Webcast Recap

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's life and work, was the subject of discussion at a 7 September 2010 event featuring a new 10-volume documentary collection, The Berlin Edition (Willy Brandt – Berliner Ausgabe). The event was cosponsored by the German Historical Institute and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Washington Office.

The documentary collection presented by Bernd Rother, vice-executive director of the Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt Foundation, illuminates key aspects of Brandt's life as German statesman and leading social democrat. Rother discussed a set of 22 translated documents, selected from the collection, that trace Brandt's political life from his election as a federal chancellor in 1969 through his presidency of the Socialist International in the early 1980s and the German unification in 1989. Brandt's early years, spent in Norway and Sweden, gave him a deep appreciation for parliamentary democracy. According to Rother, Brandt's political convictions found expression later when Brandt served as mayor of Berlin, a federal chancellor, and chairman of the SPD. Brandt defended social democracy as the golden mean between socialism and capitalism and advanced that view domestically and internationally.

The hallmark of Brandt's foreign policy was Ostpolitik, a strategy of rapprochement through small steps, which he considered the only way to bring about systemic change in East Germany. By 1990, Brandt was among a handful of German politicians, who understood that German unification was a necessary step in Germany's full integration within the European Union.

Karsten Voigt, former German Bundestag member and foreign policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, shared his impressions of Willy Brandt as a personal friend and SPD colleague. According to Voigt, "Brandt embodied the political traditions of the SPD."

Brandt's attitude towards Washington's foreign policy often puzzled Voigt. During the Vietnam War, he expected Brandt to voice his concerns openly, but, much to Voigt's surprise, Brandt remained reserved. As chancellor, Voigt argued, Brandt gave priority to Germany's strategic interests, making him much more cautious when voicing his opinions.

After he resigned from the Chancellery, Brandt's was much less constrained in voicing his opinions on the United States. He opposed the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles on German territory, and remained highly critical of Reagan's foreign policy in general, Voigt argued. As head of the Socialist International, Brandt questioned what he saw as lack of vision on the part of Washington in its relations with the Third World. Yet despite a difficult relationship with Reagan, he retained numerous connections to the United States. He also remained an admirer of American democracy, considering the United States as "the freest country in the world." Brandt praised George H. W. Bush for his role in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he considered Bush's foreign policy effective in helping to bring an end to the East-West divide.

Ambassador Jonathan Dean praised the completion and release of The Berlin Edition as a major event, especially given the important role of Willy Brandt in overcoming the division of Europe. Dean compared the peaceful end of the Cold War to a "divine miracle," and attributed this success, in part, to the consistent proposals advanced by Willy Brandt and his colleagues. Their persistent arguments throughout the years, Dean claimed, aimed to show East German leaders the weaknesses of the communist system. According to Dean, Brandt's continuous dialogue with Soviet leaders finally convinced them that the status quo could no longer be maintained without bloody interventions. Initially, both Soviet and East German leaders resisted change, but eventually gave in, concluded Dean.

Drafted by Kristina Terzieva and Mircea Munteanu
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program