LAST TIME the German left seized the chancellorship from the German right, the functional equivalent of a political coup d'etat was required. The year was 1969. Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the incumbent Christian Democratic chancellor, thought he had won a personal victory when his party got 46.1 percent of the vote -- easily the largest tally won by any single party.
But 46.1 percent is not 50.1 percent. And even if the 5.5 percent cast for fringe parties is discarded, it is not the 48-plus percent that would be required to win an absolute majority of the seats in the Bundestag.
So, while Kiesinger fumed that the will of the voters was being discarded, Willy Brandt for the Social Democrats (with 42.7 percent of the vote) and Walter Scheel for the Free Democrats (with 5.8 percent of the vote) plotted his downfall. They negotiated a left-liberal coalition that took power, transformed the Cold War scene in Europe and restored West Germany to much of the respectability it had lost during the Hitler era.
While Brandt went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and a lasting place in history, Scheel is hardly a household name. But in the hothouse atmosphere of Bonn politics, circa 1969, he was the key player, the swing voter, the enabler.
Making a change
Free Democrats, a party composed of businessmen who dislike Bismarckian big government, had been in the postwar habit of allying with the conservative Christian Democrats. It was Scheel's decision that the time had come to switch to the Social Democrats in the interest of pursuing a more conciliatory policy toward the Soviet bloc states, including East Germany. And somehow he prevailed.
Thus, his coup within his own party allowed the Social Democrats to win the chancellorship for the first time since 1930. With Brandt as chancellor and Scheel as foreign minister, the stage was set for what became known as Germany's Ostpolitik or "eastern policy."
In five action-packed years, the new government negotiated peace treaties with Moscow and Warsaw that were seen as acceptance of the postwar borders of Cold War Europe. They sought to normalize relations with East Germany by concentrating on "small steps to ease the pain of a people divided." And for their efforts, they were attacked as traitors and appeasers by Christian Democrats, who conveniently forgot their own leaders had gingerly sought to ease tensions with the Warsaw Pact.
Scenes of change
Some vivid scenes from those years come to mind: Willy Brandt going to Erfurt, East Germany, as townspeople ecstatically chanted his name. Willy Brandt going to Warsaw, there to kneel on a cold, wet sidewalk at the Ghetto Monument in a heart-stopping act of contrition for Nazi horrors. Willy Brandt working behind the scenes to get the kind of Quadrapartite Agreement that would spare West Berlin, the city he once served as mayor, the periodic crises that threatened its ZTC existence. Willy Brandt yachting on the Black Sea with Leonid Brezhnev while U.S. diplomats fidgeted and German conservatives fumed.
Ostpolitik was largely a matter of accepting or even legitimatizing the Cold War status quo. Yet events were to show that openings to the East did not freeze the situation but encouraged reforms that eroded the cohesion of the Soviet empire. In the words of Brandt's sidekick, Egon Bahr, it was a policy of "change through rapprochement."
No one anywhere foresaw, or could claim to have foreseen, the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall within 20 years. But the Brandt-Scheel policies in tandem with NATO resoluteness and the inherent weakness of Communism combined fortuitously to bring about what all Germans wanted: reunification.
Thirteen years after the 1969 coup d'etat, the Free Democrats flipped again -- this time to oust Brandt's Social Democratic successor, Helmut Schmidt, and bring Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl to power. Now, after 16 years, the "reunification chancellor" is defeated, largely through the defection of the very East Germans he helped to liberate and lavish with billions in aid.
The Sept. 27 election gave the Social Democrats a solid 40.9 percent lead over the Christian Democrats 35.2 percent. No coup d'etat is required. And while the Free Democrats got 6.2 percent, a share greater than their 1969 showing, they are no longer the only swing party. The Social Democratic chancellor-elect, Gerhard Schroeder, is dealing with the Green Party (with 6.7 percent of the vote) despite noisy factions within its ranks that want to leave NATO, scrap nuclear power and triple energy taxes.
Mr. Schroeder may wind up wishing he had the Free Democrats pulling him to the center, which was Willy Brandt's fate, rather than the Greens tugging him who knows where. His role is to energize a stagnant economy. Foreign policy is one of continuity, thanks in good measure to Ostpolitik and its intended or unintended consequences.
Joseph R. L. Sterne is a former editor of The Sun's editorial page.
Pub Date: 10/12/98