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He died twenty years ago, the great German statesman. Germany, Europe and the world have much to be grateful about, and much to learn from this master of politics under great tension and polarization.
What was his Ostpolitik–new politics toward the East–formula?
De-escalation, tension reduction are important aspects, but too general. He managed to present to the East, not only to DDR but to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union, a friendly West Germany not filled with aggression and hatred; a member of NATO, but with a human face. There was no doubt about his stand on dictatorships against the will of the peoples, but he managed to relate directly to the East Germans, the Poles, the Czechs and the Russians. Frequent visitors to those countries could use Brandt as the proof that the West was not all that bad and menacing, pointing nuclear-tipped missiles at them. His predecessor, Kiesinger, an old Nazi, conveyed such signals. And in the end it was Willy Brandt, not Helmut Kohl, who said the right words. Not “we have won” triumphalism, but “now grows together what belongs together”.
Brandt made it easier for East Germany when time was ripe to capitulate to the West, to accept the West’s Article 23 that conceived of East as a part of West. He made the DDR-Deutsche Demokratische Republik reasonable by being reasonable himself. Brandt made Kohl 1989 possible.
And he made it easier for the East to admit, at least to themselves, their atrocities by admitting the same for Germany. The statesman, on his knees, the Kniefall, at the Warsaw ghetto memorial to the Jewish resistance in late 1970. No unnecessary words–they are small anyhow relative to the enormity of the genocide on Jews–but an act of submission to the German burden of guilt, and deep solidarity with the victims. And a signal, one might add, to the Soviets whose troops had let it happen, nearby, not coming to their rescue.
Many were the Germans who had been driven out or fled from the East, the Heimat-Vetriebenen, and their hatred of the perpetrators behind that ethnic cleansing was transferred to Brandt. He was accused of high treason. They mistook his friendliness to the peoples for a yes to the regimes. And fell into the “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” trap of primitive thinking, so far from the ambiguity and subtlety of human affairs. They also have good reasons to be grateful.
Brandt himself had lived a life of ambiguity. He was born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm in Lübeck in 1913, growing up under modest circumstances–later reflected in his enormous work to improve the German welfare state down to the smallest detail. He joined the Socialist Youth and the Socialist Workers Party, to the left of the SPD-Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany)–whose chairman he became later, for 23 years.
In 1933 he escaped Nazi persecution, under the assumed name of Willy Brandt. Norway became his second country; as citizen from 1940 (his German citizenship had been revoked); and had to escape again, to Sweden from German-occupied Norway during the war. He spoke Norwegian and Swedish perfectly. We Norwegians were a little worried about that Swedish part, but he comforted us by saying once in Gothenburg that he dreamt in Norwegian. Carlota Frahm was my sister’s best friend, Willy’s name was a household name. Many are the Norwegians with similar stories to tell about “our Willy”, always with love and respect.
I had the privilege of meeting him several times and we spoke Norwegian; his with an unmistakable Labor Party accent, mine rather bourgeois. His answer, when challenged by a conservative German paper that his program was not pure socialism, not the reine Lehre: “My years in Norway and Sweden have cured me of that”. Straight to the brain, not only to the heart, of Scandinavians.
So he was accused of being anti-German. Repeatedly.
Which Germany he was against when arrested in 1940, in Norwegian uniform, by the invading German forces that occupied Norway for 5 years was very clear. Only highly authoritarian fundamentalists with something to conceal can embrace, or reject, 100 percent phenomena so complex as nations and states. Like the DDR leadership accusing all critics of their “really existing socialism” regime of being anti-socialist.
Worse than Berufsverbot, refusing teaching positions to people accused of communism, this goes to the very heart of democracy which is, among many things, precisely about us discussing ourselves. Worse than Redeverbot, Do not speak the unspeakable, this “anti-German” was close to Denkverbot, Do not think the unthinkable.
He spoke his mind, and often; and there was controversy around him, both hatred and a loving, extensive followership.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his peace-building handshakes with the East. In the tradition of that Western prize given to him only, not to, say, Brezhnev as it takes two to shake hands. But that prize often has the sound of one hand clapping.
His peace thinking went way beyond such narrow limits:
“The globalization of risks and challenges – war, chaos, self-destruction – requires a kind of ‘world domestic policy’ that extends not just beyond the parish pump, but also far beyond national borders” no doubt also inspired by another of the greatest Germans of the postwar period, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Those ideas were also reflected in his Development and Peace Foundation (SEF-Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden). The Brandt Report about development was more traditional Western, top-down, but the general idea was a welfare world. That was the motto of the great Swede he no doubt knew very well, Gunnar Myrdal.
“Peace is not everything, but without peace everything is nothing”, Brandt said. How true.
And Willy Brandt is a lasting monument to that idea.
9 July 2012
. This talk was prepared for the Erfurt, Thüringen 29-30 June 2012 symposium in the memory of Willy Brandt, but I was disinvited, accused of “anti-Semitism”. The accusation was based on misunderstandings of the debate about the complex Breivik catastrophe in Norway. I blame nobody for the disinvitation; they did their duty, and I had entered taboo zones, to understand and explain in order to help prevent such horrors in the future. Those taboo zones are to be blamed, as anti-democratic, depriving us of lessons from the past for constructive approaches to the future. The losers are all of us, Germany, Israel and Jews in particular.
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