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West Germany: Fragile China

3 minute read

With national elections due next September, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his Christian Democrats can only hope that the next six months will go better for them than the last. Plagued with one embarrassing problem after another—from surrendering to France on grain prices to losing out on the multilateral force to humiliation by the Arabs over Israel’s recognition—Erhard’s regime has sunk in national esteem to its lowest level since der Dicke took office 17 months ago. Latest poll returns show the C.D.U. trailing the Social Democrats, 31% to 35%.

All of which made it urgent that the C.D.U. present a united front at its annual party convention in Düsseldorf last week. This was not easy, for as the 3,500 delegates assembled in the austere exhibition hall, it was clear that many high-ranking C.D.U. leaders were sharply at odds with one another. Former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had made no secret of his contempt for Erhard and his policies. To the horror of C.D.U. strategists, he made plain his intention of saying so at the convention. “Praise or criticism,” growled Adenauer, “it must come out in the open.” In the end, however, Keynote Speaker Adenauer relented and gracefully pulled the worst of his punches.

With that saving gesture to party unity, the rest of the malcontents fell into line. Both Bundestag President Eugen Gerstenmaier and Bavarian Ally Franz Josef Strauss avoided overt criticism of Erhard’s aloof Foreign Minister Gerhard Schroder, whom they detest. Schroder acknowledged their forbearance with the acid observation that “after all, we are a party that must take extra care of its china.”

The most fragile bit of china around Bonn recently has been the C.D.U.’s coalition with the Free Democrats, whose 67 votes provide the C.D.U. with its Bundestag majority over the Social Democrats. The alliance was cracked sadly a fortnight ago when Erhard and the C.D.U. insisted on extending the statute of limitations against Nazi war criminals. Tired of the Nazi trials, the F.D.P. opposed the new legislation on constitutional grounds, and F.D.P. Minister of Justice Ewald Bucher went so far as to resign his Cabinet post. To the Free Democrats’ surprise, Erhard called the bluff, promptly replaced Bucher with a C.D.U. man.

The chagrined F.D.P. at first threatened to pull out, but finally decided to stay in power with Erhard at least through the elections. It was probably a wise decision. Already frail in the 499-seat Bundestag, the Free Democrats are not all that certain to get the 5% of the total vote necessary to be represented at all in the Bundestag next September. Dramatically abandoning the C.D.U. now might reduce their popular support—and might even make Erhard angry enough to forget his long opposition to a Grand Coalition that would bring Socialists and Christian Democrats together as a new combine to rule West Germany.

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