Observers of German politics might be amazed about the vanishing popularity of the German liberal party, the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei). It was founded after World War II on the old liberal principles of free-market economics and personal freedom. Since the beginning of the new (West-)Germany in 1948, the FDP was a major player in politics, being part of coalitions throughout its history, and was more in government than any other major party.
The FDP’s first coalitions were with the CDU (Christliche Demokratische Union) and its sister party the Bavarian CSU (Christliche-Soziale Union). It became a major philosophical influence in its coalition with these parties, both of which had a strong Christian outlook but tended to move between capitalism and socialism . Ludwig Erhard from the CDU, who was “Wirtschaftsminister” (secretary of economics) under Adenauer and later became Chancellor of the government, was the founder of the “Deutsche Wirtschaftswunder”. He adopted many of the FDP’s philosophical principles: he had, at times, more friends in the FDP than in his own CDU. He also coined the expression “soziale Marktwirtschaft” trying to soften pure capitalism for his more ‘social’ minded party. This still remains the founding principle of the CDU/CSU and is part of its political manifesto. In 1966, though, the FDP broke off the coalition after economic quarrels about raising taxes and went into opposition.
The CDU/CSU formed a grand coalition with the more overtly social-democratic SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and Germany went through turbulent times. Loose groups formed, the so-called APO (Ausser Parlamentarische Opposition) “opposition outside parliament”, mostly consisting of radical-left students led by, amongst others, the French/German Daniel Cohn Bendit and Joschka Fischer. Some of this movement splintered off into terrorists groups like the Baader Meinhof Gang.
The FDP at this time had its own internal struggles and moved to the left, but keeping its liberal social agenda. Its leaders during this period, Walter Scheel and then Hans-Dietrich Genscher, were strong believers in the ideal of a closer European union and also supported the “Ostpolitik” pursued by the SDP’s Willi Brandt. They agreed to form a coalition with the SPD in 1969. Their free market philosophy often suffered during this coalition and many market liberals were dismayed and wanted to break away. Finally in 1982 the FDP tried to push through reforms of the labour market as the German economy was stagnating. It came to a break-up with Helmut Schmidt’s SPD.
The leader of the CDU/CSU opposition, Helmut Kohl, forced a constructive vote of non-confidence in parliament, and consequently the FDP formed a new government with the CDU/CSU. The president of Germany called for new elections in 1983 with a resounding victory for the CDU/CSU (48.8%), but a rather dire result for the FDP (7%): many of their left leaning voters saw the party’s move as a betrayal of their vote in 1980. The FDP recovered slightly in the following election and stayed the junior partner of the CDU/CSU led government under Helmut Kohl until 1998.
The historical events of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification had a major impact on the German political landscape. During this time new small parties formed and the FDP became just one small party amongst others. “Die Linke” developed from the former communist party, and also a new Green Party, ‘Die Gruenen’, emerged with a leftist economic agenda and a strong-Green issues focus. ‘Die Gruenen’ also seemed to become the new home of the former radical leftist students of the 60s and 70s, and Joschka Fischer became their leader.
In the second and concluding part of this series, I’ll examine the slide in the FDP’s fortunes after the turn of the 21st century, and its prospects in the crucial West German elections due this September.
Stephanie is a Bavarian-German born Londoner, who has lived in the UK for many years, but maintains a close interest in German politics. A libertarian who loves and visits the US frequently, she is also interested in art and music, and tweets as @suranie
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