Helmut Schmidt, considered by many to be a real leader in the Western world, has won re-election in West Germany. But major problems loom on the horizon during his new term of office.
UNWILLING to take political chances in an increasingly uncertain world, West German voters, on Sunday, October 5, returned Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to a new four-year term of office. The electoral challenge of Franz Josef Strauss, candidate of the conservative opposition parties, was decisively turned back. The elections in the Federal Republic deserved far more attention in the world press than they received. Unfortunately they were submerged under media overkill coverage devoted to the election campaign in the United States. Nevertheless, the consequences of Mr. Schmidt's victory should prove to be as significant for the Western world in the early 1980s as the outcome of the American election.
Americans and many other people in the free world do not fully comprehend West Germany's stature today. The Federal Republic, which is only half the geographical size of the prewar German Reich of 1937, is, by many important yardsticks, the world's premier financial and commercial power. The American economy, by virtue of population (221 million to 62 million) is understandably larger. Nevertheless West Germany possesses the world's greatest currency reserves, the second largest gold reserves, the world's biggest exports per capita and the hardest currency of any major industrial country. West German per-capita annual income is now considerably ahead of that of the United States ($9,278 in 1978 compared to $7,572). West Germans have supplanted Americans as the world's greatest travelers. And as any American who has visited the Federal Republic in recent years knows full well, the once mighty dollar doesn't "travel" very far in West Germany any more. Chancellor Schmidt, in office since 1974, presides as the most powerful leader in Europe west of the Soviet Union's President Leonid Brezhnev. And while the source of his power is largely economic, some of it is gradually being translated into political strength as well — much of this because of the crisis of leadership in the United States. Growing West German political influence was confirmed two years ago when the leaders of the West's "Big Three" — the United States, Britain and France — invited Mr. Schmidt to take part on an equal basis with them at the Western world summit in Guadaloupe in January, 1979. This past summer, Mr. Schmidt began to talk openly for the first time about West Germany's "leadership role" — a phrase not used before in a nation still stigmatized by its comparatively recent Nazi history. The New York Times Magazine perhaps put it best when it said, in its September 21, 1980, issue, that Bonn is haltingly, but steadily, being pushed by world events into the "inevitable consecration as leader of Western Europe and, perhaps, a role as a kind of associate superpower."
Preserving the Fast-Paced "German Way of Life"
Helmut Schmidt reminded Germans during the campaign that they were living in the most prosperous and freest Germany ever. He hit a responsive chord among people who have never had it so good. As one deputy in Mr. Schmidt's Social Democratic Party (SPD) said, "The German wants his peace and quiet. He wants to enjoy his family, his home, his hobbies, his holidays and his car — and woe betide anybody who tries to curb his motoring enjoyment by imposing speed limits." Not long ago, Chancellor Schmidt, out of concern for oil supplies, to say nothing of human safety, gingerly toyed with the idea of imposing speed limits on the Autobahnen, the intercity expressways where life in the fast lane races by, unregulated, at 90 to 100 miles per hour — almost double the U.S. speed limit of 55 miles per hour. There was such a rumble of discontent to Mr. Schmidt's trial balloon that the SPD leadership dropped the idea, fearing that their government might even collapse over the issue. As a result German motorists — considered the most aggressive in the world-pay scant attention to the strictly advisory signs that vainly implore drivers to go "nicht schneller als 130" — not faster than 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph). Of course, along with the fast life, have come the plethora of modern social ills, from alcoholism to drugs to unbelievable openness with regard to sex. For example, so-called sexshops-pornography parlors — abound in major German cities. Apace with the rest of the modern world, there has been a marked decline in the stability of German home-life. Just before the election a Roman Catholic "bishop's letter" was circulated to all congregations in the country. The missive was critical of the Federal government's encouragement of easier abortion and divorce laws. (Mr. Schmidt was furious over the church's alleged "intervention" in politics.) Partly in reaction to the country's authoritarian past, German parents have swung in the opposite direction. Many are notoriously lax in disciplining their offspring. The common attitude is to give children "love" instead of needed correction. At the same time there exists a curious Kinderfeindlichkeit — the dislike and disregard of children. More children are injured in auto accidents in West Germany than anywhere else in Europe. Some social experts attribute the attitude to a repressed aggression meted out against something smaller and weaker — perhaps reflecting the manner in which Germans in the past treated smaller national neighbors. There are several campaigns afoot to try to get German motorists to "love our children." Many cars now sport two decals, Engelchen (little angel) and Teufelchen (little devil), both of which caution road safety. Thus, in many respects, German society mirrors the ills that have beset the United States, the country Germans still most readily identify with — but with a teutonic touch. Continued prosperity, however, blinds many Germans to the corrupting influences eating away at their social fabric.
Keeping Older Macher" in Power
Helmut Schmidt, the brilliant, sharp-tongued 61-year-old chancellor from Hamburg, is variously known as der Macher (doer or fixer) and "the managing director" — as if he were still in his former post as finance minister, manipulating the strings of a mythical "Germany Incorporated." German voters generally felt that with storm clouds appearing on the horizon — such as the Iran-Iraq war in the Persian Gulf, source of much of Germany's energy — the tried and tested Mr. Schmidt, a leader who exudes self-confidence, was the best man at the tiller of the ship of state. They believed the same way that the Democratic Party wanted American voters to believe about Jimmy Carter — that he was the man who would best keep them out of war and preserve their prosperous way of life. Conversely, German voters did not "buy" the theme of challenger Franz Josef Strauss who consistently, but vainly, warned of radicalism taking over Chancellor Schmidt's Social Democratic Party and of a false sense of peace — a peace, he said, which was being "brought about by gradual capitulation to the East." The West German electorate, however, hardly gave the slate of SPD candidates a ringing endorsement. The Socialists made only fractional gains over the last election in 1976. The real winners of this time were the Free Democrats (FDP), the small party that operates in coalition with the larger SPD. The Free Democrats increased their share of the vote to 10.6 percent from 7.9 percent in 1976 — remarkable for a party that some believed only a few months ago might not even clear the 5 percent hurdle necessary for representation in the Bundestag. Clearly what West German voters did was to try to strengthen the moderate center of German politics — a trend common throughout all of cautious Western Europe today. They first of all did not want to give the SPD more power, fearing the impact of the party's growing number of radical leftwing representatives (up from 50 to 70). Many newer SPD party members are outright Marxists, their minds molded at Communist-infiltrated German universities in the '60s. The younger Socialists would like to transform the entire German economy to one operating by means of centralized state planning — a la Moscow. In foreign relations they opt for neutralism and for much weaker ties to NATO and the United States. (Mr. Schmidt himself is on the conservative side of the SPD.) On the other hand, a sizable block of voters simply could not conscientiously support Mr. Strauss, whom they considered to be too far to the right. (Some vicious campaign propaganda pictured Mr. Strauss as virtually a reincarnated Hitler.) At least half-a-million regular supporters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) — Mr. Strauss's Bavarian affiliate — cast their votes (or more correctly their second votes in Germany's unique two-ballot system *) for the middle-of-the-road FDP. In doing so, they believed the moderate Free Democrats would act as enough of a brake on the Socialists, without having to risk a chance on Mr. Strauss, whose single-mindedness was constantly portrayed by the opposition as "uncontrolled" and "unpredictable." The result was the worst showing for the conservative "Union parties" since the first West German elections in 1949. Nevertheless, the CDU/CSU alliance, with 44.5 percent of the vote (down from 48.6 in 1976) and 226 seats in the Bundestag remains the single largest party in parliament, retaining an edge over the SPD, which pulled 42.9 of the vote and 218 seats. Thus Mr. Schmidt's Socialists continue to govern only with the help of the Free Democrats, who upped their seats in the Bundestag to 53 from 39.
"Hardest Period" Ahead for Schmidt
Mr. Strauss found out how hard it is to unseat a successful incumbent, coasting along on the crest of political power and prestige. Yet the Bavarian challenger was right when he said after the election that Mr. Schmidt "is now faced with the hardest period of his political lifetime." Structural problems are beginning to appear in the West German economy. For the first time in 15 years the Federal Republic has chalked up an international trade deficit. (Sales of Japanese cars now pose a threat to the German auto industry.) Economic growth in what was once called the "German locomotive" (for its supposed ability to pull the rest of the sluggish Western economies) is slowing down and will probably amount to no more than a 1.5 percent increase in the gross national product for 1980. Next year there could even be a real decline in GNP. Labor costs are now the highest in the world if employees' contributions to social security are taken into account. Unemployment is expected to climb soon to well more than one million, putting a greater strain on the already overstretched social security system. Contrary to what some foreigners imagine, West Germans — suggested none other than Economic Minister Otto Lambsdorff — just may not work hard enough any more, and, compared to the Japanese at least, spend too much time on holiday and sick leave. The young are becoming less interested in the once-hallowed German work ethic and more interested in the ecological protest movement. There are even signs of racial tension in cities that have the largest concentration of foreign workers. There are now more than four million foreigners and their families living and working in Germany, one fourth of whom are Turks. Walking around the center of Frankfurt, noticing the many rather be draggled Turkish mothers and their children shuffling about, looking at the Turkish language newspapers and magazines at the newsstands, makes one for a moment think the scene is Istanbul, not the financial center of Germany. All of these burdens — to say nothing of the fact that the chancellor does not enjoy particularly good health-weigh heavily for the next four years, conveying the impression, reported the Times of London, that "Herr Schmidt and his coalition may be entering their last term of office." Mr. Schmidt's own party, fortified on the left wing, is some what restless under his leadership, sensing that it has, according to one report, "found power but lost its soul." The left radicals will find it increasingly difficult to be held in check by the moderating FDP. It is not inconceivable to contemplate a collapse of the SPD/FDP coalition. In 1966, in the midst of the four year legislation period, the FDP pulled out of the coalition they had at that time with the CDU/CSU. The Union parties then were forced into a "grand coalition" with the SPD for the remaining two years of the term. (West Germany does not provide for new elections in the event the government falls.)
German-American "Love Affair" to Sour
It is no secret that Chancellor Schmidt has found life very difficult with the Carter administration in Washington. In fact, close advisors say he is heartsick about the lack of strong American leadership in the world. It is for this reason, not because of any latent anti-Americanism, that Mr. Schmidt has been tempted to fill the leadership vacuum in the West. In this role he has chosen to work hand in glove with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. This situation is not likely to change after November 4, 1980, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office of the White House. The rift between Washington and Bonn — indeed between the United States and all of free Europe — is bound to widen as a result of the leadership crisis. "Failures of policy and nerve," notes Robert Strausz-Hupe, longtime American diplomat and political scientist, "adding up to a worldwide retreat of American power, have engendered a crisis of confidence that smolders under the placid surface of official U.S.-West German relations. "In no European country," continues Strausz-Hupe, writing in the Winter 1980 issue of Policy Review, "has the American influence been stronger than in West Germany; no other European people has felt itself more closely tied to the U.S. Hence the crisis of confidence... strains not only the relationship between the Bonn and Washington governments, but also the fabric of German society, a society that has taken ours as a model." Hans W. Gatzke, in his new book Germany and the United States/"A Special Relationship?" examines the remarkable post-war relationship that has existed between the United States and West Germany. Considering that the two bloodiest foreign wars fought by the United States have been against Germany, and that in both these wars, America's entry sealed Germany's defeat, the two countries, he says, should logically be "eternal enemies." But the opposite situation has prevailed: an "astonishing love affair" he calls it. How much longer will this "love affair" last?
Franz Josef Strauss Not Finished
And what of the future of Franz Josef Strauss? Right now, it's bleak, a development the Bavarian has faced numerous times in his long up-and-down career. Under normal conditions, Mr. Strauss stands little chance of becoming the CDU/CSU standard bearer four years hence. The bigger CDU faction is not inclined to give him another chance — unless there should be a sudden collapse of the ruling coalition. More likely, however, Mr. Strauss, as Bavaria's minister-president (governor), will continue to speak out against policies from within the Bundesrat, Bonn's upper chamber. Increased world turmoil is certainly in his favor. Mr. Strauss will repeatedly warn, as he did continually during the campaign, that the left-lurching Socialists are cutting Germany's moorings from the West and from America in particular. Mr. Strauss has stressed over and again that detente, and particularly Bonn's Ostpolitik or eastern policy, pushed through by former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt, has its limits. He was proven correct a few days after his defeat when Communist East Germany abruptly doubled the cost for West Germans visiting relatives and friends in the East. The East German regime, under pressure from Moscow, wants to limit Western contacts, in order to prevent "another Poland." The incident showed how fragile Ostpolitik really is.
A Man for "Stormy Times"
In 1980, with relative prosperity still to be enjoyed, West German voters didn't feel Mr. Strauss had a strong enough argument. But this perception could change drastically, especially if Russia grabs a stranglehold on Persian Gulf oil and ends up holding Germany and the West at ransom, demanding that NATO be dismembered, forcing the Americans-Germany's defenders — to leave Europe. Finally feeling the chilling embrace of Moscow, the German people may yet call for the Bavarian strongman — the one they feared in good times — to rescue them from their impending doom. Otto von Hapsburg, eldest son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, and one of West Germany's representatives in the European parliament, knows Mr. Strauss quite well. In a recent newspaper column entitled "Why Europe Needs West Germany's Franz Josef Strauss," von Hapsburg relates Strauss's impressive credentials for leadership — "a true democrat, a profoundly religious man, with a deep sense of his responsibilities as a political leader." And his record in support of the concept of the political unification of Europe goes back 33 years.
The author spent a period of time in West Germany before the October 5, 1980, national parliamentary elections and was in Bonn on election day.
Then Dr. von Hapsburg draws an interesting historical parallel: "Having frequently met both Sir Winston Churchill and Franz Josef Strauss, I find many similarities between them. They had or have a broad vision and the courage to say what they believe, even though it may seem inconvenient. They are strong personalities. best fit for stormy times." The 1980s give indication of being one of the stormiest decades in human history. Germany — and Europe — has very likely not seen the last of Franz Josef Strauss.
*In West Germany, each voter casts two ballots in the national election, one directly for a representative to parliament from his local constituency, the second for a list of candidates put up by each party in the land or state in which he lives. Half of all Bundestag members are directly elected by way of the first ballot, the other half are drawn from the party lists, proportional to the votes cast for each list. The FDP strength comes entirely from this second ballot; it has no directly elected members. What happened in this election was that many CDU voters, loyal to their party but suspicious of Mr. Strauss, split their votes, sending a CDU representative to the Bundestag on the first ballot, while voting for the FDP list on the second.