The German statesman Willy Brandt (1913-1992) became the first Socialist chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, in 1969.
Herbert Frahm, who later adopted the name Willy Brandt, was born in the North Sea port of Lübeck on Dec. 18, 1913, the illegitimate son of working-class parents. After a lonely and deprived childhood he found fellowship in the youth organizations of the Social Democratic party (SPD), the strongest bulwark of German democracy in the 1920s. He won a scholarship to a prestigious Lübeck gymnasium (secondary school), from which he graduated in 1932. He had joined a left-wing splinter group of the SPD strongly opposed to the rising tide of Nazi power. Thus, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he decided to change his name to Willy Brandt and flee from certain persecution. He therefore escaped the pursuit by secret police and the confinement in concentration camps which befell so many other SPD leaders.
Brandt spent the rest of the 1930s in Norway and eventually became a Norwegian citizen. But in 1940 he was again forced to flee the Nazis, and he spent the remaining war years in neutral Sweden. Throughout his exile Brandt worked as a journalist, and at the end of World War II he returned to Germany to cover the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Once again a German citizen, in 1949 he became an SPD representative of Berlin in the first West German Bundestag (parliament), and a year later he was elected to the city parliament of Berlin.
In 1957 Brandt became lord mayor of West Berlin. He became internationally known for his resistance to Soviet and East German pressures on the isolated city, especially during the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961. The SPD had dropped the last remnants of its revolutionary Marxist heritage in 1959. It was eager to attract a less radical and larger electorate, and Brandt's suave, youthful appearance and proven courage made him a leading contender for the leadership of the party. As candidate for the chancellorship (1961, 1965, and 1969) and as leader of the SPD (after 1964), Brandt led his party to solid political gains on a social reform platform. In 1966 he led the party into a "grand coalition" with the other major party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU); he then became the foreign minister of West Germany.
In the 1969 Bundestag elections the SPD (with support from the small Free Democratic party) won a majority; Brandt, assuming the highest governmental office, became chancellor. While not abandoning West Germany's commitment to Western European economic integration, Brandt took a softer line toward Eastern European governments. In the domestic sphere he initiated broad political, educational, and economic reforms. As chancellor, Brandt ably demonstrated to both his supporters and detractors that a Socialist leader could be effective, statesmanlike, and popular.
This policy of softer lines of governmental and economic dealings with Eastern European countries came to be known as ostpolitik. Brandt signed treaties and in doing so, relaxed tensions. This enabled both Germanies to enter the United Nations and Germans to cross borders. It also led to the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Brandt in 1971. It also led to his resignation. In 1974 Brandt's close aide, Günter Guillaume, was revealed to be an East German spy. Though this scandal led to his resignation, Brandt remained Chairman of the SPD for 13 more years.
Out of Office
Besides chairing the SPD, Brandt served as President of the Socialist International, an umbrella group for all Social Democratic Parties. In the early 1980s he chaired a worldwide panel known as the Brandt Commission. The Commission called for a more equitible distribution of the world's wealth; the advice was both lauded and ignored. Because of Brandt's efforts, the re-unification of Germany occurred, though more quickly than even Brandt ever imagined. Historians honor Brandt more than his own countrymen did; few of his contemporaries in the early 1970s realized how his efforts and policies prepared Germany for a united future. Brandt spoke of the slow and painful process of unifying Germany, and he remained an advocate of unity until the end of his life. Brandt died of cancer in 1992.
Further Reading on Willy Brandt
Willy Brandt's autobiography, Willy Brandt: A Political Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1997. An overview of his accomplishments is Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr., "Thinking Aloud: The Difference Willy Brandt Has Made, " The New Leader, October 29, 1990, 11-13.