After 1945 only one part of Germany had a chance to give democracy a second go, namely West Germany. In 1948/9, representatives of the freely elected parliaments of the federal states in the American, British and French zones of occupation met in the Parliamentary Council in Bonn and devised a constitution that drew logical conclusions from the mistakes made in preparing the Reich Constitution of 1919 and the failure of the Weimar Republic: The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. This second German democracy was to be a functioning parliamentary democracy with a strong Federal Chancellor, who could only be toppled by a “constructive vote of no confidence”, i.e., by a successor being voted, and a Federal President who played a nominal role only. As opposed to Weimar days, parallel legislative powers for the people were not envisaged. The Basic Law put a shot across the bows of any self- confessed opponents of democracy, by stating that the fight for basic rights and a ban on political parties that were not in line with the constitution would be taken as far as the Federal Constitutional Court. The principles of the state were given very strong foundations by making it impossible even for a majority vote to change the constitution, rendering the “legal” elimination of democracy, as in 1933, impossible.
While the West of Germany drew “anti-totalitarian” conclusions from the most recent German history, the East, that is the Soviet zone of occupation and later East Germany, had to put up with “anti-fascist” consequences. These served to legitimize a Marxist-Leninist-influenced party dictatorship. The break with the principles of Nazi rule was to be achieved primarily through class struggle, by dispossessing large landowners and industrialists. Former Nazi “supporters”, by contrast, were to be allowed to prove their worth to society by helping “build socialism”. Once the process of “denazification” had been completed, in East Germany former Nazi party officials also managed to occupy leading positions. They were, however, fewer and their cases less spectacular than in West Germany.
In retrospect, had it not been for the Economic miracle in the 1950s and 1960s, the longest boom period in the 20th century, there could hardly have been talk of a success story with regard to West Germany. The booming economy gave legitimacy to the model of a social market economy promulgated by Ludwig Erhard, the first Federal Economics Minister by virtue of its success. It enabled the swift integration of the eight million displaced persons from the former Eastern territories of the German Reich, the Sudetenland and other areas of East and Southeast Europe.
It made a decisive contribution to class and religious differences being eliminated, to the attraction of radical parties being curbed, and to the major democratic parties, initially the Christian Democrat (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), followed by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) becoming major popular parties. With regard to politics and social mores, however, there was also a different side to this prosperity: It made it easier for many citizens of West Germany neither to ask themselves searching questions about their own role in the years between 1933 and 1945, nor to let others ask them about it. The philosopher Hermann Lübbe referred to this approach to recent history as “communicative refusing to mention” (and judged it to be necessary in the stabilizing of West German democracy).
In the Weimar Republic the right had been nationalist and the left internationalist. In West Germany it was a different story: the center right camp under the first Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) stood for a policy of alignment with the West and the supranational integration of western Europe; the moderate left, the Social Democrats under their first post-War Chairman Kurt Schumacher and his successor Erich Ollenhauer, gave themselves a decidedly national profile by favoring reunification ahead of integration in the West. It was not until 1960 that the SPD accepted the basis of the West Treaties, which in 1955 had enabled West Germany to join NATO.
The Social Democrats had to make this step if they were to assume governmental responsibility in West Germany. Only on the basis of the West Treaties were they able, in 1966, to become a junior partner in the Grand Coalition and three years later, under the first Social Democrat Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–1992) , begin the “new Ostpolitik” that enabled West Germany to make a contribution to easing tension between West and East, to put relations with Poland on a new footing by the recognition (even if not only conditionally de jure) of the Oder-Neisse line and to enter into a contractually regulated relationship with East Germany.
The 1971 Four Powers Agreement on Berlin, which actually only concerned West Berlin and its relations with West Germany, would also have been impossible without the larger of the two Germanies being firmly integrated in the West.
The series of treaties with Eastern Europe signed by the liberal Brandt-Scheel government between 1970 and 1973 was primarily one thing: a response to the harder shape taken by the division of Germany with the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. With reunification becoming an ever more distant prospect, West Germany was forced into making the consequences of this division more sufferable, thereby ensuring the cohesion of the nation. The re-establishment of German unity remained an official goal of West German policy. However, following signature of the treaties with the East, the expectation that there would ever again be a German nation state dwindled – much more among younger Germans than among the more elderly.
In the 1980s, though, the post-War fabric gradually began to tear. The crisis in the Eastern bloc began in 1980, with the founding of an independent trade union, “Solidarnosc” , in Poland, followed by the imposition of martial law at the end of 1981. Three-and-a-half years later, in March 1985, Michael Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union.
In January 1987 the new Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union uttered the almost revolutionary statement: “We need democracy like the air we breathe.” A message like this was an added boost to civil rights activists in Poland and Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and in East Germany. In fall 1989 the pressure from the protests in East Germany became so great that the communist regime could only have been saved by military intervention on the part of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, however, was not prepared to do this. This ultimately caused the party leadership in East Berlin to capitulate to the peaceful revolution in East Germany: On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell – a symbol of the restriction of freedom similar to the Bastille in Paris two hundred years before.
Heinrich August Winkler