Election series – 1972: The totally politicized republic

EA headline in the FAZ on August 15, 1972 summed up the federal election campaign, which had been postponed to this year, in a nutshell: “Is Willy Brandt a branded item?” asked the Düsseldorf correspondent in a report on advertising agencies in the election campaign. Election advertising with the means tried and tested in business was not a completely new phenomenon. But in a heated atmosphere, which made a significant contribution to the record turnout of 91.1 percent, it was precisely the “branded product” Brandt that tipped the balance in favor of the SPD. The Social Democrats became the strongest parliamentary group in the Bundestag for the first time, possibly to their own surprise, with 45.8 percent of the second vote. The CDU and CSU came in at 44.9 percent, the FDP at 8.4 percent. None of the other parties that took part reached more than one percent. The NPD, the specter of the 1969 election, was still the strongest of the “other” parties with 0.6 percent.

Peter Sturm

Editor in politics, responsible for “Political Books”.

The legislative period preceding this election was marked by great turbulence in almost all parties represented in parliament. The CDU and CSU had to accept the unusual role as opposition. Among other things, this led to a long debate about who should lead the sister parties as candidate for chancellor in the next election. In November 1971 the party committees finally nominated Rainer Barzel, the chairman of the parliamentary group. He had made a name for himself as an opponent of the Federal Chancellor. But on the question that was discussed most passionately in public, Barzel found himself facing a divided parliamentary group at the crucial moment. Shortly before the decisive votes on the treaties concluded by the government with the Soviet Union and Poland, Barzel pleaded for the Union’s approval because – so his argument – it was ensured that the German question would remain open. The CSU, however, clearly spoke out in favor of a “no”.

German election story (s): Every day until September 26th we tell about an earlier federal election. Recently published:

1969: Change of power without a brown ghost

1965: “Comrade Trend” helps the SPD

1961: Adenauer against “Kennedy”

The governing party, the FDP, lost large parts of its national liberal wing during the three-year legislative period. Some former FDP MPs founded their own party, the “German Union”, which sought to work closely with the Union parties. That was reminiscent of the German party, which had cooperated with the CDU and CSU in the 1950s, but was ultimately absorbed by them. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the first regional association of the “German Union” was founded in Lower Saxony, the old stronghold of the German party. Major representatives of the national liberal wing of the FDP, such as the former party chairman Erich Mende, finally found a new home in the ranks of the Union parties.

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Even the Chancellor’s party, the SPD, went through crises. Not only did the CDU achieve great success in several state elections. Rifts also opened within the party. Economics and Finance Minister Karl Schiller, one of the SPD’s major draftsmen from the 1969 election campaign, first resigned as a minister in July 1972 and eventually even left the SPD. Then he campaigned for market-based solutions together with the former Federal Chancellor Ludwig Erhard of the CDU. Schiller no longer trusted his former party in this regard.

The splits and resignations reduced the majority of the Brandt government over time. The Federal Chancellor spoke for the first time in October 1971 in connection with the ratification of the Eastern Treaties of a possible premature end of the legislative period. He officially rejected this idea at a state party conference of the SPD in Bavaria. But his government spokesman Conrad Ahlers had previously said that in the event of a defeat in the ratification process, Brandt would ask the vote of confidence and seek new elections.

The Chancellor and his coalition then suffered a defeat not in the question of the Eastern Treaty, but in the vote on the budget of the Chancellery on April 28, 1972. The SPD and FDP actually thought they had survived their crisis. On the day before the budget vote, the Union’s attempt to overthrow Brandt through constructive mistrust and to elect Barzel as Federal Chancellor had failed. Barzel was missing two firmly calculated votes from the government camp. Today we know that the relevant MPs were “convinced” by financial donations from the GDR not to vote for Barzel.

During the election campaign, the political “branded article” Brandt was able to convincingly convey the impression that his political opponents would stop at nothing to overthrow him. This, as well as the message that internal reforms would only continue under a Brandt government, was particularly well received by the five million first-time voters. Most of these benefited from the lowering of the voting age to 18 years, which the Brandt government had pushed through in 1970.

Günter Guillaume, a former advisor at the Federal Chancellery, and his wife Christel had to answer in June 1975 in Düsseldorf.  He was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for treason and his wife to eight years.


Günter Guillaume, a former advisor at the Federal Chancellery, and his wife Christel had to answer in June 1975 in Düsseldorf. He was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for treason and his wife to eight years.
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Image: dpa

After the great victory of the SPD and the clear majority for the coalition, a quiet phase of government could actually have started, especially since the very big decisions in Ostpolitik had been made. But ironically, the GDR, which Brandt had saved in the vote of no confidence, was supposed to overthrow the Chancellor in 1974. An agent from the Ministry for State Security, Günter Guillaume, was among his staff.

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