Germany from Kohl to Schröder

In the aftermath of unification

At the end of the Eighties, paradoxically on the eve of the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of its foundation, the crisis that was to lead to the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic arose: in the summer of 1989 the unstoppable growth of escapes towards the West highlights the serious difficulties of the country, now deprived of support from the East, from both an economic and political point of view, in the climate of great transformation initiated in all the nations beyond the curtain by the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. It is impossible to say whether a timely change of course by the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED, Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) and swift implementation of reforms would have ensured the survival of the Democratic Republic; it is certain that the delay with which the revision attempt took place did not play in his favor. When in November 1989 popular pressure forced the ouster of Erich Honecker, general secretary of the SED since 1971 and head of state since 1976, a rapid and peaceful dissolution of the old system began. Contrary to the expectations of the new Prime Minister Hans Modrow, who hoped to negotiate an agreed unification with the Federal Republic to safeguard the specificity of the Democratic Republic, Bonn, through Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the start of free movement between the two Germanys, started the process of unification, which formally took place on October 3, 1990. The definition with the Four Powers (the allies of World War II: United States, United Kingdom, France and Soviet Union), and in particular with the Soviet Union, of the new international statute of Germany, in fact replacing a peace treaty that had never been concluded, was the fundamental prerequisite of political union, technically carried out, through art. 23 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic, as an accession of the five restored Eastern Länder. On 2 December 1990 the first parliament of united Germany was elected.

In fact economically West Germany, which thanks to a boom period prolonged had reached the employment record with about two million new jobs, was in particularly favorable conditions to face the new situation. The volume of the East German economy, on the other hand, did not exceed one eighth of the federal one. The economic start of the unification disproved the alarmists in the West but proved to be much more difficult than expected in the East. expropriated way (mostly under the socialist regime, but also previously, under the Nazi regime and then under the Soviet administration of 1945-49) and now to be returned to the former owners or to be compensated, the levels established by the new wage contracts and, above all, the indiscriminate employment guarantees, considerably hampered the hoped-for rapid recovery of the economy in the period 1990-92. The new internal and external conditions contributed to transform the old latent unemployment (disguised according to the practice of socialist economies in a plethoric, not very productive, underutilized when not fictitiously employed) into obvious unemployment: despite the use of multiple interventions on the labor market – from retraining to early retirement, to part-time work – in the new Länder in 1992 the unemployment rate rose to 15%. The costs of change, while high, did not cause social collapse, but economic reconstruction, struggling to develop a self-propulsive dynamic, it continued to require a gigantic transfer of resources from the West, used not only in investments, but about half in the same consumption (in particular social spending, public administration, transport sector). Relocation expenses amounted to 140 billion marks in 1991, rising to 180 billion in 1992, when a quarter of the federal budget was dedicated to the new Länder.

Social problems appeared no less serious than the economic problems, and those concerning institutional reorganization, from public administration to the judiciary, to the university, were even more difficult to solve. The suspicions raised on a very large circle of people by the Stasi dossiers (Staatssicherheit), the secret police of the former Democratic Republic, in addition to forcing numerous politicians who were compromised to stand aside, gave rise to an excruciating process of seeking the truth and purging. The difficult redefinition of one’s own identity and the often delicate relationships between former Western and former Eastern Germans; the serious social problems that accompanied the transition from the communist economy to a market economy in the East; the fears of large sections of West German society, disoriented by the fluctuations in government conduct after unification and worried about the economic prospects: all this created in the early 1990s, in both parts of the country, a climate of uncertainty and precariousness. In public opinion the theme of the Asylanten (refugees and immigrants from Eastern Europe and Afro-Asian countries) coagulated all sorts of fears and resentments, economic, social, cultural, political, giving rise to outbursts of xenophobia. Numerous demonstrations, with violence against immigrants and destruction of the residences granted to them by the public authorities, took place above all in some eastern cities, where harsh clashes took place between neo-Nazis and the police.

The difficulties of the unification process led the government led by Kohl to favor domestic problems, limiting Germany’s action on the international scene, especially since a constitutional provision seemed to prevent the intervention of the federal armed forces in countries not belonging to the BORN. However, already in 1991 the Gulf War and subsequently, and with greater urgency, the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia posed the problem of a renewed role of the country in the world. At the end of a heated political debate, the Bundestag authorized participation in the naval blockade against Serbia and Montenegro (July 1992), the sending of planes to Bosnia (March 1993) and joining the UN mission in Somalia (April 1993)). Finally, in July 1994 Grundgesetz (the Basic Law of the Federal Republic, which later became, with a few variations, the Constitutional Charter of a united Germany) military engagement outside NATO, as long as it is submitted to the Bundestag for approval from time to time. At the same time, the essential line of the foreign policy of the new Germany was marked by the pro-European commitment, even stronger, if possible, compared to the past: from support for political unification – starting with the demand for greater powers for the European Parliament – to adhesion, despite the many oppositions and perplexities also from the Federal Bank circles, to the Maastricht Treaty (February 1992) and to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) project, with the creation of a European Central Bank.

Between 1992 and 1993 the recession that hit the country’s economy hard was responded to with spending cuts, starting with those on personnel, adopted by the most important companies in agreement with the trade unions, and with a rigorous government economic policy which, at the cost of heavy sacrifices, it seemed to ensure the country the conditions required to join EMU. On the political level, the pressure of public opinion imposed, on the other hand, the adoption of a series of measures to contain the social tensions that unification had exacerbated: in November-December 1992 numerous neo-Nazi organizations were banned, in May 1993 limits were placed on the granting of the right to asylum and the following year the penalties for acts of racist violence were tightened.

Despite the obvious difficulties, the CDU (Christlich-Demokratische Union) and its leader Kohl seemed to enjoy a solid basis of consensus. In the 1994 administrative elections, the Christian Democratic party recorded a slight decrease in votes, while maintaining the majority of votes, the Greens (Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen) and the PDS (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus, heir to the Communist Party of the German Democratic Republic) strengthened, while the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) achieved significant success at the Land level (e.g. in Lower Saxony it touched an absolute majority) in the face of a severe contraction of the liberal electorate of the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei). A confirmation for Kohl came from the European elections of 12 June 1994, when the CDU / CSU coalition (Christlich-Soziale Union, the Bavarian equivalent of the CDU) established itself as the country’s leading force; besides it, only the SPD and the Greens managed to cross the threshold of 5% necessary to enter the European Parliament. The political weight of the CDU was also confirmed by the election of the new president of the Republic: in July 1994 Richard von Weizsäcker (CDU), federal president since 1984, was succeeded by the former president of the Constitutional Court Roman Herzog, also of the CDU. On 8 September of that year the last British, French and US military contingents left Berlin.

The sunset of the Kohl era

On October 16, 1994 the legislative elections were held for the second time since unification, which reaffirmed the primacy of the coalition formed by the CDU / CSU and the FDP over the alliance of SPD and Greens, however highlighting a decline in the governing parties, especially of the liberals, in the face of a substantial recovery of the opposing front. The PDS, relying on the discontent towards an economic-social policy that seemed to forget the reasons of the eastern Länder, managed to enter the Bundestag thanks to over 17% of the preferences obtained in the East. Kohl was re-elected chancellor in November, but the margin of his majority was limited to just ten votes.

The new Kohl government found itself facing a fundamentally critical socio-economic situation. In 1995, the economic problems apparently solved by the financial consolidation of 1994 reappeared, with a sharp decline in employment and industrial production. In February, after accepting the restrictions of 1994, the metal workers’ unions called the first strike in eleven years, resulting in an increase in wages and a decrease in working hours. Encouraged by the positive results of the regional consultations in Baden-Württenberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein (March 1996) and with the 1998 parliamentary elections still a long way off, Kohl announced an austerity program for 1997, aimed at pushing the deficit beyond below 3% in order to adapt to the fees required for the entry into the monetary union. By denouncing an emergency situation, the plan introduced a series of measures which, by reducing the cost of labor, should have favored the recovery: financing for risky activities and innovations, drastic containment of public spending, simplification and reduction of taxation, severe restrictions on social security and public health.

Accused by the opposition and the trade unions for its anti-social character and approved in a climate of intense tension (with strikes and protests, culminating in a massive demonstration in Bonn in June 1996), the government plan did not yield the desired results. Against this backdrop, the prospect of European Economic and Monetary Union became less and less popular. The SPD, and in particular the wing led by the leader of Lower Saxony, Gerhard Schröder, was skeptical of a transformation that threatened to cost the dismantling of the welfare state. On a different side, the Bundesbank and its governor Hans Tietmeyer took an even more dangerous position for the government, pointing to the entry into EMU as a threat to the country’s stability and hoping for its postponement.

As the chancellor announced his intention to re-run in 1998 politics, the SPD chose Schröder as the chancellery candidate in place of the more orthodox and less charismatic president Oskar Lafontaine. Schröder took an innovative position with respect to the tradition of the party of origin. With a campaign conducted in moderate and reassuring tones, he addressed an electorate tired of the difficulties of the last decade, but cautious in its need for change: an electorate certainly formed by the economically most affected social strata, but also made up of large sections of the class media, still immune from the consequences of the crisis and yet afraid of the possibility of suffering them. Schröder, due to his past resistance first to a too rapid process of unification of the country.

The red-green coalition

Although the social democratic program tackled fundamental issues such as participation or social protection with substantial vagueness and despite the fact that in the event of victory the difficulties of a government alliance between the Greens and the SPD were foreseeable (the ecologists asked, on a much harsher line than the social democrats, a rapid abandonment of nuclear power, a strong ecological tax on fuels, facilitating access to citizenship for foreign citizens), Schröder’s party won the elections (September 1998). The SPD won 40.9% of the votes, the CDU / CSU 35.2%, the Greens 6.7%, the PDS 5.1%.

The coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Greens, formed by Schröder in October 1998, encountered great difficulties in the first year not only because of the differences between the two parties, especially in the field of environmental and nuclear policy, but also because of the difficult coexistence, within SPD and Verdi, of opposing currents. After the defeat of both parties in the regional elections in Hesse, strong tensions between the political forces erupted on the occasion of the military intervention in Yugoslavia (March-June 1999). In March 1999, Lafontaine resigned from his post as finance minister, president of the SPD (Schröder was elected the following month in his place) and deputy, accusing Schröder of excessive restraint in social and economic policy.

The presence of the SPD on the political scene of the country was strengthened in May 1999 by the election of the Social Democrat Johannes Rau to the presidency of the Republic and, in September of the same year, by the appointment of Ernst Welteke, also a member of the largest ruling party, to direction of the Bundesbank, replacing the Christian Democrat Tietmeyer. By 2000, Schröder’s position seemed to strengthen. The disputes between the SPD and the Greens on nuclear power found a first solution in the agreement between the government and industries which, reached after a very long negotiation process in June 2000, limited the life of each of the nineteen German nuclear power plants to 32 years (the closure of the last it was therefore scheduled for 2021). The government achieved other important successes in terms of social policy. In January 2000, employers and trade unions signed a Pact for work which introduced the criterion of productivity as a measure of wage levels together with the principle of flexibility in union claims, allowed the executive to intervene on union requests and put an end to the non-negotiability of the threshold. of 60 years for the retirement age. In July of the same year, Parliament approved the reform that reduced the tax burden of households and businesses and abolished taxes on mandatory requirement of the 60-year threshold for retirement age. In July of the same year, Parliament approved the reform that reduced the tax burden of households and businesses and abolished taxes on mandatory requirement of the 60-year threshold for retirement age. In July of the same year, Parliament approved the reform that reduced the tax burden of households and businesses and abolished taxes on capital gains from the sale of shares in German companies. Finally, in December, Schröder obtained the agreement of the trade unions to his plan to reform the pension system, a project heavily attacked by the opposition and the left wing of the SPD itself.

At the end of 1999 the CDU, for its part, was hit by a serious scandal which involved Kohl himself, accused of having violated the law on party financing. The former premier admitted the existence of slush funds, but refused to disclose the names of the donors. Called into question, party president Wolfgang Schäuble also resigned in February 2000 and Angela Merkel was elected in his place (April 2000).

In May 2001, Parliament approved the pension reform. In October of the same year, the SPD obtained the relative majority of votes in the Berlin regional elections and formed a new coalition with the PDS. On a national level, the discontent aroused in 2002 by the serious economic crisis that hit Germany, shifting the unemployment rate upwards, seemed destined to negatively affect the red-green coalition. On the eve of the political elections in September 2002, many favored the opposing coalition, led by Edmund Stoiber, president of Bavaria and leader of the CSU. The results of the polls assigned the same percentage, 38.5%, to SPD and CDU / CSU, while the clear affirmation of the Greens, who earned almost two percentage points.

Germany from Kohl to Schröder