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Herr Kohl meets his watergate.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit to Washington last November confirmed my view that modern politics is indistinguishable from theater of the abusrd. His press spokesman announced that the Chancellor and President Reagan had discussed the detalis of the forth-coming talks on arms negotiations between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz. Clearly, the announcement was designed to show doubting West Germans how influential their government is with its senior ally. It was followed, however, by a declaration from a "senior State Department official" that there had been no details to discuss, since the Administration hadn't formulated its positions for the talks. He was discreet enough not to mention that mastery of detail is not, after all, our President's strong point. In that regard, at least, trans-Atlantic solidarity is firm: the same may be said of Kohl. For the moment, however, Kohl has other and larger problems.

"I intend to fit out Herr Kohl exactly as we did the other gentlemen." With those words, the managing director of Friedrich-Karl Flick's multibillion-dollar industrial empire reported to his boss his plans for welcoming the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union following his selection in 1973. The manager, Eberhard von Brauchitsch, has since been dismissed by the firm, under indictment for bribing two former Ministers of Economics from the Free Democratic Party. The sums dispensed by Flick in the recent past are impressive. Fifteen million marks went to the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian ally, Franz-Josef Strauss's Christian Social Union. Six million marks went to the Free Democrats. Four million marks went to the Social Democrats. Much of this money was given in cash (a half-million to Kohl during his stint as opposition leader). The secret gifts violated laws requiring political parties to disclose the sources of their funding. All of it was provided with the explicit intention of influencing government and party policies, the composition of parliamentary committees--indeed, the entire public life of the Federal Republic. Flick may have induced the Free Democrats to abandon their coalition with the Social Democrats in 1982.

The public was shaken by the disclosures of the extent to which corruption in Bonn has become a routine affair. Defending himself before a parliamentary committee, Kohl said that everyone took money, even if it was illegal. He and his party have sought to depict their critics as agents of a plot to undermine the authority of the Federal Republic. This contemptible defense has evoked derision even among the many Wst German conservatives who always give authority the benefit of the doubt. The left, for its part, is astonished. Its crudest depictions of the role of capital in politics seem understatements. The Social Democrats are dreadfully embarrassed. At least two former S.P.D. ministers are under a cloud. West German democracy is undergoing a profound crisis of confidence, and until the Flick revelations and the ensuing prosecutions run their course, no end is in sight. The major parties have now agreed, apparently, to terminate the parliamentary inquiry. The S.P.D. is making a large mistake by identifying itself in this way with a system that cannot stand public scrutiny.

That these matters have come to light at all owes everything to the tenacity of a few Social Democratic back-benchers, to the honesty of a few prosecutors in the face of threats to their careers from higher-ups, and to the weekly Der Spiegel, which obtained the documents and published them in defiance of the government's over-up. The affair isn't like Watergate, which brought down a politically strong President. The governing coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Christian social Union and the Free Democrats was already in trouble and now may be seriously wounded. Kohl himself may or may not be indicted, but the possibility that he will have to step down in the spring is considerable. As a result, the coalition can no longer expect victory in the 1987 national elections. It has lost gorund in recent municipal elections and may take a beating in major state elections to be held in the spring.

When Kohl took office, and even more so when his coalition won the elections of 1983, U.S. foreign policy managers were delighted. Even before Ronald Reagan came to power, the ruling Social Democrats had begun to criticize American policy. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had agreed to the deployment of Pershing 2 and cruise missiles but was insensitive to Washington's desires. He wanted the United States to negotiate seriously with the Soviet Union before deploying the weapons, whereas U.S. officials regarded the Geneva talks on limiting intermediate-range missiles as a public relations device. The Social Democrats believed in the necessity of coexistence with the Russians; Kohl depicted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the one true church and reminisced about the food packages America sent to Germany when he was young. "He likes us," said Richard Allen, former national security adviser, when Kohl took office. (Allen would like to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Bonn; given the present climate there, he should fit in, provided he wears his Japanese watch when presenting his credientials.) "Germany returns to the reservation," declared The Washington Post. Now the reservation teems with tribal revolts and general unrest.

On taking office, Kohl promised a "moral and spiritual renewal," a phrase his supporters correctly understood to mean hosings and jail sentences for demonstrators and restricted access to television for the unholy hosts of anti-nuclear divines. He talked of restoring a spirit of entrepreneurial initiative nd individual achievement. Fat was to be cut from the obese welfare state. As it turned out, people who voted for Kohl were too dependent on state-supplied social benefits for them to be cut very deeply. The politically powerless received the most savage treatment while grants to business were not touched. Plans to denationalize certain industries were dropped. There has been a slight improvement in productivity, but much of the new investment has gone into machines that put people out of work. The powerful unions are combative, and the blue-collar voters who deserted the Social Democrats in 1983 are ready t return to the fold. Meanwhile, stolid citizens who are shocked by the environmental degradation of the countryside (the legendary forests are disappearing fast because of acid rain) vote Green in droves. On this problem, too, Kohl equivocates.

The Chancellor has been unable to deal with the contradiction between the business interests in his coalition and those in that coalition who still adhere to the Christian social tradition, of which the Chancellor, though a Catholic, does not appear to have heard. He has had to endure a veto by his coalition partners of his own party's proposal for a more equitable tax system. The predicted return to the values of authority, order and the family remains rhetorical. West Germany has changed culturally. The young don't want homilies; they want jobs (exceedingly scarce these days) or university scholarships (eliminated by budget cuts). Women are restive. The gender gap in West Germany is wider than in America; more women than men vote for the Social Democrats and Greens. They, too, are impatient with prase of the family, especially when family allowances are being cut. As for moral order, the Flick scandal affords proof, if any were needed, that politicians are ill equipped to serve as secular priests.

Contradictions in the sphere of foreign policy are greater. Kohl has proceeded with the deployment of the American Euromissiles, and he presides uneasily over the inevitable result. The debate on the missile emplacement precipitated a discussion of WEst Germany's role in NATO and of the unification question. In everyting he has touched, Kohl has squandered his predecessor's legacy. Schmidt at least appeared to be pursuing national interests. Kohl gives every indication of not knowing wht they are. He has extended credits to East Germany, but relations between the two governments remain immobile. Erich Honecker, the East German leader, risked offending his Soviet protectors when he advanced the idea of a "community of responsibility" between the two German states to reduce the effects of superpower tensions. Kohl was unable to meet him half- or even a third of the way.

Supine under American pressure, he refused to support the tentative suggestion of Italian Premier Bettino Craxi, himself an American client, that the pace of missile deployment be slowed. He allowed members of his own party to sabotage Honecker's planned visit to the Federal Republic, despite the unprecedented intervention in the debate of West Germany's new President, Richard von Weizsaecker, who favored it. Relations between West Germany and the Soviet Union, which had become fairly close under Schmidt, have worsened appreciably. Kohl was stupid enough to address a meeting of Silesian refugees who seek the return of their homeland from Poland--in effect, endorsing their readiness to begin the third great war. The Soviet Union found it easy, as a consequence, to decry "West German revanchism." Kohl went to Moscow and spoke brave words about the unnaturalness of the division of Germany, but he was careful not to state the price the West Germans would be willing to pay for reunification.

Meanwhile, others in Western Europe are suspicious of the West Germans on two very different grounds. One is the fear of "pan-Germanism," voiced by Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, to the indignation of his fellow Christian Democrats north of the Alps. The other is the dislike of the Federal Republic's utter dependence on U.S. policy, evident most recently in the dispute with France over the Law of the Sea treaty. The French, who value Europe's ties to the Third World, wish to Sign it; the United States has instructed Kohl not to do so. There is also growing sentiment on the Continent for more autonomy in NATO, for increased European collaboration on arms production, even for greater European military autonomy. In the long run, Kohl and his cohort are constrained by their interests in central Europe. Complete integration in Western Europe would require renunciation of their special relationship with East Germany, which is virtually impossible. So they talk like enthusiastic Europeans and behave like circumspect Germans. They are especially hesitant about taking initiatives that might irritate the United States, which talks of partnership but wants obedience. Kohl, then, has had the worst of both worlds--arousing suspicions among other Europeans about the German penchant for independent initiatives but returning the Federal Republic, if only temporarily, to abject political dependence on the United States. He has no credibility in the Soviet bloc and not much in Western Europe. In Washington, he is taken for granted.

Kohl is eager to enlist America in the right's efforts to show, as the anniversary of the Nazi surrender of May 8, 1945, approaches, that his nation's major error in the years 1933-45 was premature anti-Sovietism. The right has even had the effrontery to denounce the Greens as Nazis. They have been joined by some in this country who lack self-respect in their choice of political allies. A startling aspect of trans-Atlantic ideological alliances is the convergence of Commentary's editors and writers with ex-Nazis.

Kohl's bumbling amiability has turned into harassed irritability. He has failed to maintain discipline in his Cabinet or unity in his coalition. From his Bavarian redoubt, Strauss, pursuing his own ambitions, has mounted an unceasing guerrilla campaign against him. Kohl's ineptitude has magnified troubles the right had coming to it.

The fact is, the decline of the coalition is due to its own weaknesses rather than to the strength of the opposition. The Social Democrats have not solved the problem that dogs every reformist party in the West: How do you move beyond the welfare state, with its assumption of steady capitalist growth, in an epoch in which all economic assumptions have been changed? The unions failed in their initial effort to win a thirty-five-hour workweek, but a number of economic and social measures once thought utopian are surfacing again.

The Social Democrats are on surer ground in the international (and national) sphere. They are determined to continue the course hey charted in the last election under the slogan "In the German Interest." That this means a modification of West Germany's role in NATO is clear. The Social Democrats insist that America's interests (or those defined by our imperial managers) and those of Europe and West Germany diverge. The divergences can be contained only if larger goals are held in common, but they doubt that the Reaganites are serious about any sort of coexistence with the Russians. A return to office by the Social Democrats, then, would cause the U.S. national security establishment (including many Democrats) severe anxiety.

A new generation of promising S.P.D. leaders is coming into its own--Oskar Lafontaine in the Saarland, Gerhard Schroeder in Lower Saxony, Volker Hauff in Frankfurt, Andreas von Bulow and five or six men and women in the Bundestag. They still have a way to go, and the party's 1987 candidate for chancellor is likely to be someone from the middle generation--the governor of North Rhein-West-phalia, Johannes Rau, or the present parliamentary leader, Hans-Jochen Vogel. There is a remote chance for the ascendance of the party's major philosopher, Erhard Eppler, former president of the National Assembly of the Protestant Church, but his emergence would require a political earthquake, whose initial tremors have not yet registered.

The Greens are doing splendidly. In recent elections they increased their share of the vote to an average of nearly 9 percent nationwide (in the 1983 parliamentary elections they averaged 5.5 percent). The polls show that if elections were held in West Berlin tomorrow, they would win an astonishing 14 percent. The Social Democrats' candidate for mayor is former Defense Minister Hans Apel, and many Social Democrats who did not like his endorsement of the missiles will vote for the Greens. The Greens continue to argue among themselves, but their program, which combines environmentalism, antinuclearism, neutralism, equality for women and decentralization, has a strong appeal. They profit from what they are not: they are more a movement than a party. For now, the Greens have forced the Social Democrats and the unions to rethink their ideas. Most important, they have displaced the Free Democrats as the third-largest party. The Free Democrats face extinction if they do not surmount the 5 percent barrier in the 1987 elections, so the Greens may well hold the balance of parliamentary power.

The road to coalition, however, is not smooth. At their party congress in Hamburg in December, the Greens were divided between fundamentalists and realists. The fundamentalists argued that they should continue resolutely in total opposition. The realists held that they should be prepared to form a coalition with the Social Democrats, or at least to give parliamentary backing to a minority S.P.D. government. The decision was postponed at the national level; regionally and locally, Green groups are free to act as they see fit. In Hesse, meanwhile, an S.P.D./Green majority has disintegrated because of a revolt by the Green base against their parliamentarians.

By 1987, Kohl may have been deposed. His likely successor is the very able Finance Minister, Gerhard Stoltenberg, who began his career as an academic historian and is a conservative whose views are close to those of President von Weizsaecker: that is, he thinks parliamentary democracy is the country's best guarantee of internal stability. He also rejects the idea that West Germany is an American province. Stoltenberg might be a coalition partner for the Social Democrats if there is a deadlock after the 1987 elections. Some Reagan Administration officials distrust his independence (they have identical reservations about von Weizsaecker). Their candidate for the chancellorship is the governor of Baden-Wurttemberg, Lothar Spath, of whom we may accordingly expect to hear more in the U.S. press.

Should the West Germans strike out on their own in the near future, we cannot expect our national security apparatus to react with historical comprehension and resignation. I predict a revival of "left-wing" terrorism by the right, acting in concert with U.S. agencies, coinciding with the imminence of A Green-Social Democratic majority or a Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition that distances itself from American policy. I advise von Weizsaecker to read the biography of Aldo Moro, the Italian Christian Democratic leader murdered in still mysterious circumstances after attempting to take Italian politics in a new direction.
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Title Annotation:Helmut Kohl and Flick affair
Author:Birnbaum, Norman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 12, 1985
Previous Article:Uncivil liberties.
Next Article:The politics of community.

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