Foreign policy in German party politics, 1871 to the Cold War

The roots of the West German party system lay in three major cleavages of emergent parliamentary politics in Germany in the 1860s: religion and national integration were the first to emerge, followed a few decades later by social class.1 These three cleavages interacted in complex ways, not least due to the geographical and cultural heterogeneity of the German Reich unified under Prussian leadership in 1871. Historically the agents of national integration were liberal parties of Protestant outlook that supported both the modernizing role of the state and a capitalist economy. German liberalism however quickly split between a national and a social wing over the question of democratization. Initially lukewarm towards national integration, the major opponents of the liberals in the 19th century were conservative parties defending mainly agrarian interests in Prussia who eventually became strong supporters of an authoritarian nationalist state.

Under the tutelage of Chancellor Bismarck until 1890, the German state embarked on an antagonistic project of nation-building that targeted two constituencies: along the religious cleavage the Catholics, suspected of having stronger attachment to Rome than to Berlin; and along the class cleavage the working class, suspected of aiming to overthrow the socioeconomic order of the Reich. The Catholics organized in the confessional cross-class Zentrum party and the working class in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The interaction of these cleavages created in the following decades a complex party system of crosscutting competition over democratization of the political system, economic regulation, national integration and. reflecting all these different conflicts, foreign - security, imperial and trade - policy. As a result, German party politics from 1871 to 1933 was characterized by fragmentation, polarization and unstable coalition politics, leading eventually to the collapse of the interwar Weimar republic.

The West German state created after World War II by the Western allies was a peculiar entity. It was a German state for the first time oriented towards the South and West (rather than the North and East), and for the first time containing a numerical balance between Catholics and Protestants (Paterson 1975: 36). The combination of the allies’ purposeful party licensing policy in their occupation zones and the tactics of new party elites led to the emergence of a more concentrated party system. The lesson of Weimar was that fragmentation across class and religious lines inhibited the emergence of stable party politics, creating dangers for democracy.

Catholic politician Konrad Adenauer consciously opted for an inclusive profile of the new CDU party. It was to have a Christian, rather than a strictly Catholic, outlook (Pridham 1975: 21-62; Buchhaas 1981: 151-178), and a cross-class socioeconomic profile. The hope was that CDU could bridge the fragmentation of the middle class along religious lines, as well as the antagonism between the middle-class and the working-class, both elements that contributed to the democratic breakdown of Weimar (Pridham 1977). CDU's sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, replicated this interconfessional strategy, although the conservative and agrarian outlook of Bavaria meant that it was ideologically more to the right than CDU. In the same logic, the liberal FDP was created with the aim of uniting the different strands of German liberalism, although this meant that from the beginning it was divided between its national and social wings and between conflicting conceptions of its role as either a ‘national’ party to the right of CDU or a liberal party occupying the middle ground between right and left (Juling 1977). Finally, the SPD attracted almost exclusively a working class following, but it also acted as the de facto party of political Protestantism in heavily Catholic areas such as the Ruin' (Rohe 1990b: 140-144) and Bavaria (Mintzel 1990: 158).

The rooting of the three main parties in the religious, class and national cleavages also informed their foreign policy positions within the new strategic context of the Cold War. CDU’s foreign policy outlook was particularly shaped by Catholicism. historically reluctant towards German nationalism dominated by Protestant Prussia (Glatzeder 1980: 55; Clemens 1989: 22-23). Instead, Catholicism generated an affinity for a Carolingian vision of a unified Western Europe around Rhineland and France. In the post-World War II context, this Catholic vision went hand in hand with ardent anti-Communism. This identity construction, with the Soviet Union, the East and Communism, but also Prussia, German nationalism and the Nazi past, as hostile ‘others', found its expression in Adenauer’s policy of Westbindung, the unequivocal participation in NATO and processes of (West) European integration (Engelmann Martin 2002).

Adenauer's foreign policy was intricately tied to his domestic agenda, and especially the concern with the stability of the new democratic regime (Pridham 1977: 24-26; Bellers 1979: 366). The cardinal foreign policy priority for the German people was reunification, a demand especially important for national-minded Protestant middle-class strata that CDU wanted to integrate in the new system. Securing democracy within the new state required a balancing act from Adenauer: while looking steadily towards the West, he could not ignore the postwar loss of the eastern territories of the Reich to Communist Poland, the Soviet-imposed division of the remaining German lands and the demands of around 12 million refugees from Eastern Europe without risking the rise of nationalism and the fragmentation of the party system (Clemens 1989: 16; Cordell and Wolff 2005: 38-39).

Adenauer decided to complement Westbindung, a policy that in the eyes of many cemented the division of the country (Tilford 1975: 1; Glaessner 2005: 47), with a ‘policy of strength' towards the Soviets. He claimed he was for reunification, but only ‘within freedom', and that only confrontation could force the Soviet bloc into concessions. He thus claimed that West Germany was the sole legitimate expression of the German people and continuation of the German Reich; he refused to recognize the GDR (claim to sole representation or Alleinvertretung-sanspruch) as well as the new borders that the war and the Soviet Union expansion had created in the German Reich's old eastern territories (Clemens 1989: 18-30). In this way Adenauer managed to integrate nationalist groups to the new state even though his foreign policy put reunification on the backburner. Even more, this foreign policy served the political strategy of the CDU: the unity of pro-European Catholics with conservative and nationalist Protestants (Buchhaas 1981: 223; Granieri 2003: 14).

For the SPD on the other hand foreign policy also reflected a domestic strategy (Paterson 1974: 129; Bellers 1979: 53-54). As its leader Kurt Schumacher stated already in 1945: ‘The contest over foreign policy is at the same time the contest over internal policy and the social content of the political order.... Foreign policy sets the limits to the possibilities of our economic and social policy’ (cited in Granieri 2003: 9). The SPD’s post-war foreign policy positions could be traced to its rooting in both the religious and the class cleavages: as a party supported primarily by Protestants, it was also the exponent of a democratic patriotism that lay high importance on the value of reunification; and as the party of the working class it saw the unambiguous integration in the Western camp of the Cold War as a threat to its socioeconomic agenda. In this way in the 1950s the party's unease with the social order of Adenauer's republic informed its emphasis on reunification, if need be in a trade-off with West Germany’s integration in Atlantic security structures.

Given the narrower appeal of the SPD, the CDU/CSU quickly became the focal point of the party system, its electoral success closely connected with the stability of the new regime. By employing a polarizing anti-Communist discourse, and aided by the Cold War climate of the time (Lehmbmch 1968: 183), Adenauer cemented an alliance of the middle class spanning the old confessional divide, while also continuing to attract Catholic workers thanks to Catholic social ideas integrated in the concept of the social market economy. As a party rooted in the national cleavage and of strongly Protestant outlook, the FDP also emphasized reunification, but its anti-Communism, economic liberalism and strong support for Western anchoring of the new state ultimately led it to subscribe to Adenauer's concept of both Westbindung and policy of strength towards the East as the only practical alternative in the Cold War context. In this way foreign policy served to bind the FDP closer to the CDU, thus giving credence to Adenauer’s idea that the main dividing line was between a bourgeois camp and an isolated SPD, tainted by associations with Communism (Jesse 1990: 89).

As a result, CDU dominated government formation between 1949-1966 and the foreign policy of West Germany reflected this specific dynamic in its party system. By employing the divisive language of the early Cold War, Adenauer cemented CDU’s dominance in a binary logic of party competition pitting a pro-Western bourgeois camp against a suspected neutralist SPD. The aggregation of the religion, class and national cleavages into this language of party competition by Adenauer, culminating in the CDU occupying a central position in the party system cutting into the natural space and pressuring the FDP on the right and SPD on the left, was helped by international circumstance that was appropriately used by Adenauer in the new West German state’s foreign policy.

From 1959 onwards however, incremental changes in the party system started unsettling this arrangement. In its Godesberg program of that year the SPD formally endorsed the social market economy and started presenting itself as a moderate reformer of the political and economic order of West Germany. In 1960 the FDP resolved its strategic dilemma by adopting the strategy of the ‘liberal corrective' of the CDU, remaining within the bourgeois camp but occupying the

Table 2.1 Bourgeois and Socialist camps, vote percentages in Bundestag elections 1949-65


Bourgeois Camp %

Socialist Camp %
















Source: Bourgeois camp: CDU/CSU, FDP, Zentrum (1949, 1953, 1957), BayemPartei (1949, 1953, 1957), DP (1949, 1953, 1957), BHE (1953, 1957), GdP (1961), nationalist parties (DRP, NPD). Socialist camp: SPD, KPD (1949,1953), DFU (1961, 1965); Adapted from Vogel et al. (1971).

middle ground between CDU and SPD. As a result, the SPD led by Willy Brandt increased its electoral scores, while CDU-FDP coalitions between 1961-66 were fraught with tensions as the FDP challenged the CDU’s conservatism in both domestic and foreign policy.

In 1966, economic recession and tensions in its coalition with the FDP finally forced the CDU to form a grand coalition with the SPD under Kurt-Georg Kies-inger, with Willy Brandt as foreign minister. None of the two parties disputed the main binary pattern of competition of the party system; the Grand Coalition was a respite before normal competition between them would ensue again (Lehm-bruch 1968; Edinger 1970). But the two parties also entertained the idea of a new majoritarian electoral law that would help create a pure two-party system, an idea especially supported by CDU conservatives (Lehmbruch 1968: 185-186; Prid-ham 1977: 158). To its horror, the FDP realized that the bourgeois-social democratic competition could take place without it.

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