Willy Brandt was the first Federal Chancellor from the Social Democratic Party (SPD). His chancellorship was marked by social policy liberalisation, his slogan “Dare to do more democracy” and a new foreign policy towards the East.
The SPD/FDP coalition wanted more relaxed relations with the Eastern bloc states, including East Germany. Willy Brandt wanted “the two German states to live harmoniously side-by-side”. In the 1972 Basic Treaty (on relations between West and East Germany) the two states agreed to enter into neighbourly relations.
Brandt wanted “change through rapprochement”. He hoped that relations could slowly change through more exchange between individuals, including people living in East Germany.
The contentious issue in Willy Brandt’s new foreign policy towards Eastern states was the question of whether Germany should recognise the border with Poland. After the Second World War the victorious powers had agreed at the Potsdam Conference that the Oder-Neisse Line (named after two rivers) would constitute the border. And so Poland was given a large share of what was formerly German territory, for example Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia.
In the eyes of many German refugees from the East, recognising this border meant losing their homeland for good. Willy Brandt was convinced that reconciliation with Poland was only possible if Germany no longer called this border into question.
During his visit to Warsaw to sign the treaty, he laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims in the Jewish Ghetto Uprising. During the minute’s silence he kneeled down before the dead. The picture of this famous gesture was flashed around the world.
In 1971 Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on reconciliation between the East and West.
Under Willy Brandt’s leadership the German Government brought about changes in domestic policy. His slogan was “Dare to do more democracy”. Divorce and abortion legislation was reformed, and the voting age reduced from 21 to 18 years.
His government also introduced BAFÖG, a federal law concerning financial support for students. The SPD/FDP coalition extended workers’ co-determination rights as well as the rights of tenants.
Nevertheless, there were already signs of an economic crisis looming on the horizon that increasingly caused problems for Brandt’s government. It hit his successor, Helmut Schmidt, with full force, who continued the coalition between the SPD and FDP.
The East German spy Günter Guillaume – a close confidant of Willy Brandt – was exposed in 1974. He had passed on a lot of secret information to East Germany’s state security service. Willy Brandt took political responsibility for the affair and resigned from office in 1974, only one and a half years after winning the elections in the autumn of 1972 that had for the first time ensured the SPD was the biggest parliamentary group in the Bundestag.