The West German postwar recovery was the most remarkable of all. The wartime destruction of much of Germany’s industrial plant had paradoxically proved beneficial; the new plant was built with the latest technological equipment.
The Allied High Commission gradually abolished controls over German industry, save for atomic energy and certain military restrictions. It provided economic aid and scaled down prewar German debts. By the early 1950s West Germany had a favorable balance of trade and a rate of industrial growth as high as 10 percent a year.
The West German gross national product rose from $23 billion in 1950 to $103 billion in 1964, with no serious monetary inflation. This prosperity was spread through all classes of society. The working class in West Germany had begun to enjoy affluence; new buildings rose everywhere, while superhighways grew overcrowded and had to be widened and extended.
The economic miracle attracted population into West Germany from southern Europe and drew other Germans out of East Germany into the Federal Republic. East Germany thus had a net loss in population as West Germany boomed. By the late 1960s the German birth rate had fallen, however, and in the 1980s the population had stabilized at 62 million. This made for a highly industrialized, close-knit, urban nation.
The independent West German state had a constitution that provided for a legislature whose lower house represented the people directly and whose upper house represented the states (Lander). The president, elected by a special assembly for a five-year term, was largely a ceremonial figure. Real executive leadership was vested in the chancellor, a prime minister dependent on a parliamentary majority.
Under the firm leadership of Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), the Christian Democrats held power until 1961. A Rhineland Catholic, former mayor of Cologne, conservative, pro-French, and democratic, Adenauer was forced to retire only because of age and continued to wield enough influence to weaken his successor, Ludwig Erhard (1897-1977), a Protestant and professional economist, who remained in office for five more years.
Germany had been rather successfully “deNazified”—a requirement stipulated by the Allied High Commission. As a result of the Nuremburg trials in 1946, seventy-four major Nazi leaders were convicted of war crimes. In general, lower-level Nazis were required only to demonstrate that they fully accepted the new democratic government; to have dismissed all civil servants who had held posts under the Nazi regime would have utterly crippled any administrative recovery. Some Nazis who had escaped to other parts of the world, notably South America, continued to be hunted out, and if captured, were tried for war crimes.
The major political question remained that of an eventual reunion with communist-dominated East Germany. Neither Germany recognized the other diplomatically. After years during which the East Germans, attracted by better living conditions in West Germany, crossed the border by the tens of thousands, the East German government in August 1961 began building a wall between the two parts of Berlin. Though on special holidays families in West Berlin were allowed to cross into East Berlin briefly to visit relatives and friends, the wall stood as the visible symbol of a divided Germany.
As a consequence of the cold war, the Americans, British, and French permitted the West Germans to rearm early in the 1950s and to join NATO. Military conscription was introduced in 1955, and by 1970 West Germany had developed a sizable modern military. Access to the atom bomb was not included in this rearmament. Even so, and despite low-key political leadership, the spectacle of a rearmed Germany caused much concern—in the Soviet bloc, in Britain, and among Jewish voters in all nations.
Chancellor Erhard’s government fell in 1966, when a small disciplined party, the Free Democrats, in coalition with which the Christian Democrats were ruling, refused to support his proposals for higher taxes. The Christian Democrats now proposed a “grand coalition” with their chief opponents, the Social Democrats. The very popular mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt (1913— ), became vice-chancellor and foreign minister. This grand coalition commanded popular support, and it lasted until the elections of 1969.
In these elections Brandt, a Social Democrat, became chancellor and formed a coalition in his turn with the Free Democrats. Brandt moved slowly and cautiously to open discussions with the East Germans. The chief stumbling block was Soviet fear of West Germany. It gradually became apparent that a treaty between West Germany and the Soviet Union in which both renounced the use of force would be one of the necessary preliminaries. In the summer of 1970 Brandt reached agreement with the Soviets on the text of such a treaty.
It recognized all existing European frontiers, which Germans and Soviets agreed never to try to alter by force, leaving open future negotiations. The second step was an agreement with Poland, which Brandt concluded during 1970. Brandt’s Ostpolitik, or Eastern policy, culminated in a treaty with Czechoslovakia and in the entry of both Germanies into the United Nations in 1973. A form of detente with the Soviet bloc was nearly achieved, when in 1974 Brandt resigned upon the discovery that one of his closest assistants had been an East German spy, a discovery that renewed German fears of the designs of the Soviet bloc.
The 1970s also dimmed the West German economic miracle. While the German inflation rate, roughly 6 percent in 1975, was mild compared to the rest of Europe, and the growth rate continued at over 5 percent, unemployment began to climb. German social services were not among the best in the world, and German per capita income had surpassed that of the nations that had defeated Germany in Europe in World Word II, but a deep-seated memory of the inflation that had destroyed the democratic hopes of Weimar made the Germans cautious and insecure.
Waves of terrorism further disconcerted the German leadership. Only Brandt, and after 1974 Helmut Schmidt (1918— ), had seemed to provide the vigorous leadership the Germans had enjoyed under Adenauer. Together with other nations in the West, Germany often appeared to lack able new leaders with dramatic solutions to the nation’s problems.
Although the electorate recognized that the range of dramatic new solutions was severely limited by the constraints of superpower confrontation and an eroding economy, they nonetheless hoped for a renewal of vigor at the top. Politics in the Federal Republic became fragmented when the grand coalition broke up, with powerful leaders emerging on the basis of strong local support. In 1982 the Christian Democrats, led by Helmut Kohl (1930— ), won a landslide victory.
West Germany’s economic growth, though slowed, remained prodigious, and chancellor Kohl felt emboldened to pursue a more independent course in international affairs. While he kept West Germany in NATO, he forced the removal of nuclear missiles that were deployed on German soil and intended for Soviet targets, and he called for negotiations with the Soviet Union on reducing short-range missiles, causing a rift with both Britain and the United States.
Faced with protests at home, with soaring social costs, and signs of a resurgence from the political right, Kohl moved to take advantage of the unexpected and overwhelming changes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Soon the unthinkable was being thought on both sides of the rapidly crumbling Iron Curtain, and with communist leadership abandoned in East Germany, reunification appeared possible.
While much of western Europe worried about a reunited Germany, which with 80 million people and controlling 40 percent of Europe’s industrial production could well dominate the European Community, Kohl moved quickly, and one of the richest capitalist nations absorbed one of the richest formerly communist countries to create a united Germany in October 1990. In December the first parliament for all of Germany since the end of World War II was elected.
The new nation took the title Federal Republic of Germany, and East Germany acceded to the jurisdiction of West German Basic Law. The newly united nation set about the incredibly complex problem of integrating two economies, two industrial forces with vastly different experiences, two research establishments for science and technology, two armies, two trade policies, and even two Olympic teams. The problem proved daunting, for East Germans were not prepared for a free market economy, and economic problems soon gave rise to neo-Nazi groups and attacks on minorities.