Willy Brandt – no moral ambiguity

I talked about German politicians with a British friend of mine today. We agreed that Germans are usually not drawn towards charismatic politicians and definitely not to loud, screaming ones (we made rather bad experiences with that kind). My friend said: “I think Germans want their politicians to be unobtrusive and just get their job done” and I agree. We don’t consider showy people to be efficient. There is another kind of politician we don’t accept – a morally ambiguous one. The only thing worse than a morally ambiguous one would be a morally despicable one. You know, the kind that plays down right-wing terror groups. Or one who sympathizes with them or is backed by them.

There were some cases of German post-war politicians who made remarks that could be seen as morally ambiguous. They were made to resign quickly. After all, there was a time in Germany when people were lenient towards right wing groups, when politicians could downplay the danger emanating from them. It led to 1933 when a screaming showy guy called Hitler gained power, promising to turn Germany into a powerful, great country again. Not everybody approved of the racist stuff he said, but people thought he would calm down eventually and so watched him grab more and more power, silence the press, get rid of those with differing opinions and cause the biggest catastrophe the world has seen so far. So we know where these things can go and there is a no-compromise attitude towards right-wing symbols (absolutely forbidden) or utterances here. We have a saying that says “Wehret den Anfängen” (stop it when it begins). We have our problems with right-wing groups, but the government takes a clear and firm stand on right-wing national terrorism. One of our most revered chancellors (and he even was charismatic, but hey, it was the 1970s and even Germans were groovy then) is Willy Brandt, who stood up against Hitler in his youth, and made reconciliation and atonement some of his political pillars when he was chancellor.

Willy Brandt had many posts during his career – Mayor of Berlin, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vice Chancellor or Germany, Chancellor of Germany and leader of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He was also a deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The name Willy Brandt stands for charisma, blunt language and the successful Ostpolitik – the reconciliation of West and East Germany. Yet, it was not the name under which Willy Brandt was born.

He was born as Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm on December 18, 1913 in Lübeck. He was an illegitimate child. Herbert Frahm, the later Willy Brandt, didn’t learn his father’s name until 1927 and even then it was only through a rumour and not confirmed by his mother until 1947. The family came from a working class background and was engaged in the SPD (Social Democratic Party), so it’s not surprising, that young Herbert was part of Socialist youth organisations throughout his teenage years and joined the SPD at sixteen. He trained to be a journalist, having written articles since the age of thirteen.

In 1933, after Hitler had taken power, Herbert Frahm, a mere twenty years old, went to Norway to build up a resistance group. He took the alias of Willy Brandt to avoid being found by Nazi spies. For years he worked as a journalist and in resistance against the Nazis. When the Germans occupied Norway in 1940, Willy Brandt was arrested, but taken for a Norwegian. He was able to escape to Sweden where he continued his work until the end of the war.

Willy Brandt returned to Germany, first as a journalist, then permanently to help build up a new country. He had used the alias Willy Brandt since 1934, and in 1949 had it officially recognized as his name. He was a member of the Bundestag, the Parliament, and in 1957 was elected Mayor of (West) Berlin. August 1961 opened another dark chapter of German history, when the East German government build the infamous wall that was to separate the city for 28 years. While German chancellor Adenauer reacted diplomatically – too diplomatic for many, Willy Brandt didn’t bother with pleasantries. He wrote to the leaders of the allied forces occupying Berlin, asking them for help, making clear that “Berlin expects more than words. It expects political action.” Brandt’s blunt words and demands were not received well, but the Germans were delighted that someone spoke out what they all felt.

In 1969 Willy Brandt was elected German chancellor and started his Ostpolitik. In 1970, one outcome was a treaty with Poland, in which Germany officially recognized Poland’s post-war borders. Willy Brandt travel to Poland to sign the treaty. Part of the official program was a visit to the memorial for the former Warsaw ghetto uprising, only one symbol for the many atrocities committed in Poland by Nazi Germany. Brandt put down a wreath at the monument. Then, he sank down onto his knees spontaneously and to the surprise of everyone. He later said that he just had to do it, had asked and actually prayed for forgiveness for the German people. It was an emotional and deeply symbolic gesture. One of the ghetto survivors witnessing this day said that this was a powerful sign to the world that things had changed in Germany. Willy Brandt said later: “At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails.”

Further treaties with Eastern Europe and East Germany led to a relaxation of the East – West relations. Willy Brandt actually was the most popular German politician in East Germany, something that was seen with worry by the East German government. When Brandt visited the East German city of Erfurt in 1970, people shouted his name, tried to break through the barriers, nearly overran him – East Germans hadn’t dared to show such free will since 1953.

In 1971, Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize. Three years later, his career seemed to be at an end when it was discovered that one of his closest assistants was an East German spy. There had been other controversies – extramarital affairs, alcohol abuse, depression – as well and so Brandt resigned as chancellor. Nevertheless, he continued his political work, remaining an important figure in the SPD. In 1989, Brandt could witness the opening of the East German border, the fall of the wall that had been built during his time as the mayor of Berlin.

On October 8, 1992 Willy Brandt died of cancer, after having spent nearly all of his life in politics.

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