German Leader's Political Memoirs

IT'S fitting that the political memoirs of Willy Brandt - Nobel Peace Prize winner; founder of Ostpolitik; former German chancellor, foreign minister, and mayor of Berlin when the Wall went up - be published in English in the year of his death.

Brandt was one of Germany's greatest political figures, a man whose bridge-building with the East during the cold war was not always appreciated by the West, but whom East Europeans - above all, east Germans - loved for his human heart.

The memoirs appropriately begin on Aug. 13, 1961. Brandt, asleep on a train, is awakened and told that the east sector of Berlin is being sealed off. As mayor, he is to return to Berlin at once.

In Berlin, trying to steer through a crisis with the potential for war, Brandt formulated the policy that was to serve him well the rest of his political career: taking "small steps," trying to defuse East-West conflict one step at a time.

Several aspects of Brandt's memoirs will frustrate the reader. One could have done with a truncated last third of the book, in which he details his projects in the late '70s and early '80s on global North-South issues, endeavors that he acknowledges were not very successful. He also jumps around in time to an annoying extent and can get bogged down in the intricacies of German domestic politics.

But because the chapters are according to subject, and not chronology, the reader can simply pick out the best parts, and there are many of them.

Brandt's childhood, for instance, reveals his deep political roots, formed in a working-class household sympathetic to labor issues. He relates the personal experiences that made him abhor Naziism and led him to flee Hitler's Germany when he was just 19, seeking exile in Norway. "I knew what I was doing," he writes with characteristic self-assurance.

In his section on Ostpolitik, Brandt describes how his policy of detente met resistance not only abroad but also at home. He writes candidly about his famous 1970 visit to the Jewish ghetto memorial in Warsaw - where he spontaneously dropped to his knees - and of the spy scandal that brought his downfall as chancellor in 1974.

The memoirs were finished in the summer of 1989, before the breach of the Wall. But in a preface and postscript, he writes of the event that he once thought he would never live to see.

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