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Discuss the Advantages and Disadvantages of the ‘Grand Coalition’ in the 1960’s

23 November 1998


In German political consciousness, the Grand Coalition is bound with memories of Rudi Dütscke and riots on the streets. Chancellor Kohl invoked memories of the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition and the NPD when ruling out a Grand Coalition in the run up to this year’s Federal Election. Beyond this the Grand Coalition seems to have been almost forgotten. Gerhard Schröder dismisses Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger as a transition figure, and claims to remember more about his grand-daughter than he does about the Chancellor himself. However, political scientists and historians tend to be more positive about the Grand Coalition. In this essay I will examine the performance of the Grand Coalition over a range of policy areas, in order to expose it’s advantages and disadvantages.

Background and Formation of the Grand Coalition

From 1949, West Germany experienced 17 years of unbroken CDU-led rule. However, severe strain had been put on the relationship between the Union parties and the FDP throughout the 1960’s, firstly due to Konrad Adenauer’s refusal to step down as Chancellor in 1961, and later because of the Spiegel affair. Increasingly worried about being seen as a mere adjunct of the CDU, the FDP increasingly moved towards classical liberalism.

Ludwig Erhard promised tax cuts in the 1965 general election campaign, aided by his image as the father of the economic miracle, however in 1966 the economy finally hit a serious slump. The iron and steel industries were particularly badly hit, and as fate would have it Land elections took place in Northrhine-Westphalia, the heart of the German coal and steel industries, with a resulted ’bloody nose’ for the CDU. Erhard, never the most domineering of leaders, saw his position further undermined. Ministers refused to accept cuts in their departmental budgets, and as a result the 1967 budget involved tax increases, in contradiction of Erhard’s earlier promises. The FDP, worried about their continuing association with the faltering Erhard and even more about their survival as an independent party, saw a chance to finally distinguish themselves from the CDU on a key policy issue , and refused to accept the tax rises, their ministers withdrawing from office.

A Grand Coalition had already been discussed seriously after the 1961 General Election , and the idea was now revived. Several vital issues - most notably emergency legislation and reform of the financial relationship between the federation and the states were in need of reform, but as they required two-thirds majorities, they had up until now been left unachieved. A Grand Coalition would have the necessary clout to achieve this, and, it was felt, to tackle the domestic economic crisis, particularly as it now appeared that the SPD and CDU had more in common with one another on tax policy than either had with the FDP.

The Coalition and Foreign Policy

In the mid 1960’s, West German foreign policy was seen as somewhat staid, still caught in the mindset of the height of the cold-war. Even Bark and Gress, normally staunch defenders of the German Centre-Right, see the CDU as slower than others to accept the changes in geopolitical realities that occurred in the ’60s. For the first time, the SPD seemed by many to be more in tune with US foreign policy than the CDU.

After having some initial doubts, Willi Brandt accepted position of Foreign Minster in the Grand Coalition. This was crucially important, as Brandt had set out his belief in the importance of détente with the East, through his influential advisor Egon Bahr, as early as 1961. Although there progress in this period was comparatively minor, a number of crucial steps were taken. The first of these was undoubtedly the ending of the Hallstein doctrine. Turner lists this as the Grand Coalitions most important policy achievement. The slow death of the Hallstein doctrine is one of the classic examples of Politik der kleinen Schritte. In the early 1960’s, West German Trade Missions began to be set up in Eastern European capitals. When Brandt took over in the Foreign Ministry, more radical steps were quickly taken. In January 1967, full diplomatic relations were established with Romania, with a clause being inserted in the agreement noting Bonn’s continued view of the GDR as illegal, in an attempt to mute right-wing criticism. This was taken a step further one year later with the re-recognition of Yugoslavia , and soon three third world countries recognised the GDR. Although the CDU and CSU pressurised for relations to be broken off, Brandt refused to do so. At this point, the Hallstein doctrine was finished. At no point was an announcement or formal declaration made, but in the space of 18 months it had collapsed.

Nor can all the credit for the new direction go to Brandt and the SPD. Kiesinger also made important contributions. In April 1967, Kiesinger proposed a plan for the easing of tensions to the GDR. The reply received from GDR Prime Minister Stopf in 1968 was the first communication from Pankow even to be acknowledged by the Bonn Government. The fledgling East-West contacts soon got bogged down, in the view of both Bark and Gress and Balfour, due to the GDR’s unwillingness (or inability) to make any form of concessions to the FRG. In 1968 the contacts were effectively scuppered after the Red Army’s intervention in Czechoslovakia, which involved Volksarmee troops, poisoned East-West relations. Renewed GDR pressure on movement to and from West Berlin also increased tensions between the two states.

Tension was inevitable in a coalition which involved both those on the SPD left who favoured instant and unilateral normalisation of relations with the GDR, and those, particularly in the CSU, who felt that even the small steps taken up to that point gave dangerous legitimacy to an what they perceived to be an illegal government. As the 1969 election pre-campaign, these tensions boiled over. In late 1968, and throughout 1969, the Grand Coalition was in policy towards the East, as in other policy areas, a lame duck government.

On balance, the Grand Coalition made as much progress regarding Ostpolitik as could be expected in a government which contained Franz-Josef Strauss. Brandt was, for the first time, able to take some of the overdue steps towards liberalisation. Kiesinger and the CDU (notably through the efforts of Gerhard Schröder during both the Erhard government and the Grand Coalition), also made some movement, and for the early period of the coalition at least, a large degree of public unity was shown. While it cannot be claimed that any huge advances were made in the Grand Coalition era, those that were taken played an important rôle in softening public attitudes to the détente.

The Grand Coalition and the Economic Crisis

Torsten Oppelland states that, “Above all, economics […] had been the raison d’être of the Grand Coalition, and in this it had been remarkably successful.” Although the recession of 1965-6 was no more than a minor blip, to West Germans by this time accustomed to the post-war boom, it appeared to be a serious crisis. The Grand Coalition’s economic policy was formulated by a remarkable double-act. Franz-Josef Strauss, the leader of the CSU, was Finance minister. Strauss was well known for his stridently right-wing views, and was a somewhat flamboyant character. He teamed up with the mild mannered Hamburg academic, Professor Karl Schiller of the SPD, who took charge of the Economics portfolio. Strauss’ delivered traditional minimalist solutions to the problems of a growing budget deficit - tax more and spend less, keeping his own party faithful - and the business community - happy. Schiller, on the other hand, kept his party faithful on board by giving the Federal Republic it’s first real taste of Keynsianism, incurring public debt, to finance infrastructure projects in attempting to snap the FRG out of recession. This most unlikely of couples, which the German public seemed to find greatly amusing, not only achieved the unlikely in reconciling seemingly contradictory economic policies, they also succeed in getting the economy back on track remarkably quickly. By late 1967, exports had again begun to grow rapidly, and by mid 1968, a domestic consumer boom had the economy back to normal.

The Schiller-Strauss team, by having a foot in both camps, also made a significant contribution to the enhancement of the co-operative nature of German industrial relations. Despite criticisms that they were creating a Republic of advisory councils , the creation of the Business Activity Council (comprising Federal, State and Local Government representatives, as well as the Bundesbank) improved communication between different tiers of government, and Konzentierte Aktion (comprising Federal Government, business and unions), made some contribution towards better industrial relations , although Oppelland dismisses is it as a talking shop.

Perhaps most importantly, the Stability Law was passed, regarded by Kettenacker as “the Magna Carta of modern German economic management.”

Given the radically different personalities and political backgrounds involved, tension was bound to come at some point. As the boom of 1968 began to lead to inflationary pressures, Schiller and Strauss began to disagree. By 1969, with elections approaching open warfare between the two erupted on the issue of revaluation of the Mark. And as Balfour says, “Paradoxically it was the SPD who favoured leaving market forces free to act and the CDU/CSU who wanted them to be directed by the government.” The main beneficiary of this was Karl Schiller, who was seen as the more economically competent of the two, and became major asset for the SPD in the 1969 election campaign.

Despite this spat, on balance the Grand Coalition’s successes on the economy were many and bright, and it was here that it’s broad base proved most effective in securing support for reforms among different interest groups and sectors of society.

The Grand Coalition and Extremism

As I stated earlier, the Grand Coalition’s memory is tarnished with the days of ’68, and it was in combating extremism that it was at it’s weakest. The vast majority of the West German population were contented with their lot in the late 1960’s, particularly after the economy began to recover. More people took part in public mourning for Konrad Adenauer than ever took part in an APO demonstration. However, many commentators saw the scenes of riots in the major cities as reminiscent of the Communist-Nazi street battles which preceded Hitler’s rise to power.

The coalition was riven over how to deal with the APO. Many in the SPD were sympathetic to some of it’s concerns, particularly on the Emergency Laws - over 50 SPD MPs voted against the Emergency Act - and University reform. Gustav Heinemann warned that those who pointed a finger at the demonstrators had three pointing back at themselves; they had created the society which produced the unrest. Kiesinger however, saw a real threat to democracy. He said, “The real danger comes from the far left. So it has been since the beginning of the Federal Republic.”

By implication, this meant that he did not see the NPD as the ‘real threat’ to German democracy. However, only twenty years after the fall of Hitler, the German left saw the NPD, which contained a number of old Nazis, as far more sinister than the APO. Moreover, Germany’s standing abroad would have been deeply damaged had the APO entered the Bundestag in 1969. However, the Government rightly concluded that a ban on the NPD would do more harm than good. While the CDU attempted to win back votes lost to the NPD, the government seemed to have little idea exactly how to undermine the NPD.

By 1969 the mainstream of the APO had burnt itself out, while the economic recovery took the sting from the NPD’s attacks on the system. While the Grand Coalition did not combat extremism with any real effect, one must question how much it was responsible, as is commonly asserted, for the rise of extremism. APO-like movements emerged across the world in 1968, while the NPD was little different than the Poujadists in France or the neo-Fascists in Italy who emerged at the same time. Would the course of events really have been different under a CDU-FDP government?

Symbolism of the Grand Coalition The Grand Coalition, despite the rise of extremism, contained much symbolism of West Germany’s coming of age as a stable democracy. Despite the controversy over Kiesinger’s Nazi past, the symbolism of the presence of Kiesinger and ex-Communist Herbert Wehner in the same government can be interpreted as a sign of the final marginalisation of the anti-democratic philosophies of the Weimar era and the Third Reich. In cabinet there were now, together, representatives of the two political traditions which had set out to (and succeeded in) destroying the Weimar Republic.

The partnership of Schiller and Strauss was also symbolic. Their co-operation, and the co-operation which became institutionalised in the Räte, was symbolic of the centrist and pragmatic culture of German politics.

The Grand Coalition - A Time Specific Solution

Most commentators are fairly sanguine about the Grand Coalition. It achieved its main objective, to overcome the mid-1960’s recession. It also secured vital reforms of emergency laws and the relationship between the Federation and States. It also achieved as much as could be reasonably expected in the realm of foreign policy, and some important groundwork for Brandt’s Ostpolitik was laid.

It played a vital, and often overlooked rôle in strengthening multipartism and democracy in the Federal Republic. For the SPD, it provided a crucial opportunity to show that it was responsible enough to hold power at federal level. This was crucial, in that it paved the way for the Machtwechsel of 1969, and confirmed West Germany as a society which bore the essential hallmark of any parliamentary democracy - the ability to throw out it’s leaders every once in a while.

For the CDU, it was important in forcing the party to come up with a concrete policy programme. Until the Grand Coalition, the CDU had prided itself on being an essentially pragmatic party with no great philosophical axe to grind. During the period of the Grand Coalition the realisation dawned that it needed a concrete set of ideas to differentiate it from the other parties - the Berliner Programm of 1967-8. This was a vital stepping stone towards Kohl’s structural review of the CDU in the mid-70’s, which in turn enhanced public participation in the democratic system.

The Grand Coalition’s greatest advantages - that it had an overwhelming majority in both houses, and that it encompassed an incredibly wide spectrum of opinion, were also its great disadvantages. The same political dominance that led to vital legislative changes also led to the rise of the APO and the NPD. The same comprehensiveness that produced Schiller and Strauss’ successes in economics also led to the lame duck government of 1969. In the long term, even led by as able a conciliator as Kiesinger, the Grand Coalition was unable to hold together such a wide body of opinion, particularly as elections came close.

The Grand Coalition was probably both necessary and inevitable in December 1966. However, by the 1969 elections, it was clear that its time had passed. Few were sorry to see it go.

On balance, I would agree with Kettenacker’s assessment, “The Grand Coalition managed to set Germany back on track in the most difficult circumstances. However, the government has not been given the credit it deserves, because the spotlight was focused on the change-over to Brandt and the radicalisation of the fringe movements of right and left.” Popular consciousness gives the Grand Coalition an unfairly poor place in history.


Balfour, Michael, Germany - The Tides of Power, London, Routledge, (1992).
Bark, Dennis L and Gress, David, A History of West Germany - 2 Democracy and its Discontents (2nd edition), Cambridge MA, Blackwell, (1993).
Hilderbrand, Klaus, Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 4: - Von Erhard zur Grossen Koalition 1963-1969, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, (1984).
Kettenacker, Lothar, Germany since 1945, Oxford, Oxford University Press, (1997).
Larres, Klaus and Panayi, Panikos (ed.), The Federal Republic of Germany Since 1949, Harlow, Longman, (1996).
Leinemann, Jürgen, Die Glorreichen Sieben, published in Der Spiegel, 44/1998.
Turner, Henry Ashby, Germany from Partition to Reunification, New Haven CT, Yale University Press, (1992).

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