Torsten Oppelland. Gerhard Schroeder (1910-1989): Politik zwischen Staat, Partei und Konfession. DÖ¼sseldorf: Droste Verlag, 2002. 797 pp. EUR 48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-7700-1887-1.
Reviewed by Martin Menke (Department of History, Law and Political Science, Rivier College)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
A Political Bureaucrat or a Bureaucratic Politician?
A Political Bureaucrat or a Bureaucratic Politician?
To clear up any misconceptions right at the start, this work does not address the current chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Rather, it addresses his namesake, the CDU-politician who, during the 1950s and 1960s, served as Minister of the Interior and as Foreign Minister. In Gerhard Schroeder (1910-1989): Politik zwischen Staat, Partei und Konfession, Torsten Oppelland offers an example of the best that current biography has to offer. He analyzes not only the individual under study, but also places him in his historical context. Thus, the reader gets much more than a "life;" the work is a careful balance between the role of the individual in history and the larger historical forces.
Oppelland devotes the first 120 pages to Schroeder's life before entering politics. He carefully explores Schroeder's early influences. Oppelland makes much of the fact that Schroeder's family was Protestant and thus in a minority in the Rhineland. Oppelland argues that this diaspora status was formative in that it affirmed Schroeder's Protestant identity. Oppelland also argues that the dual identity of Prussian and Protestant created in Schroeder a particular appreciation for the role of the state and its laws. Indeed, Schroeder's Abitur essay dealt with civic duty and the demand for service to the state. After earning his doctorate in law, he worked as a researcher at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Foreign and International Private Law. From there, he moved into a Berlin law firm, where he remained until drafted for wartime duty.
Oppelland deals fairly judiciously with Schroeder's activities as a young professional during the 1930's. On April 1, 1933, Schroeder, a DVP supporter during his university years, joined the NSDAP. His reasons were pragmatic. Just like he had joined the SA to avoid difficulties in completing his studies, he joined the NSDAP to ease along his career, apparently without any real commitment to the party, but without sufficient reservation to refuse, even at a time when it was still possible to envision a successful career without being a party member. At the same time, the law firm that Schroeder joined helped Jews, including two of the firm's partners, to emigrate from Germany. In 1941, he not only married someone whose father was liable for persecution as Jewish under the Nuremberg laws, but also capitalized on his status as a soldier to end his party membership.
Reunited with his family shortly after war's end, Schroeder received an invitation to join the government of the newly formed Land of North-Rhine-Westphalia, where he served as a legal advisor to the minister of the interior. Here, he first attracted the attention of those forming the CDU. Elected to the first Bundestag, he became known as a tireless campaigner and a good speaker, and made a name for himself as an expert on voting rights in the young republic. He was also one of the few young Protestants in what seemed, to many Germans, still to be a primarily Catholic party. Thus, at the age of 43, Adenauer made him Minister of the Interior in his second cabinet.
At first, Adenauer did not appreciate Schroeder, particularly after the Otto John affair, for which Schroeder was the responsible minister and the gravity of which he may not have comprehended soon enough. Soon, however, Schroeder was to gain a reputation in German politics as a law-and-order man. He implemented the ban on the KPD and defended the status of the Bundesgrenzschutz after the establishment of the Bundeswehr. Some of his most important legislative initiatives, meant to secure the young Federal Republic, were failures. For example, lacking sufficient sensitivity or delicacy, Schroeder suggested legislation to introduce passport controls on the western side of the German-German frontier. Schroeder firmly believed that the East German regime was intent on undermining the Federal Republic. For the same reason, he also introduced emergency legislation (Notstandsgesetzgebung) to preserve the government's ability to function in an emergency. While normally hard-hitting and successful in parliamentary debates, Schroeder contributed much to the bill's failure by arguing that, in an emergency situation, the executive branch should take control (Die Stunde der Exekutive). Such a statement left him open to accusations of authoritarian tendencies, and the Social Democrats used his former SA and party membership against him. Perhaps this helped form his opinion that being the opposition party in parliament amounted to a most peculiar form of unemployment. Oppelland deals carefully with Schroeder's attitudes towards public figures with a Nazi past. As minister, Schroeder generally supported a lenient treatment.
In 1963, Schroeder became foreign minister in Adenauer's last cabinet. He was known as an able generalist, someone well versed in all areas of policy. By now, he had ambitions for the chancellorship and hoped to position himself as a successor or even as a rival to Ludwig Erhard. One of the strengths of Oppelland's work is his depiction of the intrigues surrounding the inevitable succession debate that would occur once Adenauer left office. As foreign minister, Schroeder led the foreign office during the most difficult period of Adenauer's foreign policy. While the chancellor, disillusioned with the Kennedy administration, found himself increasingly willing to cooperate with de Gaulle, Schroeder struggled to avoid an either-or situation.
In his treatment of Ostpolitik, Oppelland uses Schroeder as an example of the ferocity with which West German politicians fought even the slightest sign of international recognition of the GDR until they realized that this policy no longer enjoyed the crucial support of the Federal Republic's allies. As late as 1984, however, when Schroeder addressed parliament in a commemorative session on the anniversary of the 17 June 1953 uprising, he demanded German politicians never forsake the ultimate goal of reunification.
Oppelland is at his best in his depictions of foreign policy. He shows clearly the complexity of Germany's foreign policy in the early 1960s. First, he convincingly demonstrates that Schroeder was not a firm Atlanticist, despite the continuing influence of anti-French resentments dating back to youthful experiences during the French occupation after World War I. Nor was he particularly enamored of the United States. Instead, argues Oppelland, Schroeder was conscious that the Federal Republic's security, and particularly that of Berlin, required a continued American commitment, one that no alliance with France could replace. Schroeder, like many other Germans, sought European integration within a multilateral framework. But Oppelland does not end here; he also shows how politics within Germany, particularly within the political leadership, manipulated foreign policy considerations. For example, Franz Josef Strauss, who also saw himself as a future chancellor, possibly succeeding Erhard, tried to depict Schroeder as naively pro-American. Schroeder's principled efforts to moderate first Adenauer and then Erhard in their reliance on cooperation with France may well have cost him any future chance at the chancellorship.
Schroeder had realistic chances to become chancellor, as Oppelland points out to justify his long work on this almost forgotten figure. (This is his Habilitationsschrift.) Schroeder's opposition to Adenauer's foreign policy, however, cost him the old man's support, although he once had been Adenauer's preferred successor. Unlike Strauss or Kiesinger, Schroeder lacked a strong base of support in his home state. Being chair of the Protestant working group within the CDU leadership also failed to gain him any real support. Ironically, he had become too closely identified with Adenauer. When Erhard resigned and the Grand Coalition coalition took office, he was given the post of Defense Minister, a position he held until the formation of a new cabinet under Willy Brandt. In 1969, he lost a close election for the office of Bundespraesident. As late as the early seventies, he remained a serious rival to other CDU leaders who aspired to the chancellorship. Because of his youth, relative to many of the other members of the first postwar generation in the CDU, he was able to assume a role as senior statesman in the CDU until well into the 1980s.
The one area of the work that is mildly disappointing is Oppelland's treatment of Schroeder's Protestantism. Oppelland briefly discusses the close links between German Protestantism and support for the state. He mentions that Schroeder attended services of the Confessing Church without becoming actively involved in its activities. After the war, Schroeder's religious beliefs seemed relevant only to give his career a boost in the young CDU. What role religious beliefs played in Schroeder's thinking remains unclear, beyond the author's frequent references to Schroeder as a man of principle. Perhaps this is the reason Oppelland uses the word Konfession (denomination) in the subtitle, rather than Glaube (faith).
As an example of biographical scholarship, Oppelland's work represents a great service to the field. The study is exhaustive in its detailed analysis of the individual, yet maintains sight of the greater context. Furthermore, although fascinated by his topic and respectful of Schroeder's achievements, Oppelland does not hesitate to criticize where criticism is due. Although supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Oppelland does not mince words about the internecine warfare that raged within the CDU. In the introduction, Oppelland argues that Schroeder's role in this conflict alone makes him a suitable subject for biographical study. In this one can only agree. Finally, this work demonstrates that political history is alive and well.
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Martin Menke. Review of Oppelland, Torsten, Gerhard Schroeder (1910-1989): Politik zwischen Staat, Partei und Konfession.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.