In a series titled Nobel Perspective, UWC-USA students and recent alumni reflect on the Nobel Acceptance Speeches of past Nobel Peace Prize winners. They explore how the Nobel Laureate’s view of the world matches events that unfolded since the prize was awarded and what still holds true for the UWC-USA community as it seeks to encourage students and alumni to be advocates for peace.
In the Cold War, words exchanged between powerful politicians could change the entire world’s fate in just minutes. But, what if words were used for the better, in peaceful dialogue rather than furious verbal confrontations?
Willy Brandt, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for “paving the way for a meaningful dialogue between East and West,” pursued the policy of “change through rapprochement” and aimed to secure peace with his “new Ostpolitik.” Brandt became chancellor of West Germany in 1969, and the career that preceded this office impressed people and politicians alike.
Born in 1913 as the illegitimate child of a humble working-class family, his path took him from resistance against Nazism to a major contribution to the post-war political reconstruction and democratization of Germany. Brandt became an important — many would say iconic — figure in the Social Democratic Party, for which he became mayor of West Berlin, foreign minister, and chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
He achieved meaningful steps towards reconciliation between East and West, and particularly between the two Germanies. This was not only significant in the context of the Cold War and the policy of détente, but also in the daily lives of Germans in Berlin.
In his 1971 Nobel Lecture, Brandt outlined his perspective on Europe’s role in peacekeeping around the world, and most importantly, his vision of foreign policy as peace policy.
He made the promotion of meaningful, constructive dialogue between government and people of sharply distinct ideologies a fundamental aspect of his legacy. Brandt wanted to make his country “a power fully in the service of peace” and focused his efforts as a politician on “the transition from classical power politics to earnest peace policy.”
While his efforts were arguably crucial in maintaining stability and avoiding confrontation in the East-West relationship, his vision of a new, peaceful Europe, in which co-existence between East and West would be possible, eventually proved to be enabled through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This collapse was triggered by the military and economic superiority of the rival West, which is very much the contrary of what Brandt had envisioned to be the driving force behind the transformation of the European continent that he anticipated.
Instead of continued rapprochement and détente beyond his administration, new crises evolved, setting the change for the pursuit of “classical power politics.” His beliefs in peaceful dialogue and “new Ostpolitik” were ultimately not the determinative factor that led to a new Europe and the end of the Cold War.
However, Brandt’s vision and his actions cannot be described as unsuccessful. They might not have achieved their aims, but they left behind faith and hope in his so-called small-step policy. In 1971, Brandt said “small steps are better than no steps at all,” and while he held bold, idealistic beliefs in a version of peace policy that consists of “dialogue rather than monologue,” the restoration of trust, and the absence of violence, he recognized that the vision of a peaceful world is unlikely to be achieved in individual large steps.
Rather, he trusted in a series of small-scale actions, which might sometimes feel meaningless to their performer, but which, in his view, were essential to the achievement of larger-scale change. With this policy guiding him, Brandt impacted lives, including Germans who could see their families on the other side of the wall over Christmas in 1963 and laid the foundation for the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990. His confidence in a small-step policy thus proved to have a meaningful impact on his career, German political history, and the lives of millions of Germans and Europeans.
Brandt’s career and his perspective can teach many students who come to UWC-USA an important lesson. Many students may hold bold, perhaps idealistic views, and we certainly all wish to affect change towards a more peaceful and sustainable world. Yet, actually being a changemaker doesn’t always feel successful. In fact, it might often feel insignificant to keep pushing for small-scale actions, to be activists and allies.
But the small-scale actions that we achieve as individuals and as a community are eventually what bring about meaningful, sustainable change. Willy Brandt, despite many controversies that also shaped his political life, essentially contributed greatly to a more peaceful world, and his “change through rapprochement” policy can and should be applied to today’s political world, too. Only through constructive dialogue and the tolerance of ideologies that oppose our own values will we be able to maintain peace and only then will we, at UWC-USA and beyond, be able to truly live our mission.
Marlena Samson ‘22 was born and raised in Germany, but international experiences, including studying in the United Kingdom at age 14 for a year, shaped her life. She is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to live the UWC experience at UWC-USA, and plans on continuing to learn from others when she goes to college. Marlena would like to study world of politics and history.