Willy Brandt was a German left-wing politician whose life was filled with drama. Working with the Resistance during the Nazi regime, he fled Germany—living in numerous countries—before returning to embark on a remarkable political career. His policies caused worldwide ripples, earning him the respect of both the people and other world leaders. He was named Time Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1970, and in 1971 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born Karl Herbert Frahm on 18 December 1913, Brandt seemed destined for a political life from the beginning. His political awareness was activated by his grandfather, leading him to have left-wing views that opposed the political culture that was dominating Germany. He would join the Social Democratic Party (SDP) but would leave a year later, joining instead the Socialist Workers Party in protest to the SDP’s compromises with the Nazis.
He travelled internationally, usually taking up leftist causes, and would eventually be forced to flee to Norway, where he increased his political activities. He worked as a journalist— under the name ‘Willy Brandt’. In 1936 he returned to Germany to help support a doomed Resistance plot to undermine the Nazis. His German citizenship was revoked in 1938, and when Hitler invaded Norway in 1940 he fled again—this time to Sweden, where he worked as a writer and as a lecturer.
Return to Germany
Brandt would eventually return to Germany in 1946 as a Norwegian correspondent reporting on the Nuremberg trials. Writing about the importance of these trials, he was famously quoted as saying: “The Germans must carry the responsibility. Responsibility, however, is not the same as guilt. Those who do not feel guilty and are not guilty of the Nazi crimes cannot — if they want to go on working in this nation and make it better — withdraw from the consequences of a policy which the greater majority of the nation acceded to: They cannot place themselves outside the community of responsibility.”
In 1948, Brandt reclaimed his German citizenship and re-joined the SDP. He would quickly rise within its ranks, standing above those who had served the Nazi cause, and although he carried socialist beliefs they were in opposition to Soviet communism.
Rise in Politics
In 1957, Brandt was elected Mayor of West Berlin, a post he would actively serve until 1966. Due to events that occurred during his tenure, he would find himself in the spotlight of world affairs. Khrushchev’s plan of ‘freeing’ West Berlin led Brandt to travel abroad in support. The erection of the Berlin Wall would lead him to feel betrayed by world leaders, principally President Kennedy, who verbally opposed it but did nothing to prevent it.
Brandt would continue to rise in his political career, helping influence the SDP’s move towards the centre and, in 1963, was elected party chairman. When the SDP negotiated a coalition in 1966, Brandt entered the cabinet as Foreign Minister.
Brandt as Chancellor
Brandt would serve as Federal Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, a tenure that would mostly be marked by his policy of Ostpolitik: a policy of thawing tensions with East Germany, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In setting out his principles, Brandt famously said: Wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen—‘We dare more democracy’. He would also declare that ‘I will not be the Chancellor of a conquered Germany, but of a liberated Germany!’
His dealing with Eastern Europe was not completely loved by the West German people, but Ostpolitik policies did see a number of vital treaties agreed: treaties that acknowledged the borders claimed by the East and the recognition of ‘The People’s Republic of Poland’.
A great statesman and renowned for his unsolicited gestures, Brandt famously knelt in silence in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument while on a visit to Poland to sign The Treaty of Warsaw in 1970. That simple act split public opinion but has since become a symbolic moment. When later asked about it, Brandt stated: ‘Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.’
Brandt would also work hard to strengthen West Germany’s place in the world. His policies impressed many world leaders, including President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He helped deepen West Germany’s involvement in the European Common Market (and helped in the inclusion of Britain, Denmark and Ireland) and would see West Germany enter the United Nations in 1973.
On awarding Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize, the organisation gave the following statement behind their reasoning: ‘As federal Chancellor, Brandt saw to it that West Germany signed the nuclear weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He also concluded a nonviolence agreement with the Soviet Union and an agreement with Poland, which entailed that West Germany accepted the new national boundaries in Eastern Europe that had become effective in 1945. These treaties laid the foundations for the Four Power Agreement on Berlin which made it easier for families from either side of the divided city to visit each other.’
Brandt would resign from office in 1974. Though the Stasi spy affair may have been the tipping point, Brandt would claim it was an accumulation of many reasons, including personal failings with drink and in his marriage.
After Resigning from Office
Brandt remained active within West German politics for some time. He continued as chairman of the SDP until 1987, though more so as a figurehead as time went by. He would step into the political spotlight again with his Brandt Commission, an examination of the inequality of wealth distribution between North and South, and he served in the European Parliament for several years.
When the Wall came down in November 1989, Brandt would be welcomed by the East German people and would serve as champion for the reunified Germany that came.