WILLY BRANDT took his leave as chairman of West Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) last month, effectively ending a career that began when he fled his homeland to fight the Nazis 54 years ago. Today the oldest member of the Parliament, Mr. Brandt embodied German socialism's long traditions of struggle, passion for social justice, and commitment to international solidarity that reach back to Karl Marx. As the SPD's leader after 1963, he modernized the party, gave it new missions, inspired a generation of young voters with ideals of what Americans would call equality of opportunity, and finally led it to power in 1969.
Brandt made his chief contributions in foreign affairs. His Ostpolitik, reconciliation with the Soviet Union and the communist countries of Eastern Europe, created for West Germany the decisive role in East-West relations that it plays today. Ostpolitik was a vision around which Brandt was able to rally his party, a government, the voters, and eventually even the conservative opposition. The Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl simply continued Ostpolitik after he took over in 1982.
Brandt always favored the grand gesture. Falling to his knees before the ghetto memorial in Warsaw, he demonstrated more clearly than could restitution payments or oratorical eloquence Germans' readiness to expiate German crimes against Jews, Poles, Russians, and all Hitler's victims. Only a Willy Brandt, the Nazis' sworn foe, could have conceived that spontaneous gesture, so un-German in its execution. Only from a Willy Brandt would the sons and daughters of the victims have believed and accepted it.
Such initiatives abroad typified a style and spirit that completely changed the climate and the practice of politics by Germans. Brandt stood for tolerance, fairness, and openness in a country not noted in the past for these virtues. He liberalized the hierarchical, regulatory, and legalistic standards which until his chancellorship had remained predominant in German political culture.
Most important of all, he inspired his countrymen, understandably apathetic or cautious about political involvement after their experience with the Nazis, to engage themselves once agian - preferably within the established parties but also outside them. Before Brandt, proper Germans had shunned politics as dirty business, casting their ballots out of duty rather than conviction or enthusiasm. ``Dare more democracy,'' was Brandt's challenge, one that Germans accepted.
Like his successor as chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, he rejected provincialism. Ousted from government by his party in 1974, Brandt turned his attention to the developing world. He headed an innovative North-South Commission that called upon industrial countries to divert their spending on armaments to the needs of the poorest countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He invigorated the Socialist Internationale, a grouping of socialist parties of Europe and the third world.
His personal life was in many ways antithetical to traditional German values, making him repugnant to conservative German society. Born out of wedlock, an extreme leftist firebrand as a youth, an exile who fought underground against the Third Reich, twice divorced, he cut an unconventional figure.
That Germans nevertheless twice elected such a man chancellor provided the first positive proof that Germany had transformed itself into a mature and sophisticated democracy. The voters chose Brandt not because of what he had been politically or was personally but because of the new attitudes and new beginnings which he exemplified and which Germans instinctively understood they needed.
United States policymakers did not trust Brandt much, either, as a general rule. They were suspicious of his dealings with Moscow and his seeming readiness to believe Soviet promises. His advocacy of arms reduction and transfer of resources to developing countries were looked upon here as hopelessly naive, his championing of socialist parties in the third world as subversive. The Reagan administration has looked particularly askance at his readiness to attack its Nicaragua policy or to countenance SPD alignments with the anti-NATO Greens.
Willy Brandt's opponents have often accused him of political romanticism. No doubt he conceived his own role in international politics in visionary terms. But he was also a courageous realist; he saw that Germans had to accept the losses resulting from World War II, losses of territory in the East included. Only then could they regain an honorable and trusted place in the world.
Hitler's Germany acted brutally, selfishly, and in the end self-destructively. Brandt reequipped Germans psychologically and politically to practice democracy with skill and a fair amount of self-confidence - qualities that derive from a sense of tolerance, understanding for the interests of adversaries, and solidarity with allies that were the hallmarks of his own long political career.
Robert Gerald Livingston is director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.