, END and its component groups faced at least three serious obstacles. First, the official peace entities within the Soviet bloc not only insisted upon monopolizing the nuclear disarmament issue within their nations, but distorted it in a way that was so much in line with the Soviet Union’s stance in world affairs that most of the East European public dismissed all talk of peace and disarmament as Soviet propaganda. In addition, because East bloc authorities viewed criticism of their foreign and military policy as a subversive activity and had little respect for civil liberties, they severely repressed independent peace activists. Finally, although there were people in Eastern Europe who favored peace and sometimes were willing to risk speaking out in its behalf, they were usually more interested in human rights. Indeed, they often viewed freedom of speech and assembly as prerequisites for peace or, at the very least, necessary for building an effective peace movement.

East European Activists

Nevertheless, END plunged into efforts to establish an alliance with East European activists, connecting not only with pre-existing groups like the Evangelical churches in East Germany, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and the Committee for Social Resistance in Poland, but with new organizations that were often inspired by the Western peace movement. The latter included Women for Peace and the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights in East Germany, the Peace Group for Dia­logue in Hungary, the Trust Groups in the Soviet Union, the Independent Peace Association in Czechoslovakia, and Freedom and Peace in Poland. By 1984-85, END had established a working group for each of these East Euro­pean nations. The working groups sent representatives to meet with activists in their respective countries, monitored information about peace activities within them, and publicized independent East European ventures to the Western public.

Substantial progress was made in developing an independent peace movement in East Germany. Unlike most other residents of Eastern Europe, residents of the GDR could watch Western television—in their case television programs emanating from West Germany. As a result, many were familiar with the Western peace movement’s campaign to rid Europe of nuclear weapons—and liked the idea! Furthermore, representatives of the Dutch IKV met with the Study Group on Peace Affairs of East Germany’s Evangelical churches. In March 1981, after one such meeting, the Study Group produced a statement that called for “a unilateral renunciation by the GDR … of nuclear-capable delivery systems” as “a step in the direction of the denuclearization of Europe.” This idea was taken up by the Evangelical churches, which in early 1982 organized a “Peace Forum” in a Dresden church. Some 5,000 people turned out for the event and, at its conclusion, about a thousand participants marched off and staged a silent, candle-lit vigil—an unauthorized (i.e. illegal) peace demonstration. Other massive peace gatherings followed on church premises. In May 1983, when END held its annual convention in West Berlin, the government of the GDR blocked East German activists from attending. Consequently, West German activists crossed over into East Berlin to meet with their East German counterparts in a private home, where they agreed on the establishment of a joint antinuclear movement in East and West. Horrified by this groundswell of independent peace activism, East German authorities banned the display of a popular Swords into Ploughshares emblem, barred the IKV’s Mient Jan Faber from ever returning to the GDR, and arrested large numbers of local peace activists. Even so, the movement persisted.

Much the same thing happened in Hungary. Inspired by nuclear disarmament activism in the West, a Peace Group for Dialogue emerged among young people, especially in the secondary schools and universities. In September 1982, E.P. Thompson and Andrew White (of Cambridge END) addressed a gathering of some 80 Dialogue activists in a private apartment in Budapest. They were struck by the enormous enthusiasm of their young audience, many of whom sported Western peace badges. That Nov­ember, Mary Kaldor came to the country to engage in a debate on nuclear disarmament issues, an event that drew about 400 people. Meanwhile, Hun­gary’s student peace movement grew rapidly, with a group of young artists forming Indigo to produce leaflets, buttons, and posters and a group of high school students establishing the Anti-Nuclear Campaign around the slogan “Let’s Melt Down the Weapons.” Ferenc Köszegi, a leader of the Dialogue group, which claimed several thousand members, declared, in a pamphlet published by END, that “the new peace movement has to stand firmly on a pan-European platform. It must seek counterparts in both the East and the West.” The Hungarian Communist Party, however, had very different ideas and, in late March of 1983, decided that it could not tolerate an independent peace movement. Accordingly, that July, when Dialogue sought to organize an international peace camp in the country, the police moved in, shut down the camp, and expelled foreign activists. However, although the Hungarian movement could no longer operate as freely as in the past, it still received frequent visits from Western peace proponents and developed new structures that continued peace agitation.

Charter 77

Thanks to supporters of détente from below, Czechoslovakia also experienced an upsurge of peace protest. Organized in 1977, the human rights group Charter 77 had pressed the Czech government to comply with the Helsinki Accords, which resulted in harassment and repression of its activists by the authorities. Its leaders were initially suspicious of the Western antinuclear campaign, arguing that the quest for peace needed to be accompanied by a struggle for political freedom. But a lengthy dialogue with the leaders of IKV and END gradually convinced Charter 77 that the Western campaign was committed to both causes. In 1983, protesting Warsaw Pact deployment of nuclear missiles in Czechoslovakia, Charter 77 activists and other Czech peace supporters distributed leaflets and circulated petitions, signed by thousands, against the missiles. The following year, Charter 77 sent an open letter to the END convention at Perugia, declaring that “your hopes are our hopes.” Indeed, “the only way out of the blind alley into which the policy of military might has driven Europe is to … genuinely unite all those opposed to the nuclear madness in a mighty democratic coalition” that would breach “the surviving Cold war structures.” Mean­while, despite arrests of Czech activists, the peace protests continued, led, among others, by students at the Charles University and the Jazz Section of the Prague Musicians Union.


An independent peace movement emerged more slowly in Poland, both because of the public’s strong anti-Soviet sentiments and because the rise of the massive Polish Solidarity movement pushed other concerns to the sidelines. Although Solidarity focused on internal matters, two of its leading thinkers, Jacek Kuron and Adam Mich­nik, were early supporters of END and its concerns, as were two smaller groups, the underground Committee for Social Resistance and Fighting Solidarity. Nevertheless, exchanges of views continued between END, IKV, and representatives of Solidarity. Eventually, influenced by both Soli­darity and the Western peace movement, a Polish organization with a peace focus was organized in April 1985. Called Freedom and Peace, it drew together young people in Polish cities around a platform that combined anti-militarism with the defense of human rights. In a statement to the July 1985 END convention, Freedom and Peace declared that it would “permanently include the justice and freedom of citizens in the notion of peace.” Although its formal membership numbered in the hundreds, it held demonstrations in which over 2,000 people participated and organized petition campaigns drawing some 10,000 signatures. In May 1987, Freedom and Peace held an open seminar on “International Peace and the Helsinki Agreement” in War­saw. Despite arrests and other attempts by the authorities to prevent the seminar from taking place, it proved a great success, drawing over 200 people, including 65 foreign activists from 16 countries. It was the largest, independent, grassroots peace forum held thus far in the Soviet bloc.


Independent peace activism even sprang up in the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, the group Independent Initiative, comprising young admirers of John Lennon, staged unauthorized demonstrations in Moscow calling for the United States to leave El Salvador, the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan, and both nations to withdraw their missiles from Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, praising antinuclear efforts by Western scientists, kept up his critique of the nuclear arms race.

The most dynamic new peace organization, however, emerged in the form of the Group to Establish Trust Between the US and the USSR, launched in June 1982 at a press conference in Moscow. Consisting of young intellectuals, it proposed the establishment of nuclear-free zones, a ban on nuclear testing, and, especially, measures to promote direct exchanges between citizens on both sides of the Cold War. Writing in END Journal, one of the Moscow Trust Group’s leaders, Yuri Medvekov, called for “direct person-to-person contact. We feel that the Western peace movement’s knowledge of nuclear arsenals and military policy should be shared across the boundaries imposed by the bloc system.” Thus, “we ask you to visit our country, having as little to do with official hospitality as possible.” In fact, numerous Western activists flocked to the USSR to meet with Trust Group members.Though the Soviet government’s response to Trust Group agitation ranged from threats to beatings to arrests to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals to deportation, by late 1983 it could draw upon some 2,000 courageous men and women in about a dozen cities.

Although repression by Communist governments certainly limited the growth of independent peace activism in Eastern Europe, efforts at détente from below did generate a very noticeable East-West people’s alliance. Independent activists from both sides of the Cold War met, exchanged information, publicized one another’s activities, inspired one another, and issued joint statements. Sometimes, as in Moscow during August 1986, they even held joint demonstrations, much to the horror of the authorities. Although Communist governments blocked representatives of most independent East Eur­o­pean groups from attending END’s annual conventions during the early 1980s, friendly messages were sent to the gatherings by the Moscow Trust Group, Hungary’s Peace Group for Dialogue, Charter 77, and activists in East Germany. Furthermore, over time the East-West people’s alliance grew ever stronger. According to Mary Kaldor, at the 1988 END convention “there was a real sense of progress … in East-West relations.” E.P. Thompson said that “at last … we have put peace and freedom together,” whereupon Solidarity’s Jacek Kuron “hugged him, to huge applause.”

Why did détente from below succeed? There was, of course, the looming danger of nuclear war, which would annihilate people in both East and West. Beyond this, however, lay the fact that Eastern activists had much to gain from an alliance with their Western counterparts—not only vital supplies for agitation that the Westerners brought with them (such as cassettes, computer disks, and Faxes), but the ability to publicly defend East European activists and, thereby, curtail the repression they faced from their governments. In fact, END (and the Western peace movement more broadly) constantly denounced the harassment and arrest of Eastern peace activists. Given the Soviet bloc’s desire to avoid public embarrassment—indeed, to pose as the only true defender of world peace and progress—protests by Western activists were sometimes effective in limiting the harassment of their East European counterparts. Furthermore, as Kaldor noted years later, the dialogue between peace groups in East and West resulted in a firmer link between peace and freedom in their approaches. Or, as E.P. Thomp­son put it: “Increasingly, the movements within the END loose ‘confederation’ came to adopt an explicitly peace and human rights agenda. … Cold War dogma insisted that one must be for ‘human rights’ or for ‘peace,’ but one could not be for both. The non-aligned peace movements broke that dogma, showing solidarity with independent peace groups on the other side.” Finally, interpersonal contacts provided the glue that held the movements together across Cold War boundaries. As the Moscow Trust Group recog­nized, these people-to-people con­tacts were an important means of inspiring relationships of trust.

Lawrence Wittner is a history professor, retired since 2010 from State University of New York in Albany. This article was originally presented at the Peace History Society conference in Florida.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2015

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2015, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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