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"It is more important to do something in a small way than to talk big about it."

German statesman, b. Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm in Lübeck, 1913-12-18, d. Unkel, near Bonn, 1992-10-08. Mayor of Berlin 1957-66; Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskanzler) 1969-74. Peace Nobel Laureate in 1971.

The bastard

A bastard child, some are bound to have said in the northern city of Lübeck just before the end of 1913, as the child named Herbert was born to Martha Frahm, a shopgirl. The father, an accountant from Hamburg named John Möller, would not be known to him until he was about six and he never met him. The man in the house and in the child's life was his grandfather Ludwig Frahm, a lorry driver and ardent socialist who would have a profound influence on the man and his beliefs. "It was a sort of religion to him," Willy would say of his grandfather many years later.

At the time this child was born the German Empire was at the peak of its might. Made up 25 states, led by Prussia, it had climbed up the ladder of wealth to become a great industrial nation, second only to Great Britain and challenging it for first place. Kaiser Wilhelm II was the ruler of this country and supported by a powerful elite of landowners, bankers and industrialists, challenged by the growling menace of a working class seeking its emancipation. Before young Herbert's first birthday war had erupted across Europe and before he was five Germany had conceded a bitter defeat. He was destined to grow up in the turbulent Germany of the 1920s.

At the age of 17 and already having been a vocal supporter of the social democrats during his high school years he became a member of the SPD. A year later he joined the more radical SAP, showing a hint of his political talent by taking a large number of members of another organisation with him. He had already been writing in the socialist press since he was fifteen and looked towards journalism as a future, having excelled in German and history at school. "Keep your son away from politics. The boy is fundamentally good," were the words of his concerned headmaster to his mother. Young and devoted to his cause, he watched the rise of the National Socialists under Adolf Hitler closely, bitterly resenting their actions and what they stood for. The next fifteen years of his life would be devoted to campaigning against them.

The exile

When Hitler manoeuvred his way into the Chancellorship in January 1933, Herbert Frahm virtually ceased to exist. Frahm was a member of a hardcore kernel of SAP members, who survived the party's poor showing in the 1932 elections and harassment by the national socialists. He risked his life stuffing letterboxes with anti-nazi flyers that he wrote. He successfully managed to avoid arrest and the police never found the author of those flyers. The hunt was on and, as a leftist, he was among the hunted. From then on he operated under a cover name. Chased by the Gestapo a 19-year old youth who went by the name of Willy Brandt took refuge in Norway in April 1933, replacing another party member who was arrested while on his way to organise a party cell in Oslo. One year later his grandfather, ill and disillusioned, took his own life.

Few could have been more capable of handling the Oslo assignment than Willy Brandt. Within a short time he learned the language, something absolutely vital to a journalist, and established contacts with the Norwegian left and the Norwegian Workers Party in particular. This enabled him to move freely and collect funds for the resistance while writing. Asylum laws being nonexistent back then and dependent on the goodwill of Norwegian Immigrations for his stay in the country he enrolled in university to study philosophy to legitimise his presence.

For the next seven years he worked out of Norway and wrote numerous tracts and articles supportive of the German resistance and explaining the situation in Germany to the Norwegian public, as well as pieces for publications in several other European countries. He interrupted his stay in Norway in 1936 to visit Berlin disguised as "Gunner Gaasland, Norwegian student," for the purpose of gathering first-hand experience of life in Nazi Germany. Other trips he made included a 1934 visit to the Netherlands where he narrowly escaped extradition and a 1937 visit to Barcelona following which his loyalty and conduct were questioned because of his criticism of the way the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War treated their struggle.

In 1938 Herbert Frahm became one of many expatriates who were stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazi government. Upon seeing his name in the government gazette of 1938-09-05 the now stateless Willy Brandt made the decision to apply for Norwegian citizenship. Around the same time Hitler's aggressive foreign policy and the Anschluss cured him of the hope and belief that the German people would rise against the Nazis in a war of liberation.

The attack on Poland on 1939-09-01 which marked the beginning of World War II found him in Oslo. His conviction that Hitler meant war proven true, his next declaration was that Hitler must be defeated, come what may. Before too long the war reached Norway and when German forces invaded the country on 1941-04-10 the Gestapo was hot on their heels seeking to arrest German emigres. Upon the advice of a friend he donned a Norwegian army uniform and surrendered as a Norwegian soldier, again managing to remain undetected. He spent two short months after his release in Oslo and in August the same year fled to Sweden, where he was interned until he was granted Norwegian citizenship. From 1942 until 1945 he led the Norwegian Press Agency in Stockholm. During this stay he rejoined the SPD, influenced by the shift in ideology of the Norwegian Workers Party a few years earlier.

"Socialism without democracy is contradictory and doesn't even work."

Norway being one of the last countries to be liberated, Frahm/Brandt had to wait until the very end of the war in May 1945 to return to Oslo and reported on the country's liberation for the foreign press. With his German background he was ideally qualified to report for the Scandinavian Workers' Press on the Nuremberg Trials. In this way he who had left a German returned to his native country a Norwegian citizen and for all of 1947 served in a diplomatic capacity as press attache to the Norwegian mission in Berlin from where he reported on the post-war situation for the Norwegian government.

The German

Before his term at the Norwegian mission expired, the local SPD party chief requested that Brandt succeed him. Brandt decided to accept the offer and thus return to the political life of Germany. He convincingly countered charges that his conduct while in exile had been unpatriotic and assumed the post at the beginning of 1948. In the same year he identified communism as a threat to democracy following the coup in Prague and discarded his own ideas that Germany could serve as a crossover point between East and West as he had postulated in his writings five years earlier. In July of the same year he regained his German citizenship, the certificate stating "aka Willy Brandt." And, as of January 1949, he legally changed his name to that of his political persona, thus literally identifying himself with it.

Throughout 1948 and 1949, as coordinator between the SPD and the allied occupation forces and confidant of West Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter, Brandt stood behind the mayor and made numerous appearances and speeches in support of democratic government in Berlin. Reuter was a key figure to the morale of Berliners during the Soviet blockade and Airlift believing, as did Brandt, that Soviet expansionism presented a credible and immediate threat. Brandt also opposed an SPD party leadership that was denying reality and that wanted to avoid a divided Germany at all cost even in the face of its inevitability.

It was to Reuter's disappointment that Brandt refused office in Berlin in 1949 and instead ran for a seat representing Berlin in the first German parliament. He spent eight years as an MP, pushing for the integration of the western occupation zones into West Germany. In 1950 he was also elected to the local parliament in Berlin and would stay there until 1969. After serving as its speaker for two years in 1955-7 the deaths of Reuter and of Reuter's successor left the position of mayor open. On 1957-10-03 Willy Brandt was elected mayor (Regierender Bürgermeister) of West Berlin. In this capacity he would become a fixture on the political scene of post-war Germany. In 1958 he took over as SPD party chief and the same year confirmed his reputation as a winning candidate by solidly winning the local parliamentary elections.

Although not a native Berliner, Brandt had the city firmly in his heart, visualising its future with the mind of the dreamer who envisaged a socialist utopia while still in a Lübeck high school and seeing it as a place where he wanted and was in a position to do good. He uncompromisingly sided with the western occupation in throwing out Khrushtchev's demands that West Berlin become a demilitarised "open city" and never stopped iterating the demand that the West ensure the freedom of West Berlin.

Having dismally lost the 1957 elections to Konrad Adenauer the SPD was in dire need of a change of direction. In 1959 the extraordinary party convention at Bad Godesberg was called. As a result of this convention the SPD evolved into a popular party by broadening its appeal and voter base to include more than just the working class. By dropping marxism and insistence on state ownership of resources the SPD manifesto mellowed into that of a centre-left party and harmonised its principles with those of the market-driven economy that was already in place in the country. The following year Willy Brandt was picked to be the SPD's candidate for chancellor in the 1961 elections.

1961 was eventful. The new American president John F. Kennedy, someone who described Brandt as a "friend" even before his election, was inaugurated and American foreign policy hardened its stance towards the East Bloc. Kennedy, with Berlin still the epicentre of the Cold War, played a pragmatic "good cop, bad cop" act by increasing military capacity and preparedness on one hand and opening lines of communication with the Soviets on the other. His insistence that the post-war status quo be respected drew a sharper line beteen spheres of influence and effectively brought on the next step. On the domestic front the SPD made its best electoral showing ever in a campaign that was the first to raise environmental issues.

The lowest point in Willy Brandt's tenure in this post came on 1961-08-13. While he was mayor of West Berlin, the Soviets by means of the puppet government of Walter Ulbricht decided to test Kennedy's spheres of influence theory and built the Berlin Wall overnight. Brandt was decidedly sobered by the lack of concern among the western allies for the predicament of the city's citizens, especially since he had previously voices his own concern about the Americans letting themselves be "edged out of Berlin." Though the move effectively violated the "Four Powers" agreement over the city's status, the US, Britain and France let it fly without serious complaints. The lines had been drawn. Brandt was forced to watch, powerless as families were divided and contacts between the two sides of the city severed. He would devote much of the rest of his life to undermining the Wall and what it stood for.

In 1963 Brandt, now a bit more realistic than before, came up with the idea of a "policy towards the East" that went down in history as Ostpolitik. With his "policy of small steps" as he called it he initiated a gradual strengthening of dialogue and ties between the East and West German administrations which eventually gave westerners increased access to the East, though vice versa was another story. His policies met with the moral support, if not much in practical terms, of President Kennedy that culminated with the President's famous visit to Berlin.

In the 1965 general elections the SPD, with Brandt as candidate and head of the party since the previous year, again increased its share of the votes this time only narrow missing out on taking over the country as the liberal democrats continued supporting his rival Ludwig Erhard in a coalition government. The SPD almost unanimously confirmed him as its choice for candidate even after this failure. In the turmoil that followed Erhard's resignation in 1966 Brandt led the SPD into a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats in which he took his first cabinet post as foreign minister. After nine years as mayor of Berlin he now resigned to take on his new duties as minister and vice chancellor of the federal government.

The 1969 elections that followed the disputed but ultimately successful grand coalition brought the SPD over 40% of the votes for the first time but no absolute majority in parliament for any party. The big losers of these elections, the liberal democracts, agreed to support another coalition government. On 1969-10-21 Willy Brandt became Bundeskanzler--the first to serve in this position with an anti-nazi resistance pedigree. In him German politics had found a new face. Not one to forget and a sworn enemy of Nazi apologists, he considered this a triumph on much more than a personal level.

"Tonight, finally and for ever, Hitler lost the war."

His five years at the head of the German government were not the most successful. His priority lay in internal and economic reforms which were more than once thwarted as his Liberal coalition partners threw spanners in the works. Despite his failure to get a grip on an economy that was burdened by extreme dependence on exports and by inflation on the domestic front, he would be reelected in 1972 with a landslide 45.8% of the popular vote after surviving a vote of no confidence in parliament.

Brandt's greatest works and those that earned him a place in the history books came as an international statesman. He began negotiating with the East German government and subsequently with the Soviet Union and Poland. When he found out that Ulbricht was a miserable conversation partner he manoeuvred him into a position of compromise by going over his head and talking to Brezhnev. The result of this was a treaty with the Soviet Union signed by Kossygin and Brandt in which Germany practically renounced all claims on Polish territory lost during WWII and conceded that the West German government was not entitled to speak for all of Germany. In December 1970 he paid a visit to Warsaw to sign another treaty. During this visit a picture was taken that travelled around the world: the leader of Germany kneeling at the monument for the murdered Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Peace. His successes with Germany's neighbours to the east, his anti-nazi past and the special place he held in Norway made his choice for the award an easy one.

His Ostpolitik finally bore fruit as East Germany agreed to a basic treaty in 1972 that would provide the framework for intragerman relations until the fall of the iron curtain 17 years later. Travel between the two Germanys was facilitated, diplomatic ties were upgraded and both states pledged to refrain from violence and respect the others sovereignty. The following year both states were accepted as members of the United Nations. The same year he visited Prague to conclude another treaty in which violence would again be renounced and the German-Czechoslovak border, as it had been drawn in 1938, was confirmed.

Ironically it was East Germany that would lead to Brandt's downfall. While he was doing only so-and-so domestically, his coalition partners were a pain and the cooperation from opposition-led states of the federation was not forthcoming, he did manage to encourage more popular participation in the country's political life, beyond trade unionism and demonstrations. In 1974, amidst an unprecendented downswing in the country's financial fortunes, a contraction of real income and wildcat strikes, his personal assistant Günther Guillaume was arrested for espionage on account of East Germany.

Willy Brandt resigned as chancellor on 1974-06-05, assuming personal responsibility for the Guillaume affair. While he could probably have shifted the blame onto the negligent security services that had allowed Guillaume to rise as he did despite existing suspicions regarding his person, he was also tired of the lack of support in his cabinet, accusing his ministers of immaturity and lack of enthusiasm. It was later revealed that unfriendly elements in the security services may have purposely allowed the Guillaume affair to happen with the intent to personally damage Brandt. Brandt remained chairman of the SPD, a position which he held until 1987, and was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt as chancellor.

The internationalist

While he occupied himself less with German affairs after his resignation he began using the respect he had gained on the international scene to strengthening ties to southern Europe and counselling the emerging Iberian and Latin American democracies. Brandt took over the presidency of the Socialist International on 1976-11-26 and initiated sweeping reforms within the organisation, restructuring it on the inside and opening it to participation from third world countries. Under his leadership the SI would become an important forum for the Left worldwide and a powerful voice in favour of disarmament. He would hold the presidency until shortly before his death.

Disarmament, especially nuclear was one his prime concerns. He condemned the Soviet Union's aggressive foreign policy and deployment of SS-20 missiles but failed to be consistent when he supported Schmidt's backing of NATO's decision to counter it with the deployment of more Pershing missiles in western Europe. After the 1982 elections which the SPD lost to Helmut Kohl he admitted that he was bound by loyalty to support Schmidt and had had misgivings all along. In October 1983 he led the massive peace demonstrations in West Germany, acknowledging the need to be a NATO member but refusing to accept an arms race as a solution. His efforts failed and by the end of the year the first new American mid-range nuclear missiles were in place on German soil.

After being there to witness the rise and fall of Hitler's empire and seeing the iron curtain fall in his adopted home city, Willy Brandt was granted one more wish. The Soviet leadership had changed and reform was in the air, bringing an air of optimism and hope and allowing the satellite states more self-determination. In September 1989 Hungary opened its border with Austria and with it the floodgates of monumental change. The East German regime under Erich Honecker clung to the old hard-line doctrines established by Stalin in the 1950s. Out of touch with reality and representing a bankrupt political system, Honecker was powerless to hold back the winds of change unleashed on his country and the world. A popular revolt toppled him and on the night of 1989-09-11 Brandt saw his dreams realised and his efforts justified as the Berlin Wall yielded to the sledgehammers of the city's people.

The following day Brandt was there at Berlin's city hall to proclaim the fall of the hated Wall and advise restraint and sobriety in the face of the massive task of bringing the two Germanys back together. He saw the event as the final test whether the citizens of Germany were up to the historical circumstances and able to join together.

"Now what belongs together needs to grow together."

This became the chief message of the reunification process. Brandt was thankful that he was still alive to see it. His Ostpolitik of the 1960s and 70s is widely credited for making reunification not just a possibility but laying the foundation for it and creating an atmosphere that encouraged it. In East Germany a new SPD evolved from an illegal opposition party and named Brandt its honorary president, a position he already held in the SPD of the West. The 1990 elections in East Germany yielded disappointing results, probably due to the shining star of Kohl and a feeling that East Germany should fall in line with the West, where the Christian Democrats were unchallenged in government, or be left out of the funds that were to come flowing out of Bonn.

Willy Brandt died of cancer in 1992 in his house on the Rhine at the age of 78. He was afforded Germany's first state funeral since 1929 and is buried in the Zehlendorf cemetery in Berlin. Tributes flowed in from all over the world but I don't think any of them can really do justice to a man who left such a mark on his country and the world.

A bastard child who made his country proud.

Factual sources:
Willy Brandt Foundation (Willy-Brandt-Stiftung)
Tidbits from other minor sources
Commentary mine

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