John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

The Grand Coalition

John Wilkins
July 24, 1967

Fellowship Year

Luneburg Federal German Republic 

July 19, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is the 1967 Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

Led by men of purpose and prestige, West Germany gets off the dime but interrogates itself about democracy.

“…This question we ask ourselves every morning,” replied the political editor of a large, prestigious daily newspaper in the Bundesrepublik.

He spoke almost with a sigh. My final question had emerged as the obvious one to ask, following his open but studied and lengthy responses to all my queries about German problems and politics.

Central to most of his answers had been an assessment of the coalition government’s guidance of the nation onto a new course.

Then had come my question, the one that torments many thinking Germans in this period of seachange:

“How long should the coalition last?”

This was different from asking how long it will last. The latter question is less demanding of a German; he can weigh the political factors without emotion and predict that the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) will go their separate ways in two months, or after the 1969 elections, or after the 1973 elections, or never,

But in saying when the coalition should be dissolved, the German, provided he agrees generally with the coalition’s orientation, must express an equation:

At what point will the coalition’s progression be intercepted by the curve that proclaims the dangers of a system in which two major parties govern with scarcely any organized opposition in the Bundestag?

In the political editor’s view, the government’s top men are using the coalition for several imperative purposes–purposes that he feels can be achieved at this time only by the coalition. But though he did not use the word “undemocratic,” I am sure that the word is central to “this question” which “we ask ourselves every morning.”

His use of the editorial “we” was probably unconscious–though highly indicative–and not a reference to his paper’s editorial stands. In my opinion, the “well represents an element in West Germany that keeps a good part of the nation’s conscience, an element that is amorphous but powerful, that can be equated with terms like “sense of responsibility,” “dedication,” “perspective,” and to a degree, “liberalism.” The editor is one of several of them with whom I’ve talked; if I focus on him it is because his remarks were structured in an interview and there was plenty of time for him to express himself fully.

The “well are confined to no political party. The “we” are educated but not “Academic.” The “we” somehow lived through National Socialism and the war–in roles which they can look back upon with various degrees of shame or self-forgiveness or pride–without succumbing to cynicism. They have concern for their fellow Germans and for the future of the German nation or nations. And they are realists.


In essence, I interpreted the editor as saying:

  • That the coalition leadership is taking steps toward the East which neither party could take if it were the single governing party.
  •  That politicking and oratory would erupt if the steps were associated with a single party; and that under these conditions the public would react emotionally and not accept the changes that are now cloaked with the prestige of the Grand Coalition.

Thus it would seem that the West Germans are being led and cajoled by their leaders into giving up or sublimating some illusions and that the people will travel a considerable distance along this course so long as no one of consequence makes embarrassing noises about the direction.

“These three men are resolved to waken the German people to realities,” the editor said in regard to Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger (CDU), Foreign Minister Willy Brandt (SPD), and All-German Affairs Minister Herbert Wehner (SPD).

The “realities”:

  • That there is absolutely no hope of being reunified with the formerly German areas east of the Oder-Neisse line, now occupied by Poland.
  • That the Bundesrepublik’s continuous claim of being the only legitimate government of Germans will have to soften a great deal.

It is not news that the coalition is working for detente and that Kiesinger has wide public support. News will be the public reaction when the government finally tries to bargain away its claims to the Oder-Neisse territories in return for a more satisfactory relationship with the German Democratic Republic (DDR).

Frustration is great among those West Germans who desire some such resolution. Aside from concern about the specifics of an adjustment with the East, there is worry about the time element. The present coalition is the ideal government to enter such negotiations, but the negotiations must await certain developments in the DDR. The longer the wait, the greater will be the normal accumulation of stress on the coalition; if the coalition cracks, one line of cleavage could well be the Oder-Neisse line. The lip-service oratory one hears about “reunification of all of Germany” could again become out-and-out partisan political

thunder. Presumably this thunder would come mostly from Christian Democrats, with much of it stolen from the nationalistic National Democrats (NPD).

So the “we” ask themselves how long the coalition should last, how long it will last, how much the “responsible” leaders will be able to accomplish toward a “German settlement” before normal politics will be or should be resumed.

The dilemma of these people–tussling with national problems pragmatically while nervously holding up a democratic yardstick–provides an excellent framework for an academic exercise in “political science” or even in ethics. But for me, the picture is not abstract.

That is because it had been a rare experience for me to see brows furrowed over the question whether something is “democratic.” The word has been used with such looseness and cynicism by the far left, while on the right it has so often expressed merely a facile anti-communism, that I had tended to forget that it is one of the great words of Western Civilization. It is chastening to see sophisticated Germans–who have been through a hell of a lot and who as a people are supposedly arrogant–subject themselves to their own inquisitions on democratic virtue, somewhat in the manner of a young idealist from an emerging African nation.

The political editor, with a mixture of gratification and exasperation, said emphatically that this month’s sharp budget-balancing tax increases and spending cutbacks could have been achieved only by the coalition. He pointed out that reducing the Bundeswehr by some 60,000 men and curtailing weapons purchases marked “a very great change.” This change was the price the CDU had to pay for SPD acceptance of cutbacks in social welfare programs.

It would seem that the compromise was worked out efficiently and that the process, within the coalition framework, was democratic. But the gnawing problem remains:

“The Establishment” resides within the coalition parties–and where oh where is there a responsible, organized opposition outside the coalition?

Received in New York July 24, 1967.