Does Memory Matter in Politics? The Impact of German History on Willy Brandt and the Impact of Willy Brandt on Germany’s Foreign Policy

September 12, 2013

On September 16, 2013, AGI and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation hosted Professor Bernd Faulenbach, Professor at Ruhr University Bochum, to lead a roundtable discussion “Does Memory Matter in Politics? The Impact of German History on Willy Brandt and the Impact of Willy Brandt on Germany’s Foreign Policy.” Willy Brandt was a champion of freedom and unity in Germany and Europe, and the discussion focused on how his past affected his political aims. The event was held on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth.

Willy Brandt joined the socialist party SDP when he was only 16 years old and was a strong opponent of Adolf Hitler’s politics. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he fled to Norway, and tried to get involved in politics and organize support from Norway’s Worker Party. He then found asylum in Sweden during World War II and tried to cooperate with the Communist party against Hitler, but these efforts failed. He returned to Berlin after the war and was criticized for having left during the conflict. But he dove back into politics and became Governing Mayor in 1957 and then the Chairman of the SPD in 1964.

Willy Brandt’s experiences pre-1945 strongly affected his policies as Mayor, as Chairman of the SPD, and as Chancellor of Germany. He pushed for faster European integration and promoted democracy in his reforms. Brandt believed that German and European integration would prove definitively that Hitler had lost the war.

Brandt’s policy could be considered a “stream of history” where the past, present, and future are all part of one narrative. With this in mind, it was very important to him for Germany to formally recognize the horrors that took place abroad during WWII, and claim responsibility before moving forward. Thus, Brandt in effect created a political culture of memory.

Brandt’s reconciliatory Ostpolitik toward the East was controversial in Germany, as it was a departure from Konrad Adenauer’s  more adversarial posture in the 1950s. Participants at the seminar discussed the possible motivations for Brandt’s Ostpolitik: his desire to make up for the past (contrition), reduce the risk of another European war, keep Germany unified for cultural reasons, and advance German interests and access to the East, particularly with Moscow. The participants agreed, however, that the main motivation for reconciliation was to make up for the past and to be able to move forward with a new unified order that would ensure security and peace.

Willy Brandt publicized this new order well. He had good relations with the press despite the Social Democrats’ weak position in the 1950s. He was a philosopher who recorded many of his thoughts, and clearly knew that the decisions he was making would affect future policy in Germany and abroad. Participants discussed reconciliation in different regions of the world today, particularly in China and Japan. Although each country has its own memory based on unique experiences, it is important to find commonalities and to engage in multilevel dialogue.

Questions? Contact Ms. Kimberly Frank at