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New Left Review I/186, March-April 1991


Stephen Padgett and William Paterson

The Rise and Fall of the West German Left

Left politics in West Germany in the period 1945–90 were marked first by the rise of the spd, leading to its participation in government in the years 1966–82, and then by a sequence of election defeats, each more serious than the last. The strength of spd performance can be measured not only in its electoral support but also in terms of the clarity and coherence of the party’s basic project and programme. The politics of the party were shaped, firstly, by a secular decline in the salience of class in political behaviour; secondly, from the end of the sixties, by the emergence into political life of a new Left; and, thirdly, throughout the period, by transformations in East–West relations. Whilst these phenomena were present to a greater or lesser extent in all advanced industrial countries, they were accentuated in the Federal Republic by the intensity of West German economic development and by the intimate impact of the Cold War on the very form of the state, with the looming presence of the ‘other Germany’ as a constant negative reference point. Nevertheless, the spd was able to turn an adverse situation to its advantage. Despite Christian Democrat insinuations that it shared a common philosophy with the ruling Socialist Unity Party (sed) of East Germany, the spd became a pillar of the Federal Republic. Indeed Willy Brandt as mayor of West Berlin, and later as Chancellor, was successively the symbol of Western defiance of Stalinism and the architect of an Ostpolitik that sought, from a vantage point of Western strength, to replace confrontation with relaxation and reform. Success in the sixties and seventies, then, stemmed in part from skillful adaptation to a changing Federal Republic and a divided Germany; but here also was the seed of a future problem, of which more below. However, it was not only the Cold War which posed problems for the spd and the West German Left.

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