Obituary: Willy Brandt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WILLY BRANDT was a man of such warmth and humour that he was hard to visualise as a former Chancellor of West Germany, writes Anthony Sampson. Yet he had a natural authority which came less from his political power than from his moral perspective and instinctive awareness of world problems.

I had the luck to work closely with him as editorial adviser to the commission on Third World problems of which he was chairman from 1978 to 1979. He invited me to lunch to explain that the problems had to be made readable to a mass public, so that they could press politicians to do something about them. The commission's secretariat, he said, had too many economists: the report needed to be exciting, with some jokes. He was wonderful company, though he had recently been very ill. In the middle of lunch he called for his bodyguard, and whispered to him to get some cigarettes which (he explained to me with his naughty-boy look) he was not supposed to smoke.

His invitation was irresistible, but the task was soon daunting. Attending the long weekend meetings of the commission, trying to find some common ground, I was amazed by Brandt's tolerance: he would not cut short any speech - even an hour's tirade by a Third World delegate - while the Americans and Europeans (who included Ted Heath) became still more impatient. He relished the views of five continents and regretted that Russians and Chinese were not also represented. He resisted any purely economic view of the world: 'Do we all want to be Americans?'

He never lost sight of the rest of the world. Outside the conference room he talked about signs of trouble in Eastern Europe - the disintegration of the Polish Communist Party, the absurdities of Honecker in East Germany and the signs of divisions in Moscow. He often arrived in the morning reading ticker-tape reports, and gave his own commentary on world events, never losing his optimism when the news was appalling: quoting Luther, 'If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree.'

In the evenings he loved drinking and telling stories, especially with women around him. He loved women, one of his staff explained, because he had been brought up by them; but his own intuition was also quite feminine. His form notably improved when his young girlfriend, who later became his third wife, arrived to join him.

He loved stories and jokes against Germany. When the commission took a train journey from Bonn to Brussels which was absurdly late and slow-moving, he relished the evidence that the Germans were after all not so efficient. But he kept closely in touch with the Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, very aware of Schmidt's worries about the inflationary consequences of the bolder recommendations of the commission. When Schmidt entertained the commission in Berlin and outspokenly attacked the Opec members for not helping the West, Brandt invited him to continue the argument until late in the evening.

Like most politicians Brandt preferred talking to writing. When he decided to write his own introduction to the report I was given only a few short quotations from speeches to work on. But he expressed himself vividly in English and eventually produced trenchant phrases which concentrated on the issues he felt most strongly about - the outrage of world poverty, the wastage of arms production, the need to look across the world, east and west.

He presided over the commission with a relaxed informal style which allowed everyone to speak freely and never imposed his position. Once when the report had reached a crisis he insisted on coming to see me in my hotel, chatting in the garden (while his bodyguards hid in the bushes), gossiping about his colleagues and their state of mind.

As the commission failed to reach agreement Brandt got his friend Olof Palme, the former Swedish Prime Minister, to try to reach a deal with a sub-committee of Sonny Ramphal, Pete Peterson and Abdlatif Al Hamad, who asked me to write an overnight chapter outlining it. But the commission would not accept it, and Brandt finally appeared to lose his temper, dramatically leaving the room and asking the commission to finish it themselves. Without him the commission felt rudderless; but eventually Ted Heath and Sonny Ramphal agreed to thrash out a report with the secretariat, who painstakingly produced an agreed version which Brandt and the others accepted.

But Western governments were moving against any increased aid, and neither Reagan in Washington nor Thatcher in London were sympathetic to the report. When Brandt came to Washington he was only invited to the White House through the intervention of Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. In London the Foreign Office formally rebutted the report; but it became a best-seller and when Brandt came to Oxford he was met with overflowing audiences, which helped to restore his admiration for Britain, which was deep.

Brandt always seemed too reflective and far-sighted to be a practical politician, but he had a natural statesmanship which now seems almost extinct in Europe. He was always looking a stage ahead, wondering what was going on in the minds of other countries - particularly in the east. When West Germany suddenly had the chance to reunify with east Germany many leaders in his Social Democratic Party were slow to react, and opposed Kohl's swift move; but Brandt insisted the chance should be seized, which helped to rescue the SDP's subsequent reputation.

I continued to see Brandt at periodic reunions of the commission and at other events when he tried to keep Third World problems alive. When I visited Bonn in April this year I spent the lunch- hour with him: he was drinking, smoking and talking with his usual gusto, gossiping freely about Germany and the world.

He explained that Kohl should have put up taxes when Germany was reunified, when voters were still full of euphoria - which would have reduced the need to borrow so heavily, thus putting up all Europe's interest rates. He thought that Kohl might resign before too long; and that Lubbers, the Dutch prime minister, should succeed Delors as president of the European Commission. He thought that the Maastricht Treaty had probably been pushed through too fast for European public opinion, including German opinion, and that the final stage of the treaty might have to be postponed - but that would not be too serious. He insisted that Germany must not be the only financial power in Eastern Europe. He wanted Britain to invest more, particularly in East Germany and Poland. I asked: 'You mean you would like us to surround Germany.' He laughed and said: 'Yes, exactly.'

Comments