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CWIHP e-Dossier No. 22 

Author: Bernd Rother , Vice-Executive Director, Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt Foundation

The 22 documents made available here are a small sample from the 10 volumes of Willy Brandt's selected works published between 2002 and 2009 as Berliner Ausgabe. They were chosen out of a total of 904 documents and focus on international relations after 1970. Ostpolitik and Détente constitute one thematic backbone of the sample, relations between the global North and South another. Many other aspects of Brandt's political life, which extended from the end of the 1920s to 1992, necessarily to be excluded, including his emigration and exile in Scandinavia 1933-45, his underground activity in Nazi Berlin in 1936, his transformation from a revolutionary socialist to a reformer, the nine years spent as Governing Mayor of [West] Berlin between 1957 and 1966 and the 23 years as SPD chairman.

Détente, Ostpolitik, and The Second Cold War

The achievement of détente between the superpowers in Europe was among the most important of Brandt's chosen tasks. Whereas his Ostpolitik found a place in the international setting of the transition period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. maintained some important reservations. Brandt proved to be a firm anti-communist while Mayor of Berlin when called for. Yet, as a socialist, his attempts to negotiate with Moscow on behalf of the West German government concerned some Republicans and other conservatives in Washington. General Lucius D. Clay was a key figure in Brandt's attempts to overcome those reservations. Clay was the hero of the Berlin airlift and remained one of the experts on Berlin in Washington, D.C. Brandt, Federal Chancellor from October 1969 until May 1974, learned that Clay too was skeptical about Ostpolitik. Brandt wrote Gen. Clay a long letter, (Document 1) by Brandt's standards, in which he addressed Clay's concerns. Directed as much to President Richard Nixon as to Clay, Brandt addressed the general misgivings conservatives had with regard to Ostpolitik, namely that the Soviet Union would reap most of the benefits without having to make major concessions. The Chancellor reiterated his main arguments in favor of Ostpolitik, which he defined as part of the Western policy toward the East. On no account did Ostpolitik put into question West Germany's integration into NATO, Brandt stressed. His success at the European Community's Hague Summit at the end of 1969 opened the way for British membership. In the Chancellor's eyes, Britain's participation in the European Community was a major contribution strengthening the Western position, providing a united front which was necessary – as he argued – to reduce the risk of armed conflict with the Soviet Union. Concerning Ostpolitik, Brandt argued to Clay that "it is in the interest of the West to see that the Federal Republic of Germany no longer continues to be the pretense which the Soviet Union and the GDR exploit to domesticate [restrain] the other members of the Warsaw Pact." He continued: "We should also not underestimate how much [our] fascination with freedom is likely to affect a peaceful debate and a step-by-step improvement of the situation in Europe." Together with his chief foreign affairs advisor Egon Bahr, he called this strategy "Change by Rapprochement." In the end of the letter, Brandt drew a link between the Berlin negotiations and the recognition of existing borders: "West Berlin's vital force is more important to me than the already ineluctable acceptance of the Oder-Neisse-Line, which other than the CSU, no one on earth still calls into question."

But Brandt's policies went beyond Ostpolitik. Divergent economic and financial interests also threatened to undermine good relations among Germany, Western Europe on the whole, and the United States. In July 1972, Brandt asked President Nixon to coordinate the currency policies and to defend the parities set in December 1971. (Document 2) In the same letter, Brandt reported on the talks and negotiations with the East, and on his meeting with French President Geroges Pompidou. He stressed the importance of deepening West European integration. For Brandt, this was the precondition for a Europe on an equal footing with the United States. But as his August 1973 letter (Document 3) to Nixon shows, relations between the United States and the European Community continued to worsen. The United States seemed to fear a politically united West Europe and preferred state-to-state negotiations. Brandt, however, spoke of the "relationship between the United States and Western Europe in the process of unification." He envisioned bilateral, not multilateral relations, and "advocated the position that the United States should, for the common interest, act as if the European Community had already achieved a more definitive structure." To Brandt's greatest regret, the European Community itself proved to be incapable of reaching common positions on foreign affairs issues. The Bremerhaven incident during the Yom-Kippur War was an additional a source of discontent, following the currency problems and Kissinger's "Year of Europe." During the war, Israeli ships were loaded with American munitions at the Bremenhaven naval base, without Brandt's office's knowledge. (Document 4) Brandt protested strongly. Yet these conflicts with the Nixon Administration should not leave the impression that Brandt became anti-American. The Chancellor did not question the closeness of the relationship with Washington, but at the same time he was increasingly ready to defend European interests when he saw them as different from these of the United States.

In May 1974, Brandt stepped down as Federal Chancellor amid a scandal caused by the detention of one of his assistants who was accused of being an East German spy. He remained chairman of the SPD, but no longer exercised executive power. Détente, which in the mid-70s had already begun to stagnate, was in real danger by the end of the decade. For Brandt, continuous dialogue was one of the most important preconditions for furthering détente. From 1979 on, Brandt feared for the future of détente especially because of the Soviets' incessant SS-20 production and the impending deployment of American Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. The Polish crisis of 1980-81 further aggravated tensions. Brandt desperately sought ways to save détente. He saw the world on the brink of a nuclear war and therefore joined those who argued that the Soviet SS-20 was destroying the existing balance of power. His solution was not to increase the weapons build-up, but to work towards disarmament. On several occasions he asked Brezhnev, then Andropov, to undertake unilateral steps towards arms reduction and to seek a way to stop the arms race. This, he argued, could lead NATO to cancel the planned deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles. (Document 6)

Brandt did not always encounter positive reactions to his security policy proposals. François Mitterrand, once his deputy in the Socialist International, seemed to follow the American course in the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) question. In a private discussion with Brandt in 1981, Mitterrand showed a more moderate stance. (Document 10) The discussion centered on security issues. Mitterrand stated that while, at present there was a rough strategic balance, "by 1985 there will be Soviet superiority. After that, by 1992, he forsees superiority by the United States." When Brandt raised the question of France's nuclear weapons, Mitterrand replied that to considering these forces in the INF negotiations was legitimate--a stance that he did not take in public. Brandt stressed Adenauer's argument that missiles capable of attacking the Soviet Union should not be deployed in West Germany.

On 5 October 1981 Willy Brandt met Secretary of State Gen. Alexander Haig. (Document 11) The rise of Solidarity in Poland was among the central issues facing European security policy-makers. Brandt viewed the struggle for greater workers' rights with sympathy, but was afraid that the Polish trade union leaders would not recognize the insurmountable limits which Poland's geostrategic position and its Warsaw Pact membership imposed on the country. Brandt also tried to convince Haig that the West German peace movement was not anti-American, neutralist, or pro-communist, but rather anti-missile. He expressed his hope that most of its members could be integrated in the German political system, as had the 1968 generation.

Brandt's 14 January 1982 letter to Poland's leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski shows that the declaration of martial law on 13 December 1981 had not drastically changed his stance. (Document 12) Brandt's reaction was guarded in part because he viewed Martial Law as the lesser evil compared with the Soviet intervention he had feared. Mindful of the crimes Nazi Germany had committed against Poland during World War II, Brandt retained a moderate tone and avoided openly criticizing Jaruzelski.

The Polish crisis ran parallel to the Euromissiles crisis, with Brandt trying to push the Soviet Union towards unilateral concessions. His March 1982 letter to Brezhnev reveals his surprise at the Soviet Union's negotiating positions. (Document 13) Soviet proposals at Geneva, Brandt feared, would forestall the so-called zero-option which would eliminate Soviet SS-20s and US Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruised Missles. This position, Brandt argued, could lead to further deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany.

Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, weeks after the SPD had been forced to leave the government. Helmut Schmidt also retired from politics, but Willy Brandt stayed at the head of the party for another five years. In his obituary for Brezhnev, Brandt called his relationship with the Soviet leader a "trustful enmity," and expressed his hope that this type of relationship would also be possible with Brezhnev's successors. In September 1983, Brandt reached out to the Soviet Union's new General Secretary, Yuri Andropov. (Document 15) In his letter, Brandt proposes that the Soviet leader reduce the number of SS-20s to a level which would make the deployment of any American missiles unnecessary. During this process, he conceded, the number and capabilities of British and French missiles should also be taken into consideration. Brandt's last two sentences showed how things had changed since his term as Chancellor: "We make full use of our limited abilities to influence the American government. That a situation has developed where we ascribe greater importance to the responsibility and the conduct of the Soviet Union, is surely something which would not have been possible had it not been for the positive relations which have developed between us on the basis of the Moscow Treaty."

But the gerontocracy in Moscow with its fast-paced leadership changes and the enduring predominance of the military-industrial complex in the Kremlin defeated Brandt's attempts at convincing the Kremlin of the need for a serious effort to reinvigorate détente. As Ronald Reagan continued to discuss (and fund) his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) protecting the United States against the so-called evil empire, Brandt's relationship with Washington reached the lowest point of his career. His letter to Reagan, complaining that, contrary to his six predecessors, Reagan could not find the time to meet with Brandt while visiting Germany in May 1985, is a clear example of the tension building in the relationship. (Document 16)

Profound changes in the East

In May 1985, Brandt was among the first Western politicians to meet new CPSU Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. Brandt's impressions were very positive. This meeting was the beginning of an ongoing exchange of ideas and opinions between the two leaders which only concluded upon Brandt's death. In his September 1985 letter (Document 17) Brandt tried to encourage Gorbachev to follow through with his goal to take unilateral action to stop the arms race. For the first time, Brandt's relationship with a Soviet leader was clearly better than his relationship with the U.S. President! This allowed him to write with great openness to Gorbachev. While Brandt criticized the Soviet leader's reaction to the Chernobyl disaster, he remained far more critical of U.S. policy on security issues. Once more he encouraged Gorbachev to further reduce the Soviet military presence in Europe. (Document 18)

In the second half of the 1980s, détente seemed to re-emerge from underneath the tensions which characterized the decade's early years. This thaw made possible what GDR leader Honecker had always dreamed of: a state visit to Bonn (where Helmut Kohl was now chancellor). For Honecker it was the greatest diplomatic success in the history of the GDR, and Brandt's discussion with Honecker during the September 1987 visit took place in an exceptionally friendly atmosphere. (Document 19) Brandt, who had resigned as SPD chairman three months earlier, but was still President of the Socialist International, asked Honecker "whether one would still have to observe the 1918 dividing line between Social Democrats and Communists." He also suggested that steps should be taken toward creating zones free of weapons of mass destruction while acknowledging that some, even in the Socialist camp, opposed the idea, including French President Francois Mitterrand.

Things started to change fundamentally in 1989: first with Solidarity's triumph in the Polish elections in June 1989, later with the mass exodus from the GDR via Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and, definitively, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Brandt, who in the 1980s had favored contacts with the ruling Communists hoping that reformists would get the upper hand, was among the first SPD politicians to recognize that a revolution was under way in Eastern Europe. While many of his comrades continued to believe that a reformed GDR would survive the fall of the Wall, Brandt declared that "it is crucial that our party not get entangled in the issue of national unity, particularly not at a time when people everywhere in Germany are uniting. To make a dogma of the two-nation solution would be just as fallacious as seeing a national state as the only solution to be inferred from the Basic Law. And we Social Democrats ought to be proposing a necessary process for the parts of Europe to grow together." (Document 20) German unification was not only legitimate but had to be the aim of the SPD, with a united Germany integrated in the European Union. Brandt remained opposed to the concept of "reunification," seeing instead a whole new Germany arising from the former two German states.

The North-South Commission

Détente between East and West was not the only issue Brandt dealt with after having resigned as Chancellor in 1974. On the contrary, Brandt broadened his political horizons, and engaged the world beyond Europe. In November 1976 he became President of the Socialist International, and in September 1977, at the invitation of World Bank president Robert McNamara, he formed the Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues and became its chairman. As the head of what soon was called the Brandt Commission or the North-South commission, he tried to follow a method already used in Ostpolitik - a search for common interests, in this case between industrialized and developing countries. In his Reflections on the Mutuality of Interests he did not make and argument for "aid" but rather for "common interests." (Document 5) Paul Wilkinson calls the 1980 Brandt Report the last really serious effort at designing a comprehensive international development strategy. The Brandt Report could aptly be described as international Keynesianism. Its underlying assumptions were based on economic liberalism modified to fit the special needs of the Global South. In specific terms, Brandt also argued that foreign aid should be targeted more carefully in order to assist recipients to become more economically self-sustainable.

The Cancún Summit of 25 heads of states or governments in October 1981 was the most tangible result of the Brandt Commission's work. In his letter (Document 9) to the participants Brandt and his fellow commissioner Shridath Ramphal asked for an emergency program for those countries of the South most affected by the crisis. Brandt hoped that the summit participants could hold an open conversation, which would convince, especially Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, of the necessity of helping the Third World. Most attendees had no real interest in such a discussion and the summit ended with no practical results.

In February 1983, Brandt and his Commission published another report which was an updated emergency program demanding in particular reforms of the World Bank and the IMF. Brandt observed a deepening world economic crisis, which endangered not only the weakest countries of the Third World, but also the entire global community. Once again his proposals drew upon Keynesian economics to devise a plan similar to Roosevelt's New Deal, but applied on a global scale. As with the first Brandt Report, it found many readers but had no practical impact upon policy. (Document 14)

As President of the Socialist International (SI), Brandt concentrated on Latin America. Brandt was motivated by the desire to show that Western democracies do not always side with reactionary dictators or neglect the interests of the Third World. European Social Democracy, he argued, had something to offer those forces which tried to put an end to poverty and oppression, especially as a model of solidarity and its experience building European welfare states. The most important case where SI and Brandt personally wanted to put their new strategy into practice was the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, but Brandt was soon confronted with the growing influence of Marxist-Leninist factions within the Sandinistas. In response, Brandt turned to Felipe González, chairman of SI's Committee for Solidarity with Nicaragua, asking him to make it clear to the Sandinistas that the International did not support any attempts to reduce pluralism and the rule of law. (Document 8)

Brandt also dedicated time and energy to the Middle East. Together with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, a close friend from his years in Sweden, Brandt began an effort to negotiate a peace among Israel, its Arabic neighbors, and the Palestinians. As part of this multifaceted effort, Brandt warned Yasser Arafat against being marginalized through association with Islamic radicals. Aware of Arafat's tenuous position, Brandt, nevertheless, criticized him for his ambivalent position toward Israel, at times marked by readiness for peaceful solutions, at others fraught with warmongering declarations. He also pressed Israel to accept Palestine's self-determination. (Document 7) Despite all of Brandt's efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the issue, no enduring peace was achieved on the Palestinian question. Brandt maintained his original position throughout, including by resisting Israeli calls to end his contacts with the PLO. While he ignored these calls, he did so without once abandoning his support for Israeli security.

After the end of the bipolar world

Out of all of Willy Brandt's political initiatives, his visit to Baghdad after the fall of the Berlin Wall earned most media coverage. (Document 21) In the Iraqi capital, he worked to free Germans and other foreigners who had been held as hostages since the occupation of Kuwait in August 1990. Brandt was partially successful, freeing 193 hostages. Unfortunately he was not able to achieve similar success with the overall conflict between Iraq and Kuwait and its coalition allies. Regardless, the fact that he was able to liberate the hostages was a result of his actions as a respected elder statesman, and his ability to open doors around the globe.

One of his last public interventions in politics was his long interview with "Die Welt" in September 1991 - a kind of political tour d'horizon. (Document 22) Concerning German unification, Brandt summed up his position by saying that the political unification had come sooner than he had expected, but that the economic unification would take longer. Communism, he said, had reached its historical end, even if some countries carried on claiming that they were communist. Europe was still too weak as the Yugoslav crisis had shown. In the long run, he suggested, Europe needed its own military force, including safeguards to prevent the development of situations like the one in Yugoslavia. But for the time being, NATO should remain unchanged. It was clear that Brandt had accepted that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact would not lead to a new European security system based on the CSCE/OSCE institutions.


Willy Brandt's place in German and in global history is based on his successful Ostpolitik. He enjoyed an excellent political reputation in wide circles. This stemmed from his opposition to the politics of Hitler and Stalin, and his commitment to freedom, peace, and welfare. Persecuted for his political convictions, Brandt opted for life in exile to avoid accepting the Nazi dictatorship. Later he risked his political career by trying to persuade the Germans to subscribe to his vision of détente. In the end, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for this vision. After 1974 he started a "second career" as internationally accepted politician interested in the problems of the Global South, be it in his capacity as President of the Socialist International or as Chairman of the North-South Commission. During these years, he was often met with greater response outside of Germany than at home. Peace, freedom, and social welfare were his central objectives. This was far from being new for Brandt; now he broadened his view, and he became even more of an internationalist. Not all of his initiatives bore fruit. His opposition to the deployment of NATO missiles in the 1980s earned him critical comments even from fellow socialists such as François Mitterrand. Brandt's objections against the word "re-unification," which he stressed during the late 1980s made many Germans wonder whether he still wanted a unified Germany. That they were mistaken and that Brandt had never stopped being a German patriot became very clear in 1989-90. Brandt's opposition to a new round of the arms race, together with his alternative concept of a Common Security meant he would have an open door in the Kremlin when Gorbachev became General Secretary. The CPSU leader later confessed that this and other social democratic ideas inspired him when he began drafting reform programs of his own.

Brandt made his political career in a bipolar world. But as a visionary and a realist at the same time, as his biographer Peter Merseburger pointed out, he put forth initiatives which both accepted existing restrictions and simultaneously worked to overcome them. This special gift distinguished Brandt from so many other politicians.


About the Author

Bernd Rother

Vice-Executive Director, Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt Foundation
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