IT is too bad that the resignation of Willy Brandt as chairman of the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was precipitated over the political equivalent of a stubbed toe. Mr. Brandt stepped down this week after a firestorm of criticism over his nominee for party spokeswoman: The young woman he had named, a public-relations operative who is a friend of his and his wife's, not only is not German and not an SPD member, but is engaged to marry a spokesman for Christian Democratic President Richard von Weiz"acker. None of this, however, should cloud appreciation for Brandt's towering achievements. As West Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor, he pursued an Ostpolitik - Eastern policy - that led to normalized relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union, and ultimately, for him, the Nobel Peace Prize.
On a visit to Warsaw in the early 1970s, he dropped to his knees at the memorial in the ghetto, and this gesture - known to the Germans simply as der Kniefall - was a turning point in their willingness to confront and accept responsibility for the Nazi past. Brandt was also the first German head of government to visit Israel.
He resigned as chancellor after an East German spy was discovered on his staff in 1974, but he remained SPD chairman.
More recently, however, it had become clear that it was time for Brandt to make room for a new generation. His tepid support of SPD standard-bearer Johannes Rau was considered a factor in the party's poor showing in the January elections.
The SPD today is at a crossroads; Hans-Jochen Vogel, a moderate compromise candidate, has been chosen party chairman. Oskar Lafontaine, the popular premier of the Saarland, however, remains the darling of the party's left wing. He has called, despite the SPD's firm Atlanticist tradition, for a French-style pullout of West German forces from the integrated military command of NATO.
One basic danger has been that the SPD, in an effort to project a distinct new image, will move far out to the left of the voters. The party will have to get its act together if it is to do well in the five state elections this year, starting with those in Hesse April 5.