At the geographic centre of Europe, Berlin is a microcosm of European history. That much is obvious. How we interpret that history is the challenge. Daniel Barenboim, the most cosmopolitan and civilised of men, conducts at the opera house whose shadow falls across the Humboldt University square where the infamous book burning took place. The statue of Frederick the Great looks on impassively.
Unter den Linden no longer has its trees, but the post War reconstruction cannot fail to impress. Little credit, though, is given now to life in the years of division. Crassly and cruelly the Wall [1961-1989] served as a symbol of cold hostility and aggressive power games. The West arrogated democracy and liberality.
The East spoke of socialist humanism. The claims on both sides so often proved to be false. This was the case not only in one city but in the world at large.
A colossus stood in that city and took a long view of the world. Willy Brandt as Mayor of West Berlin exercised an authority of a world leader. There was an aura of integrity and purpose rarely found among the careerists and charlatans who seek power for its own sake. A foundation in Brandt’s name is housed close by the Brandenburg Gate. A current exhibition celebrates the life of this remarkable and unforgotten man.
Willy Brandt [1913-1992] as Mayor of West Berlin from 1957 to 1966 achieved much in practical terms, reconstructing a civilized city out of the ruins, moral and physical, of total war. To the world he was the focus of an enlightened Germany repudiating its Nazi past. Brandt was more generous than the unimaginative East and more idealistic than the materialist West. Surprisingly perhaps, he was critical of the Soviet proposal to make Berlin a free city. Brandt certainly wished for a united city, but in a united Germany where neither the free market nor state bureaucracy would gain the leading role in society. Brandt, so to speak, walked along the Wall.
There was hope that he would replace the elderly, conservative Adenauer as Chancellor. Despite open endorsement by President Kennedy, Brandt was privately and publically critical of JFK whom he saw as a mere speech-maker without serious resolve. Brandt was not a liberal. He was a democratic socialist, perhaps the supreme exemplar of a radical polity within a constitutional frame. Significantly, idealists of the New Left, notably Rudi Dutschke, confessed a qualified admiration. Brandt had been a youthful member of Workers’ Socialist Party, a position later modified into a more flexible social democracy.
Although he had shaped his commitment to meet pragmatic needs, Brandt never lost sight of an oppositional and transformative vision of society. Not for him the seductions of position and privilege. He was President of Socialist International for many years. Under his leadership the International expanded, embracing many forms of socialist democracy throughout the world.
Controversially, but imaginatively, Brandt as Chancellor [1969-74] pursued a policy of Ostpolitik, seeking dialogue with East Germany. This was problematic, given the GDR’s sclerotic Stalinism. Brandt already had developed contact with dissidents in the East, who argued for a socialism outside the bounds of the blinkered diktats of the Communist Party hierarchy.
There were powerful enemies of both sides to Brandt’s outspoken instincts. Adenauer’s snobbish dismissal of his radical rival is indicative. Born in a subservient class of late Imperial Germany, Brandt’s formal education was curtailed at an early age. He worked for a shipping agent in his teens, widening his cultural base through the lectures and pamphlets of socialist groups. He became fluent in several languages, and wrote prolifically, especially from exile in Scandinavia during the Nazi years. He returned to Germany secretly to work with the Resistance. Later he campaigned for the republican government in Spain during the Civil War.
By 1945 Willy Brandt [the pseudonym he adopted to evade the Gestapo] was a thoroughgoing internationalist in conviction and experience. Significantly, he never sought to modulate the accent of his upbringing. This was, surely, a conscious choice which the patrician culture thought unsophisticated. For Brandt it was a matter of pride. As Chancellor he did much to raise living standards, the rights of women, and working conditions of the many who had yet to share in the ‘economic miracle’. This phoenix rising was wealth grounded in aggressive capital accumulation with no recourse to social equity. The source of this wealth was never fully explained. Brandt distanced himself from the moral void of deutschmark democracy.
Resigning as Chancellor after a scandal [although he was not personally implicated], Brandt took a more international role, chairing commissions on world development.
This work raised questions of the world’s financial systems that favoured the North against the South and the West against the East. If Brandt’s enemies had sought to silence him, they succeeded only in making his voice louder and firmer. His final years were crowned not only with honours, like the Nobel Peace Prize, but with penetratingly radical perceptions of how the world might change.
It was becoming increasingly clear that the Cold War rhetoric was outmoded. It always had been questionable. The real division in the world was between the global power elites that accumulated wealth and the many who yearned for cultural values and essential resources. Brandt gathered support not only from obvious allies like Julius Nyrere, the doyen of African socialists, but the increasingly radical Edward Heath, sharply critical of the Conservative Party he once led and the reactionary policies he now repudiated.
Gathering about him a colloquy of generous-minded statesmen, Brandt was becoming the unofficial leader of the progressive left in the world. He was asking the right questions and seeking the right answers. There was a hungry, angry world that was persuaded neither by dollar wealth nor moribund ideology. When the Wall came down and the world seemed, if only for a moment, united in optimism, the spirit of Willy Brandt was almost visible in its power to overcome the obstructive forces of dominance he had fought all his life.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall