Age of the Sage site banner

Willy Brandt biography
The Ostpolitik policy

Willy Brandt - A Peace Policy for Europe

Willy Brandt is the adopted name of Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm. Born in December 1913 to an unwed Lubeck shopgirl, he was raised by his maternal grandfather to be a fervent blue-collar socialist. As a teenager Brandt first joined the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD) in 1930, but one year later switched to a more radical spin-off, the SAP. In 1933, to escape arrest by the Gestapo, he changed his name to Willy Brandt and fled to Scandinavia where he was active as a journalist and in anti-fascist movements.

In 1945 / 46 he worked as a correspondent in Germany for Scandinavian newspapers and then became press officer at the Norwegian Mission in Berlin. Brandt was persuaded by fellow Social Democrats to apply for reinstatement of his German citizenship, which had been lifted by the Nazis in 1938.

Brandt, who is thin-skinned and sensitive, has often been called a "traitor" in West Germany for fleeing during the Nazi years. Brandt declares: "I did not regard my fate as an exile as a blot on my copybook, but rather as a chance to serve the 'Other Germany,' which did not resign itself submissively to enslavement."

In 1949 he was elected a member of the first parliament of the post-war West Germany that convened in Bonn. A fierce anti-communist and pragmatic socialist, Brandt quickly made a name for himself in the SPD serving as editor-in-chief of the social democratic Berliner Stadtblatt. In 1957 the SPD chose him as its candidate for the office of Governing Mayor in West Berlin.

At the 1958 Stuttgart Party Congress Brandt was elected to the Party Committee and he was prominent in the proceedings of an extraordinary party congress held in Bad Godesburg in 1959 where the policy outlook of the party was fundamentally adjusted in the so-called Godesburger Program which accepted that a social market economy had some advantages of and disavowed rigourously Marxist state ownership policies.

Journalist Egon Bahr, who was his press aide and who was to become his chief foreign policy advisor, began to propound the thesis that West Germany could influence developments within East Germany by establishing closer contacts with it. It was a concept that subsequently was expanded to include the entire East bloc. The turning point in Brandt's own thinking came on that fateful weekend of Aug. 12-13, 1961, when the East German state (the DDR) suddenly began to erect the Wall through the heart of Berlin to stem the outflow of East German refugees.

The Wall was a blatant violation of international understandings about free movement throughout the city, but the Western allies waited a full 48 hours before lodging an ineffectual protest with the Soviets. "Kennedy cooked our goose," said Brandt, and he fired off a blistering reproach to the President. (He later mellowed toward Kennedy, however, after the young President delivered his Ich bin ein Berliner speech in West Berlin in June, 1963.)

Brandt decided that if anything was to be done to ease relations between Bonn and East Berlin, the Germans would have to do it themselves. Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr presented their ideas regarding German and Eastern policies in July 1963 to a conference of the Protestant Academy in Tutzing. The basis of the "new Eastern and German policy", as it will be described, is the recognition that the European catastrophe began with the seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 and that Germany must accept the historical results. This recognition can lead to contact with the East European states in a climate of detente. The new policy conceptualized by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr is circumscribed by concepts such as "change through rapprochement" (Bahr) and "policy of small steps" (Brandt).

It was the beginning of the later-to-be-famous policy of Ostpolitik, which sought to overcome the effects of the division of Germany and Europe on the basis of the recognition of its reality.

Among the early results of these policies were the Berlin Senates' signing in December 1963 of the so-called pass agreement with the DDR whereby permits were made available for limited visits by West Berliners to the Eastern sector of the city. The privilege was later extended to other citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Brandt was nominated the SPD candidate for chancellor in 1965. One of the themes of his campaign for the chancellorship was based on the view that - "There will never be any real peace until we come to a settlement with our Eastern neighbors." Brandt's 1968 book, A Peace Policy for Europe held that "The recognition is growing that the nations of Europe must and will not simply come to terms with being permanently divided by the conflict between East and West ... even fundamental differences of political conviction and of social structure need not hold back the states of Europe...from working together in areas of common interest for the consolidation of an enduring peace."

Brandt served as Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister in a West German coalition government between 1966 and 1969. His election as West Germany's first Social Democratic Chancellor in October 1969 was a marginal victory. Germany was however in the process of profound change and, by this time, many of Brandt's liabilities were converted into assets. Once in office, he swiftly began executing a broad diplomatic design that has been ripening in his mind for years. Less than six weeks after he became Chancellor, Brandt went to The Hague for a meeting of the six heads of government of the Common Market countries. Largely because of Charles de Gaulle's refusal to allow the six to admit new members, the Common Market was stagnating; there was feeling that it might fall apart unless it regained momentum. "The German Parliament and public expect me to return from this conference with concrete arrangements for the Community's enlargement," Brandt told France's President Georges Pompidou in open session. "Those who fear the economic strength of West Germany," he shrewdly added, "should favor expansion." Pompidou, who has come to regard London as a necessary counterbalance to Bonn, reversed his predecessor's policy and voted to reopen negotiations looking toward Britain's admission.

His Chancellorship became most renowned for the implementation of Ostpolitik and West Germany's further reconciliation with the outside world. In 1969 - a quarter of a century after World War II, no European peace treaty has been written, and, in a very real sense, the results of the war had not been resolved. In the West, Bonn had made detente impossible by refusing to acknowledge the loss of a huge chuck of its land to Poland and by stridently insisting that it would absorb East Berlin's Communist regime in an eventual German reunification. Willy Brandt was the first West German statesman reluctantly willing to accept the complete consequences of defeat: the lost lands, the admission of moral responsibility, and acknowledgement of Germany's participation.

Using West Germany's considerable strategic and economic leverage, Brandt tried to bring about an enlarged and united Western Europe, which would remain closely allied with the U.S. but would also have sufficient self-confidence and independence to form close ties with the Communist nations.

Brandt's government concluded a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union and also normalized relations with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and, finally, East Germany. What made Ostpolitik possible was the fact that Brandt's government recognized Europe's borders as inviolable, and furthermore that it acknowledged the existence of two states in the German nation. Even though formally Brandt did not give up on the objective of German unification, many Germans at the time seemed to have their doubts. For both East and West, Willy Brandt's road was potentially perilous. In the West, there were misgivings that Brandt's initiatives might end with Bonn's accepting onerous conditions from the Communists and getting little or nothing in return. In the East, there was concern that Brandt's policies would lead to more contact with the West than is either prudent or safe.

In this process, Brandt was implicitly challenging the Communist countries to expand their dealings with the West, and indirectly, to allow wider freedom for their own people. This challenge slowed the momentum of Brandt's diplomacy, but did not inhibit it completely. Opposed to the hard-liners in practically every politburo in the East bloc there were pragmatists who saw detente as a lesser threat to their continued control than the present deep economic difficulties. Those men argued that the only way to avoid domestic explosions was by securing more Western technological and economic help in order to revitalize their sagging economies and give their people a better life.

In 1971 Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in improving east-west relations. In elections in 1972 the SPD led by Brandt gained its largest election victory ever. A dramatic anti-climax came in May 1974 when Brandt resigned shocked by the discovery that one of his personal assistants, Guenter Guillaume, was a spy for the DDR.

Until his death at age 78 on October 8, 1992, near Bonn, three years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Brandt remained active in German politics, the Socialist International, and as an international spokesman for better North-South relations.