Miracles, detente, now normalcy; Germany's 4th great postwar era begins
When the new center-right coalition voted out Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Oct. l, it ended a 13-year era in which West Germany finally expunged the shadows of the Nazi past and grew into European leadership. It closed the government careers, in all likelihood, of two remarkable statesmen, Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt. It demythologized - even as it consolidated - detente in the heart of Europe. It recommissioned the conservative architects of the German ''economic miracle'' - this time to administer a difficult economic recession.Skip to next paragraph
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Everyone is calling this a historic shift. And so it is. But in retrospect the most historic thing about it may be that it draws the curtain on a third of a century of historic shifts, and ushers West Germany into normal, humdrum politics.
The 13 years under Social Democratic (SPD) chancellors constituted the third age in the life of West Germany. The first belonged to conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who built up a nation from the physical, institutional, and emotional rubble of a lost war and anchored this new nation firmly to the West.
The second era belonged to Adenauer's conservative successors, who presided over the economic miracle of the 1960s that established West Germany as the leading economic power in Europe.
On this foundation the third, Social Democratic, era finally turned to deal with the unfinished business of the Hitler legacy, both at home and abroad.
Domestically, the coming to power of the Social Democrats in 1969 meant, finally, a clean break with the Nazi past. Adenauer had had no taint personally; he had refused to cooperate with the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. But the conservatives as a whole had not been so fastidious. And in the late 1940s the Western occupying powers, in their preoccupation with erecting a West German bastion against any Soviet expansion, had quickly dropped their ''denazification'' program and begun working with old business magnates, politicians, and some military officers without caring too much about past histories of cooperation with the Nazis.
Under the West German conservative governments, then, there was an embarrassing continuation (and promotion) of middle-level holdovers from the Hitler period, especially in the courts, education, business, the intelligence community, and the civil service.
The Social Democratic accession to power changed all this. Social Democrats had themselves been jailed and killed in Nazi Germany. Brandt had fled Germany to join the resistance in Norway. Conservative leftovers were now replaced in the intelligence agencies and the civil service.
In foreign affairs there was a parallel development. Adenauer, as an expression of penitence for German atrocities in World War II, had already instituted ''recompense'' payments to Jewish survivors of Hitler's Holocaust and to the new state of Israel. He had also begun a close French-(West) German partnership for the first time in centuries of hostile relations between the two neighbors. He had not, however, allayed the suspicions of erstwhile victims of Hitler's aggression in both East and West Europe. These people were not persuaded that the West Germans had fully renounced the past.
Willy Brandt persuaded them, by his person and by his words. Most compellingly, he visited the site of the worst Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz, in Poland - and fell to his knees there in remorse for the brutality that had been perpetrated.
In specific policies the Brandt incumbency was marked by social reform at home and Ostpolitik abroad. In good Social Democratic tradition the social reform aimed at equalizing opportunities for all classes, at shaking up conservative orthodoxies and fairly rigid institutions.
More controversial was Brandt's Ostpolitik (east policy), West Germany's detente with Soviet-bloc countries. It was practiced under the umbrella of broader US-Soviet detente - but it still aroused conservative West German fears that it would mean a weakening of West German allegiance to the Western alliance and a dangerous flirtation with the East. It further upset the conservatives because it implied acceptance of Germany's shrunken postwar borders and recognition of East Germany - a move the conservatives had rejected in their two decades in office.