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Brandt's international impact

Sarah Judith Hofmann / reDecember 18, 2013

Willy Brandt, who died 25 years ago, fought Hitler and fascists in Europe, helped to reconcile East and West and worked to bring industrial and developing countries together. Brandt had a vision of a fairer world.

Porträt Willy Brandt
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images

On December 7, 1970, Willy Brandt left Germany for a visit to Poland. On the agenda is a treaty on the mutual renunciation of the use of force and the recognition of the country's post-war borders. Even twenty-five years after the end of World War II, this was no routine visit. He was the first German Chancellor to visit a country which the Germans had brutally attacked and occupied. He would be in Warsaw, where the Nazis crammed hundreds of thousands of Jews into the ghetto, deported them to concentration camps and killed them. It was a city which the Nazis had completely destroyed. Brandt knew he needed an exceptional gesture with which he would ask the Polish people for forgiveness. He found the gesture at the right moment.

The 'Warsaw Genueflection' (Foto: picture alliance/dpa)
Willy Brandt honors the Jewish and Polish victims at the Monument tothe Ghetto Heroes in warsawImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As he laid a wreath at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, he did not just bow his head in honor of the victims, he fell to his knees and remained there for more than a minute. There was complete silence. One could only hear the clicking of the cameras. The pictures of what became known as the Warsaw Genuflection traveled around the world, and became one of the best-known images in modern German history.

According to Alfred Grosser, who was born to Jewish parents in 1933 in Frankfurt and had to flee to France, "Although he fought Hitler all his life, he shouldered the burden - not the guilt - of the past." For Grosser, Brandt's gesture was a "great moment" which still retains its significance.

Willy Brandt 1971 holds the Nobel Peace Prize certificate (Foto: picture alliance/dpa)
Willy Brandt receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1971Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In Germany - and in Poland too - he was sharply criticized for this gesture of humility; some even despised him. But for the world it was obvious that Willy Brandt represented a different, peaceful Germany. A year later he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

A child of the 20th century

Brandt was born in the northern German city of Lübeck on December 18, 1913, as Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm. When he was young his grandfather took him to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) but he later felt drawn to the more radical Socialist Workers' Party (SAP), which was banned soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. In spring of the same year he fled to Norway under the nom de guerre Willy Brandt. He worked not just against Hitler, but against all the fascist regimes in Europe. He spent time in Spain, working as a journalist during the civil war there.

In 1947 he returned to Germany. All his life he was accused of being a traitor to his country. "One should be allowed to ask Mr. Brandt what he was doing in those 12 years abroad," asked Franz Josef Strauss. "We know what we were doing here in Germany." For the French political scientist Alfred Grosser, it is unbelievable that the Germans were so hostile to Willy Brandt: "Here resistance fighters keep their nom de guerre. That's beautiful and honorable."

Willy Brandt with John F. Kennedy in front of Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin, 1963
Willy Brandt and US President John F. Kennedy in Berlin, 1963Image: picture-alliance/dpa Fotografen

Despite all the hostility, Willy Brandt was elected mayor of West Berlin in 1957. Berlin was still officially occupied by the four victorious powers of World War II, and the job of mayor required diplomatic skills. But it also brought plenty of attention, not just when The US president, John F. Kennedy, visited the city in 1963 and declared himself "ein Berliner". In 1966 Willy Brandt became foreign minister in the national government and three years later German Chancellor. He experienced political lows, for example when the Berlin Wall was built and he felt his hands were tied. But he also had his successes in the process of reconciliation between East and West with his "policy of small steps". His position was always fragile and he often got caught in the crossfire of competing interests. But still, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was also partly due to him. Willy Brandt had a life which could have only been possible in the 20th century.

From East-West to North-South

"He rose above nationalism, above race, above religion; he was a world citizen," says Sir Shridat Ramphal, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations. "I think he genuinely believed that his country was the globe. And that his duty as a global citizen was to make the whole world better." Ramphal - another world citizen - was born in Guyana and worked in several international organizations. From the late 70's onwards he worked closely with Brandt. It tends to be forgotten that Willy Brandt also worked hard for the North-South dialogue and not just for East-West reconciliation.

Willy Brandt talks to the North-South Commission in Gymnich near Bonn (Foto: picture alliance/dpa)
Willy Brandt talks to the North-South Commission in Gymnich near BonnImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 1977, World Bank President Robert McNamara decided to set up an independent commission to look into issues of international development. The commission was intended to break the ice between the industrialized North and the developing countries of the South. McNamara could find no-one better for this commission than Willy Brandt - the man who was able to mediate between East and West when it looked as if no more movement was possible.

The vision of one world

"He was accepted by the developing world - by Africa, by Asia - as a man of sincerity and honor," Ramphal, who was a member of the commission, told DW. Under the leadership of Willy Brandt, by now an elder statesman, politicians and academics from 18 countries tried to find an equitable world order.

"He made people understand that it was a mutual interest that these divisions in the world cease," says Ramphal.

Willy Brandt meets Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow (Foto: Musaelyn/AFP/Getty Images)
Brandt was one of the first saw in Mikhail Gorbachev the chance for changeImage: V. Musaelyan/AFP/Getty Images

The commission published two reports - the first in 1980 and the second in 1982 - calling for a fairer world economic order. For Ramphal it is clear that all the concerns of the Brandt Commission - disarmament, environmental issues, population growth, technology transfer, women's rights and agricultural protectionism - remain relevant. But he believes that national interests have become too important.

The commission could not achieve any immediate breakthrough but, says Ramphal, "it placed the global debate in a new context" which "changed the whole mood of the North-South debate." Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work towards East-West reconciliation, but, says Ramphal now, his achievements with the North-South-Commission were equally remarkable: "You can't win the Nobel Peace Prize twice, but he deserved it."