Commentary Magazine

Whatever Happened to Willy Brandt?

In the summer of 1944, a thirty-year-old German exile named Herbert Frahm approached the American embassy in Stockholm with an interesting proposal. Everyone knew, said Frahm, that the defeat of Germany was only a matter of time. As a democratic socialist, he felt it important that Germans who believed in democracy should have a say in drawing the geographical boundaries and, of course, in deciding the political and economic organization of postwar Germany. The postwar boundaries should be drawn so that they could not be exploited by the revanchist and nationalist agitators who were sure to appear. In particular, Frahm feared (in the words of the official report of the conversation) “that a frontier between Germany and Poland might be defined which would be so incompatible with the ethnic, economic, and historical preconditions that no German government would accept it.” Asked for his own proposals for an eastern frontier, Frahm said that an “unbroken frontier” must be the first priority. Danzig, therefore, which was the proximate cause of the outbreak of war in 1939, must be given to Germany “irrespective of all questions of nationality of the local population.” Silesia and Pomerania—large, rich, industrial and agricultural provinces of near 100-percent German nationality—were not even discussed, although Frahm did suggest the cession to Poland (not the Soviet Union) of parts of East Prussia, perhaps even including Königsberg.

All in all, the embassy reported, “not an unreasonable suggestion . . . coming from a German.” Ambassador Herschel Johnson’s final verdict on Frahm was even more interesting:

Because of his background and his abilities, it is not difficult to foresee that he might have a promising political future in Germany and it is therefore believed that the State Department will wish to bear him in mind in case of future developments.

Johnson’s words were more prophetic than he could have imagined. Frahm was indeed destined for momentous deeds, albeit under another name, one he had chosen for himself years before, as an eighteen-year-old Left-socialist activist in Lübeck: Willy Brandt.

In the course of his long career, Brandt has moved from being a leading representative and symbol of the anti-Communist Left to a position at the forefront of those socialists who urge recognition and acceptance of Communist conquests. Having declared in 1949 that “you cannot be a democrat without being anti-Communist,” he later went on to initiate and preside over changes in East-West relations and in public attitudes to the problems of confrontation in Europe that have, on the one hand, gained him the Peace Prize of the Nobel Foundation (1971) and, on the other, criticism for having surrendered essential Western claims and positions. To be sure, Brandt himself sees no break in the continuity of his beliefs or his policies from the early days of exile onward. But to more objective eyes than his, there is a clear rupture between the pro-Western Brandt of the 50’s and the neutralist Brandt of the present. What accounts for this amazing change?



Born in 1913 into a working-class family where identification with the Social Democratic party (SPD) was strong, Brandt cut his political teeth early. Typically, perhaps, he grew impatient with what he saw as effete SPD leadership in the face of the rising brown tide of National Socialism, and he joined the breakaway Socialist Workers’ party (SAP), which from late 1931 to 1933 formed a haven for radical socialists. Of course, as is now clear, the divisions on the German Left, and especially the ineradicable hatred of the Communists for the Social Democrats (“social fascists”), were perhaps the single most important cause of Hitler’s victory in the early months of 1933. By June 1933, all parties of the Left, including both the SPD and the short-lived SAP, had been outlawed and the years of terror and exile began. Leading Social Democrats who remained in Germany were arrested and tortured; some, like Kurt Schumacher and Fritz Erler, survived, if barely; others, like Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner, became active in the Resistance and were executed after the attempted coup of July 20, 1944.

Most of those who escaped made their way to London where the SPD set up its provisional headquarters under men like Erich Ollenhauer, who succeeded Schumacher as party leader in 1952. Not so Brandt. In early April 1933, only nineteen years old but with an already broad experience of political journalism as well as sectarian intrigue, he was sent by the SAP to Norway to organize a center of socialist exiles with the support of the Norwegian Labor party.

The next thirteen years were crucial for Brandt’s political and intellectual development. On the one hand, his discovery of the pragmatic, reformist traditions of Scandinavian social democracy undermined his early revolutionary élan. But on the other hand he also absorbed the moralism and class resentment characteristic of the Norwegian Social Democrats. He came to see social democracy or democratic socialism—he makes no distinction between the two—in moral as much as in political terms.

This curious combination of pragmatism and moralism was not the only Scandinavian influence on Brandt. When the Germans occupied Norway in April 1940, Brandt, whose first book had just been published, escaped to Sweden. Here he met, among others, Gunnar Myrdal, just back from America and the studies in race relations that were to be published as An American Dilemma. From Myrdal, who wrote the Swedish Social Democratic party program of 1944, Brandt learned that the greatest task facing Social Democrats was the “synthesis of collectivism and liberalism.” Instead of expropriating the means of production wholesale, the state, controlled by the workers’ party, would take over “functions” such as distribution, safety regulation, insurance, finance, and so forth. Brandt and the Swedish Social Democrats appear to have believed seriously that this would enhance, not curtail, individual liberty and individual opportunity.

A third Scandinavian influence on Brandt, not unconnected with the others, was the great emphasis on peace. The fact that war was terrible and immoral was somehow supposed to mean that international political conflicts were not absolute, that the common interest in avoiding war also implied a common understanding of peace and a common standard of behavior.



Brandt returned to Germany in mid-1945 as a Norwegian journalist accredited to cover the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. In October 1946 he was made press attaché in the Norwegian military mission in Berlin. There he immediately began discussions with the SPD and in particular with Ernst Reuter, who, as governing mayor during the 1948-49 blockade, personified the combination of anti-Communsm and desire for German reunification then typical of the SPD. In 1947, Brandt resumed the German citizenship of which he had been deprived by the Nazi regime in 1938, and two years later, in 1949, he became Reuter’s aide.

Under Reuter’s influence, and in the exposed situation of Berlin, the moral component of Brandt’s political commitment was pushed into an anti-Communist direction. Indeed, the threat of Soviet power and the importance of American protection served to orient Brandt far more toward American policies than was the case for most of his SPD comrades, or even for Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the governing Christian Democrats in Bonn. So much was this so that by the time he became mayor in 1957, Brandt was under attack by the Left as an American lackey and a cold-war extremist. With his Scandinavian background and his distrust of ideologies, moreover, Brandt also came out in strong support of the new Godesberg Program of the SPD, promulgated in 1959, which repudiated Marxism in favor of a mixed welfare-state economy.

Although there were touches of the later Brandt evident then—taking the form, for example, of occasional statements on the “need” for the two Germanys to talk to each other, to promote humanitarian contacts, and to ease the burden of division—these were overwhelmed throughout the 50’s by an emphasis on the evils of Communist rule and the moral obligation to deny its legitimacy. Then, suddenly, the turning point came.

Brandt was in West Germany campaigning when, in the early hours of August 13, 1961, specially chosen and trained Communist cadres protected by East German troops and police began setting up the barricades that would soon be known as the Berlin Wall. He immediately returned. An old comrade offered to get 20,000 West Berlin construction workers out to remove the barricades and the barbed wire as soon as they went up, daring the East German police to fire on their fellow countrymen. But Brandt said no, let the Americans take care of it. After a rousing speech to the city council in which he declared, among other things, that “protests will not be enough,” Brandt appeared at Allied headquarters next morning to inquire what might be in the works to stop the outrage being perpetrated in violation of all agreements by the East Germans. The reply was: nothing.

Two days later, a courier brought a sizzling letter from Brandt to President John F. Kennedy in Washington, and returned the following day with Kennedy’s reply. The contents of the reply are not known in detail. Clearly, however, it was the most brutal and open statement of the declared limits of American interest in the freedom of Berlin, in principles of international law, and in German unity to have been received by any leading German politician since 1945. Brandt later said:

They [the Americans] said among other things: we still officially support reunification. Khrushchev has said that he does not want it, and that’s the way it’s going to be. In the meantime it’s in your own interest if by means of the proposed Four Power commission or other negotiations you can establish as many humanitarian contacts as possible.

The wall effectively ended the 1958-61 Berlin crisis by cauterizing its immediate source, namely, the continued and massive escape of East German citizens to the West through Berlin. Yet Walter Ulbricht, the ruler of East Germany, was right when he claimed that

our actions also correspond to the stated or implied interests of bourgeois circles in [the West], who have in various ways suggested that the government of the GDR take control of that hotbed of unrest, West Berlin. The reaction so far of the NATO countries clearly shows the sense of relief felt by many NATO politicians. . . . Our security measures will now allow the peace-loving forces in West Germany . . . who do not want a military conflict, to restrain the extremists, from [Franz Josef] Strauss to Brandt.

Yes, Brandt was an “extremist” in those days, because he still believed in German unity, and, even more remarkably in retrospect, that a lasting peace in Europe was incompatible with the division of Germany. The success of Soviet and East German aggression convinced him otherwise.

This was, strictly speaking, illogical. Quite apart from the moral factor involved, the very existence of the Berlin Wall could only strengthen the argument that German division was a source of tension. Nevertheless, without American backing, a policy of principle seemed meaningless. One of Brandt’s closest aides, Heinrich Albertz—who, not coincidentally, is today a leading elder statesman of the “peace movement”—estimated that Kennedy’s letter was of immense significance in changing Brandt’s outlook. It was on August 14, 1961, the day Brandt failed to get the response he expected from the Americans, that Ostpolitik was born.

After the wall and Brandt’s change of heart, Kennedy’s trip to Berlin in 1962 when he made the famous declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was of theatrical rather than political significance. Already in 1962 at Harvard, Brandt had given a talk on the “Ordeal of Coexistence” in which he strongly suggested that if stability in Europe were not going to be achieved by resistance, it would have to be achieved by negotiations—i.e., appeasement and concessions. For a posture of resistance unsupported by action or the requisite force would serve only to provoke further Soviet moves. In this narrow sense, Brandt’s logic, which was now beginning to be reinforced by a new emphasis on humanitarian contacts and “small steps,” was certainly sound. In essence, it has determined West German policy, whether of the SPD or the CDU-CSU, ever since.



In 1965, Brandt, now chairman of the SPD, threw himself full-time into the general elections in West Germany as the party’s candidate for Chancellor. As a result of various political maneuvers, the SPD was admitted to the government in 1966 in the “Grand Coalition” with the Christian Democrats, and Brandt became Foreign Minister.

It was during this period that Brandt began to describe his final goal as a “European Peace Order” to be achieved by recognition of the status quo and, one presumes, gradual “change through convergence,” in Egon Bahr’s famous euphemism for the mutual neutralization and final confederation of the two Germanys. Articles and speeches by Brandt from these years bear titles like “Peace Above All,” “Germany and the Soviet Union: The Beginnings of Dialogue,” or “Détente—Repairing the Bridge Between East and West.” By now, all trace was gone of Brandt’s earlier moral conviction that those who had caused the split in the first place were not fit partners in bridge-building. Indeed, by slow degrees, the conviction that the Soviets were the only enemy of European, including East European, security, peace, and freedom, slipped into a tendency to fix blame on both sides—a version of the familiar “two-superpowers” argument that has been the bane of political common sense in Western Europe for the past fifteen years.

In 1969, the election results allowed the SPD to form the “Small Coalition” with the liberal FDP, who were at least as committed to the. new Ostpolitik as the Social Democrats, and Brandt now became Chancellor. He immediately began his physical and metaphorical pilgrimages to Moscow, Warsaw, East Berlin, and Prague, carrying with him official West German recognition of the status quo in Eastern Europe, of the borders and the demographic “facts” created by Soviet power in 1944-45, and confessions of guilt for centuries of exploitation, pillage, and oppression perpetrated by Germans on Slavs and culminating in World War II.

The most dramatic episode in this series of pilgrimages was Brandt’s visit to Erfurt in East Germany in March 1970, where he was met by the East German party boss Willi Stoph. Brandt’s behavior on this occasion was striking and symptomatic. Large crowds had gathered to see the man who to them was still the Western hero, symbol of democratic Germany and of the hope for future liberty. Even the East German police failed to restrain them, and as Brandt, accompanied by Stoph, approached the hotel where he was to stay the crowds broke loose with a roar and swarmed toward him, chanting “Willy! Willy!” and then, to avoid confusion with Stoph, “Willy Brandt! Willy Brandt!”

It would be impossible to imagine a clearer statement of the true feelings of Germans in the East, or of the tremendous prestige of the Western Chancellor. Brandt’s reaction, however, was remarkable: instead of acknowledging the homage or in any way exploiting the dramatic humiliation of the, petty totalitarian Stoph beside him, Brandt hunched his shoulders and almost ran into the hotel, refusing any contact with the demonstrators. Later, he appeared briefly at a window, but only to gesture for silence. He himself excused his behavior by arguing that “after all, in two days I would be back in Bonn, whereas they. . . .”

In the negotiation itself, Stoph spent the usual Communist hour-and-a-half denouncing Brandt, the West, and all their policies. In his reply, Brandt did not demand an apology, nor did he seek to refute Stoph. He simply reiterated his own good faith and his desire for further discussions. No statements of principle, no assertion of rights or moral claims. It was as though the fervor of the “democratic anti-Communist” of the early 50’s had disappeared entirely, giving way to an equally fervent desire for negotiations, talks, agreements at any price. As for the actual substance of the conflict, the political order of Germany and Europe, it had evidently disappeared from Brandt’s mind.

So fixated did Brandt become on the idea of a new relation with the East that, when presented with evidence that his personal liaison man for party affairs, Günter Guillaume, was an East German spy, he refused to take it seriously. Guillaume was thus allowed to go on nosing steadily deeper into political and military secrets, until finally, after much delay, the blow fell. In the morning of April 24, 1974, with the East-West sky seemingly clear of clouds, Guillaume was arrested. Brandt was left with no choice but to resign as Chancellor (while remaining leader of the party).

“How could they do this to me, who have done so much for them?” he wailed, meaning the East Germans. That Communists should act like Communists was no longer self-evident to the man who in 1949 had proclaimed the incompatibility of Communism and democracy.



Brandt’s departure from office did not entail a departure from politics. Rather, it allowed him to assume the role for which he had long yearned: that of the elder statesman of the “European Peace Order.” As such, he has been chairman of the Socialist International (SI) since 1976 and of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues (ICIDI) since 1977. In these roles, while insisting that he still believes that the “real socialism” of the East is incompatible with freedom and justice, he has nevertheless worked not to strengthen the West and the values he professes to admire, but their enemies. As chairman of the SI, for example, Brandt has consistently supported or expressed solidarity with anti-Western and anti-democratic forces like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the guerrillas in El Salvador. The one great exception to this rule was in Portugal in 1974-75, where Brandt and the SI undertook a successful effort to back Mario Soares and thereby helped to prevent a Communist takeover of the country. Otherwise, the actions of the SI since 1970 have been almost entirely hostile to Western interests—interests that the SI once recognized as largely identical with its own.

The other forum of Brandt’s international activity, the ICIDI, was formed to investigate the problems of Third World poverty and to determine, if possible, how the North-South gap might be narrowed. The commission’s conclusions in North-South (1980), usually known as the Brandt Report, amounted to little more than an indictment of the West (or North) as responsible for the poverty of the South, together with a stark warning that war, violence, and other catastrophes will occur unless there is a global redistribution of capital. Here too, then, Brandt has taken an anti-Western position, and one, moreover, which involves abandoning the primacy of freedom in favor of a world of coercive regulation.

Within Germany itself, most of Brandt’s interventions during the chancellorship of his successor Helmut Schmidt had the effect of undercutting and undermining Schmidt’s stand on security and particularly of inciting the Young Social Democrats (the Jusos) to constant rebellion and opposition. Partly as a consequence of this, Schmidt gradually shifted his position to such an extent that by late 1981 he was virtually congratulating Jaruzelski on the crackdown in Poland, and assuring the world that “Herr Honecker” (the East German dictator) “shares my concerns for stability.” Certainly, Schmidt may have believed that in making such statements, he was serving the cause of peace and stability, even though he could hardly have thought he was serving the cause of freedom that used to rank highest for Social Democrats. But without Brandt’s prestige and pressure, and the activist agitation in the SPD which Brandt supported and encouraged, Schmidt would hardly have gone so far.

Thus Willy Brandt’s transformation—from a Social Democrat who believed that the moral values of democratic socialism and the political interests of Germany alike demanded solidarity with the West and resistance to Soviet imperialism, into a proponent of neutralism as between West and East—foreshadowed what has been happening to the European socialist movement as a whole. From the American point of view, the greatest irony in this tragic and dangerous development is that it should have been triggered by the weak response of Washington to the Berlin Wall, and the willingness signified by this response to accept and eventually even legitimize the indefinite control of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union.

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