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Willy Brandt (1913-1992) and Ostpolitik

Willy Brandt was the mayor of West Berlin (1957-1966), the chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) (1964-1987), and Chancellor of West Germany (1969-1974).

Brandt's early years were marked by his involvement with first the SPD and then the Socialist Workers Party. When the Nazis came to power, this involvement became a liability for Brandt, and he left the country in 1933. He first worked as a journalist in Spain during the Civil War and then went to Norway and then Sweden to avoid being arrested by the Nazis. In 1946, after the war, he moved back to Berlin and became involved again with local politics, rejoining the SPD in 1948. He was elected Mayor of West Berlin in 1957, and when the Berlin Wall began to be built in 1961, Brandt, along with thousands of other Berliners, protested the division of the city. The division of the city would be used by the SPD as an example of how the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), especially under Adenauer, allowed the relationship between western and eastern halves of the country to deteriorate.

By the late '50s, the SDP had been out of power for so long that it become obvious that an adjustment to its platform would be needed if it wanted electoral success in the future. It moved to the center, renouncing its Marxist roots and laying out a new program in a 1959 meeting at Bad Godesberg. This, combined with a growing distrust of the CDU's ability to provide for Germany's public needs, caused the CDU to turn to the SPD to form a political alliance in 1966, which allowed Brandt to become Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister. In this position, he began to advocate rapprochement with the East, a position that became known as Ostpolitik. In 1969, the alliance between the CDU and SPD broke, and the elections of that year, SPD finally came to power in the Bundestag, and Brandt became Chancellor.

As Chancellor, Brandt set about repairing West Germany's relationship with the east through Ostpolitik. He visited Poland, the USSR, and met several times with the leader of East Germany. His time in Norway during World War II had clearly demonstrated for him the animosity toward Germany felt by many countries formerly occupied by the Nazis. He undoubtedly drew from this experience in his dealings with the East by attempting to improve the East's view of Germany. For example, he visited a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and recited a prayer asking for forgiveness. Under his administration, West Germany negotiated series of treaties with the USSR, and Poland, and East Germany, which recognized the German-Polish border and the existence of East and West Germany as a separate states. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which was the result of a multinational conference begun under Brandt's administration, recognized the borders of all European states, including the USSR's assumption of the territories it had occupied after WWII (e.g., the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).

In 1974, it was discovered that one of Brandt's senior cabinet members was a spy for East Germany. In response to the public outcry over this, Brandt resigned. The effects of Ostpolitik outlasted Brandt's term as Chancellor, however. In improving diplomatic and trade relations with the East, it undermined a good deal of the mutual distrust which sustained the Cold War.

After his term as Chancellor, Brandt remained a member of the Bundestag. As chair of the Independent Commission for International Development issues, he oversaw the publication of a report in 1980 that came to be known as the Brandt report and which advocated development in the Third World. In 1989, Brandt strongly supported German reunification.

Julia Thieschafer (thie0048)
Julie Koch (koch0190)
Meghan Anderson (ande3607)


Wilkinson and Hughes (2004), Contemporary Europe, 453, 489, 516-519.