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Willy Brandt's Norwegian Exile

by Volker Ulrich Monday, Jun. 26, 2006 at 6:19 AM

Willy Brandt warned against identifying National Socialism with the people of Germany. "Hitler is not Germany" was an article from September 1938.. "Socialism must be built on freedom and democracy if it deserves its name."


On the First Volume of the Berlin Edition of his Writings, Speeches and Letters

By Volker Ulrich

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT 28/2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

One of the most shameful chapters in the history of Germany was the smear campaign organized by conservative circles in 1961 against the social democratic chancellor candidate Willy Brandt. “Mr. Brandt may be asked one question: What did you do outside for twelve years? We know what we did”, the CSU politician Franz Josef Strauss declared in February in Vilshofen. The acting German chancellor at that time, Konrad Adenauer, even surpassed this infamy when he spoke of “Mr. Brandt alias Frahm,” alluding to Willy Brandt’s illegitimate origin and Scandinavian exile, on August 14, a day after building the wall during a CDU demonstration in Regensburg.

One can now read in the first volume of the Berlin edition of his writings, speeches and letters what made him so reviled during emigration. With an introduction by Einhart Lorenz, historian at the University of Oslo, Willy Brandt’s effect in the years of Norwegian exile between 1933 and 1940 is documented.

At the beginning there is an article written by the high school student for the Lubeck Volksboten, the social-democratic local paper. This article was written before leaving the SPD in the fall of 1931 and with disappointment over the tolerance toward the Bruning government. He joined the New Leftist Socialist Workers Party (SAP): “I have gone my own way to the grief of my teachers,” he wrote in a 1931/32-graduation essay. “Political democracy does not exist alone. Social and cultural democracy are part of true democracy.” This sentence was the motto of the later German chancellor. His German teacher graded the essay “very good.” He had a better sense for the writing talent of his student than the Lubeck director who rated the work “good.”


Willy Brandt tested his talents right after arriving in Oslo in April 1933. In an astonishingly short time, he learned the foreign language. Beside his political work for the SAP-exile organization, he wrote many articles for newspapers of the Norwegian workers movement. He sought to enlighten the public about real developments in Hitler Germany. Like many other German leftists, Brandt with his fascism analyses stood entirely in the spell of vulgar-Marxist capitalism-criticism. “Deathly sick German capitalism handed over power to its lackey,” we read in a pamphlet “Why Hitler Won” from June 1933. On the other hand, he did not share the widespread idea that the Nazis would soon run down. “The fascist dictatorship will be a question of years, not weeks and months.”

Willy Brandt had no illusions about the German workers movement’s crushing defeat in 1933. He sharply criticized the politics of the SPD and the KPD that found no strength for common resistance against the fascist threat. Even more sharply, he criticized the unionists who coddled to the Nazis to save their organizations. “The bitter end was willing submission under fascism. Fascism responded not with thanks but with mockery and then destruction.”

During an illegal stay in Berlin in the fall of 1936, Brandt gathered his insights about everyday life under the swastika. After his return, he warned again and again against identifying National Socialism with the German people. “Hitler is not Germany” was an article from September 1938. The growing fear of war and unrest in the working class were emphasized. Willy Brandt underrated the mass support of the dictatorship when he said in December 1937 “a strong desire for freedom and democratic rights is alive in the German population.” He certainly erred when he spoke of a broad “solidarity with the Jews” in an essay following the 1938 November pogrom. That solidarity did not exist. Its absence was an important reason that persecution led to destruction.

At the end of the thirties, Brandt corrected his position toward the Soviet Union. He had always rejected the KPSU and Komintern leadership. His engagement was for a “popular front” in the struggle against fascism. The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 represented a turning point. For Willy Brandt, the Soviet Union “broke off membership in the socialist movement.” To Stalinism, he opposed the demand “Socialism deserving its name must be built on freedom and democracy.”

This volume is important for one reason. It reflects Willy Brandt’s political learning process in the first phase of his exile years. Here in the free atmosphere of the North, he distanced himself from the dogmatic positions of his early years and grew in the Norwegian workers movement. Under its influence, the young revolutionary socialist changed into the pragmatic leftist social democrat – an indispensable prerequisite for his soaring political career after 1945.

Willy Brandt: Hitler is not Germany. Youth in Lubeck – Exile in Norway 1928-1940. Berlin edition, vol. 1, 2002

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