It used to be that when you come out of the central railroad station in Erfurt, the first thing you saw just across the square was an abandoned hotel called the Erfurter Hof. Just another empty building, except that in one window there was a large black and white photo of Willy Brandt and a banner reading “Thanks Willy!”
Willy Brandt was West Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor. When he was elected in 1969, he reversed the previous government’s no-contact policy and started cautiously to establish better relations with East Germany and the other Eastern European countries.
On March 19, 1970 he did a previously unthinkable thing by making an official visit to East Germany, not to Berlin but to Erfurt (which had the advantage of being near the border) to meet with GDR prime minister Willi Stoph. He traveled by train, and thousands of people from Erfurt risked punishment by coming to the square in front of the station (which is now called Willy-Brandt-Platz) and chanting “Willy, Willy, Willy” after he had gone into the hotel. Of course they could have claimed they were chanting for Willi Stoph, but nobody would have believed them. Eventually Brandt came to this window, and the crowd went wild.
After that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) survived for another twenty years, but people in Erfurt like to think their little demonstration was the first small step toward German unification.
When I returned to Erfurt in 2009, the old Erfurter Hof had been renovated and re-purposed, and there was a big new sign up on the roof reading “Willy Brandt to the window!”
My photos in this post are from 2004 and 2009. I revised the text in 2020.