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.

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.

In his term out of federal government office, Strauss retained his political aura, however. If anything, through his decisive action in the Spiegel affair, he gained stature among right-wingers who sought a return of the conservative orthodoxy they considered the only legitimate government policy. Through this period, Strauss had his own towering self-confidence and the invincible political base of a CSU that ruled Bavaria in apparent perpetuity.

When Strauss indicated that he wanted to be the conservative candidate for chancellor in 1980, then, he was given the chance. The previous and future chancellor candidate from the CSU's sister conservative party in non-Bavarian Germany, the Christian Democratic Union's Helmut Kohl, not only stepped aside, but also campaigned vigorously for his rival. But the fears stirred by Strauss among Protestant north Germans and middle-of-the-road voters led to the worst conservative showing in three decades.

Still, the Strauss charisma remained. And when Dr. Kohl was again nominated and took over as chancellor in the coalition shift of October 1982, Strauss was typically quoted as quipping that he didn't care who served as chancellor under him (Strauss).

When his party pulled in an impressive 60 percent of the Bavarian vote in the March 6 election this year, a triumphant Strauss laid claim to a major policy role in the new center-right government. In particular, he asserted that it was time for a ''turning point'' in inner-German policy - to one of ''give and take'' and away from the alleged Social Democratic policy of just giving to East Berlin without requiring any quid pro quo in return.

Chancellor Kohl, who was still considered (especially by the German media and by Strauss himself) as lackluster and no match for the shrewd CSU leader, never challenged Strauss frontally. But unobtrusively he called his bluff. Strauss could have any Cabinet post he wanted, Dr. Kohl said, except for the finance, economics, or foreign minister - the only three posts Strauss would have been interested in.

And when Bavarian Premier Strauss then repeatedly told the press that the CSU would exert its rightful influence on policy and implement a harder line toward East Germany, Kohl just quietly conducted ''continuity'' with the former Social Democratic ''Ostpolitik'' of detente.

Kohl next let Strauss play in this ''continuity'' the center-stage role that Strauss loves to play, in negotiating a West German government guarantee of new 1 billion mark ($400 million) credits to East Berlin this summer.

This patent abandonment of a hard line by Strauss brought down on his head the unprecedented wrath of hard-line CSU loyalists. One CSU member of parliament quit the party, accusing Strauss of ''one-man democracy'' as he left. Other embittered delegates to the July CSU convention conspicuously withheld applause for Strauss at the convention, reelected him party chairman with an insulting 77 percent instead of his habitual 90 percent plus, and left the hall early, depriving Strauss of a quorum for closing ceremonies.

Whether Strauss's subsequent friendly reception by East German party and state chief Erich Honecker (what other West German state premier could swing that?) makes up for Strauss's loss of his home turf is moot.

The front-page attention continues as Strauss gets the greatest possible publicity out of projecting East-West German postal payments one day and denying with a wink the next that he is going to visit Moscow.

It's all good journalistic fun. But nobody doubts any more that the cannonball has lost its thunder.

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