Germany’s emblematic and immensely influential postwar Social Democratic chancellor, Willy Brandt, was born in Lübeck on December 18, 1913. He shared Lübeck origins with the great chronicler of the disorder of the modern German soul, Thomas Mann, as well as with a revolutionary predecessor, Jürgen Wollenweber, the city’s Reformation mayor. Brandt was not his original name; it was a pseudonym from his period in the anti-Nazi underground. He was an illegitimate child and had to work his way out of desolate circumstances—one more thing, apart from his anti-Nazism, socialist convictions and internationalism, that many conventional Germans did not forgive. His early mentor was Julius Leber, murdered by the Nazis as the leading Social Democrat in the failed 1944 plot against Hitler. I recollect Brandt saying, “Anyone who thinks that the correct ideology suffices should consider the plotters, most of them conservative Prussians, but all with character and humanity.”
Brandt was 20 when the Nazis seized power in 1933. He left Germany when it was clear that resistance was tapering off, was in civil war Spain as a journalist, and finally settled in Norway. For a time he considered immigration to the United States and he always admired our capacity for democratic self-renewal. He fled Norway when it was occupied in 1940, went to Sweden and returned to Germany at war’s end as a Norwegian officer—again, something that millions of German chauvinists did not forgive.
Brandt decided to remain in Germany and join the struggle—by no means decided—for democracy. He was rooted in the German working class, but internationally experienced. He had made his own the reformist lessons of Scandinavian social democracy. He had an instinctive gift for political experiment and a no less pronounced one for knowing when to stop. He chose to work in the political caldron that was West Berlin, with its open border to Communist Germany, permanent Allied garrison and reminiscences of an extraordinary urban culture. By 1957, he was the city’s mayor, had the attention of the media by virtue of his office and was always good for a story himself. He began the construction of a network of supporters inside the nationally moribund Social Democratic Party. A list of his protégés reads like a history of the party from the middle of the last century to early in this one. In addition to younger people, he was drawn to returned émigrés and friends abroad who were Jewish. A Protestant himself, Brandt thought of Jews as Protestants with hearts, moral rigorists with humor and warmth.
In 1959, Brandt and his allies succeeded in rewriting and, more important, rethinking the party’s program. Revolutionary rhetoric that had already been out of date in Imperial Germany was finally dropped. Step-by-step reforms in education, healthcare, civic participation and workers’ rights took their place. Environmentalism and an initial charter of women’s rights appeared. Implacable opposition to West Germany’s rearmament had failed and the electorate, however reluctantly, considered integration in NATO necessary. The Social Democrats now proposed to join NATO in a new process of negotiation with the Soviet Union. The search for a modern version of social democracy led to the beginnings of a transatlantic political alliance, with the American groups forming around John Kennedy, younger politicians, scientists and writers, trade unionists and social reformers. Americans and Germans of a newer generation grasped that their wish to see Eisenhower and the even older Konrad Adenauer retire had similar sources. They sought renewal, not just continuity.
The burgeoning alliance between Kennedy and Brandt suffered a severe setback in August 1961, when a desperate East German regime stopped the flight westward of its citizens by walling them in. The construction of the Berlin Wall had huge long-term consequences. It demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of post-Stalinist Communism—but also the futility of the West’s rigid anti-Communism. His citizens disheartened and frightened, Brandt reproached Kennedy for doing little to help them. The American president, for his part, concluded that the erection of the Wall meant that despite Khrushchev’s ever-louder threats, West Berlin was safe from attack. He was angered by Brandt’s protests: no one would be served by beginning the apocalypse at Checkpoint Charlie. When Kennedy’s emissary, Gen. Lucius Clay, acted as if he were authorized to do so, he was called to order.