Chancellor Helmut Schmidt lost 11 votes from his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Bundestag May 26 on the issue of stationing new NATO nuclear weapons in West Germany.
Another four SPD members of parliament declared their opposition to the NATO policy but voted for the government as the only alternative to a coalition shift that would return the conservative Christian Democrats to power.
The vote -- formally to approve NATO's December 1979 rearm-while-negotiating decision -- was not a vote of confidence. And Schmidt's 45-seat Bundestag majority is not directly endangered by the five nays and six abstentions. The defections show such an erosion of SPD discipline, however, that they feed speculation of an eventual shift of the junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) back to the alliance with the conservatives that it maintained for two decades prior to 1969.
It was only the strong FDP gains in last fall's elections that gave Schmidt his present huge majority. And historically it is only an FDP shift of coalition that has led to a change of government in West Germany.
Both Schmidt and the FDP are determined to carry out the rearming and the negotiation part of the 1979 NATO decision. They consider new nuclear weapons essential both to offset already deployed Soviet SS-20 missiles and to ensure that the Russians negotiate seriously. Schmidt has indicated he would resign if his party didn't back him, and the FDP has let it be known that it would leave the present government rather than fail to counter Soviet medium-range nuclear buildup.
The SDP mavericks base their opposition to the new NATO nuclear weapons -- due to be stationed in West Germany and four other European NATO nations beginning in 1983 -- on President Reagan's burial of the strategic arms (SALT II) treaty and on assumed White House reluctance to enter serious negotiations on European nuclear weapons limitation with the Soviet Union.
The most vocal of the rebels, Karl-Heinz Hansen, told the Bundestag that SALT II ratification and serious nuclear arms-control negotiations were preconditions of SPD approval of the NATO deployments in 1979, and that these preconditions no longer exist. He cited Reagan adviser Edwin Meese's recent comment that the US has no legal or moral obligation to the SALT treaties. He also attributed a drive for military superiority to the US President.
Under these circumstances Hansen saw the stationing of new NATO nuclear weapons in Europe as an increased danger of nuclear war -- especially in Europe.
Schmidt, by contrast, painted an enthusiastic picture of full US-West German agreement on European nuclear arms-control talks as well as deployment of the new NATO weapons. He referred to the Reagan administration's May promise in Rome to open the European arms negotiations this year, and also to the joint Reagan-Schmidt declaration after the chancellor visited Washington May 20 to 23.
In effect, the Bundestag debate turned into more of a debate between Schmidt and his left wing than between Schmidt and the conservative opposition. The strife has become so intense that some left-wingers are accusing Schmidt in party meetings of being a vassal of the Americans. And Schmidt felt obliged -- after conservative recitation of SPD rebels' criticisms of US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. -- to defend Haig himself and to tell the Bundestag that he considers Haig a "man of peace."
Schmidt's troubles with his left wing in the Bundestag add to the existing SPD disarray in Hamburg and West Berlin.
Hamburg SPD Mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose resigned May 25 over another issue pitting the SPD left wing against the SPD moderate mainstream: nuclear power. Klose opposes increasing Hamburg's high dependence on nuclear-generated electricity through the already contracted construction of the controversial Brokdorf plant.
Schmidt has been promoting expansion of nuclear energy to reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil. Klose's resignation is a blow, since Hamburg -- like West Berlin until this May's election -- has been a Social Democratic stronghold since World War II.