Obituary: Willy Brandt

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The Independent Online
Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm (Willy Brandt), politician, born Lubeck 18 December 1913, Norwegian Press Attache Berlin 1945-48, Member Bundestag 1949-57, 1969-87, Chief Editor Berliner Stadtblatt 1950-51, Governing Mayor of Berlin 1957-66, President Bundesrat 1957-58, President Deutscher Stadtetag 1958-63, Leader Social Democratic Party (SPD) Federal Republic of Germany 1964-87, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice-Chancellor 1966- 69, Chancellor 1969-74, Nobel Peace Prize 1971, President Socialist International 1976-92, Member European Parliament 1979-83, married 1941 Carlota Thorkildsen (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1944), 1948 Rut Hansen (three sons; marriage dissolved 1979), 1983 Brigitte Seebacher, died Bonn 9 October 1992.

IT CAN STILL seem surprising that a generally conservative, conformist country like West Germany, with a large Catholic population, chose as its Chancellor in 1969 an illegitimate working- class socialist who had spent the war as a Norwegian citizen.

Yet one only had to meet Willy Brandt to be less surprised. He was a person of great charm, warmth and intelligence. With his broad, open face, infectious enthusiasm, and transparent moral integrity he could captivate even those who did not share his ideas. He mixed as easily with intellectuals and foreign statesmen as with the working classes from whom he came.

He was driven by a strong social conscience, reinforcing his belief, forged in early struggles against Hitler, that Germany must redeem itself by contributing to peace and the betterment of the human condition. President Richard von Weizsacker, in a generous tribute on Brandt's 75th birthday, called him 'one of the world's great leading figures since the Second World War' and said that he had 'resolved the conflict between power and morals'.

Although in private a complex person, often afflicted by doubts and melancholy, Brandt came over in public during his best years as a determined but moderate leader, a tough fighter who believed in conciliation, an idealist who never lost his sense of political realism, and, even when vacillating, as he often did, a man who could take firm decisions at crucial moments. Because of his youthful good looks and modern approach he was sometimes portrayed as a German version of President John F. Kennedy. Although his origins could scarcely have been more different, the generation whose politics were formed during his heyday is still marked in the same way as the Kennedy generation in the United States. He also shared the Kennedy interest in women, though with more taste and discretion.

His contribution to history covered many periods. During the war he worked for the German resistance from exile in Scandinavia and illegally in Berlin. As the vigorous young Governing Mayor of West Berlin from 1957 to 1966 he stood up to Soviet pressures and led the beleaguered city through some of its most difficult moments, including the building of the wall in 1961. As Chancellor from 1969 to 1974 he achieved the historic reconciliation with Germany's eastern neighbours which made European detente possible. If people have destinies it was clearly Brandt's to make that major contribution to German history. It brought him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

As a domestic political leader he used his moral authority to draw the restless, alienated younger generation of the 1960s into democratic politics. As the gravel-voiced elder statesman, who came increasingly to resemble a wood carving of himself, he turned his concern for social justice to the problems of the Third World. Finally, as the two parts of Germany came together in 1989-90, he enjoyed a moving autumnal renaissance as the true father of German unity and spokesman for its conscience, crowning a long career on the moral high ground of German politics.

From his adolescence Brandt impressed people as being in some way special. His start in life was not auspicious. He was born as Herbert Frahm in Lubeck in 1913, the son of an unmarried salesgirl. He never knew his father, and, since his mother worked, he spent a rather lonely infancy in the care of a minder. He then went to live with his maternal grandfather, a dedicated socialist who had been a rebellious labourer on one of the big estates of Mecklenburg and was by that time a truck-driver. The older man had a strong influence on his grandson, singing him socialist songs and telling him that socialism would one day end all injustice and make money disappear.

The young Frahm was nine when the workers of Lubeck went on strike, and 10 during the catastrophic inflation of 1923, when schoolchildren collected laundry baskets full of devalued bank notes to buy a few sweets. He long remembered an incident during the strike when the soft-hearted director of a local factory bought him some bread but his grandfather made him take it back, telling him sternly that a striker does not accept gifts from his employer.

At 13 Frahm won a scholarship to high school and his mother married a socialist bricklayer. At 14 he started writing for the local Social Democratic paper, the Volksboten. He joined the Socialist Youth organisation and enjoyed its hiking, camping and comradeship. He was recognised as a good speaker and organiser and made president of his local district organisation, attracting the attention of Julius Leber, then leader of the Lubeck Social Democrats and a member of parliament. Leber, who became something of a substitute father, got him into the party when he was just under 17, although the official age for joining was 18. But Leber was then on the right wing of the party, and during the struggles and street battles with the emerging Nazis he could not stop his young protege joining the breakaway left- wing Socialist Workers Party, which he derided as a group of crazy sectarian cripples. The parting was bitter, and Frahm lost the financial support that would have enabled him to go to university. But his personal loyalty remained. When Leber was arrested two days after Hitler took power, Frahm took a leading part in the protests.

It was during this time that Frahm took a cover- name for his political activity, travelling to an illegal convention in Dresden as Willy Brandt. By then he was a marked man, wanted by the Nazis, and had no way of earning his living. Emigration seemed the only option, so he escaped by night in a fishing-boat and went to Oslo, where he was helped by the Norwegian Labour Party and became a journalist. He kept in close touch with the German resistance, sending in illegal newspapers, organising protests, and gathering support for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, imprisoned by Hitler.

In 1936 Brandt borrowed a Norwegian passport, changed the photograph, and went to Berlin for six months of dangerous illegal work. It was there that he discovered a love of classical music which remained with him. The following year he covered the Spanish civil war as a correspondent for Scandinavian newspapers. He was appalled by the behaviour of the Communists and in particular their subservience to Moscow, a judgement reinforced when he attended a Popular Front congress in Paris. When he criticised the Communists in print they responded by calling him a social Fascist.

When the Germans invaded Norway Brandt fled to the countryside. He had no Norwegian citizenship to protect him, and eventually struggled into an ill-fitting Norwegian army uniform in order to be treated as a prisoner of war. Fortunate to escape detection, he was released and went on foot to Sweden, where he worked with the German underground. The torture and execution of his mentor Julius Leber in 1945 fuelled his determination to dedicate his life to the construction of a new Germany.

After the war he returned to Germany as a Norwegian reporter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and then became Norwegian press attache in Berlin. He had meanwhile met Kurt Schumacher, the embittered leader of the Social Democratic Party, who had spent much of the Nazi period in concentration camps. Schumacher asked him to take over the Berlin office of the party's executive committee, so in 1947 he took German citizenship and relinquished the material and other privileges of being a Norwegian diplomat, which were not insignificant in that ruined, freezing city.

Thus began Brandt's rise to the top of German politics. He had to work hard to win the confidence of local party functionaries. He also disagreed on many issues with Schumacher, primarily in that he believed West Germany should win the confidence of its Western allies rather than single-mindedly pursuing German reunification at the expense of the Western alliance. His experience abroad and his sense of history made him aware that the German problem could not be solved except in a European context and with the consent of neighbours and allies. When the Social Democratic Party rejected Konrad Adenauer's pro-Western policies, Brandt opposed his own party. His attitude, together with his uncompromising resistance to Soviet pressure, made him popular with the Allied authorities when he became Governing Mayor of Berlin in 1957. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 he strongly supported President Kennedy in spite of fears that the Soviet Union might retaliate against Berlin. There was little sign that he would later be criticised for being too soft towards the pacifist wing of his party. 'If you don't know how to use military force it will wipe you out,' he once wrote. Nor did he have any illusions about Communism. He had seen the Communists join the Nazis in early opposition to the Social Democrats and later sign a pact with Hitler. He also had a close-up view of East Germany. The notion, propagated later by Christian Democratic opponents, that Brandt was in some way soft on Communism was always absurd.

Yet it was in Berlin, especially after the building of the wall in 1961, that he became increasingly conscious of the sterility of West German policy towards the east and the need for new approaches that would reduce confrontation and open up contacts. In this and in other ways he was closer to Kennedy than to Adenauer's government in Bonn.

Brandt first ran for Chancellor in 1961. It was a bruising campaign in which his illegitimacy and emigration were mercilessly exploited by the Christian Democrats, but he emerged with a remarkable lack of bitterness. He was already evolving his Ostpolitik, arguing that Adenauer's reunification policy had failed and that it was time to enter a new relationship with East Germany and the Soviet Union. He was nevertheless defeated again in 1965 and returned to Berlin vowing not to make a third attempt. But the party rallied behind him and in 1966 he joined the coalition with the Christian Democrats as Foreign Minister. By that time the Christian Democrats were also trying to open relations with Eastern Europe, but they tried to isolate East Germany, which blocked their efforts.

Brandt had to wait until 1969, when his party won just enough votes to form a coalition with the Free Democrats, to make the decisive step towards relations with East Germany, though still without granting it full recognition as a foreign country. Treaties were also signed with the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia renouncing territorial claims. The status of West Berlin was regularised by the occupying powers and the way opened for the Helsinki conference of 1975 and a new phase in East-West relations.

Brandt's Ostpolitik derived both from a moral impulse to atone for Germany's crimes against its eastern neighbours and from a realistic assessment of the cul-de-sac in which German policy found itself. By refusing to accept the post-war frontiers the Federal Republic encouraged Eastern Europe to cling to Soviet security guarantees and gave the Soviet Union an excuse to tighten its grip on the Warsaw Pact. By refusing to recognise East Germany, and trying to isolate other countries that did, West Germany denied itself political and economic influence in Eastern Europe. Brandt and his colleagues saw that only by developing contacts and penetrating the Communist system could changes be set in motion that would ameliorate the human cost of the division of Europe and gradually create conditions in which it might be overcome.

His moral and political instincts came together in one of the most famous moments in his career, when he knelt before the monument to Jews killed in the Warsaw ghetto. As Weizsacker said in his birthday tribute, 'No one expected it. No one has forgotten. It changed things. It opened a new way for the people.'

However, Brandt still had to face bitter opposition at home. Orthodox thinking held that any move towards accepting the existence of East Germany meant renouncing reunification, and might even breach the Constitution. In 1972 the Christian Democrats tried to bring down Brandt's government with a vote of no confidence on the issue of the eastern treaties. They wooed over some wobbly members of the coalition, but the government survived by a very narrow margin. The voters showed which side they were on by giving the Social Democrats more seats at the next election. By that time, however, Brandt's principal work was done and he began to flag. He was unwell, and could not cope with the economic stresses caused by the oil crisis or the sharpening debates within his own party over nuclear weapons and other matters. The party's slightly larger majority had made it less manageable and it had clearly overspent in the social field. By the time he reached his 60th birthday in 1973 he sensed, as he wrote later, that 'the air in which I had to operate had become thinner'. The party suffered heavy losses in local elections in Hamburg. Although the polls did not show an irreversible decline it was losing support.

The final blow came with the discovery that one of his closest aides, Gunther Guillaume, was an East German spy. Brandt was deeply embarrassed politically but also suffered personally from losing confidence in those he trusted. The betrayal was particularly painful because he had worked so hard for the recognition of East Germany. After hesitating for nearly two weeks he resigned as Chancellor on 6 May 1974.

He remained chairman of the party, doing his best to contain its widening splits and the growing alienation of the left wing, particularly over nuclear weapons. He got on badly with Helmut Schmidt, his successor, who thought he was indecisive and too soft towards the left and the emerging Greens. Perhaps the radicalism of Brandt's early youth was beginning to resurface, but he himself exemplified the fact that young radicals can grow up to become steady pillars of moderation. Remembering his own past, he argued for containment rather than exclusion.

The students of the late 1960s had begun to question the comfortable materialism of their country and the silence that surrounded their fathers' role in the Nazi period. This exacerbated tensions already inherent in the sudden expansion of university education and led to huge demonstrations. It became fashionable in some student circles to reject conventional politics altogether, arguing that they merely perpetuated the rule of former Nazis such as Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who was chancellor from 1966 to 1969. As the student movement split up, some groups took to terrorism.

Brandt's moral authority helped him to bridge the generation gap. To many of the young he was one of the very few people who made politics respectable. But he did not become their uncritical champion. A lesser man might have used his past record and his rising popularity to gain advantage over his political opponents, demanding a victory of 'good' Germans over bad. Brandt was above that. Having lived through Nazism and experienced the dangers and multiple choices involved in resisting it, he could not share the moral simplicities of the young, some of whom were trying to prove themselves better than their fathers by pretending that they were now fighting Fascism in the shape of the current establishment. 'I was sometimes appalled by the quasi-religious fervour which proliferated in the guise of infinite reason,' he wrote, 'but the impulse towards liberty and justice stirred me and revived memories of my own early endeavours.'

The working class remained largely hostile to the students, and Brandt was worried by echoes of the violence of the Weimar Republic. He believed deeply in the democratic process which had elected him. He did not wish to see his country or his party once again fighting over ideology. This disappointed some of his more aggressive admirers, but it enabled him to find a balance between sympathising with the rebellious young and resisting their more extreme elements. He went along rather sadly with the exclusion of the more radical students from the party but still worked hard to contain those who could be contained. For much of his time as chairman of the party he was one of the few people who could claim the loyalty of different warring factions.

By the mid-Seventies, however, the picture was changing. The new left and the Greens were a different breed, more hostile to conventional politics than their predecessors, and less easy to integrate. The party was demoralised by electoral defeats and the prospect of a long period in opposition. Although still revered by many as a great figure, Brandt was losing touch and his authority was dwindling. His personal life was also coming under more criticism. In 1979 he divorced his second wife, Rut, whom he had married in 1948. Four years later he married Brigitte Seebacher, a journalist and local party official. Dissatisfaction in the party came to a head in 1987, when he tried to appoint a Greek woman as party spokesman. Eventually, he bowed to the inevitable and resigned the party leadership, remaining only as a revered monument to a better past.

Earlier, after stepping down as Chancellor, his idealism had sought another outlet in the Third World, which he described as 'the greatest challenge to humanity for the rest of this century'. In 1977 he became chairman of an independent body which came to be known as the Brandt Commission. Its first report won much publicity for North-South problems, arguing that the moral requirement to help the poorer countries should reinforce the West's interests in reducing the causes of conflict and promoting world trade. It gave impetus to new thinking but its prescriptions were not widely accepted. Brandt was also disappointed by the failure of his efforts to draw the Soviet Union into a greater sense of global responsibility. Personal appeals failed to move the Brezhnev regime, although they may have had a delayed effect on those who later advised Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1976 he became President of the Socialist International, a post he retained until last month, when, unable to attend, he sent a valedictory speech which was read out at the opening of the SI's 19th Congress in Berlin.

The legacy of Brandt's domestic administration was mixed. He was to some extent a victim of the reformist euphoria of the 1960s, believing that great changes could be wrought by political liberalisation and social spending. Some of his reforms, particularly in education, were reversed, and others either cut back or abandoned. As he himself later admitted, many of his plans were ill-prepared and too expensive. The oil-price shock of 1973 demanded stringency, and the rise of domestic terrorism tested his liberalism. To his later regret he introduced the controversial Radikalenerlass, a vast extension of political vetting to counter the plans of the radical left to embark on a 'long march' through the institutions of the still insecure democracy. Nevertheless, he helped shape a period in which German society became, on the whole, more diverse and tolerant.

It is on foreign affairs that his reputation will stand. His greatest monument, the opening to the East, became the central pillar of German policy. The Christian Democrats, who bitterly attacked it at the time, made it their own when they came to power, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl eventually reaped its fruits. Willy Brandt, however, was not denied credit. An emotional man, it was with tears of joy he saw the hated Berlin wall come down, and with no less emotion that he received the public acclaim of the people of East Germany for his role in bringing them in from the cold. The young Herbert Frahm would have had mixed feelings about modern capitalist Germany but not about the triumph of democracy.

(Photograph omitted)

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