In the early 1980s, the coalition government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was increasingly undermined by disagreements between the SPD and FDP on economic and finance policy and by struggles between different factions of the SPD. Federal Economics Minister Otto Graf Lambsdorff (FDP) was an early champion of the FDP’s reorientation towards a neoliberal economic policy, and his strategy paper on overcoming the economic malaise was the last nail in the coffin of the SPD-FDP coalition. Political commentators agreed that the end of the SPD-FDP government was inevitable, yet they differed in their evaluation of the scope of the required changes. The FDP was put to a difficult test and was accused of betraying the coalition when it joined the CDU/CSU-led government after a constructive vote of no confidence in September 1982.
In a polarized domestic environment, Helmut Kohl promised not only to resolve the economic crisis but also to renew politics in general. The word Wende [turnaround] quickly caught on, promising both a shift to neoliberalism and a conservative renewal, even in an intellectual and moral sense. In retrospect, this Wende was less radical than many had hoped and others had feared. Continuity prevailed, although the government did set new priorities in many areas, including economic, social, and European policy (Chapters 10 and 15). New policies were also pursued towards East Germany and the Eastern bloc. These placed the Germans’ right to self-determination and the still unresolved German Question at the center of the rhetoric. In concrete terms, however, the policy of cooperation between the two German states initiated by the SPD-FDP coalition was pursued and deemed important in the shadow of a renewed intensification of the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The escalating economic crisis in the GDR offered West Germany the opportunity to make loans contingent upon humanitarian concessions. From 1982 on, transfers of money and aid were substantially expanded as a key component of East-West German relations. This arrangement apparently proved beneficial to both sides. The Federal Republic of Germany secured a series of agreements to ease travel restrictions, and the number of people leaving the GDR increased (Chapter 8). The GDR, for its part, could proudly proclaim an enhancement of its international status.
Yet many signs seemed to indicate that the majority of citizens in both German states had come to accept the division of Germany as permanent, and the claim to “reunification” was threatening to become an empty phrase. The diplomacy of state visits involving the chancellor and the general secretary of the SED – which had begun under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt – was continued, culminating in Erich Honecker’s visit to the Federal Republic of Germany in September 1987. Each successive West German government had faced the dilemma of how to encourage relations with East Germany while adhering to the goal of German unity, but it was never felt more keenly felt than in those September days. The SED touted the visit as signaling both the success of its policies and the equal status of both German states. At the same time, the SPD entered into a dialogue with the SED on security policy. Many SPD members distanced themselves from these efforts, and the GDR government’s unwillingness to push through domestic reforms ultimately disappointed even its advocates. In the 1980s, the GDR leadership could point to additional advances in the international status of the country.
Precisely when binationalization trends were reaching a climax, fissures emerged in the Communist systems of Europe. In the second half of the 1980s, political reforms in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary placed growing pressure on the GDR government, which stubbornly resisted change. East-West diplomacy, which intensified in the wake of Gorbachev’s reforms, placed the issue of reunification, regarded by many as moot, back on the political agenda. After years of growing resignation, there was a slight increase in the number of West Germans who believed that unification was possible in the near future. Opposition activities increased in the GDR (Chapter 16), and the German Question unexpectedly returned to center stage.