Saturday, August 11, 2007


Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Democracy spans the years from 1969 to 1974 and tells the tale of two Germanies, East and West, locked together in idealogical battle for the soul of their country. Willy Brandt, newly elected Chancellor of democratic West Germany in 1969, had proclaimed a bold new plan in dealing with its implacable foe, communist East Germany. Rather than ignore their neighbor, as had been done since the demarcation following WWII, Brandt's government would engage them, a policy which came to be known as Ostpolitik.

The East Germans were of course apprehensive of this move but fortunately for them their spy service, the Stasi, was among the best in the world. They had managed to place an agent right where they needed it: in Brandt's staff. A spy by the name of Günter Guillaume, he arrived in West Germany in 1956 with orders to penetrate the political system. He rose through the ranks of the Social Democratic party eventually becoming Brandt's personal assistant.

Answering to two masters, Günter began to feel increasingly torn as his relationship with the Chancellor grew. He wanted to satisfy his Stasi bosses yet was inextricably drawn to Brandt's charisma and forthrightness. Through Günter's reports, it became clear to the East German leadership that this was not some ploy but a genuine effort at rapprochement and that truly frightened them.

The play does not make clear who was responsible although Stasi involvement was suspected. In either case, the result was the same. West Germany security services were tipped off to a spy in Brandt's office and from there the operation quickly unraveled. Brandt became a pariah in the public's eye and was forced to resign in 1974. Günter was arrested and sentenced to 13 years though he was sent back to the East through a prisoner exchange in 1981.

Following the upheaval which came to be known as the Guillaume Affair, each of the characters in the play laments on their role. Helmut Schmidt, heretofore Minister of Finances, nervously accepts the Chancellorship. Longtime rival and fellow Social Democrat Herbert Wehner washes his hands of the whole matter. Guillame is grief-stricken at having betrayed his friend and wishes that he could somehow make it right. Brandt himself recedes into the pages of history though he makes a brief reappearance during German reunification in 1990 when people look back and wonder if his policy of Ostpolitik is partly to thank for the ostentatious occasion.

More than just a play about a visionary leader and the spy within his own ranks, it is also a lesson for those who crave power only to have it unexpectedly pushed onto them. For more than thirty years, the Social Democrats could claim the mantle of defeat but upon winning the majority in 1969, they suddenly had to deal with all the problems of governing. Principles gave way to compromises while character flaws became national scandals.

Playing through August 12th at the renowned Olney Theater, Democracy tells the story of human beings, replete with all their imperfections, muddling their way through very dark and dangerous times. The quick interplay and political intrigue between characters will keep you spell-bound for the two hours and forty minutes runtime.

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