Willy Brandt (1913-1992) was a German politician who is remembered as one of the most effective Western leaders of the Cold War. Brandt occupied several crucial offices, serving as the mayor of West Berlin and later the foreign minister and chancellor of West Germany.
Brandt was born Herbert Frahm in the northern city of Lubeck, not far from Hamburg. He was the illegitimate son of an unmarried working-class mother and never knew his father. In his teens, Frahm became a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s largest left-wing political party, and for a time was pursued by the Nazis.
Frahm fled Germany to Scandinavia using the false name Willy Brandt, a name he continued to use thereafter. While living in Norway Brandt married twice and developed friendships and connections with other political exiles.
Willy Brandt returned to Germany after the war and worked as a journalist, before entering municipal politics. In 1957 the popular Brandt was elected mayor of Berlin’s western zones. This role thrust him into the international spotlight during the Berlin crisis (1958) and the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961).
Brandt claimed to be a reforming socialist rather than a communist. He believed in change through democracy; he opposed the Soviet rule thrust onto eastern Europe but also believed that West Germany should not become too reliant on the United States. Ordinarily likeable and charismatic, Brandt could also be firm and decisive, qualities he demonstrated as mayor of Berlin.
In 1960, the SPD chose Brandt as its candidate for the West German chancellorship. He did not win, however, Brandt later become foreign minister and vice-chancellor in West Germany’s coalition government (1966-69). As foreign minister, Willy Brandt championed a new conciliatory policy called Ostpolitik, in effect a German form of détente. Though initially controversial, Ostpolitik was gradually accepted by the West German people and Brandt became enormously popular.
Brandt continued to drive Ostpolitik after his election as chancellor in October 1969. Unlike his predecessor, the anti-communist Konrad Adenauer, Brandt hoped to achieve reconciliation with East Germany by gradually restoring communication and diplomatic relations. He visited East Germany in March 1970 and participated in a series of summits with East German socialist leader Willi Stoph. Brandt also signed non-aggression treaties with the Soviet Union and Poland, which helped to ease decades of European tensions.
Brandt was forced out of the chancellorship in 1974 after one of his close advisors was revealed to be an East German spy. He continued to serve in the West German parliament and as chairman of the SPD, until his retirement in 1987. He died in October 1992, aged 78.