16 MAY 1992, Page 33

The passing of a gentle titan

Daniel Johnson


Hamish Hamilton, £20, pp. 498

Early in May 1974 I was 16, I had just arrived at a Hessian village to spend a term improving my German, and I was miser- able. One morning the local newspaper had the headline 'The Chancellor resigns'. Brandt's fall, the 'Guillaume affair', made an impact on me, the first political event in Germany to do so. The family with whom I lived told their granny, who was alarmed by the news, that the resignation was 'in order'. I hated them for their philistine indifference to this gentle titan, who made Wilson and Heath look cheap, and who had done so much to make Germany respected again.

Fourteen years later I was back as the Telegraph's man in Bonn. It was November 1988; Germany was sleepwalking towards its greatest upheaval since the aftermath of the second world war less than a year away. The government had just been shaken by the resignation of the speaker of the Bun- destag, Jenninger, after his speech on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom had been (unjustly) denounced as an apologia for Hitler and an insult to his Jew- ish victims. Willy Brandt dined with some foreign correspondents a few days after this `Jenninger affair' and I asked him for his Opinion.

A shadow passed across Brandt's craggy face, which has become even more hand- some in old age, and he sighed. Jenninger's resignation had been necessary, he said, but he refused to take sides. Such squab- bling among the Germans on an occasion of atonement to the Jews had upset him more than anything he could remember. 'I have hardly slept since.'

This was believable, coming from the man who, in 1970, had embarrassed many of his countrymen but delighted others by falling to his knees on the site of the War- saw ghetto. Yet it was also worrying: Brandt had, in a sense, forced the Germans to atone for the past not merely financially — that had been Adenauer's doing — but morally. Yet he seems unwilling to see that his gesture — which, in these memoirs, he says was spontaneous — had become a ritual after two decades of repetition. By 1988 many Germans were no longer ready

to accept, even implicitly, collective respon- sibility for another generation. Guilt had ceased to be an ersatz nationalism.

Already before reunification, more so during the 1989-90 period and most of all since, there have been ever fewer takers for Brandt's apologetic internationalism, his rhetoric of Ostpolitik and detente, his assumption of western responsibility for global poverty. The fact that Brandt had, like so many other West German politi- cians, become too close to the communist leaderships to grasp their weakness, and that he failed to see the inevitability of a united Germany even after the Wall came down, did not help his reputation or that of his political philosophy.

Brandt fought magnificently in the two elections of 1990, but social democracy was rejected by the majority of Germans, east and west. Despite Brandt's magnetism, his ideas will not be the party's staple diet in the 1990s as they were for the previous three decades. The efforts required of a man in his late seventies by a year's cam- paigning have strained his health, which is now even more fragile. After two retire- ments in 1974 and 1987, his third looks final.

My admiration for Brandt has outlasted my interest in his brand of social democra- cy. His memoirs are worth reading as an epilogue to the era of German history which came to an end on the night of 9 November 1989. My Life in Politics is not an eloquent book; parts of it are dull. But it is an honest book. Brandt agonised over it for many years; when he completed it in the summer of 1989 events promptly over- took it. He has now attached a postscript written in that momentous November, and a preface written last September. As a doc- ument it is thus a palimpsest, but the con- fusion which that engenders in places only underlines the guilelessness of the author.

The most vivid passages concern Brandt's youth. He was from Lubeck, ille- gitimate, grindingly poor, and very left- wing. 'Willy Brandt' was a pseudonym which stuck; he was born Herbert Frahm.

After the Nazis came to power he acted as a secret agent for his tiny party, posing as a Norwegian student in Berlin for several months. He had further narrow escapes in occupied Norway in 1940, before getting away to Stockholm. By 1945 he was a suc- cessful journalist, a Norwegian citizen and bilingual; he did not need to return to a hellish Germany, where he reported the Nuremberg trials.

After he settled there in 1948, Brandt's rise to become Adenauer's chief rival on the left by the early 1960s was inexorable.

He was a splendid mayor of Berlin during the crisis of 1961 when the Wall was built, and none of his later roles suited his broad- brush style as well. As foreign minister under the grand coalition led by the Chris- tian Democrat (and former Nazi party member) Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, Brandt had a chance to open contacts with Moscow and the satellites. As Chancellor of a 'social-liberal' coalition from 1969 to 1974, he concluded treaties with the Soviet Union and Poland, besides extending the welfare state at home.

Brandt's abridged memoirs skate over this record, but dwell on the spy scandal which brought about his fall. His minders had kept a tally of the Chancellor's female visitors in allegedly compromising circum- stances; Guillaume, the East German spy in his entourage, was unmasked only long after suspicion had fallen on him; it was hinted that Honecker might have used information about Brandt's supposed womanising to blackmail Bonn. Brandt decided, rather too nobly, that the buck stopped with him. Others, such as Gensch- er, who were rather more to blame, man- aged to cling to office.

Did he have affairs while he was Chan- cellor? The memoirs treat the insinuations as absurd, but some of his colleagues believed them. Married three times, Brandt has always liked and needed women around him; it is one of the qualities which distinguishes him from most Bonn politi- cians. When he was forced to resign as chairman of the Social Democrats in 1987, it was over a young Greek woman whom he had appointed as press spokesman — an episode on which he writes with some asperity. This book is about his 'life in poli- tics', but Brandt guards jealously another life in which women matter very much.