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Willy Brandt: 1913-1992: A Bold Peacemaker

6 minute read
James O. Jackson/Bonn

THE HISTORY OF EUROPE IN THE 20th century has been in large measure the story of Germany: its aggressive wars, its humiliating defeats, its miracle of postwar recovery. Willy Brandt witnessed much of the worst of the century — and was responsible for much of the best. By the time he died last week of cancer at 78, he had achieved the great goals of his life: the end of the cold war and the restoration of a unified Germany to the family of nations.

It was an achievement symbolized by the somber drama of a man on his knees: Brandt, on a freezing December day in Warsaw in 1970, before Poland’s memorial to victims of World War II. Here was a German Chancellor making an act of atonement for his country’s wrongs, a gesture that electrified the world. Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1971; he had been named TIME’s Man of the Year a year earlier.

Behind the Warsaw gesture was Ostpolitik, the bold policy initiated by Brandt to seek reconciliation with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a stance that would be adopted by his successors in the Chancellor’s office in Bonn. When Brandt became Chancellor in 1969, West Germany still refused to recognize the postwar boundaries in Eastern Europe or admit that Germany would remain divided for the foreseeable future. Brandt swiftly changed much of that, signing nonaggression pacts with the U.S.S.R. and Poland in 1970 and ^ renouncing claims to 40,000 sq. mi. of former German territory incorporated into Poland. He also signed a treaty in 1972 to normalize relations between West and East Germany, reversing the Bonn government’s immediate postwar policy of ignoring and isolating its Communist rival to achieve unification through attrition. In the end, Brandt’s more compassionate policy prevailed — sooner than even he would have dreamed possible.

Brandt came from humble beginnings. He was born Herbert Frahm in Lubeck in 1913, the son of an unmarried shop clerk, and reared largely by his maternal grandfather, a truck driver, farm laborer and ardent socialist. The grandson took on the grandfather’s political colors and, while still in his mid-teens, wrote for Der Volksbote (the People’s Messenger), the local Social Democratic Party paper; in 1930, not yet 17, he joined the party. When Adolf Hitler outlawed leftist parties in 1933, Herbert Frahm took the nom de guerre Willy Brandt, a name common in his hometown. Later that year, he fled on a fishing boat to Norway just as the Nazis were about to arrest him.

In 1940 German troops occupied Norway, and Brandt fled again, this time to Sweden. He returned to Norway after the war and began a career in the Norwegian foreign service with a posting to Berlin as a military press attache. In 1947 he reapplied for the German citizenship the Nazis had stripped from him. “During my time ‘outside,’ I did not for one moment cease to regard myself as a German,” Brandt later wrote. When his citizenship was restored in 1948, Brandt went to work as an aide to Ernst Reuter, the colorful mayor of West Berlin, and from that vantage point witnessed the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of the city and the Berlin airlift that saved it.

Brandt’s political career began in 1949 with his election to West Germany’s first Bundestag. In 1957 he became mayor of West Berlin, a post he held during the most frigid days of the cold war. While mayor, he ran in 1961 and ’65 as the Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor, losing both times in brutal campaigns in which opponents sneered at his origins — the mighty Konrad Adenauer called him “alias Herbert Frahm” — and criticized him for fleeing Germany before the war. Pictures of Brandt wearing a Norwegian uniform were handed out by his Christian Democratic rivals, and at one stop in the 1965 campaign a heckler hoisted a sign reading WE SHALL NOT VOTE FOR A TRAITOR. The harsh campaign and even more bitter second defeat were too much, and for the next three years Brandt virtually withdrew from public life.

With the formation in 1966 of a grand coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, Brandt came back as West Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister. Three years later, he tried again for the chancellorship and won. By then, his view of East and West had been tempered by his belief that President John F. Kennedy had abandoned West Berlin in 1961 when East Germany erected the Wall. “Kennedy has cooked our goose!” an angry Brandt told friends. He decided that the fate of the two Germanys would be decided by Germans and that the key lay in improving relations with the East, especially with the U.S.S.R.

The success of Brandt’s Ostpolitik contrasted with disarray in domestic politics. The last straw was the 1974 arrest of a close aide, Gunter Guillaume, on charges of spying for East Germany. Brandt resigned under pressure, a decision he later regretted. “I blame myself for not banging my fist on the table and demanding a stop to all the nonsense,” he wrote in his 1989 memoirs.

In that spirit, he did not withdraw into bitterness, but stayed on as chairman of the Social Democrats — and as leader of the Socialist International — and evolved into an honored, even beloved, elder statesman. One of the crowning moments of his later years came after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, when he delivered a ringing speech in Berlin that ended with the motto of unification: “What belongs together will now grow together.”

It grew together faster than he wanted. Brandt advocated a gradual merger of the two Germanys, not the virtual annexation of one by the other, and raised his voice to warn of the dangers of haste and of hubris. “Nothing lasts forever,” he said in his last public statement, a speech read on his behalf to a Berlin meeting of the Socialist International as he lay dying last month. “Every era demands its own answers, and if one wants to do good, one must be prepared for them.” Willy Brandt was.

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