The first federal elections in 1949 resulted in the victory of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Konrad Adenauer, the leader of the CDU, formed a coalition government with other smaller parties and became the first chancellor of the new state. Adenauer was one of the great political personalities of postwar Europe. He was a strong believer in an alliance with the United States and the Western powers and hoped for an eventual united Europe based on the federal principle. At the same time he hoped for a reunification of Germany–but only as a democratic state free of Communist control.
Adenauer was faced with pressing problems. One of the most urgent was caused by the arrival of thousands of refugees from the Polish-occupied areas of eastern Germany and former East Prussia as well as from East Germany. The assimilation of these refugees presented both economic and social problems, but as the economy began to improve they found jobs and in fact contributed greatly to the country’s revival. As the refugees were mostly anti-Communist, they tended to support the more right-wing parties and ultimately formed a party of their own, which agitated strongly against the partition of Germany and against the annexation by Poland of German territories in the east.
Other problems were a result of the Allied occupation. Because the Ruhr region had been the main producer of German armaments as well as the economic heart of the country, some Western governments, led by the French, thought that the region should come under international control in order to prevent uncontrolled German industrial expansion. This naturally displeased the Germans. The international control authority that was set up was a weak organization that was abolished in 1952 when the European Coal and Steel Community was established.
The status of the Saar and its coal mines became a major concern for Adenauer. The Saar was part of the French occupation zone. After World War I the French had attempted to obtain control of the Saar permanently. They had been forced to hand the territory over to the control of the League of Nations, who in 1935 gave it back to Germany. After World War II the French were determined that they would not lose control again. The French detached the region from their own zone, joined it in a customs union with France, and gave it its own currency. A government was elected that gave France a 55-year lease on the coal mines. Adenauer opposed these moves strongly and argued that no former area of Germany could be transferred permanently to another state. The position of France was weak, and it needed United States aid too much to oppose American and British wishes to see a healthy West German economy. Relations between Germany and France were also improved by personal contacts between Adenauer and the French leader, Charles de Gaulle. In 1957 the Saar was returned to the Federal Republic of Germany.
Controls lifted. On May 5, 1955, the occupation powers lifted the controls that they had placed on Germany’s political and economic development. The Federal Republic was now completely free to develop its own policies. In 1953 Adenauer had been reelected and was ready to lead West Germany into a period of economic prosperity. He proved to the Germans that democracy could bring success, an idea that helped to counter any pro-Communist sympathy among the population. The poor performance of East Germany strengthened pro-Western feelings, and in 1956 the Communist party was declared illegal in West Germany. In spite of Adenauer’s successes, there was criticism of his policies–especially from the Social Democratic party, which formed the largest group in opposition to the government. The Social Democrats were unhappy with the continued employment in the government of people who had been Nazis. Education, especially at the universities, was still largely for a small elite, and in general society had changed little since the 1930s except for the political system.
The Social Democrats fought the rise of a new German army, but in 1953 the government received the necessary support from the two legislative houses to proceed. In 1955 West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in 1957 was an original member of the European Economic Community (EEC), or Common Market. It therefore became one of the leaders of Europe along with France and Great Britain.
End of Adenauer era. Adenauer was reelected chancellor in 1957 and again in 1961. In the latter election, however, his party lost seats in the Bundestag, or West German parliament, and many hoped he would resign. He did so in 1963 and was succeeded by Ludwig Erhard. As chancellor, Erhard was not as strong as Adenauer and was under constant criticism from Adenauer, who remained a member of parliament and party leader. Erhard was reelected in 1965 but resigned the following year.
The economy was in difficulties, and there was no strong political leadership. The Free Democrats withdrew from the coalition cabinet in 1966 to protect their political future, and a new chancellor, Kurt Kiesinger, was chosen. He formed a coalition government with the Social Democrats; Willy Brandt, a leading Social Democrat, became vice-chancellor and foreign minister. This coalition lasted only three years. During this period an attempt was made to improve relations with Eastern Europe, but this policy of detente was curtailed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The Social Democrats won the 1969 elections, reflecting a trend toward the left. Willy Brandt became chancellor and formed a coalition with the Free Democrats. His political strength lay largely in the fact that during the war he had actively opposed the Nazis while in Norway and Sweden. His main interest was foreign policy; he was less successful in dealing with domestic matters. He revived the pursuit of East-West detente, termed Ostpolitik (eastern policy), which he had begun as Erhard’s foreign minister, and hoped for better relations with East Germany and Poland. At the end of 1970 he signed a treaty with Poland that recognized Poland’s rights to the German territories Poland had annexed after the war. Brandt also visited Moscow that year to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union in which Germany agreed to respect the frontiers and territories of all states in Europe. By this act Germany renounced all claims to Polish and Czechoslovakian territory and recognized the boundary between West and East Germany. Brandt still refused to recognize fully the claim of East Germany to be a sovereign, independent state, as this would put the stamp of approval on the partition of Germany. Both Germanys, however, joined the United Nations separately in 1973.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev paid a visit to Bonn in 1973, an event welcomed by some as a sign of the end of Soviet-German hostilities and of the Cold War. But Soviet approaches to West Germany were prompted more by a desire to obtain German technology than by a desire for friendship. The Soviet Union in turn offered German industry raw materials and energy supplies, particularly oil and natural gas.
This period of seemingly improved relations with the Eastern bloc was brought to an end in 1974 by the revelation that one of Brandt’s personal staff was an East German spy. Brandt accepted full responsibility for the mistake and resigned as chancellor.
The new chancellor was Helmut Schmidt, a well-educated man who also spoke good English. He was practical, well organized, and a good speaker. In 1976 his position as chancellor was confirmed by an election in which the Social Democrats won by a narrow margin.
The new government faced a new element in German politics, namely terrorism. Starting with bombings of government offices, embassies, and military bases and offices, by the mid-1970s people–including judges, politicians, business people, and bankers–were being shot or kidnapped. In 1977 a West German airliner was hijacked and taken to Mogadishu in Somalia, where the passengers were rescued by a special team of German police.
Another problem arose from the decision by the government to develop nuclear power in order to reduce petroleum imports and to diminish air pollution from the excessive use of coal. Fear of nuclear accidents caused public opposition to those plans, and demonstrations and blockades took place at nuclear plants and proposed construction sites. Much opposition came from the ranks of the ruling Social Democratic party, but a new party devoted to the protection of the environment arose. Known as the Greens, it won a surprising 43 seats in the Bundestag in 1987. Dissension among party ranks, however, and diminished interest among voters in western Germany contributed to the Greens’ loss of all but seven seats in the 1990 all-German elections.
In 1981 the international economic recession began to affect West Germany, and unemployment rose sharply to a peak of more than 10 percent in 1983. The problem of the 2 million foreign workers–mainly Turks and Yugoslavs–became acute as many lost their jobs. Schmidt introduced a three-year program to reduce unemployment but had to cut spending on social welfare. At the same time friction developed with the United States over high interest rates, which were seen to be hindering Western European economic recovery, and over United States sanctions against Poland, with which Schmidt did not agree.
In 1981 Schmidt visited East Germany in an attempt to improve relations between the two states. When the four Free Democrats in his cabinet resigned over the question of economic policy in 1982, the coalition government collapsed.
Christian Democrats return to power. Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic party was chosen as chancellor, and in March 1983 he was given a clear mandate when his party was returned to power. (He was reelected in 1987, but his party lost some of its seats.) The United States government was particularly pleased with Kohl’s policies, but the chancellor did not neglect the problem of relations with East Germany. In return for East Germany’s lifting some currency restrictions on Western visitors, Kohl arranged for East German credits from West German banks.
Winds of change. West Germany marked its 40th anniversary during 1989. East-West relations dominated the political and economic scene throughout the year, with the main focus on the upheaval in East Germany. West Germany’s embassies in Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague were flooded with East German refugees trying to flee to the West. The huge numbers that streamed into West Germany after East Germany opened its borders caused a shortage of housing and a fear of unemployment. Kohl promised to provide more than 3 billion dollars in economic aid to finance democratic reform in East Germany. On May 18, 1990, East and West German finance ministers signed a state treaty that would merge the two economies. Kohl and the newly elected East German prime minister, Lothar de Maiziere, named July 1, 1990, as the day for economic and social union, a step toward political union. The government invested 70 billion dollars to boost East Germany’s battered economy, and on July 1, the West German mark became the sole legal tender.