Bundestag elections since 1949 – 1980: the beginning of a new era

Franz Josef Strauss was what is often referred to as a “thoroughbred politician”. He never had any major problems with the polarization of the political conflict. For some of his political opponents, however, he was just an enemy. Enemy images can be dangerous in politics. If they express themselves as they did in the 1980 federal election campaign, in retrospect you have to be almost happy that it didn’t get any worse.

Peter Sturm

Editor in politics, responsible for “Political Books”.

The dispute over the candidacy for chancellor within the Union parties had been officially settled since July 1979 in favor of the CSU chairman. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for Strauss was limited, at least in parts of the sister party CDU.

During his appearances, Strauss tried to achieve what is nowadays often called “clear edge”. In both German states, this led to anxious questions about whether the man wanted to lead the Federal Republic into a war against the Eastern Bloc. Strauss certainly didn’t want that. But the harsh language he used sounded a bit out of date to many ears.

It should be noted, however, that the global political situation had deteriorated significantly since the end of 1979 at the latest. At that time, Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan in an act of “internationalist aid” and had established a government by Moscow’s grace.

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At the same time, the western world was shaken by economic crises, fueled by the second oil price shock. And since the candidate Strauss not only polarized foreign and security policy, but also considered himself to be at least one of the best economic and financial experts under the sun (he had that in common with his opponent Helmut Schmidt), the dominant election campaign topics were predetermined.

What was unique about this election campaign, however, was a movie that premiered on April 18, 1980: “The Candidate”. With this documentary film, a collective of authors around the director Volker Schlöndorff wanted to help prevent the CSU chairman from moving into the Bonn Chancellery. There was a lot of discussion about the way the film was made by contemporaries. The authors also did not agree on all points. But the film marked a confrontation that the Federal Republic had never seen before. The filmmaker’s wish came true. But not even they would probably say that this was largely due to them.

Strauss’ understanding of politics does not have a majority

Rather, it turned out that the way in which Franz Josef Strauss understood and lived politics did not attract a majority. The incumbent Chancellor Helmut Schmidt also benefited from his reputation as a reliable crisis manager. This was particularly strengthened by his intransigence towards the challenge posed by the terrorists of the left-wing extremist RAF in the autumn of 1977.

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The result for Schmidt’s SPD in the election on October 5, 1980 was 42.9 percent, roughly the same as in 1976. The Union parties, of course, fell from 48.6 percent in 1976 to 44.5 percent. So Strauss did worse than his inner-party competitor Helmut Kohl four years earlier. The big winners of the election were the Free Democrats. They reached 10.6 percent and were therefore the real beneficiaries of the polarizing election campaign, because many Schmidt supporters saw them as a balancing force.

The SPD is reluctant to follow its chancellor

Such was in demand in the face of an SPD that wanted to face security realities less and less. These had changed significantly as a result of the Soviet armament with mobile medium-range nuclear missiles in the years before 1980. Helmut Schmidt recognized this early on and persuaded the reluctant American President Jimmy Carter and NATO to take the famous “double decision” on December 12, 1979. It offered the Soviet Union negotiations to dismantle medium-range missiles, but threatened to set up its own weapons if they failed. The latter was unpopular in the West. The SPD only reluctantly followed its chancellor on this issue.

January 13, 1980: Founding party conference of the “Greens


January 13, 1980: Founding party conference of the “Greens” in Karlsruhe
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Image: dpa

It was faced with a new political rival party specializing in environmental, peace and energy issues. The Greens, newly founded, appeared nationwide for the first time in the 1980 federal elections. With 1.5 percent of the second votes, they have not yet disrupted the established three-party system in the Bundestag. But they increasingly managed to attract attention through publicity campaigns, for example against nuclear power plants. The party had achieved its first electoral success in October 1979 in the state election in Bremen, where it had succeeded in entering the state parliament.

In a book, the historian Frank Bösch described 1979 as the “turning point” with which our present began. The appearance of the Greens fits into this picture. And possibly that also applies to the failure of the CSU chairman as a candidate for chancellor. Franz Josef Strauss, born in 1915, represented a bygone era for too many voters to be able to move into the Chancellery. The Greens, largely from a completely different generation, took about a decade and a half to establish themselves in the parliamentary system. Strauss was already dead by then.

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