West Germany's feistiest politician loses his thunder
Reverberations from West Germany's feistiest and most flamboyant politician echo on, two weeks after Franz Josef Strauss's controversial visit to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany.Skip to next paragraph
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And yet they remain echoes, and not the thunderings of yore. That, perhaps more than anything else, signals the end of an era in postwar German politics.
Will he or won't he travel to Moscow next? Will he or won't he get some ''give'' from East Berlin's ''take'' of the Strauss-engineered 1 billion mark ($ 400,000) credit guarantee? Will he or won't he restore his decades-long undisputed rule of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU)? The front pages continue to speculate.
It is a remarkable public tour de force for a man who holds no federal office , had his bluff decisively called by his fellow conservative, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, last spring, and got visibly rebuffed by his own party convention last month. No other state premier - and virtually no national figure other than the chancellor himself - commands such attention as the Bavarian premier and CSU party leader.
This tour de force is, however, only a whisper of the legendary former Strauss, the right-wingers' chancellor heir apparent, the left-wingers' bogeyman , and - whether they loved or hated him - West Germany's most skillful politician in the eyes of just about everyone.
The old rhetoric is still there - but these days CSU loyalists sit on their hands.
The old fire is still there - but nobody trembles any more.
The old ambition may still be there - but in the summer of 1983 nobody thinks that a Strauss in his late 60s is really going to be chancellor one day, or even that he will be the power behind the throne.
For decades it was different. In the years immediately after World War II, the young Strauss (along with the young future Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt) was tapped by the occupation Americans as a potential leader. He was elected to the first Bundestag (parliament) in 1949. He became a young atomic science and defense minister under the redoubtable Konrad Adenauer. Reveling in controversy, he fought to keep the West German nuclear options as wide as possible (within Adenauer's nonproduction pledge).
He admired de Gaulle's display of independence from America sufficiently to develop a Gaullist reputation of his own. He championed a hard line against East Germany and the Soviet bloc - so much so that he became (until several weeks ago) the quintessential cold warrior for East German news media.
In the 1960s the high-flying Strauss considered himself - as did many others - the heir apparent to Adenauer. He stumbled momentarily and had to resign after the ''Spiegel affair,'' when he instigated police actions against the newsmagazine (and arrest of the defense editor on vacation in Spain) after alleged security breaches, then got caught denying any involvement to the Bundestag.
Before Strauss had fully recovered, the political winds had changed in West Germany. He was finance minister in the curious conservative-Social Democratic ''grand coalition'' in the late '60s, then had to sit on the sidelines for 13 years of left-center rule without the conservatives from 1969 to 1982. In that decade, detente with the East was inaugurated, against conservative opposition. The first government honors were given retrospectively to Nazi resisters who were not of the nobility or military-officer corps.