• U.S.

WEST GERMANY: How to Win

6 minute read
TIME

The second most popular political figure in West Germany is not much of a politician. Economics Hero Ludwig Erhard rose to influence via cloistered university halls and ministerial planning rooms, innocent of the rough-and-tumble of politics that might have given him a ferocity in struggle, skill of maneuver in smoke-filled rooms, and a group of loyal local bosses all about him. Because he has no experience in such essentials of working democratic politics, it was an unequal contest last week when Erhard rose to do battle with that crusty veteran of the political wars, Konrad Adenauer.

Erhard was indignant and felt betrayed over Adenauer’s bland reversal of his decision to step up to the presidency from the chancellorship, a post Erhard expected to inherit. The Economics Minister hastened home from Washington, angered not only by der Alte’s cavalier change of mind but by numerous recent Adenauer slurs on Erhard’s qualifications for West Germany’s leadership. Alighting at Düsseldorf after an appropriately dramatic flight—his plane developed engine trouble, then was struck by lightning—Erhard threatened to resign from the Cabinet and denounced some “current lies.” For one thing, he said, “I will fight the historical lie that I am less reliable and less competent than Dr. Adenauer in conducting international affairs. I can tell you that the last word has not been spoken in this matter.”

“You Old Scoundrel.” In fact, the last word—Adenauer’sword—had been spoken while Erhardwas still over the Atlantic. The returning minister might have sensed it by the conspicuous absence among the crowds at the airport of any welcoming delegation from his Christian Democratic colleagues who had earlier muttered revolt against the Chancellor’s highhandedness. For 48 hours it had seemed possible that this rebellious parliamentary spirit and the clamor of the press might become a force big enough to oust the 83-year-old Chancellor, clearing the way for Erhard.

“We all think a mean trick has been played on you,” cried West Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild-Zeitung, greeting Erhard’s return. Influential Hamburg Publisher Dr. Gerd Bucerius, a Bundestag Deputy, had urged a vote of no confidence in Adenauer after taking a poll among 6,000 Famburgers and finding 92½% opposed to Adenauer’s decision.

Adenauer admitted he had had some adverse mail himself; his favorite postcard, he chuckled, bore only three words: “Sie alter Gauner [You old scoundrel].”

But Adenauer got tougher at a meeting of the party executive. He sent Bundestag President Eugen Gerstenmaier raging from the room with a sneering, “I know you don’t like me. You never liked me.” Then he demanded a loyalty pledge from the full Christian Democratic parliamentary caucus. Shaken by his thunder and his vast reputation, and frightened of a disastrous party split, the dissenters meekly voted ja, approving a statement that “by unanimous decision the party agreed to form a united front in defense of the Chancellor.”

Political Lecture. Having put down the rank and file, Adenauer was ready to deal with Erhard himself. Already a bitter joke was circulating: Adenauer should get an honorary degree in medicine for being “able to break the spine of 270 Christian Democratic parliamentarians without spilling one drop of blood.” Morning after Erhard’s arrival, party go-betweens took him to the Palais Schaumburg to hear soothing words from Adenauer, accompanied by a brisk lecture on the mathematics of political survival. Adenauer conceded that Erhard, with the help of perhaps 30 or 40 Christian Democrats, might be able to collect enough votes to take over the chancellorship if he were willing to depend on the opposition Socialists for much of his strength, and if he were prepared to shatter the Christian Democratic Party. “If under these conditions you want to become Chancellor, go ahead and try,” snapped Adenauer.

The contest was all over. That afternoon, as Erhard walked into a special party meeting, his colleagues slapped him on the back and gave him a standing ovation, crying “Good old Ludwig.” When Erhard rose to protest, “I feel deeply hurt by events that occurred during my absence,” Adenauer gripped his arm and said: “It was never my intention to belittle your great qualities.” Mumbled Erhard: “I am satisfied.”

Temporary Façade? Many thought that Adenauer’s new façade of unity had a very temporary look. Before the week was out, he and Erhard were bickering in public again—this time over whether Adenauer had or had not warned the Cabinet that he might change his plans and remain in the chancellorship (he had once said he was “90% sure” that he would stay). But Erhard seemed to have no stomach for a direct challenge to the old man. “I am not looking backward, but forward,” he said.

The opposition Socialists tried to keep the fight alive. “The German people are no longer willing to watch us go back to the darkness of the rule of one man,” said pudgy Opposition Leader Erich Ollenhauer. Erhard sat silent and unsmiling on the government bench while Adenauer taunted the Socialist: “Herr Ollenhauer is always saying I am inflexible, and now he is accusing me of changing my mind.” Unmoved by all the criticism, Adenauer wound up: “What I have done, I have done for the good of the German people.”

Next day Erhard outlined his economic policy before a practically empty house. Not one Cabinet minister sat on its government bench. Some people were already beginning to refer to “poor Ludwig,” an ominous sign in a country that likes its Chancellors to be strong. But at week’s end, attending a meeting in his native Bavaria. Erhard was cheered as he said that he had resisted an open fight with Adenauer because of the gravity of the international situation (the same reason Adenauer invoked for not stepping down). On the surface, Adenauer’s control of his party and his victory over Erhard were incontestable, but wounds were not yet healed, costs were not yet reckoned, and the struggle not yet over.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com