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Culture

German Politics Captivates Theater-Goers

Michael Frayn pays tribute to late German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the play "Democracy." The award-winning drama premiered in London last year and opened Thursday in Berlin. DW-WORLD spoke with the British playwright.

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"Democracy" in Berlin: East German spy Guillaume whispers in Chancellor Brandt's ear

Berlin was the spy's playground during the Cold War, and it's a fitting place to meet 70-year-old Michael Fray, the British playwright, novelist and translator, who penned "Democracy." The play focuses on West Germany's biggest counterintelligence scandal, when in 1974 Chancellor Willy Brandt's personal assistant Günter Guillaume was exposed as an East German spy. Exactly 30 years ago, on May 7, Brandt, the first Social Democratic chancellor of the postwar era, resigned.

What remained of his four and a half year tenure were the treaties he had brokered to normalize relations with Poland and mutually renouncing violence with the Soviet Union. Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his contribution to European reconciliation.

"Democracy" has been a huge success in London and continues to play to packed houses there. The drama had its German premier in a Berlin theater Thursday and is set to open on Broadway in October.

DW-WORLD: The Germans must be thankful to you for writing the play Democracy." You cast Willy Brandt, a key figure of German history, in a very positive light, portraying him as a wise, humane and profound man. Did you intend to give the Germans a hero?

Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn

MICHAEL FRAYN: Willy Brandt was a hero long before I arrived on the scene. He was great man. And he had a great achievement: he began the reconciliation with the East. Even if he hadn't managed to get the eastern treaties through he would still would have been a great man. There was something about him which held everyone's attention. Many people hated him, but he also inspired love in many people, here in Germany and abroad.

Why write a play about Brandt and German politics?

I wanted to write a play about the complexity of politics. And German politics is a particularly good example, because it is so complex, because of the federal system. And also because every German government since the Second World War has been a coalition. And almost nobody else can make a coalition work. [They're] terrified that things will be unstable. And the other great complexity of German politics was of course the fact that Germany was divided into two countries for so many years. But I wanted to write about Brandt and Guillaume in particular, because I also wanted the play to be not only about the complexity of politics but the complexity of individual human beings.

It's quite unusual for a British playwright to deal with German politics.

But German politics is particular interesting, because it is so complicated. It's a much more complicated version of democratic politics than we have in Britain. There are lots of British plays about the Nazi period. But no one has yet started to write about what is much more interesting to me: the amazing recovery after the Second World War, which maybe astonishes me more as an outsider than it does Germans, because Germans take it for granted.

Is Brandt something like an anti-Hitler?

He was an anti-Hitler, absolutely. He was always an opponent of Nazism. He was in exile throughout the Nazi period. When he became chancellor, he did say on this day, "The war that Hitler began against the nations of Europe and so many people in our own nation is finally lost."

Your previous play, "Copenhagen," in which the German physicist Werner Heisenberg meets his mentor, Niels Bohr, in 1941, deals with the conflict between good and evil.

"Copenhagen" is about how difficult it is to know why people do what they do. Until you know that, you can't make any judgement about whether what they do is good or bad. You have to know what there intentions are.

Why does someone like the spy Günter Guillaume, who describes himself as a "nobody" in "Democracy," do what he does?

I think Guillaume was probably a loyal citizen of the GDR (communist East Germany). He thought he could serve them by working for the Stasi (the east German secret police). They sent him to the West, and, purely by chance, he got into the federal chancellor's office. I suppose then he thought he could continue honourably, loyally serving the GDR, the Stasi, although at the same time, of course, he came to admire Brandt very much.

Is he a symbol for the average German?

I wouldn't think the average German works for two different governments at the same time. But everyone has different possibilities inside himself, has to find some way of resolving these possibilities. So Guillaume is just a particularly extreme example of that.

The only member of the GDR leadership who plays a role in "Democracy" -- although he never appears -- is former Stasi chief Mischa Wolf. Was he the real focus of fascination?

Mischa Wolf is a very intriguing character. He was perhaps the most successful spymaster in the world. But I think, by far, the most interesting character in that period is Brandt himself, because he was a very complex man. He had many dark places inside himself, in spite of his obvious success. He suffered a great deal from depression, and he had many serious weaknesses, not just superficial ones like drinking too much and being too interested in women. He was konfliktscheu (wary of confrontation) and he found it very difficult to come to decisions.

What remains from the period besides a stirring story?

What remains from that time is Brandt's achievement, the Ostpolitik (eastern policy). That changed everything in Europe. It began to make it possible to end the Cold War. It was only the first step, but perhaps without that first step, there would still be a GDR, there would still be a Soviet Union, there would still be a nuclear stalemate. It was the first step, and that changed the world.

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