• U.S.

West Germany: Renewal on the Rhine

23 minute read

(See Cover)

Like West Germany itself, the massive grey and golden eagle that hung above the rostrum of the Bundestag looked pleasantly plump, more mercantile than martial and, with its blunted wings and studded breast, convincingly contemporary. Beneath it last week the 17-year-old Federal Republic of Germany swore in a new Chancellor whose accession to power marks the close of the postwar chapter of Germany’s history and the birth of a new spirit and a new approach to the world for its 57 million people.

Before the Bundestag delegates stepped tall, silver-haired Kurt Georg Kiesinger, 62, holding in one hand the constitution of the republic and raising his other with its fingers held as for a blessing. Kiesinger, who until a few weeks ago was virtually unknown outside West Germany and known within it mainly as the Minister-President of a German state, then took the oath of office as head of an unprecedented government: a grand coalition of the two major parties—the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats—that have bitterly fought each other for years. A union of black and red, it was a marriage of convenience—but a stunning match nonetheless.

As Kurt Kiesinger finished the words that made him Germany’s third postwar Chancellor, his hand was seized and pumped by Ludwig Erhard, his talented but luckless predecessor, who proclaimed last year that “the postwar era is over”—but failed to realize that his time had passed with it. Only a year after winning for himself and his party a major election victory, Erhard was unceremoniously pushed offstage in bitter political fighting that produced a five-week crisis in West Germany’s government. When he left the Bundestag and took his leave of the Palais Schaumburg, where for three years he had ruled as Chancellor, Erhard was a lonely and dejected figure. No such emotions troubled flinty old Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar Chancellor and the onetime boss of both Erhard and Kiesinger. While the delegates clapped and cheered for the new Chancellor, Adenauer sat on the front bench and busily autographed copies of his memoirs for all comers.

More than Majorities. It was fitting that Adenauer should be preoccupied with his memoirs, for the new coalition government could only have been put together in today’s changing Germany. Because it will control an overwhelming majority of 90% in the Bundestag, it will have no effective opposition. Together the two parties will thus be able to undertake some badly needed reforms in German politics and make changes in German policy that neither would have the strength or courage to tackle alone. In foreign affairs in particular, the grand coalition will speak for Germany in a way that no single party ever could—and some changes are clearly in store.

But the new government involves far more than a mere matter of majorities. As Germans see it, it is an attempt to bring renewal to German national life and to reconcile many of the old antagonisms, both political and religious, that have segmented it. Its cast confirms the effort. Kurt Kiesinger, a Christian Democrat, is a onetime member of the Nazi Party—a fact on which the world’s press has concentrated almost singlemindedly. West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, 52, the Social Democrat who came into the government as Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, was a wartime refugee from the Nazis and a member of the underground. Herbert Wehner, 60, the powerful Socialist theoretician who became the Cabinet minister in charge of working for German reunification, was once a Communist. As Kurt Kiesinger sees it the new government is “a contribution to the reconciliation of the German people.”

Sure Clashes. Though the new coalition is government by committee, a form unusual but not unprecedented in democratic societies, there is no fear that it will be either self-perpetuating or without strain. For one thing, there are healthy differences between the partners: the Christian Democrats are semiconservatives who favor free enterprise and firm ties to the West; the Social Democrats are liberals who favor some state control of the economy and call for a more open attitude toward the Eastern-bloc nations. For another, both parties agree that they will dissolve the coalition before the 1969 elections and fight it out at the polls in the usual manner. Since government by committee tends to pall on hyperactive politicians of the German sort, clashes are sure to arise both within each party and between them. Two of the ministries that went to the Christian Democrats, for example, will be manned by bitter enemies who are intent on each other’s political demise.

One is Franz Josef Strauss, 51, the powerful Bavarian leader who was forced to resign as Defense Minister in a 1962 scandal after ordering the arrest of several staffers of the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on flimsy charges of treason. Strauss was the key man in selecting Kiesinger as the Christian Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor, will make his comeback as Minister of Finance in the new government. The other is Gerhard Schroder, 56, who moved from his post as Foreign Minister under Erhard to take on the controversial and besieged position of Defense Minister. Strauss is a Catholic and a Gaullist who blames Schröder for Germany’s strained relations with France; Schroder is a Protestant and Atlanticist who fears that the burly Bavarian may endanger West Germany’s strong ties with the U.S.

Skill at Reconciliation. In today’s West Germany, there are few men who could have forged the black-red coalition, which even a year ago seemed a total impossibility. That is why the Christian Democrats turned to the beautiful southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg to summon Kurt Kiesinger to Bonn. A man of charm, persistence and patrician manners, Kiesinger (pronounced key-singer) is also a proven vote getter and an eloquent orator. In addition to an undisputed intellectual capacity and considerable foreign policy experience in previous government posts in Bonn, he also has a quality that was needed by the Christian Democrats and will be even more needed by the new Cabinet: a skill at reconciliation, compromise and persuasion. And, for all his good looks and easy manner, he is, says Socialist Herbert Wehner in what is a high German compliment, “ein ernsthafter Mann”—a serious man.

The grand coalition that Kiesinger put together is the result, as much as anything else, of a shift in the mood and spirit of West Germany from the deferential demeanor of most of its postwar years to a questing and discontented search for a more fulfilling place in the world. Since World War II, West Germany has been the very model of what the outside world deemed it should be: contrite, agreeable and hardworking. In the process, the West Germans redeemed much of their nation’s honor, sparked an economic revival so astounding that it won the name of Wirtschaftswunder and turned a war-shattered country into a showpiece of neat new cities and sparkling homes.

Today’s West Germans are prosperous as Germans have never been before. From the ashes of 1945, West Germany has grown into the world’s second greatest trading power (after the U.S.). It boasts the Continent’s largest auto producer (Volkswagen), its largest steel company (August Thyssen-Hütte) and its biggest chemical producer (Bayer). In the last 15 years, its gross national product has jumped from $24.5 billion to $112.2 billion. German workers are now the highest-paid in Europe, with the shortest working week. So busy are Germany’s factories turning out $97 billion a year in goods that there is virtually no unemployment, and 1,300,000 foreign workers have been imported from Southern and Eastern Europe to meet manpower demands. West German shops and pocketbooks are overflowing for Christmas, and five cities—Cologne, Essen, Hannover, Munich and Stuttgart—have begun building underground transit systems to ease the crunch of traffic jams.

German culture, too, is vital, promising and socially oriented. While taking delight in piercing the pretensions of German materialism, Günter Grass (The Tin Drum), Heinrich Böll (The Clown) and Uwe Johnson (Speculations About Jakob) have dealt perhaps more effectively than any other writers with the peculiar poignancy of the human condition in the postwar world. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze have emerged as composers of worldwide status, and a younger group of West Berliners is experimenting with “post-pop realism.” Just about every West German town of any size has opera and repertory theater. And for those who prefer to stay at home, West Germany’s two state-owned TV channels pipe some of the world’s most original and tasteful tube-borne entertainment into more than ten million West German homes.

Confusion & Anxiety. Yet, for all this material prosperity and cultural prowess, Germany today is marked by a growing feeling of confusion, anxiety and impatience—a nagging feeling that, after all, the country’s hard work has really got it nowhere. Now that they no longer have to scramble for the necessities of life, West Germans are taking another look at themselves and their role in the world. Having gorged themselves materially in successive waves of Fresswelle (eating), Autowelle (auto buying), Wohnungswelle (home buying), Reisewelle (traveling) and even Edelfresswelle (delicacies), they now seem intent on quite a different course: a neue Stimmungswelle—a new national mood. They want to correct the world’s mistaken notion that only a fat German is a happy one, which they feel has encouraged others to ignore Germany’s pressing problems and national frustrations. As Willy Brandt cries: “We are economic giants but political dwarfs.”

Twenty-one years after the fall of the “Thousand-Year Reich,” the German nation is demanding once more to be considered an adult, responsible member of the international family of nations. It is frustrated because it threw itself so enthusiastically into the drive for European integration, only to have Charles de Gaulle hold up the stop sign. The world’s only nation unilaterally to renounce the right to produce nuclear weapons, it is disappointed that it is still feared and mistrusted as a potential nuclear menace. It is tired of being the favorite whipping boy of Russia and the Communist countries, which take every opportunity—as did Premier Aleksei Kosygin last week in France—to attack its policies and raise the specter of neo-Nazism or fascism. It wishes devoutly that De Gaulle would stop chiding it for not following his leadership, as if Germany were a nation of schoolboys. “Whichever way the Federal Republic turns,” said Herbert Wehner in a remark that has been widely adopted in Germany, “the wind blows in our faces.”

Perhaps most of all, West Germans have been frustrated by their enigmatic relationship with the U.S., under whose secure protection they achieved their postwar reconstruction. West Germany has certainly been the U.S.’s staunchest ally in Europe, but of late it has been feeling neglected and hurt. In German eyes, the U.S. often seems far more anxious to conclude a détente with the Soviets than it is to nurture a special relationship with Bonn. Shocked that the U.S. did nothing to prevent the erection of the Berlin Wall, Germans suspect that few, if any, of their allies really care about German reunification.

Belatedly, the Germans are discovering that the U.S. is at least as much a Pacific as it is an Atlantic power—and that realization has led to fears that Americans would withdraw their troops or permit Germany to become an initial atomic battlefield in any war. The abandonment of the multilateral force and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s insistence that Germany buy huge amounts of military equipment from the U.S.—an insistence that helped to bring down the Erhard government—are galling. “We have bought so much U.S. military equipment,” says one German official in Washington, “that we now have a machine gun on every desk.” To add to all the other frustrations, the German economy, which is still growing at a healthy but decreased rate of 3% a year, is running into difficulties that will demand some unaccustomed economic discipline.

Frustration is dangerous stuff in Germany, and the outside world understandably overreacts to any sign of it, as it did to the recent small successes of the far-rightist National Democratic Party. The problem is that no matter how much the West Germans may want to change their role and status in the world, they are stuck with their past—just as the man they chose as Chancellor is stuck with his unfortunate decision to join the Nazi Party.

As he took office last week, Kurt Kiesinger was aware of the dimensions of his—and his countrymen’s—dilemma. One-third of all Germans were born after the war, but the war lives on as a heavy weight on their plans for the future. “We are burdened with an enormous crisis of self-confidence,” said Kiesinger. “We simply cannot and must not forget the terrible things that happened in our history; yet this memory must not paralyze our energies. A healthy Germany is important not only to us but to the world around us as well. We cannot take leave of our history, neither from the shadowy side nor from the side of which we can be proud.”

Poetic Talent. Kurt Kiesinger seemed fated for a conciliator’s role. His home is in Swabia, a good-natured area of Germany that lacks the fierce regional pride that burns so intensely in many parts. He came from a home that was both Lutheran (his father) and Catholic (his stepmother), though he himself is a Catholic today. His regal bearing leads most people to think he is an aristocrat, but he springs, in fact, from a lower-middle-class family, in which he was the eldest of seven children. His father—now a sprightly 90—was a bookkeeper in a textile mill in the town of Ebingen.

By the time Kurt was in high school, the ruinous inflation of the 1920s was sweeping Germany. Deciding to become a teacher, he left Ebingen for a small Catholic academy in a nearby town, where he got a first-class education, mastered the organ, piano and violin, and became something of a linguist (today he speaks English, French, Spanish and Italian). After graduating in 1925, the young teacher found himself only another among Germany’s millions of unemployed. But he had taken to writing poetry, and this proved to have a practical value. A millowner in Ebingen read some of Kurt’s published verse, was so impressed that he offered to sponsor his university education. Kiesinger chose the law, spent one year at Tübingen University, then transferred to the University of Berlin.

Fateful Decision. Berlin in the 1920s was the place of coffee-house cynicism, lax morality, biting political satire and continual political turmoil. More interested in a degree than dialectics, Kiesinger at first stayed out of politics, but later joined the politically aware Catholic fraternity Askania. Fortunately, Askania was not all politics. At a fraternity ball, Kurt met the lovely 18-year-old daughter of one of the alumni. They danced together, and won the first prize in the dancing contest. On Christmas Eve 1932, Marie Luise Schneider and Kurt were married, set up a home near Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm.

About this time, Kurt Kiesinger was also making another important decision. Politics in Germany had boiled down to a battle between the Communists and the Nazis, and many Catholic and Protestant leaders saw in the Nazis the only chance to save Germany—and Christianity— from the Red Peril. In 1933—the year that Hitler was elected Reich Chancello —Kurt Kiesinger became a member of the Nazi Party. It took only a year for Kiesinger to realize that he could not hope to influence developments within Hitler’s increasingly brutal movement. For a time he considered emigrating to Brazil, but he had no money for a transatlantic move. So he stayed on in Berlin, tutored law students and practiced law. From then on, he shied away from any further contact with the Nazis, refusing to join the Nazi lawyers’ guild or to accept any post within the party—though he remained a nominal party member until 1945.

Under Suspicion. In 1940, as Germany underwent massive mobilization, Kiesinger received an order to report to Von Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry for duty. His position was Hilfsarbeiter—auxiliary worker —in the section that prepared propaganda broadcasts for beaming abroad. Within a year or so, he had been promoted to deputy of the section and given a responsibility for the stations that operated in the occupied areas. As such, he was sometimes briefed by officials from Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry on the Nazi line. Kiesinger began to choke on it. By 1944, two of his colleagues denounced him to the Gestapo for toning down anti-Semitic broadcasts and for harboring democratic ideals.

Kiesinger feels that the invading Allies may well have saved his life, but the rescue was strictly unceremonious. As a Nazi, Kiesinger was interned in an American compound near Stuttgart, was released after 18 months as a so-called Category IV offender—a willing tool of the Hitler regime. Within a year, the Category IV stigma was removed. Considering testimony from German Catholic and Protestant church leaders, an appeals board commended Kiesinger for having resisted the Nazis “within the opportunities open to him in his position.” Says he: “I have clean hands. I know what I did and what I did not do.”

To Bonn & Back. At the time of his clearance, Kiesinger was practicing law in his beloved Swabia, later settled his wife, daughter and son in Tübingen not far from his boyhood home. Germany’s political factions were encouraged by the occupation authorities to regroup on a county and city level as a first stage toward forming state and national governments. Kiesinger felt drawn to the newly formed Christian Democrats, whose membership embraced both Catholics and Protestants. When the first postwar elections were held in 1949 for a West German government, Kiesinger was one of the winners.

In the Bundestag, he won posts on key committees—foreign affairs, defense, and all-German affairs. He became the most effective defender of Chancellor Adenauer’s Western-oriented foreign policy in Bundestag debates. Adenauer hinted that he would some day bring him into the Cabinet, but that some day never came. Frustrated after nine years in Bonn, Kiesinger jumped at an invitation from his home state of Baden-Württemberg to take over as Minister-President (Governor).

In Baden-Württemberg, Kiesinger proved to be a popular, effective Minister-President. A gracious host and, like most Swabians, a lover of wine, he soon turned Stuttgart into a far more sparkling city than the dour federal capital of Bonn. He built schools, roads, hospitals, and opened a brand-new university. Says Kiesinger: “I wanted to show Bonn that I could govern.” At the same time, he enjoyed the life of a country squire. In the more relaxed world of provincial politics, Kiesinger had time for hikes through the Black Forest, for evenings with his family, and for his books (among his favorite authors: Jacob Burckhardt, Alexis de Tocqueville, Maugham, Hemingway).

No Dirty Hands. From his office in Baden-Würtemberg, Kiesinger watched the prestige of Ludwig Erhard’s government gradually deteriorating. Konrad Adenauer had warned that Erhard would be politically unskilled as Chancellor, but just about everyone put that down to an old man’s churlishness. When Erhard took over in 1963, it proved all too true. Though smart, sincere and honest, Erhard did not care to dirty his hands in the invariable give-and-take of political battle. He expected the voters to follow him out of gratitude, and for a while they did. But politicians seldom survive long on gratitude. When a slowdown in industrial activity frightened the coal miners of North Rhine-Westphalia last July, they deserted the Christian Democrats, demolishing Erhard’s reputation as the country’s No. 1 Wahllokomotive (vote puller).

Suddenly, everything began to go wrong. The Luftwaffe’s Starfighters rained down from the skies, generals resigned, a U-boat sank, prices rose. Worst of all, estimates for the 1967 budget showed a $1.5 billion deficit, largely because of huge purchases of U.S. weaponry. By law, German budgets must balance. So in September, Erhard flew off to Washington in hopes that President Johnson would agree to a reduction of the arms purchases, which were intended to offset the cost of maintaining U.S. Forces in West Germany. President Johnson plainly decided that the U.S. needed the deutsche marks more than Erhard needed help. As Erhard jetted home, German newspapers already carried stories about plots to oust him.

For the plotters, the opportunity to pull the rug out from under Erhard came in late October, when he tried to persuade the Free Democrat members of his coalition Cabinet to go along with the tax increase required to balance next year’s budget. In the end, stung by accounts that they were caving in to Erhard, the Free Democrats chose to save face by quitting the Cabinet and taking their 49 seats in the Bundestag along with them. Erhard was thus left with West Germany’s first minority government. His position was untenable; but who would succeed him?

The only way to get a new Chancellor was for one of the parties to nominate a candidate and then have the strength to vote him into office. Trouble was, neither the Christian Democrats with 245 seats or the Social Democrats with 202 seats alone could muster the majority required by the constitution to install a Chancellor. While the Christian Democrats quarreled over whom they should nominate, the Social Democrats and Free Democrats began negotiating to form a coalition of their own to end the Christian Democrats’ 17 years of uninterrupted rule. Desperate for a solution, Erhard’s party decided to throw the choice open to a vote by its Bundestag members. On the third ballot, with the decisive backing of Strauss’s Bavarian Christian Social Union, the decision went to the man who seemed best fitted to pull the divided party—and the country—together.

Too Fickle. Quickly grasping the situation, Kiesinger ruled out the Free Democrats as too fickle for another coalition. Besides, he believed that Germany needed a strong government to counteract the growing mood of dissatisfaction with what many people called “the mess in Bonn.” Therefore, he arranged a secret meeting in Bonn with Herbert Wehner, the Socialists’ deputy leader who handles party matters while Chairman Brandt attends to his mayoral duties in Berlin.

Wehner was conscious that the rank-and-file of his party opposed helping their old foes out of their dilemma. Furthermore, since preference polls showed the Socialists leading the Christian Democrats by a comfortable margin, there was a strong sentiment in the party to ride out the crisis until Erhard would be forced to call new national elections; then, possibly, the Socialists could take it all. But Kiesinger was persuasive. To allow Germany to flounder indefinitely, he warned, would undermine the public’s faith in the democratic system. Together, the two parties could, he promised, give German politics and prestige a new start. Wehner was impressed by the arguments. Brandt was also willing, because he was eager to get at least one hand on the levers of power so that he could initiate a more flexible policy toward the other Germany that surrounds his beleaguered city. To make it easy for Wehner and Brandt to sell the coalition to their party, Kiesinger gave the Socialists a liberal sampling of Cabinet seats—nine out of 19.

Narrow Shoulders. Though Austria had a red-black coalition from 1945 until last spring, and a number of European countries have had wartime national-unity governments, the grand coalition is a totally new departure for West Germany. It naturally raised some apprehensions, both in Germany and abroad, about the fate of democracy without an effective parliamentary opposition. The burden of scrutinizing the government’s actions will fall on the narrow shoulders of the Free Democrat delegation.

The Free Democrats intend to hack away at the joints where basic Christian Democratic-Socialist differences have been papered over in favor of the coalition, and to concentrate their attack on any signs of political difference. Differences there are sure to be. The two parties of the coalition are still far enough apart to provide considerable checks and balances on each other’s actions.

If the parties can avoid stalemate, they may be able to tackle successfully some of the big problems facing Germany. Until now, no German government has ever had the two-thirds majority required by the constitution to overhaul the country’s dilapidated political system. The grand coalition, of course, does. It will probably, for example, change West Germany’s election system from proportional representation to direct balloting in order to stop the free-riding splinter parties from proliferating and to give the big parties a better chance to obtain clear majorities. The coalition will also have the opportunity to straighten out the country’s complicated tax and budgetary problems and to push through some of the tough measures that are needed to regulate the German economy.

Fair & Predictable. Most of the excitement is bound to be on the foreign front. There will be attempts to patch up relations with Charles de Gaulle, perhaps at a cost of some of Bonn’s close dependence on the U.S. Says Willy Brandt: “In Washington, France and Germany are stronger when they have good relations than when each stands alone.” Still, both Kiesinger and Brandt consider themselves friends of the U.S., do not intend Germany to become a less faithful member of NATO.

The biggest changes may come in new initiatives toward the East. West Germany may end its refusal to have diplomatic ties with any nation (except the Soviet Union) that recognizes Walter Ulbricht’s regime. Brandt favors establishing diplomatic ties with the Czechs as a first step, later going on to other East-bloc countries. He also wants West Germany to press for increased cultural exchanges and expanded trade between the two halves, fears that otherwise Germany may break permanently into two separate German-speaking nations that have little in common.

The new policies, for the most part, will be a fair and predictable reflection of West Germany’s new mood and of the new men who have suddenly replaced the old familiar faces in Bonn. Yet so far, those policies remain an aspiration, not a reality. The main doubt about Kurt Kiesinger in West Germany is not whether he has the will to orchestrate West Germany’s new aspirations, but whether he is tough enough to survive in the brutal world of Bonn politics. The doubters point to the ambitious Strauss, who would stand to move toward the chancellorship if Kiesinger should falter or stumble.

Kiesinger’s friends and colleagues insist that he is a lot tougher than he appears, and Kiesinger supports that view. “I am not a political muscleman,” he says, “but I have a pretty strong and persistent will. A government of strong personalities will also be a government of strong policies.” Germany’s new leader insists that his goal is to find “a calm attitude of national self-reliance between the extremes of national arrogance and national inferiority.” As a starter, that seems like a very good policy for a coalition.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com