When I moved to Frankfurt, the chancellor of the West German federal government was Willy Brandt (1913-1992) of the Social Democratic party (SPD). I was a big fan of his at the time — still am, in fact, so when I was in Lübeck I made a point of visiting the Willy Brandt House to refresh my memories of his life and career.
I had completely forgotten that he was born in Lübeck as the ‘illegitimate’ child of an unmarried working-class woman. When the Nazis seized power in 1933 he was twenty years old and already well known as a Social Democrat, so he went into exile, first in Norway and later (when the German army occupied Norway) in Sweden. His political activities in these years are documented in the first two rooms of the Willy Brandt House.
In the years 1957 to 1966 Willy Brandt was the mayor of West Berlin, as I remembered from several visits to both East and West Berlin in the early sixties. The documentation on this period includes two television screens side by side, showing the contrasting reports of the same events from East and West German television. No doubt the most dramatic event of this period was the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which cut off movement between the two parts of the city for the next twenty-eight years, until the wall finally came down in 1989.
Willy Brandt was the Social Democratic candidate for the chancellorship in the elections of 1961 and 1965, but he lost both times to the conservative Christian Democratic party (CDU). Later the same pattern was repeated in France, where the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand kept running for President of the Republic but was only elected on his third try.
In 1966 a ‘grand coalition’ was formed between West Germany’s two largest parties, the CDU and the SPD, and Willy Brandt became foreign minister and vice-chancellor. He finally became chancellor after the next elections in 1969.
In addition to a program of sweeping domestic reforms, Brandt became best known for his Neue Ostpolitik (New Eastern Policy), in which he gradually recognized the existence of the then-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, which previous West German governments had tried to deny or ignore. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for improving relations with East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union.
One thing I had completely forgotten about, because I found it so awful at the time, was the way Willy Brandt’s chancellorship ended in 1974, after it was discovered that one of his personal assistants, Günter Guillaume, was a spy for the East German Stasi, their ‘state security’ intelligence service.
After resigning as chancellor, Brandt remained a member of parliament and chairman of the Social Democratic party for many years. For sixteen years he was also president of the Socialist International.
From the back garden of the Willy Brandt House it is possible to go directly into the Günter Grass House, which honors the German novelist who campaigned actively for Brandt’s reelection in 1973.
My photos and text in this post are from 2020.
See also: Thanks Willy in Erfurt.