Willy Brandt, one of the most important, influential statesmen of the post-World War II era, has died, officials of his Social Democratic Party said early today. He was 78 and had suffered from cancer.
He reportedly died late Thursday night at his home south of Bonn, where he had withdrawn to spend his final weeks.
The German radio station Deutschlandfunk seemed to speak for the nation in its bulletin reporting Brandt's death: "His passing comes as a shock, even though one expected it. Germany has become a poorer place."
For the better part of two crucial decades between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, Brandt was a pivotal figure of Cold War Europe, first as mayor of West Berlin when that city was at the center of repeated East-West crises, then as West German foreign minister and eventually as chancellor.
He fathered his country's famous Ostpolitik, which in the early 1970s reached boldly across Europe's East-West divide to those nations of Eastern Europe that had suffered most under the atrocities of Nazi Germany. To them, he offered the prospect of economic help and a fresh beginning with a new, democratic Germany.
His policies eased tensions in Europe, increased personal contact across the Iron Curtain and laid the foundations for West Germany's relations with the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany--the Communist eastern half of his divided land.
With his message of reconciliation and his approachable, outgoing manner, Brandt did nothing less than transform the image of his country, linking the name of Germany with the search for peace in the world's eyes. "He was the first German chancellor not feared by the world," said Bruno Kreisky, his longtime friend and a former Austrian chancellor.
The White House hailed Brandt as a historic figure who lived to see the realization of "his dream of harmony between East and West." Spokesman Walter Kansteiner said the White House would have a full, formal statement about Brandt today.
While the immediate results of Brandt's Ostpolitik were modest, many East European reformers considered it the start of a detente that produced the Helsinki agreement on peace and security in Europe, the rise of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Brandt's Ostpolitik won him the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize. It was an honor as much for the new Germany as for its "peace chancellor."
"It was as if the country had won it with him," recalled his former Cabinet colleague Karl Schiller.
The sense of warmth and pride that swept through Bonn in the hours after news of the prize was announced in Parliament was visible to those who experienced it. It was a rare moment when Germans and their neighbors alike rejoiced about Germany's actions.
While it was West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who lifted Germans out of the ashes of the Third Reich and set them on the path to democracy, it was Brandt who restored their reputation as a people in the global community. It was an accomplishment he savored.
"If I had achieved nothing else, then I would be proud . . . that not Germany and war, but Germany and peace is now the issue that goes through the world's press," he said shortly after the Nobel Prize was announced.
His death comes at a time when Germany's image has once again suffered abroad following a wave of right-wing extremist attacks against foreigners.
The diplomatic bridges Brandt rebuilt to the East were constructed delicately and achieved with a persistent, sometimes moving, dignity. His openness, personal warmth and spotless anti-Nazi credentials were perfectly suited to the task.
Brandt was the illegitimate son of a working-class mother, and the simplicity of his early years left him devoid of the arrogance and pretension so often found in Germany's ruling class. His socialist ideals, his flight from Nazi Germany, his work in the resistance, his blunt, unfettered honesty also gave him an unusual aura of credibility, with both foreigners and a younger generation of West Germans searching for role models among the debris of their parents' past.
His actions--like his politics--came more from the heart and the gut than from any studious intellectual conviction. As mayor of West Berlin on the fateful August, 1961, morning when the Communist East German regime divided the city with its infamous wall, Brandt first reacted by running to Potsdamer Platz at the old city center and raging at eastern construction workers who were erecting the concrete barrier.
"Hey, what the hell's going on here? What are you doing?" he screamed at them across the divide.
Only then did he drive to the Allied military headquarters in the southern part of the city to push Britain and America for a strong diplomatic response.
But no single gesture so symbolized his commitment to reconciliation or captured the essence of the man himself as his spontaneous decision to kneel at the memorial to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during his visit to the Polish capital--the first by a West German chancellor--in December, 1970.
Years later, in his memoirs, Brandt explained the moment in his own words: "I looked into the depths of German history, and, under the weight of the millions of those who were murdered, I simply did what men do when words fail."
Brandt was born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm on Dec. 13, 1913, in the Baltic port of Luebeck. His mother, Martha Frahm, was an unmarried salesclerk at one of the city's department stores, and Brandt was raised mainly by his maternal grandfather, a manual worker who eagerly instilled his socialist ideals in his young grandson. He learned of the identity of his father--a Hamburg schoolteacher--only late in his life and after the man had died.
As a child, Brandt won a scholarship to a secondary school and was active in a socialist youth group, and as a teen-ager he wrote for the local Social Democratic newspaper. He joined one of the party's extreme-left splinter groups, became leader of its youth wing and often picked fights with members of the Hitler Youth.
Fearing for his safety, he fled Germany for Denmark in a small fishing boat in April, 1933, two months after Hitler came to power.
He adopted the name Willy Brandt and was stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis.
While he remained in exile for most of the period until the Nazi collapse in 1945, he devoted his life to fighting the fascist right. Only during a six-month period in 1936 did he return to Berlin surreptitiously, risking arrest to establish an underground resistance ring, known as "Metro."
During the 1930s, he traveled throughout Western Europe to coordinate resistance actions among socialist groups in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Britain and joined the anti-fascist coalition of forces fighting against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Norway was his main home in exile, and when the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, he avoided arrest by Hitler's Gestapo only by donning a Norwegian army uniform. He was treated as an ordinary prisoner of war and released after several weeks in captivity, allowing him to slip across the border into neutral Sweden, where he continued his struggle against the Third Reich.
That incident, however, led many Germans to accuse Brandt of fighting against his own countrymen. It was a charge that dogged him throughout his political career.
He returned to Germany after the Nazi collapse in 1945, first reporting on the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a correspondent for a string of Scandinavian papers, then becoming involved in politics. He helped coordinate relief during the 1948-49 Berlin blockade and was elected West Berlin mayor in 1957, at the height of the Cold War.
He was his party's chancellor candidate in two elections, losing to Adenauer in 1961 and to Ludwig Erhard in 1965. The following year, Brandt became West German foreign minister when Erhard's government collapsed and his successor, Kurt Kiesinger, formed a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. After national elections in September, 1969, Brandt became chancellor after taking his party into a coalition with a small party, the Free Democrats.
While he was applauded by those outside the country for his actions, Brandt's Ostpolitik was controversial at home. It was vehemently opposed by the political right and the families of the estimated 10 million former refugees--almost 20% of the population--who had resettled in West Germany after fleeing homes in East Prussia, Silesia and other eastern parts of the old German Reich.
Brandt was also personally controversial, rejected by many for the very qualities that drew the young and the idealistic to him. Many conservative Germans remained contemptuous both of his illegitimacy and of his decision to flee Nazi Germany rather than fight for his country in what they readily admitted was an unjust cause.
While opposition to Brandt's Ostpolitik never disappeared completely, it weakened to a point where Helmut Kohl embraced the idea as a key element of West German foreign policy when the Christian Democrats regained the chancellorship in 1982.
Although a shy man, Brandt often liked to relax with a cigar, tell stories and drink with close colleagues and friends. Some reporters nicknamed him "Weinbrand Willy," after a German brandy; he was often rumored to have had relationships with female journalists who covered Bonn politics.
If vision, sincerity and personal courage were his great strengths, this taste for the good life, an excessive reliance on advisers and an unbending loyalty to those who served him were weaknesses that would eventually end his career.
When German intelligence tipped him off that Guenter Guillaume, his personal assistant in the chancellery, was a possible East German spy, he rejected the idea as absurd. When the tip later proved correct, the ensuing political scandal was one of a series of factors that forced him to resign as chancellor in May, 1974. According to some of those closest to him, the depth of that personal betrayal led him to contemplate suicide.
He eventually regained his strength, remaining the Social Democrats' party chairman until 1987 and becoming a key figure in the months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.
He broke with many of his closest Social Democrat colleagues and supported Kohl's push for swift reunification.
Largely because of his Ostpolitik, Brandt was a rare Western politician who was widely admired in the eastern part of the country. "Let what belongs together grow together," he urged during the run-up to unity.