Willy Brandt 1913 – 1992: The European Mandela?

By Peter Russell

In one of his typically ebullient accounts of life in 1950s Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor recalls how even the most isolated shepherds and villagers would display an acute curiosity about British politics, asking questions like “do you prefer Mr Churchill or Mr Attlee?”

In a similar manner, in the mid-1970s, I found myself with a German friend in a Turkish roadside café being asked whether Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt was the better Chancellor of then West Germany.  The German friend replied instantly: “Schmidt will be better for business, Willy Brandt was better for the people.”

The excellent website of the Willy Brandt Foundation shows four photographs of Brandt from different times of his remarkable life.

The first is as young man in exile in Norway in 1937, where he had fled from the Nazis. He worked in the resistance both in Norway and undercover in Germany. During his later political career in post-war West  Germany, he was criticised for doing so  and for taking Norwegian citizenship.

The second picture shows Brandt in 1958 as the transformational Mayor of West Berlin. During his terms of office (to 1966) tens of thousands of homes were built and the entire modern infrastructure of the city was put into place.

He also embodied the spirit of West Berlin as an island of social democracy surrounded by Stalinism. This included not only accompanying John F. Kennedy on his famous visit in 1961, but also demanding of the President that West Berlin needed not just words but also political action to resist the Soviet Union and its East German client state.

The third picture shows Willy Brandt as the first Social Democrat Chancellor of West Germany. His time in office from 1969-74 was marked by a blizzard of legislation which brought about widespread progress and reform in domestic  policy including health, education, social security, housing and infrastructure, planning and urban and rural development. His will and ability to force through such a radical programme also earned him, at least tacitly, the support of much of the Extra Parliamentary Opposition (APO), and further isolated extreme elements like the Rote-Armee-Fraktion (RAF).

As Chancellor , Brandt also stood up to the internal lobby of ethnic Germans displaced from eastern Europe after WW2, making it clear that the future for Germany would be east of the Rhine and west of the Oder-Neiße-Line, with no expansionary ambitions on its neighbours.

With this established, he set out on his mission of the new Ostpolitik, leading the way in blunting the threats of the Cold War, despite his country being under continued partition and partial occupation by the USSR. His achievements in east-west diplomacy earned Willy Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

This same third picture shows Brandt in his truly iconic status:  the German Chancellor kneeling in penance at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970. The “Warschauer Kniefall” was his spontaneous gesture after which nothing was ever the same again, as the head of the West German government sought atonement for the crimes which his countrymen and women had committed.

Brandt himself was one of those individuals whose exile and resistance had proven that the first victims of the Nazis were Germans, so he bore no personal guilt, but he had the vast personal courage to bear the dreadful weight of his country’s shame if it would help to build a new common future in Europe.

Willy Brandt lost the Chancellorship in 1974 following the discovery of infiltration of his closest circles by the East German Stasi. There had also been persistent rumours of heavy drinking and womanising.

Brandt admitted on stepping down that he was exhausted and had run out of political steam, but on his recovery, he took on a new lease of life as he turned to north-south issues with the same vigour as he had addressed the east-west question.

He headed the Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues, and produced the Brandt Report in 1980, which called for drastic changes in the global attitude towards development in the Third World. His conclusion was:

“Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?”(1983)

The final photo is of Willy Brandt celebrating the reunification of Berlin (and Germany) in 1989. Elderly, frail and at the same time seemingly indestructible, he lived to see at last the end of totalitarianism in Germany, and his beloved Germany reunited and at peace with itself and its neighbours.  In disagreement with his colleagues in the SPD, he had supported an immediate reunification rather than a gradual assimilation of the former GDR: it is possible that he was impatient for this to happen in his own lifetime.

If so, he was successful. No-one has ever achieved so much for Germany, and or possibly for any country in Europe.

18th December 2013 marked the centenary of Willy Brandt’s birth, which made him only five years older than Nelson Mandela, whom he predeceased by 11 years, having died in October 1992. Since Mandela’s death, there have been various comparisons with his life and achievements,  but it is genuinely worth arguing that in some ways, Willy Brandt was his European equivalent.

Like Mandela, Brandt had been an undercover freedom fighter against racist right-wing oppression. He was a democrat, and a symbol of reconciliation and peace. He fought all of his life for social justice based on unity and solidarity. He was a beacon of progress for his country and his continent.

Very few such men come along in history, who change the world for the better.  One of these in the 20th century was Nelson Mandela, another was Willy Brandt.

Author Biography

Peter Russell is a retired local government officer and policy specialist living in Glasgow. He has previously worked in policy positions for Greater London Council and for Glasgow City Council as a PA to successive Leaders of the Council, subsequently moving to economic policy, social policy and international strategies, ending up as Advisor to the Lord ProvostHe has also worked extensively in Europe with EUROCITIES, and in Russia on European Union know-how projects, specialising in urban regeneration. 

You can find him on WordPress Twitter

For further accounts of Willy Brandt’s life see the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willy_Brandt (an unusually comprehensive wiki biography)

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/77739/Willy-Brandt

*Cover image ‘Willy Brandt talking at an SPD meeting inDortmund, 1983‘ by Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F064862-0019 / Schaack, Lothar / CC-BY-SA

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