| Willy Brandt School of Public Policy

Willy Brandt on the Frontlines of the Cold War

Historian Scott Krause shed light on an often forgotten aspect of Willy Brandt’s life – his time in postwar West Berlin and during the Berlin blockade. One should not reduce Brandt to pacifism and his “New Eastern Policy” only, but also remember him as a fierce advocate for freedom.

German-American historian Dr. Scott Krause, director of the Willy Brandt Forum Unkel, visited the Brandt School and introduced Willy Brandt’s political activities in Cold War Berlin.

After World War II, Brandt had returned to Germany from his Scandinavian exile and found himself in a strong network of re-migrated Social Democrats who shared their opposition to Stalin’s way of communism based on their own experiences with it. Brandt himself took this anti-totalitarian turn during the Spanish Civil War. 

In West Berlin, they formed an epistemic community with like-minded liberal US occupation officials. The latter ones particularly supported this faction of the SPD as it stood for freedom and democracy and would further West-alignment and NATO, rather than be to close to Moscow, as other factions of the German left were back then. This network was partly built on existing relationships from wartime exile in the United States. They shared the agenda to bring democracy to West Berlin. They considered it a laboratory for democracy, the effects of which should eventually spread to the entire Federal Republic.

Our guest lecturer’s own research in archives and now unsealed US records has revealed how this network cleverly employed newspapers and radio stations to promote the image of West Berlin as an “outpost of freedom”. This “outpost” narrative had been coined by then Mayor of West Berlin Ernst Reuter after the Berlin blockade and the successful airlift to keep up the spirits of West Berliners, but also to overturn the image of evil Germany into that of potential allies worthy of US support.

The historian furthermore outlined how the network used media outlets to process American donations. For instance, the Berliner Stadtblatt, a newspaper of which Willy Brandt was then editor in chief, charged the US occupation overpriced supplements to sponsor their common purpose. Krause made a clear point that although US intelligence services considered Brandt an “asset” and although he received clandestine money from US sources, Brandt always stayed an independent actor. Rather than being political pawn, the returned émigré sought funding for the political project he and other prominent social democrats in West Berlin, such as Reuter, shared. For Willy Brandt in those years – and in West-Berlin on the frontlines of the Cold War in particular –, intelligence and secret services were a normal part of the political process.

Krause recommended closely looking at the PR officials of this time and their links amongst each other to understand how they shaped political campaigns. Images of President Kennedy and Brandt as West Berlin’s mayor support this argument, with Kennedy as Brandt’s friend but also role model in electoral campaigning.

At the end of the lecture, Krause pointed out that the building of the Berlin Wall at a time when Brandt was West Berlin’s Mayor led to another political turn in his life. He became a pragmatist, interested in creative solutions rather than radical change. He had to balance Cold War opposition with the prospect of reuniting Germany at some point. This was the starting point of Brandt’s “New Eastern Policy”, for which he later on received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The lecture took place on May 25, 2022, a week after the German version of Krause’s “Bringing Cold War Democracy to West Berlin. A Shared German-American Project” (Routledge 2019) was launched as “Vorposten der Freiheit. Remigranten an der Macht im geteilten Berlin (1940–1972)“ with Campus Verlag.