Schröder Replaces Kohl as German Chancellor

Gerhard Schröder, leader of the Social Democratic Party, took over from Helmut Kohl and became the first Social Democratic chancellor of a united Germany.

Summary of Event

Gerhard Schröder, leader of the Social Democratic Party, which won the 1998 election with 40.9 percent of the vote, became the first Social Democrat to hold the chancellorship in a reunited Germany. The principal opposition party, the Christian Democrats, headed by Helmut Kohl, garnered 35.2 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats held 298 seats in the 656-seat legislature, the Bundestag. The Christian Democrats held 245 seats. The Social Democratic Party allied itself with the Green Party, which had won 6.7 percent of the vote and 47 seats, in order to insure a voting majority. Germany;government
Social Democratic Party (Germany)
[kw]Schröder Replaces Kohl as German Chancellor (Oct. 27, 1998)
[kw]Kohl as German Chancellor, Schröder Replaces (Oct. 27, 1998)
[kw]German Chancellor, Schröder Replaces Kohl as (Oct. 27, 1998)
[kw]Chancellor, Schröder Replaces Kohl as German (Oct. 27, 1998)
Social Democratic Party (Germany)
[g]Europe;Oct. 27, 1998: Schröder Replaces Kohl as German Chancellor[10200]
[g]Germany;Oct. 27, 1998: Schröder Replaces Kohl as German Chancellor[10200]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 27, 1998: Schröder Replaces Kohl as German Chancellor[10200]
Schröder, Gerhard
Kohl, Helmut
Fischer, Joschka
Lafontaine, Oskar

Schröder, born the son of a common laborer and a cleaning woman in 1944, had never known his father, who was killed in World War II. Schröder’s mother worked throughout her life to raise her children. Beginning at a young age, Schröder was involved in Social Democratic Party politics. In 1963, he joined the Young Socialist movement, a junior branch of the party dedicated to cultivating youthful enthusiasts who could, in time, provide seasoned leaders for the party. Most of the Young Socialists were passionate believers in radical Marxism. Schröder, however, seemed more interested in the organizational development of the Young Socialists.

Schröder was forced to leave the group in 1980 because he had reached the age limit of thirty-five, but he transferred his Social Democratic activism to the national legislature, to which he won election in 1980. In the Bundestag, Schröder distinguished himself by his unconventionality. In defiance of the norms, he refused to wear a tie during his maiden speech. However, as he did during his years in the Young Socialists, Schröder devoted much of his efforts to organizational activities within the party, becoming a member of the party executive in 1986, and of the presidium, the party leadership, in 1989.

In 1989, Schröder shifted his focus to local party activities, becoming the leader of the Social Democratic caucus in the Lower Saxony state parliament. In 1990, he managed to become the minister-president of Lower Saxony, where he headed an administration that was allied with the Green Party. In this capacity, Schröder sponsored numerous environmental policies. By 1994, however, the Social Democrats had generated enough popularity with the voters of Lower Saxony to reign without the alliance with the Green Party. During this phase of his career, Schröder dedicated himself to retaining business activities that would ensure employment. Schröder joined the board of directors at Volkswagen, the largest employer in Lower Saxony.

Schröder’s successful career as the minister-president of Lower Saxony was the springboard to winning the Social Democratic Party’s nomination as its candidate for the chancellorship in the September, 1998, national elections. By capturing the largest percentage of the vote and the largest number of seats in the Bundestag, the Social Democratic Party was able to take over the leadership of Germany for the first time since reunification.

In putting together the government after the election, Schröder had to acknowledge the support in the parliament of the Green Party, and he did so by choosing Joschka Fischer, the leader of the Green Party, as foreign minister. The Social Democrats retained all the other important posts, including the vital position of finance minister. This position was initially held by Oskar Lafontaine, who was the leader of the radical wing of the Social Democratic Party and the darling of the unions, a vital constituency of the party.

German chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Esslingen, Germany. The podium displays the Social Democratic Party’s slogan, Trust in Germany.

(Alexander Blum)

In cultivating the support of the working class, Schröder’s government reversed some of the money-saving measures of the previous government. The tax system was revised; increased burdens on business were balanced with cuts in personal tax. The government made revisions in laws applying to the social security contributions of employers and employees in order to make German businesses more competitive. These changes were partially paid for by increased energy taxes. In deference to the Greens’ opposition to nuclear energy, this segment was phased out over a period of years.

In an effort to reduce the high level of unemployment in Germany, which held at more than 10 percent, the Social Democrats proposed policies to strengthen and increase apprenticeships. The Social Democratic government supported the introduction of the Euro, the new, all-European currency created in 1998. Furthermore, Schröder’s party proposed tax reductions, especially at the lower end of the scale, to benefit workers. The party also proposed to amend Germany’s stringent immigration policies that tended to marginalize the many Turks who had come to Germany as guest workers in the 1970’s, during the heyday of the German economy.

Many of the policies advocated by the Schröder government were intended to align the Social Democratic Party with the “New Middle,” roughly the same portion of the electorate cultivated by New Labor in Britain and the centrist Democrats, under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, in the United States. In foreign policy, these governments tended to work together and—with the exception of the Iraq war, which was supported by Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain but opposed by the leadership of much of the rest of Europe—advocate cautious, not confrontational foreign policies.


The Social Democratic Party’s victory in the 1998 election seemed to foreshadow a fundamental realignment of the political parties in Germany. In an effort to speed reunification, the Kohl government had chosen to exchange the enfeebled currency of the former East Germany at an equal rate with West Germany’s highly valued German mark. This policy proved to be very costly, and the integration of the former East Germany proved to be extraordinarily difficult. The inefficient businesses sponsored by the old Communist regime were unable to compete with their West German counterparts and most were soon closed, resulting in a very high rate of unemployment in the eastern states of the new federal republic.

The depressed economy in the eastern states fueled a political backlash, and the remnants of the Communist Party in the east won voter support. Further, the former Socialist Party of East Germany was reconstituted as the Party of Democratic Socialism and provided competition for the Social Democratic Party in these depressed precincts. The Social Democrats failed to win decisively in the national election of 2005. This resulted in the coalition government based on Social Democratic cooperation with the party’s former opponent, the Christian Democrats. The coalition was headed, however, not by Gerhard Schröder, but by the leader of the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, who replaced Schröder as chancellor in 2005. Germany;government
Social Democratic Party (Germany)

Further Reading

  • Braunthal, Gerard. The German Social Democrats Since 1969. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. An established expert on Germany’s Social Democratic Party provides numerous details about Schröder’s background in the party.
  • Kramer, Jane. “The Once and Future Chancellor.” The New Yorker, September 14, 1998, 58-71. Presents an insightful portrait of Schröder based on an extensive interview before Schröder took office.
  • Oswald, Franz. The Party That Came out of the Cold War: The Party of Democratic Socialism in United Germany. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. Although focused on the story of the Party of Democratic Socialism, Oswald’s book discusses the relationship of that party with the Social Democratic Party of West Germany.
  • Padgett, Stephen, ed. Adenauer to Kohl: The Development of the German Chancellorship. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994. Although dealing with chancellorships prior to that of Schröder’s, this book is an excellent description of the changing role of the chancellor.
  • Talshir, Gayil. The Political Ideology of Green Parties: From the Politics of Nature to Redefining the Nature of Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Discussion of green politics includes a chapter on the German Green Party that is useful in understanding its role in the Schröder government.

East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations

West Germany Bans Immigration of Workers from Outside the EEC

Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany

West German Green Party Gains Seats in Parliament

Fall of the Berlin Wall