Brandt, Willy (1913–1992)

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BRANDT, WILLY (1913–1992)


German politician.

The German politician Willy Brandt was born Herbert Frahm on 18 December 1913. The son of an unmarried shop assistant, he was raised in the social-democratic milieu of Lübeck, a port city on the German Baltic coast. Thanks to a grant from the city he was able to attend a local grammar school, from which he graduated in 1932. Already as a youth he was attracted to social democratic politics, joining the ranks of a left-wing splinter group, the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (SAP; Socialist Workers Party) in 1931. Known as a journalist and organizer, he was forced to leave Germany after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. He went to Norway, and soon became one of the leading figures among German exiles in Scandinavia. Adopting his nom de guerre Willy Brandt, he travelled throughout Europe and Nazi Germany in order to organize underground resistance activities and participated in the Spanish civil war as a news reporter on the republican side. As a Norwegian citizen, he was briefly detained as a prisoner of war after the Nazi invasion in June 1940 but fled to Sweden after his release. During the years until the end of World War II he joined the "International Group of Democratic Socialists," an informal network inspired by the Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), and rejoined the mainstream of the German Social Democratic Party and its headquarters-in-exile in London.

Brandt returned to Germany as a press officer at the Norwegian military mission in occupied Berlin. Quickly he engaged himself in the politics of the capital of the Cold War, supporting a strict pro-western position. Within his party, he helped fend off the attempts of the Soviet occupation powers and their East German vassals, the "Socialist Unity Party," to bring the western sector of the city under communist rule. In 1949 Brandt was elected first as a West Berlin delegate to the West German parliament (Bundestag) and secondly in 1950, as a member of the West Berlin Land or state parliament. In 1957 he reached the most important political office in West Berlin, the Regierende Bürgermeister (governing mayor, equivalent to federal state prime minister), thereby gaining international stature as the leading representative of his party well before he was elected as the party's president in 1963. In several electoral campaigns Brandt ran for the German chancellery but lost twice to the conservatives in 1961 and 1965. He reached the apogee of his political career only after an interval of three years, in the "great coalition," in which he served as foreign minister under the chancellery of the Christian Democrat leader (and ex-Nazi) Kurt-Georg Kiesinger (1904–1988). Despite his party's coming in second after the Christain Democrats in the 1969 parliamentary elections, Brandt was elected federal chancellor by a "small coalition" of Social Democrats and Liberals by the new parliament on 22 October 1969, putting an end to two decades of Christian conservative hegemony in West German national politics. The years as chancellor were most remarkable for Brandt's foreign policy of détente and reconciliation. As a governing mayor of West Berlin, and later as the foreign minister, he inaugurated a strategy of "change by rapprochement," replacing the policy of strict nonrecognition and polarization vis-à-vis the GDR and the Soviet bloc. Within one year treaties of nonaggression and recognition of the postwar borders were reached with Poland and the Soviet Union. Brandt's state visit to Poland in December 1970 not only included the signature of the Warsaw Treaty but also found its symbolic and emotional climax when, during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, he spontaneously knelt down on his knees for a moment of silent meditation, thus expressing mourning and historical responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of Germany during World War II. It is this spirit and attitude that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. In the same years the four victorious Allied Powers reached an agreement on the status of West Berlin and its permanent relation to the Federal Republic, allowing the negotiation of a series of treaties between the two German states in 1972. Other treaties with Soviet-bloc countries followed, integrating Brandt's foreign policy into the global climate of détente between the rival power blocs. Although he was furiously opposed by many Christian conservatives and some opponents within his own party who represented the irredentist claims of the refugee lobby in West Germany, his détente policy was confirmed by a triumphant re-election in 1972 that showed broad and unequivocal support for this part of his political agenda. By contrast, his standing turned out to be precarious in the field of domestic politics. On the one hand, major and already long-overdue reform projects (liberalization of the penal code on abortion and homosexuality, broader investments in public and higher education, enlarging trade-union participation rights in large enterprises) were realized. On the other hand, an increasing public-spending deficit, a high level of inflation, and the first signs of shrinking growth rates after the oil shock in 1973, and also the harsh treatment of communist ex-1968ers applying for public service work (the so-called Berufsverbote policy) revealed him as less adept at the everyday piecemeal work of balancing lobby interests and a political reform program. So when his personal assistant within the SPD board of governors, Günter Guillaume (1927–1995), was unmasked as an East German spy in April 1974, Brandt's immediate resignation from his chancellery also reflected a growing sense of frustration with this office, not the least intensified by rivalries within the Social Democratic leadership.

Still president of the SPD, Brandt focused again on his preferred field of politics, international relations. Elected president of the Socialist International in 1976, he accepted the World Bank's invitation to chair an "Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues," which resulted in the publication of the "North-South" (or Brandt) Report in 1980 on behalf of the United Nations. It was only after a minor intraparty quarrel that he resigned from the party presidency in 1987. The ensuing sense of growing estrangement from the party in his late years was only interrupted by the democratic revolution in the GDR in 1989 and the ensuing German unification, which Brandt supported in an unequivocal way, coining the famous phrase "Now things grow together that belong together" (Nun wächst zusammen was zusammengehört) the day after the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. He was held in high esteem by East Germans since a spectacular official visit to Erfurt in 1970, where he had been cheered spontaneously by a large crowd. Brandt had to withdraw from actual politics due to declining health. He died of cancer in 1992.

During his lifetime Brandt was seen by his contemporaries as a radiant personality who aroused veneration and animosity. It was not just his history as a young antifascist resistance fighter that made him decidedly different from the majority of bystanders and ex-Nazis populating the ranks of his peers in the West German political elite. He also represented modernity and change in a broader sense of lifestyle and cultural interests contrasting with the provincial, petit-bourgeois appeal of the Christian conservative "Bonn republic" of the 1950s. Polyglot by virtue of his travels and experience as an exile, he manifested a very individual flair for cosmopolitan intellectualism. As a former journalist, he established firm links to the community of young West German writers and artists, such as Günter Grass (b. 1927), who would later win a Nobel Prize, and writers and artists in other countries. Brandt was one of the most prolific writers among the guild of full-time politicians in Germany, leaving behind a considerable oeuvre with numerous nonfiction books, memoirs, and hundreds of articles. It comes therefore as no surprise that Brandt engages the imagination of play wrights, movie-makers, and novelists, for instance in the play Democracy by Michael Frayn (b. 1933), which premiered in London in 2003. Brandt's political and historical legacy is administered by a Bundeskanzler-Willy-Brandt-foundation erected by the SPD and his wife, Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt (b. 1946), in the town hall of Berlin-Schöneberg, where he had worked during his years as mayor.

See alsoBerlin Wall; Germany; 1989.


Primary Sources

Brandt, Willy. Berliner Ausgabe. Edited by Helga Grebing/Bundeskanzler-Willy-Brandt-Stiftung. Bonn, 2000–.

Secondary Sources

Marshall, Barbara. Willy Brandt: A Political Biography. Basingstoke, U.K., 1997.

Münkel, Daniela. Willy Brandt und die "vierte Gewalt": Politik und Massenmedien in den 50er bis 70er Jahren. Frankfurt and New York, 2005.

Schöllgen, Gregor. Willy Brandt: Die Biographie. Berlin and Munich, 2002.

Thomas Lindenberger