Willy Brandt

October 14, 1992

Two glimpses of Willy Brandt, former mayor of West Berlin and former chancellor of Germany:

March 19, 1970 -- It is high noon in Erfurt, an East German industrial city near the defining line in the Cold War struggle. As the nation holds its breath, Chancellor Brandt sets foot on the soil of Communist East Germany -- the first West German of his rank ever to do so. His walk from the train station to the Erfurter Hof across the plaza, watched by cheering East Germans pressed against police lines, seems as eerie and unreal as the moment six months earlier when man had first walked on the moon. The crowd screams, "Willy Brandt am Fenster, Willy Brandt am Fenster." Mr. Brandt comes to a large hotel window, waves to the throng, then in a conspiratorial gesture spreads his arms out, palms down. "Don't cause trouble, don't get in trouble, I know what is in your hearts." This seems to be his message. It is enough to reaffirm the German dream of unity.

Dec. 7, 1970 -- It is a gray, gloomy mid-afternoon in Warsaw. A small cluster of officials and journalists gathers at the Ghetto Monument erected to the victims of Nazi extermination. The visiting West German chancellor, in Warsaw to sign a friendship treaty, is to lay a wreath. Willy Brandt approaches the monument, suddenly drops to his knees on the cold damp pavement. There is a gasp, no other sound. "I simply did what men do when words fail," he wrote later.

Mr. Brandt's contrition for the monstrous crimes of the Nazi era did more to make Germany welcome among nations than any other single action of the past half-century. It was rendered more meaningful by his own life story, a story of self-exile to work in the anti-Hitler underground, of doughty defiance of Communist tyranny when he was mayor of divided Berlin and finally of daring diplomacy as the "peace chancellor" determined to ease East-West tensions.

To pretend that Mr. Brandt saw his famous Ostpolitik, or reconciliation with the East, would lead to the unification of Germany in his lifetime would be fatuous. Under the slogan "two states in one nation," he saw his mission as one to make life more tolerable for all his compatriots, especially those caught behind the Iron Curtain. Yet in that electric moment when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down on Nov. 9, 1989, Mr. Brandt was the foremost voice in the Social Democratic opposition in support of Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl's plunge to reunification. Willy Brandt was always a politician of compassion and vision.

"Germany has become a poorer place," the national radio said on news of his death last week at 73. So, too, is the world a poorer place.

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