BONN — 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He reportedly died late Thursday night at his home south of Bonn, where he had withdrawn to spend his final weeks.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.