What would Willy do?

Agora Contributor: Christos Katsioulis

“This Europe belongs to all of us. It has been entrusted to us jointly, with its Christian, its humanist and its socialist heritage. It continues to task us with common assignments.” (Willy Brandt 1979 in the European Parliament)

One hundred years ago, on 18 December 1913, the former German Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Willy Brandt was born in Lübeck. The charismatic leader of the German Social Democratic Party and the Socialist International, who died 1992, has not ceased to inspire politicians and academics around the world with his books, speeches and especially his courageous foreign policy – the new Ostpolitik.

This year, the memory of this great politician, has intensified. In a recent interview, his friend and counsellor Egon Bahr said that we could need someone like him these days and that sometimes he still asks him "What would you do today?" The German-Greek-relationship and the European crisis is a good case to ask oneself again the question, what Willy Brandt would do. Inspiration, forward-thinking and the ability to reconcile are always welcome.

Three cornerstones of Brandt's political life can guide us in this intellectual experiment: the ability to think in long-term processes whilst following a policy of small steps; his deep understanding of European history and Germany's responsibility; and his ability to unite differing perceptions and overcome traditional gaps.

Being an exile from Germany between 1933 and 1945, when he lived in Norway, allowed Willy Brandt to see his country from outside. He had deep empathy with the fears about Germany in Europe and managed to overcome them, be it through the famous genuflection in front of the Holocaust memorial in Warsaw or his perpetual dialogue with France and the UK whilst pursuing his Ostpolitik.

I cannot imagine that he would have allowed Greek and German stereotypes to reign in the media and political speeches. The ideas to strengthen ties between Greece and Germany through more cooperation on the level of society, as well as the aim of the new coalition government in Berlin to initiate a Greek-German-Youth-Network are in the spirit of Brandt's policies. However, as he was always able to marry the small steps with the overarching aim and a common vision, he would have combined these steps with a broader policy and, I am sure, he would have visited Athens at the beginning of the crisis, following his motto of 1969: "We should be a people of good neighbors", where being neighbourly means caring for and respecting each other, as well as being respected.

Europe was - in his thinking - connected with societies, with citizens. He once said in the European Parliament: "Our citizens must feel that Europe improves their working and living conditions, that it has an effect on their everyday life." Combined with his belief for an improvement of social conditions, I doubt that he could have watched the social deterioration we have witnessed in Greece since 2009. However, he would have urged his Greek counterpart to take the promised reforms seriously. "When speaking of reforms, the government needs to start with itself," he said in his inaugural speech as German chancellor in 1969.

One of Brandt's success strategies was "to rearrange the scene" (he quoted this always in English, as there is no real German translation for the phrase). Since the “scene” of the European crisis and the relationship between Greece and Germany has been set in terms of good and bad, the lazy and the diligent, North and South, and so on, leading back to petty nationalism and parochial thinking, we could probably follow Willy Brandt by trying to change the setting.

He would have tried to focus on the common issues at hand, the common challenges and the common chances. And as he had the ability to speak to people's minds and hearts, he might have reminded them, that these current approaches jeopardize the future of a whole European generation. He might have pointed out, that an extremely narrow austerity policy on the one hand, and the continued consideration of vested interests on the other, will leave aside the generation that did not enjoy the benefits during the age of the fat cows and that is not influential enough to water down every reform.

Even when Willy Brandt was an old man, he never forgot what it means to be young, in need of fair chances and the need to fight for them with enthusiasm, a deep passion for democracy and a clear aim in mind. Therefore, I would guess that if asked today, he would advise leaders to work hard for the future of Europe's youth and take bold steps to save the current generation.

As he said in 1979: "I say to the younger generation: Dare to venture further on– and to strike out in new directions – never succumbing to the empty promises of backward-looking solutions. We are striving to achieve a society free of fear, one offering hope and reasonable opportunities to the younger generation that looks up to us and that will follow in our footsteps."

*Christos Katsioulis is the director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung office in Athens, Greece.

1 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H. Trickler

    What would Willy do??

    "... Never succumbing to the empty promises of backward-looking solutions. We are striving to achieve a society free of fear, one offering hope and reasonable opportunities to the younger generation..."

    With the inescapable dependencies created by globalisation, "Hope and reasonable opportunities" do arise only when a national economy is efficient, which requires stable political, legal and economic conditions.

    You need a Greek Willi or Lech Walensa to achieve such goals! Mr. Katsioulis is kindly invited to find the appropriate candidates ;)

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