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.

In the fifties, unprecedented affluence, social mobility, and a consequent weakening of traditional social networks led to a rapid ‘social democratization’. The social-democratic spd rapidly established a monopoly of the Left; the Communist Party (kpd), weakened by its identification with the gdr, was practically extinct electorally by 1953. Within the spd, the prewar neo-Marxist tradition was expunged, and left opposition marginalized. In programmatic, electoral and organizational terms, the spd became the model of the social-democratic Volks-partei (‘people’s party’ or ‘catch-all party’), successfully exploiting this style of politics throughout the late sixties and the seventies. Although it retained an electoral base in the manual working class, the party transcended class divisions in the electorate. It identified socialism with ‘progressive’ elements in the liberal-democratic tradition using the slogans of freedom, justice and solidarity. However, these principles were difficult to reconcile with the emphasis on economic discipline and individualism which accompanied instability in the global economy after 1973, and consequently West German social democracy began to lose its intellectual and political coherence.

West Germany was also in the vanguard of the counter-cultural or ‘new politics’ movement which accompanied the affluence of post-industrial society. ‘As a society makes substantial progress in addressing traditional economic and security needs, a growing share of the public shifts their attention to post-material goals that are still in short supply, such as the quality of life, self-expression and personal freedom.’footnote1 In embryonic form at least, a new sociopolitical division emerged which cut across the spd’s electorate and membership. The party’s own educational and publicwelfare programmes created new social forces prone to question both the forms of West German affluence and the liberal corporate ethos of the Volkspartei. Although the sixties student movement appeared quickly to exhaust itself, it left a cultural-political residue of lasting significance. Unable to resolve the dualism between old and new Left, the spd failed to contain the new currents, and lost its monopoly left of centre. The rise of the Greens as a rival on the left seriously curtailed the spd’s ability to exploit its Volkspartei model, forcing the party to rethink many of its assumptions. However, programmatically and organizationally, the ‘new politics’ values were very difficult to reconcile with spd orthodoxy. Moreover, although it was evident that far-reaching social and political change was underway, it was less clear exactly where these changes were leading. Oskar Lafontaine appeared to offer a way of negotiating these problems, but just as he did so both the party and its leader found themselves wrong-footed by the speed of unification in 1990.

While all West German parties were historically committed to unification, the spd of the 1970s became especially associated with an Ostpolitik of detente and improved relations between the frg and the gdr. Nevertheless, the successful mobilization of the people of East Germany in 1989 set a new agenda to which the opposition spd adjusted with difficulty. The Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, as the parties in government, set their stamp on unification and have been the immediate gainers from it. Before considering recent events, however, it is appropriate to trace the distinctive character and evolution of the Left in the Federal Republic—bearing in mind also that unification has taken place under the aegis of the latter.

The spd’s course in the postwar era was set by the socioeconomic and political landscape of the early years of the Federal Republic. For a number of reasons, the decline of class politics experienced in other Western European countries was especially marked here. Firstly, observers have detected a double ‘ideological trauma’ arising from the experience of the Third Reich, on the one hand, and the installation of a repressive Communist regime in East Germany, on the other. A recoil from ideology was the reflex response, the consequences of which accentuated those social trends—increasing affluence and social homogeneity—that served to weaken class politics elsewhere in the fifties. Secondly, the early postwar years witnessed an unprecedented influx of refugees from the East (twelve million by 1947). Demographic movements on this scale inevitably weakened social tradition and class ties, ‘an important precondition for the development of catch-all parties in West Germany’.footnote2 Thirdly, the success of the cdu–csu (aided by the social geography of national partition) in re-establishing the tradition of political Catholicism, and augmenting it with a cross-confessional Christian alliance, extended their electoral base well beyond the middle class. The Christian Union parties became the prototype of Kirchheimer’s model of the Volkspartei, in which class politics and overt party ideology were de-emphasized.footnote3 The logic of this model was such that Christian Democrat electoral success would force opposition parties to emulate their style.