Willy Brandt May Even Yet Manage Resurrection No. 5

<i> Michael Harrington is a co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. His latest book is "The Next Left" (Holt). </i>

Willy Brandt has resigned under fire from the chairmanship of the West German Social Democratic Party because, as he has admitted, he has lost the confidence of the party that he led for 23 years. The Socialists have been defeated in the last two elections, and this year went down with their worst showing in more than a quarter of a century.

Moreover, Brandt was suspected by the moderate wing of the party of being too sympathetic to the demands of the Greens, the feminists and the peace movement. Isn’t this clearly, then, the last act in the career of a 73-year-old leader?

Not necessarily. Brandt is not simply a giant figure who has dominated the international Socialist movement of the second half of the 20th Century. He is also one of the most resilient politicians of our age. He has already returned from oblivion on at least four occasions. A fifth resurrection is not to be excluded.


As a young man, Brandt broke with the party because of its failure to militantly fight Adolf Hitler. He went into exile in Norway, worked as a journalist and opposed his country’s war effort. The Nazis stripped him of his citizenship. He rejoined the Socialists after assuming West German citizenship in 1948.

That is hardly the resume of a man who was to become the leader of his nation and party. But of course he did. His rise started in 1953 when the East Berliners went out on strike in the unsettled period after Josef Stalin’s death. As an elected representative of West Berlin, Brandt’s coolness kept the West Berlin reaction from escalating into a confrontation with Soviet troops. He became the city’s mayor in 1957.

Now the party’s effective leader, Brandt made what seemed to be a right turn. He persuaded the party to drop its Marxist rhetoric. Though it had been merely rhetoric for years, it still frightened some voters and allowed the Christian Democrats to portray their anti-communist opponents as secret communists.

Brandt’s “Godesberg program” opened up the possibility for the Socialists to reach out to middle-class and Catholic voters. But it didn’t work, and there were reports that he was profoundly depressed.

He recovered with an audacious move in the late 1960s: He led the party into a “Grand Coalition” with the Christian Democrats, and was named foreign minister. The point was to prove that he and the party could rule as well as criticize.

Brandt did not become a prisoner of his conservative allies. Instead, he launched his famous ostpolitik (Eastern policy), and moved toward detente with the Soviets and Eastern Europeans--a strategy that was to win him the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1969 Brandt brought the Socialists their greatest victory: The man who had gone into exile to oppose his country became its chancellor.

Disaster came in 1974. There was a spy scandal--a member of Brandt’s inner circle turned out to be an East German agent--and the chancellor resigned his office. A lesser man would have been crushed.

Brandt was not. He remained the chairman of the party--his popularity had declined in the nation, but not among the Socialists--and in 1976 became president of the Socialist International.

The International was moribund, the convener of periodic congresses at which left-wing old boys could hold sentimental reunions. Brandt aggressively insisted that it would have to move into the Third World and take the lead on disarmament. Within 10 years he had created an organization with so many Third World member parties that the Europeans were in a minority. Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme led delegations to Southern Africa. Issam Sartawi, a moderate Palestinian, said that the organization had become a kind of forum of last resort for the outcasts of the Earth. (Sartawi was murdered at the International’s 1983 congress in Portugal.) Guillermo Ungo of El Salvador became a vice president of the International, and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas routinely attended its functions--at which they were also routinely reminded of the democratic goals of their revolution.

In this period Brandt created his own North-South Commission, which united a former conservative prime minister of Great Britain, a Chilean Christian Democrat, a Tanzanian Socialist leader, Palme and others. It produced two volumes showing how the advanced countries could benefit if they committed themselves to an economic aid program for the poor lands.

Brandt will remain the International’s president until 1989, when he plans to step down. If he decides on yet another return from defeat, it will probably come in world politics. Given his extraordinary history, one can never rule out the possibility of yet another resurrection of Willy Brandt.