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1969-1974 - Willy Brandt

Willy Brandt was the first Federal Chancellor from the Social Democratic Party (SPD). His chancellorship was marked by social policy liberalisation, his slogan “Dare to do more democracy” and a new foreign policy towards the East.

Brandt was born in the northern German city of Lübeck on December 18, 1913, as Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm. When he was young his grandfather took him to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) but he later felt drawn to the more radical Socialist Workers' Party (Sozialistiche Arbeiterpartei - SAP), which was banned soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. A staunch opponent of the Nazis, in spring of 1933 he fled to Norway under the nom de guerre Willy Brandt. Brandt became a citizen of Norway and worked as a journalist.He worked not just against Hitler, but against all the fascist regimes in Europe. He spent time in Spain, working as a journalist during the civil war there. In exile, Frahm began living under the pseudonym Willy Brandt, a name he later officially adopted to avoid detection by occcupying Nazi-German troops. After Germany occupied Norway in 1940, he fled to Sweden.

In 1947 he returned to Germany as a news correspondent and later as a Norwegian diplomat in Berlin. All his life he was accused of being a traitor to his country. "One should be allowed to ask Mr. Brandt what he was doing in those 12 years abroad," asked conservative leader Franz Josef Strauss. "We know what we were doing here in Germany." For the French political scientist Alfred Grosser, it is unbelievable that the Germans were so hostile to Willy Brandt: "Here resistance fighters keep their nom de guerre. That's beautiful and honorable."

After he had again assumed German citizenship, Brandt rejoined the Social Democrats (SPD) in 1947. Despite all the hostility, Willy Brandt was elected mayor of West Berlin in 1957 and was the SPD candidate for the chancellorship in 1961. Berlin was still officially occupied by the four victorious powers of World War II, and the job of mayor required diplomatic skills. But it also brought plenty of attention, not just when The US president, John F. Kennedy, visited the city in 1963 and declared himself "ein Berliner". He served as mayor in divided Berlin from 1957 to 1966, helping lead the city's western sectors through the crisis sparked by former communist East Germany's building of the Berlin Wall.

In the late 1950s, Brandt was a principal architect of the SPD's rejection of its Marxist past and adoption of the Bad Godesburg Program, in which the party accepted the free-market principle. The triumph of the CDU/CSU in the 1957 national elections and widespread and increasing prosperity made such a step necessary if the SPD were to win the electorate's favor. In 1964 Brandt became the chairman of the SPD. From 1966 to 1969, he served as minister for foreign affairs and vice chancellor in the Grand Coalition.

In the West German Bundestag elections of September 1969, the CDU/CSU remained the largest political group, holding eighteen more seats than the SPD. With the help of the FDP, which had earlier supported the candidacy of the SPD minister of justice Gustav Heinemann for the federal presidency, Willy Brandt was able to form an SPD-FDP coalition government, with himself as federal chancellor. The SPD-FDP coalition lasted until late 1982 and was noted for its accomplishments in the area of foreign policy. The formation of this new coalition forced the CDU/CSU into opposition for the first time in the history of West Germany.

Willy Brandt became the first democratically elected Social Democrat to hold the chancellorship. When Brandt became chancellor in 1969, he proposed a new policy toward the communist states of Eastern Europe; this policy later became known as Ostpolitik (policy toward the East). In recognition of his efforts toward détente in Europe, he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971. In the early 1970s, Brandt also engineered a package of treaties that normalized the FRG's relations with the Soviet Union and with Poland, the GDR, and other Soviet-bloc nations. He successfully withstood a vote of no-confidence in the Bundestag in April 1972 and won the Bundestag elections in November 1972 with an impressive relative majority of nearly 45 percent. Brandt resigned in May 1974, shocked by the discovery that one of his personal assistants, Günter Guillaume, was a spy for the GDR.

In domestic policy, Brandt and his FDP coalition partners initiated legal reforms, including the passage of more liberal laws regarding divorce and abortion, the latter reform generating intense public discussion. Education reforms calling for new types of schools and for overhauling administration of the universities were only partially carried out. Brandt and his coalition partners were more successful in realizing their foreign policy goals than in achieving their domestic aims.

In 1969 he was elected Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor since 1930. When the SPD and FDP formed a new government following the elections of 1969 that placed the CDU/CSU in opposition for the first time, the Germans began a policy of detente known as Ostpolitik, or policy towards the East, that went beyond anything attempted before by either the Germans or the Americans. The SPD/FDP coalition wanted more relaxed relations with the Eastern bloc states, including East Germany. Willy Brandt wanted “the two German states to live harmoniously side-by-side”.

In the 1972 Basic Treaty (on relations between West and East Germany) the two states agreed to enter into neighborly relations. Brandt wanted “change through rapprochement”. He hoped that relations could slowly change through more exchange between individuals, including people living in East Germany.

The contentious issue in Willy Brandt’s new foreign policy towards Eastern states was the question of whether Germany should recognise the border with Poland. After the Second World War the victorious powers had agreed at the Potsdam Conference that the Oder-Neisse Line (named after two rivers) would constitute the border. And so Poland was given a large share of what was formerly German territory, for example Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia.

On December 7, 1970, Willy Brandt left Germany for a visit to Poland. On the agenda is a treaty on the mutual renunciation of the use of force and the recognition of the country's post-war borders. Even twenty-five years after the end of World War II, this was no routine visit. He was the first German Chancellor to visit a country which the Germans had brutally attacked and occupied. He would be in Warsaw, where the Nazis crammed hundreds of thousands of Jews into the ghetto, deported them to concentration camps and killed them. It was a city which the Nazis had completely destroyed. Brandt knew he needed an exceptional gesture with which he would ask the Polish people for forgiveness. He found the gesture at the right moment.

Brandt's gesture of German contrition in Warsaw in 1970, when he kneeled before a memorial to the Jewish ghetto, acknowledged German guilt over the Nazi-era and initiated new trust among countries neighboring post-war then-divided Germany. That levelled the way toward Germany's eventual reunification in 1990 - after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The pictures of what became known as the Warsaw Genuflection traveled around the world, and became one of the best-known images in modern German history.

Chancellor Brandt was acknowledging that there were two German states in one German nation, that the eastern territories had been lost as a result of the War, and that one had to recognize this reality. Opponents argued that Brandt’s Ostpolitik amounted to giving away all of Germany’s lost territories for little in return. While it can be argued that Ostpolitik contributed to an easing of tensions that helped bring about eventual reunification, a stronger case can probably be made that it was really designed to recognize the division of Germany and make that division more acceptable for those most affected, such as the East Germans and families that remained divided.

In the eyes of many German refugees from the East, recognising this border meant losing their homeland for good. Willy Brandt was convinced that reconciliation with Poland was only possible if Germany no longer called this border into question.

During his visit to Warsaw to sign the treaty, he laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims in the Jewish Ghetto Uprising. During the minute’s silence he kneeled down before the dead. The picture of this famous gesture was flashed around the world.

In 1971 Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on reconciliation between the East and West.

Under Willy Brandt’s leadership the German Government brought about changes in domestic policy. His slogan was “Dare to do more democracy”. Divorce and abortion legislation was reformed, and the voting age reduced from 21 to 18 years.

His government also introduced BAFÖG, a federal law concerning financial support for students. The SPD/FDP coalition extended workers’ co-determination rights as well as the rights of tenants. Nevertheless, there were already signs of an economic crisis looming on the horizon that increasingly caused problems for Brandt’s government. It hit his successor, Helmut Schmidt, with full force, who continued the coalition between the SPD and FDP.

The 1972 Bundestag elections were fought largely on the issue of Ostpolitik. The SPD under Brandt’s leadership and their coalition partner, the FDP, won a resounding victory. These elections in the autumn of 1972 had for the first time ensured the SPD was the biggest parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

Brandt resigned in 1974 as a result of growing economic problems, rumors of sexual escapades, and, especially, the discovery of an East German spy in his inner circle of advisers. The East German spy Günter Guillaume – a close confidant of Willy Brandt – was exposed in 1974. He had passed on a lot of secret information to East Germany’s state security service. Willy Brandt took political responsibility for the affair and resigned from office. Brandt was replaced by Helmut Schmidt, a less visionary and more pragmatic leader.

In 1977, World Bank President Robert McNamara decided to set up an independent commission to look into issues of international development. The commission was intended to break the ice between the industrialized North and the developing countries of the South. McNamara could find no-one better for this commission than Willy Brandt - the man who was able to mediate between East and West when it looked as if no more movement was possible. He was accepted by the developing world - by Africa, by Asia - as a man of sincerity and honor. Under the leadership of Willy Brandt, by now an elder statesman, politicians and academics from 18 countries tried to find an equitable world order. The commission published two reports - the first in 1980 and the second in 1982 - calling for a fairer world economic order.

Brandt died in 1992 in Unkel near Bonn.

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