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Willy Brandt 1913-1992

Country : Lubeck, Germany
Profession : Head of State
Date of birth : 1913-12-18
Date of death : 1992-10-08
Cause of Death : Colon cancer

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Willy Brandt, born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm (18 December 1913 - 8 October 1992), was a German politician, Chancellor of West Germany 1969–1974, and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) 1964–1987.

His most important legacy is the Ostpolitik, a policy aimed at improving relations with East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. This policy caused considerable controversy in West Germany, but won Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

Brandt was forced to resign as Chancellor in 1974 after it was exposed that one of his closest aides had been working for the Stasi (the East German secret police). This became one of the biggest political scandals in postwar West German history.

Early life, the war

Willy Brandt was born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm in Lübeck, Germany to Martha Frahm, an unwed mother who worked as a cashier for a department store. His father was an accountant from Hamburg by the name of John Möller, whom Brandt never met. As his mother was working six days a week he was mainly brought up by his mother's stepfather Ludwig Frahm and his second wife Dora.

After passing his Abitur in 1932 at Johanneum zu Lübeck he became an apprentice at the shipbroker and ship's agent F.H. Bertling. He joined the "Socialist Youth" in 1929 and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1930. He left the SPD to join the more left wing Socialist Workers Party (SAP), which was allied to the POUM in Spain and the ILP in Britain. In 1933, using his connections with the port and its ships from the time he had been apprentice, he left Germany for Norway on a ship to escape Nazi persecution. It was at this time that he adopted the pseudonym Willy Brandt to avoid detection by Nazi agents. In 1934, he took part in the founding of the International Bureau of Revolutionary Youth Organizations, and was elected to its Secretariat.

Brandt visited Germany from September to December 1936, disguised as a Norwegian student named Gunnar Gaasland. Gaasland was married to Gertrud Meyer from Lübeck in a fictitious marriage to protect Brandt's partner from deportation. Gertrud Meyer had joined Brandt to Norway in July 1933. In 1937, during the Civil War, Brandt worked in Spain as a journalist. In 1938, the German government revoked his citizenship, so he applied for Norwegian citizenship. In 1940, he was arrested in Norway by occupying German forces, but he was not identified because he wore a Norwegian uniform. On his release, he escaped to neutral Sweden. In August 1940, he became a Norwegian citizen, receiving his passport from the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm, where he lived until the end of the war. Willy Brandt returned to Sweden to lecture on 1 December 1940 at Bommersvik college about the problems experienced by the social democrats in Nazi Germany and the occupied countries at the start of World War II. In exile in Norway and Sweden Brandt learned Norwegian and Swedish. Brandt spoke Norwegian fluently for the rest of his life, and retained a close relationship toward Norway.

Mayor of West Berlin, Foreign Minister of West Germany

In late 1946, Brandt returned to Berlin, working for the Norwegian government.

In 1948, he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Berlin. He became a German citizen again and formally adopted his pseudonym as his legal name.

Outspoken against the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and against Khrushchev's 1958 proposal that Berlin receive the status of a "free city", he was considered to belong to the right wing of his party, an assessment that would later change.

Brandt was supported by the powerful publisher Axel Springer. From October 3, 1957 to 1966, he was Mayor of West Berlin, a particularly stressful time for the city with the construction of the Berlin Wall. During his first year as Governing Mayor he served as President of the Bundesrat.

Brandt became chairman of the SPD in 1964, a post he retained until 1987, longer than any other chairman in the history of his party after founder August Bebel.

Brandt was the SPD candidate for Chancellor in 1961, but lost to Konrad Adenauer's conservative CDU. In 1965, he ran again, and lost to the popular Ludwig Erhard. Erhard's government was short-lived, however, and in 1966 a grand coalition between the SPD and CDU was formed; Brandt became foreign minister and vice chancellor of West Germany.

Chancellor of West Germany

After the elections of 1969, again with Brandt as lead candidate, the SPD became stronger and after three weeks of negotiation formed a coalition government with the smaller liberal Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP). Brandt was elected Chancellor. He proposed more democracy and more democracies to solve certain problems.

Foreign policy

As chancellor, Brandt gained more scope to develop his Neue Ostpolitik. He was active in creating a degree of rapprochement with East Germany and in improving relations with the Soviet Union, Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries.

A seminal moment came in December 1970 with the famous Warschauer Kniefall in which Brandt, apparently spontaneously, knelt down at the monument to victims of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The uprising occurred during the military occupation of Poland and the monument is to those killed by German troops who suppressed the uprising and deported remaining ghetto residents to concentration camps.

Time (magazine) named Brandt Man of the Year for 1970 stating, "Willy Brandt is in effect seeking to end World War II by bringing about a fresh relationship between East and West. He is trying to accept the real situation in Europe, which has lasted for 25 years, but he is also trying to bring about a new reality in his bold approach to the Soviet Union and the East bloc."

In 1971, Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in improving relations with East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union.

In West Germany, Brandt's Neue Ostpolitik was extremely controversial, dividing the populace into two camps: one side, most notably the victims i.e. those German-speaking, West-German residents and their subsequent families who were driven west ("die Heimatvertriebene") via Stalinist ethnic cleansing from Historical Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe, loudly voiced their opposition, calling the policy "illegal" and "high treason", while others applauded Brandt's move as aiming at "Wandel durch Annäherung" ("change through rapprochement", i.e., encouraging change through a policy of engagement rather than isolation). Supporters of Brandt claim his Ostpolitik did help to break down the Eastern Bloc's siege mentality and increase the awareness of the contradictions in their brand of Socialism, which – together with other events – eventually led to its downfall. The Ostpolitik was strongly opposed by the conservative parties and many social democrats as well.

Domestic policies

Political and social changes of the 1960s

West Germany in the late 1960s was shaken by student disturbances and a general 'change of the times' that not all Germans were willing to accept or approve. What had seemed a stable, peaceful nation, happy with its outcome of the "Wirtschaftswunder" ("economic miracle") faced the first economic turbulences. As well the German baby boomer generation wanted to come to terms with the deeply conservative, bourgeois, and demanding parent generation. The baby boomer students were the most outspoken, they accused their 'parental generation' of its Nazi past and even worse of being outdated and old-fashioned. Compared to their forebears, the 'skeptical generation', the 1968 generation was much more capricious, willing to embrace more extreme socialist ideology (Mao bibles), and public heroes (Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara) while new and more promiscuous lifestyles came about. Students and young apprenticees could afford to stay away from home, left-wing was considered chic, as was taking part in US-style political demonstrations against US forces in Vietnam.

Brandt gaining popularity in the 1960s

Brandt's predecessor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a member of the Nazi party and was an old fashioned German bourgeois and conservative intellectual. Brandt, having fought the Nazis and faced Eastern German communists during different crises in Berlin, became a controversial but credible figure in different camps. As secretary of foreign affairs in Kiesingers Grand coalition cabinet, Brandt helped to gain further international approval for Western Germany and laid the cornerstones for the future Neue Ostpolitik. There was a wide public opinion gap between Kiesinger and Brandt.

Both had come to terms with the new baby boomer lifestyles. Kiesinger registered "a shameful crowd of long-haired drop-outs who needed a bath and someone to discipline them", Brandt needed a while to get a contact and credibility among the APO. The students questioned the West German society in general seeking social, legal and political reforms, the unrest led as well to a renaissance of rightwing parties in some state's parliaments. Brandt however stood for a climate change and pursued a course of social, legal and political reforms. In 1969 he gained a narrow majority together with the FDP. In his first parliament speech as chancellor, Brandt claimed his political course of reforms ending the speech with his famous words, "Wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen" (lit.: "Let's dare more democracy"). This made him, as well as the SPD, popular among most students and other young West German Baby boomers who dreamt of a country more open and more colorful than the frugal and still somewhat authoritarian state built after the war. Brandts Neue Ostpolitik however lost a big part of the refugee vote which had been significantly pro SPD in the postwar years.

Crisis in 1972

Brandt's Nobel prize winning Ostpolitik led to a meltdown of the narrow majority Brandt's coalition enjoyed in the Bundestag. In October 1972, FDP deputies Erich Mende, Heinz Starke, and Siegfried Zoglmann had crossed the floor to join the CDU. On 23 February 1972, SPD deputy Herbert Hupka, who was also leader of the Bund der Vertriebenen, joined the CDU in disagreement with Brandt's reconciliatory efforts towards the east. On 23 April 1972, Wilhelm Helms (FDP) left his faction; the FDP politicians Knud von Kühlmann-Stumm and Gerhard Kienbaum also declared that they would vote against Brandt; thus, Brandt had essentially lost his majority. On 24 April 1972 a vote of no confidence was proposed and it was voted on three days later. Had this motion passed, Rainer Barzel would have replaced Brandt as Chancellor. To everyone's surprise, the motion failed: Barzel got only 247 votes out of 260 ballots; for an absolute majority, 249 votes would have been necessary. There were also 10 votes against the motion and 3 invalid ballots. It was not revealed until much later that two Bundestag members (Julius Steiner and Leo Wagner, both of the CDU/CSU) had been bribed by the East German Stasi to vote for Brandt.

The Guillaume affair and Brandt's resignation

Around 1973, West German security organizations received information that one of Brandt's personal assistants, Günter Guillaume, was a spy for the East German state. Brandt was asked to continue work as usual, and he agreed, even taking a private vacation with Guillaume. Guillaume was arrested on 24 April 1974, and the West German government blamed Brandt for having a spy in his party. Brandt resigned as Chancellor on 6 May 1974 (although he remained the Chairman of his party, the Social Democrats, until 1987).

The affair is in any case widely considered to have been merely a trigger for Brandt's resignation, not a fundamental cause. Instead, Brandt, dogged by scandal relating to serial adultery, and struggling with alcohol and depression as well as the economic fallout of the 1973 oil crisis, almost seems simply to have had enough. As Brandt himself later said, "I was exhausted, for reasons which had nothing to do with the process going on at the time."

Guillaume had been a spy for East Germany, supervised by Markus Wolf, head of the Main Intelligence Administration of the East German Ministry for State Security. Wolf stated after the reunification that the resignation of Brandt had never been intended, and that the affair had been one of the biggest mistakes of the East German secret service.

Brandt was succeeded as Chancellor by his fellow Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. For the rest of his life, Brandt remained suspicious that the other fellow social democrat and longtime rival Herbert Wehner belonging to the first Troika had been scheming for his downfall, but evidence for this seems scant.

Later life

After his term as Chancellor, Brandt remained head of the SPD (Honorary Chairman from 1987) and retained his seat in the Bundestag. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1983.

Socialist International

For sixteen years, Brandt was president of the Socialist International (1976–1992). During his tenure, the number of mainly European SI member parties grew until it embraced more than a hundred socialist, social democratic and labour parties throughout the world. For the first seven years, this expansion in SI membership had been facilitated by the efforts of SI's Swedish secretary-general, Bernt Carlsson. Early in 1983, however, in a dispute about what he perceived as the SI president's authoritarian approach, Carlsson rebuked Brandt saying: "this is a Socialist International — not a German International". Following the April 1983 SI congress in Albufeira, Portugal, which Brandt had contentiously decided to relocate from Sydney, Australia, Brandt retaliated by forcing Carlsson to step down. Austrian prime minister, Bruno Kreisky, argued on behalf of Brandt: "It is a question of whether it is better to be pure or to have greater numbers".

Brandt Report

In 1977, he was appointed chair of the Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues, which produced a report, in 1980, calling for drastic changes in the world's attitude to development in the Third World. This became known as the Brandt Report.


In October 1979 he met the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro, who had written The Alternative. Bahro and his supporters were attacked by the East German state security (Stasi)/Erich Mielke for this writing, which had laid the theoretical foundation of a left opposition to the ruling SED party and its dependent allies, and promoted new and changed parties; all of which is now discussed as "change from within". Brandt had asked for Bahro's release and welcomed his theories which advanced the debate within his own party. In late 1989, Brandt became one of the first leftist leaders in West Germany to publicly favour quick reunification over some sort of two-state federation or other interim arrangements. His public statement "Now grows together what belongs together" was much quoted in those days.

Hostages in Iraq

One of Brandt's last public appearances was flying to Baghdad, to free Western hostages held by Saddam Hussein, after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. On 9 November 1990 he landed with 174 freed hostages in Frankfurt am Main.

Death and memorials

Willy Brandt died of colon cancer at his home in Unkel, a town on the Rhine, and was given a state funeral. He was buried at the cemetery at Zehlendorf in Berlin.

When the SPD moved its headquarters from Bonn back to Berlin in the mid-1990s, the new headquarters was named the "Willy Brandt Haus".

As a somewhat remarkable memorial, the private German language secondary school in Warsaw is named after Willy Brandt.


From 1941 until 1948 Brandt was married to Anna Carlotta Thorkildsen (daughter of a Norwegian father and a German-American mother). They had a daughter, Nina (born 1940). After Brandt and Thorkildsen were divorced in 1946, he married the Norwegian Rut Hansen in 1948. Hansen and Brandt had three sons: Peter (born 1948), Lars (born 1951) and Matthias (born 1961). Today Peter is a historian, Lars is a painter and Matthias is an actor. After 32 years of marriage, Brandt was divorced from Rut in 1980 and from the day they were divorced they never met again. On 9 December 1983, Brandt married Brigitte Seebacher (born 1946). Rut Brandt died in Berlin on 28 July 2006.

Lars writing about his father

In early 2006, Lars Brandt published a biography about his father called "Andenken" ("Remembrance"). The book has been the subject of some controversy. Some see it as a loving memory of a father-son-relationship. Others label the biography a ruthless statement of a son who still thinks he had never had a father who really loved him.

Brandt's first cabinet

  • Willy Brandt (SPD) - Chancellor
  • Walter Scheel (FDP) - Vice Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Helmut Schmidt (SPD) - Minister of Defense
  • Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) - Minister of the Interior
  • Alex Möller (SPD) - Minister of Finance
  • Gerhard Jahn (SPD) - Minister of Justice
  • Karl Schiller (SPD) - Minister of Economics
  • Walter Arendt (SPD) - Minister of Labour and Social Affairs
  • Josef Ertl (FDP) - Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Forestry
  • Georg Leber (SPD) - Minister of Transport, Posts, and Communications
  • Lauritz Lauritzen (SPD) - Minister of Construction
  • Käte Strobel (SPD) - Minister of Youth, Family, and Health
  • Hans Leussink - Minister of Education and Science
  • Erhard Eppler (SPD) - Minister of Economic Cooperation
  • Horst Ehmke (SPD) - Minister of Special Tasks
  • Egon Franke (SPD) - Minister of Intra-German Relations


  • 13 May 1971 - Karl Schiller (SPD) succeeds Möller as Minister of Finance, remaining also Minister of Economics
  • 15 March 1972 - Klaus von Dohnanyi (SPD) succeeds Leussink as Minister of Education and Science.
  • 7 July 1972 - Helmut Schmidt (SPD) succeeds Schiller as Minister of Finance and Economics. Georg Leber (SPD) succeeds Schmidt as Minister of Defense. Lauritz Lauritzen (SPD) succeeds Leber as Minister of Transport, Posts, and Communications, remaining also Minister of Construction.

Selected works

  • 1960 Mein Weg nach Berlin (My Path to Berlin), autobiography
  • 1966 Draußen. Schriften während der Emigration. (Outside: Writings during the Emigration)
  • 1968 Friedenspolitik in Europa (The Politics of Peace in Europe)
  • 1976 Begegnungen und Einsichten 1960-1975 (Encounters and Insights 1960-1975)
  • 1982 Links und frei. Mein Weg 1930-1950 (Left and Free: My Path 1930-1950)
  • 1986 Der organisierte Wahnsinn (Organized Lunacy)
  • 1989 Erinnerungen (Memories)


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