Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany

The Free Democratic Party’s abandonment of its twelve-year coalition with the Social Democratic Party and its new alliance with the Christian Democratic party led to the first successful “constructive vote of no confidence” in the West German Bundestag, allowing Helmut Kohl to replace Helmut Schmidt as chancellor on October 1, 1982.

Summary of Event

In 1982, the West German government led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was based on a coalition of the Social Democratic Party Social Democratic Party (West Germany) (SPD) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) Free Democratic Party (West Germany) first established in 1969. Thanks to the support of the liberal FDP, Willy Brandt became the first Socialist chancellor of West Germany in 1969, providing an alternative to the conservative Christian Democratic Union Christian Democratic Union (West Germany) and Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU) chancellors who had dominated that position since 1949. The small FDP, which supported Christian Democratic chancellors before 1966, represented the crucial swing party between the SPD and CDU/CSU coalition, the two largest West German parties. After the discovery of an East German spy on Brandt’s staff, Brandt was forced to resign on May 6, 1974. Schmidt became the new chancellor, and the FDP leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher assumed the crucial post of foreign minister. Germany;government
Political parties;Germany
[kw]Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany (Oct. 1, 1982)
[kw]Chancellor of West Germany, Kohl Becomes (Oct. 1, 1982)
[kw]West Germany, Kohl Becomes Chancellor of (Oct. 1, 1982)
[kw]Germany, Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West (Oct. 1, 1982)
Political parties;Germany
[g]Europe;Oct. 1, 1982: Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany[04980]
[g]Germany;Oct. 1, 1982: Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany[04980]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 1, 1982: Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany[04980]
Kohl, Helmut
Schmidt, Helmut
Genscher, Hans-Dietrich
Strauss, Franz Josef
Brandt, Willy
Kelly, Petra
Lambsdorff, Otto

Schmidt’s coalition won the elections in 1980, but within two years the coalition succumbed to internal strains. One issue, which had united the majority of Free Democrats with the Socialists, was support of a policy of détente with the Soviet Union and East European countries (Ostpolitik) Ostpolitik first initiated by Brandt. This policy, which involved de facto recognition of the loss of German territory to Poland after 1945, was initially bitterly opposed by the Christian Democrats, and particularly by Franz Josef Strauss, the leader of the Bavarian branch, the Christian Social Union. Moreover, Strauss’s social conservatism alienated Genscher and many in his party. It was only after Strauss failed in his candidacy for chancellor in the election of 1980 that this obstacle to an FDP-CDU alliance was removed. Helmut Kohl, who accepted Ostpolitik and was on friendly terms with Genscher, emerged as the acknowledged and moderate leader of the CDU.

Before 1982, Schmidt, who was not the chair of the SPD, also faced serious obstacles from members of his own party. Many SPD members rejected efforts to cut social benefits or to raise indirect taxes to deal with increasing economic problems faced by the government. In addition, the chancellor’s foreign and defense policy, in response to what he considered Soviet threats, was rejected by an increasing number of Socialists. Still, the most active and passionate opposition to the government’s military and ecological policies came from the Green Party, a new party organized in January, 1980, whose most effective spokesperson was Petra Kelly. The Greens drained support from the SPD and further weakened Schmidt’s position.

Even though Schmidt faced serious opposition to his policies from within the SPD and the new Green movement, Genscher and the majority of FDP members of the cabinet caused the collapse of the coalition government in September, 1982. Genscher claimed in his memoirs that he was afraid that the SPD would sabotage his foreign policy, but in truth he, not Kohl, coined the word Wende (turning point) in a letter to FDP leaders in August, 1981, that criticized Schmidt’s economic policies. The FDP minister of economics, Count Otto Lambsdorff, also attacked the economic policies of the SPD. By March, 1982, the FDP declared its support for a coalition with the CDU in the state of Lower Saxony. The evidence was clear that Genscher was preparing to abandon Schmidt. In the September, 1982, state election in Hesse, the FDP openly assaulted the SPD. Lambsdorff suggested that election results in Hesse could have a direct impact on the Bonn government. In order to force the hand of the FDP, Schmidt demanded that Lambsdorff produce an economic policy paper. On September 9, Lambsdorff presented an extreme supply-side program with significant reductions in public expenditures, which he knew the SPD would never accept. Eight days later, after Schmidt had revealed his decision to address the Bundestag and accuse the FDP of the collapse of the government, all FDP ministers resigned.

Schmidt hoped to force new elections, which might result in the failure of the FDP to obtain the necessary 5 percent of the vote to return to the Bundestag. Instead, Genscher, fearing elections at this time, convinced a majority of the FDP to ally with the Christian Democrats. By September 21, the CDU/CSU accepted the FDP offer and, using a constructive no confidence vote on October 1, 1982 (which required a majority for the new government), the Bundestag elected Kohl chancellor with a vote of 256 to 235. The only other attempt to use the constructive no confidence vote in West Germany by the CDU in April, 1972, barely failed to obtain a majority of the Bundestag vote, and the Socialist Brandt remained in power.

Kohl kept Genscher as foreign minister, a position that Strauss wanted. In order to consolidate his power, Kohl, on December 17, 1982, decided to arrange a deliberate vote of no confidence in the Bundestag in order to force new elections before the regularly scheduled elections in 1984. The president of West Germany, Karl Carsten, accepted this move in January, 1983, as did the Federal Constitutional Court on February 16, 1983. In the election in March, Kohl easily defeated the SPD candidate, Hans-Jochen Vogel, Schmidt’s minister of justice and former mayor of Munich. The CDU/CSU won 48.6 percent of the vote, the party’s second best showing since 1949, and the FDP won only 6.9 percent of the vote. The first new party since 1957 to enter the Bundestag, the Greens (5.6 percent), drew votes from the SPD, which declined to 38 percent.


Kohl became the longest-serving chancellor of West Germany (and reunified Germany), holding that office until 1998. Nine years earlier, the cover story of the German magazine Der Spiegel predicted that Kohl had no future. Continuously underestimated, Kohl skillfully maintained his coalition with the FDP and won four Bundestag elections until he was finally defeated in September, 1998. As the first German leader since 1949 who was not an adult during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Kohl felt more comfortable than his predecessors in appealing to national pride.

Kohl’s greatest contributions came in the field of foreign affairs. He accepted Ostpolitik and invited the leader of the communist German Democratic Republic (DDR), Erich Honecker, to visit Bonn in 1987. Taking advantage of the collapse of the DDR regime in November, 1989, Kohl initiated a process that led to the reunification of the two German states in October, 1990. Together with French president François Mitterrand, Kohl played a major role in negotiating the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, Maastricht Treaty (1992) which provided for further European integration leading to the European Union and the common currency, the euro. Timothy Garton Ash, a well-known observer of European affairs, called Kohl “the most formidable . . . statesman in Europe,” and former U.S. president George H. W. Bush was quoted in Time Europe as stating that Kohl was “the greatest European leader of the second half of the twentieth century.” Germany;government
Political parties;Germany

Further Reading

  • Bark, Dennis L., and David R. Gress. Democracy and Its Discontents, 1963-1988. Vol. 2 in A History of West Germany. New York: Blackwell, 1989. Part of a general two-volume survey of West German history, which includes a brief, but reliable, chapter on “The Fall of Schmidt.”
  • Bering, Henrik. Helmut Kohl: The Man Who Reunited Germany, Rebuilt and Thwarted the Soviet Empire. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999. The author, a journalist who relies heavily on interviews, claims Kohl was as important as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Attributes Schmidt’s failure in 1982 to the fact that he was not part chairman of the SPD.
  • Braunthal, Gerard. “A New Era in West Germany.” Current History, April, 1984, 149-152, 179-180. Brief evaluation of the impact of the election in 1983 on West German domestic and foreign policy.
  • Clemens, C., and W. E. Paterson, eds. The Kohl Chancellorship. London: Frank Cass, 1998. Collection of papers presented in 1997 evaluating Kohl’s record between 1982 and 1998. Clemens’s introduction provides a positive assessment of his record.
  • Derbyshire, Ian. Politics in Germany: From Division to Unification. Edinburgh: Chambers, 1991. Excellent short survey of German politics, with solid chapters describing the events of 1982. Convenient short bibliography and appendix listing German state election results, 1974-1991.
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. “Kohl’s Germany: The Beginning of the End?” The New York Review, December 1, 1994, 20-26. Employs Kohl’s last electoral victory in the election of 1994 to evaluate the state of German politics.
  • Genscher, Hans-Dietrich. Rebuilding a House Divided: A Memoir. Translated by Thomas Thornton. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Genscher argues that he supported negotiations with the CDU to form a new government in order to “safeguard the continuity of German foreign policy.”
  • Pulzer, Peter. “Luck and Good Management: Helmut Kohl as Parliamentary and Electoral Strategist.” German Politics (August, 1999): 126-140. Explains Kohl’s political success by emphasizing that Kohl was CDU party leader before he became chancellor.
  • Saalfeld, Thomas. “Coalition Politics and Management in the Kohl Era, 1982-98.” German Politics, August, 1999, 141-173. Attributes the survival of the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition after 1982 to Kohl’s leadership ability. Contains helpful notes.

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