Biogram Detail - Geschichte der CDU
Idyllic Childhood in East Prussia – Early Years in National Socialist Berlin
Rainer Barzel was born on 20 June 1924 in the Warmian town of Braunsberg (now Braniewo), a Catholic enclave in the otherwise exclusively Protestant region of East Prussia. The expansive Masurian Lake District, the Vistula Lagoon, the Baltic Sea and the nearby city of Königsberg provided an idyllic backdrop to his early childhood, both scenically and in terms of the cultural history of the region. His childhood there was happy, and he was well cared for. His parents were from Masuria. Rainer was one of seven children, all of whom received a Catholic education – which gave him strength and a sense of security during a lifetime of vicissitudes. In 1931, his father, a supporter of the Catholic-based Centre Party and a highly regarded teacher, was appointed to a senior post as an instructor in Berlin, so Barzel experienced the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism in the German capital.
In Berlin, he attended the Jesuit high school at Lietzensee, now known as Canisius-Kolleg, and joined the Catholic organisation ‘Neudeutschland’. Youth trips, camps, discussions, hikes in the mountains – all of these things made a profound impression on Barzel, and all of them were soon prohibited by the National Socialists. After that, the meetings had to be held in secret. The school was closed too. He noted the persecution of Jews with dismay, and as a pupil of Jesuits, he saw from his own experience the discrimination against professed Catholics. Barzel narrowly avoided having to join the Hitler Youth and took his final secondary school exams (Abitur) in December 1941. At around this time, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and served as an airman in the navy until the end of the war. He attained the rank of lieutenant and was awarded the Iron Cross and the Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe in Gold. He was serving as a trainer and aerial tactics instructor near Flensburg when the war ended.
Student Years in Post-War Ruins and Discovery of Politics
In the summer of 1945, after being held by the British for a short time as a prisoner of war, Rainer Barzel travelled with his fiancée Kriemhild to join her family in Cologne, which had been almost completely destroyed in the war. When the University of Cologne opened again, he began to study law and economics. In 1948, he completed his first state law examination, and in 1949, he earned his doctorate under the supervision of Ernst von Hippel with a dissertation on The fundamental rights and duties of citizens as defined in constitutional law. While still a student, he developed a politically inclined group of friends, one of whom, Hans Katzer, would later become a close colleague. In small groups, they discussed the political situation, the past and the possibilities of the future. Barzel composed articles for Catholic publications, wrote the first of what would ultimately be twenty books, and made contact with leading politicians in the Western zones of occupation. One of these politicians was Carl Spiecker of the Catholic-based Centre Party, who was a member of the Bizonal Economic Council and, from 1948 until his death in 1953, Minister for Federal Affairs in North Rhine-Westphalia. He liked the young, industrious Barzel and took him under his wing as his personal aide. Through his minister, Barzel worked indirectly on the configuration of the young (second) German democracy and became a representative of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for the European Coal and Steel Community.
Apprentice Years with Karl Arnold and First Mandate
Following the death of Carl Spiecker, Rainer Barzel received a great deal of encouragement and support from Minister President Karl Arnold of North Rhine-Westphalia. With the approval of the new Minister for Federal Affairs, Artur Sträter, he was given additional responsibilities and managed the day-to-day business of the ministry. In 1954, when Barzel was just thirty years old, Arnold appointed him Ministerialrat (head of division) despite the fact that he had not yet reached the customary level of qualification. This made him the youngest person to hold such a position in Germany at that time. Arnold prized his highly developed organizational skills; the young civil servant drafted speeches, carried out research, put together documents and conducted ministry business. As a representative of North Rhine-Westphalia, Barzel participated in discussions of the national parliamentary committee on issues of European security and made an important contribution to the formulation and adoption of the constitutional provisions concerning the military. It was there that he met the young SPD defence specialist Helmut Schmidt, who decades later recalled, with admiration, the precision and expertise that Barzel brought to his work.
Since 1954, Barzel had been flirting with the idea of a seat in the Bundestag, and after Arnold stepped down following a constructive vote of no confidence in 1956, he could not see any future in a ministry that would thenceforth be led by the SPD. He asked for a leave of absence and, for the first time, assumed a party-political role as a managing member of the newly established presidium of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia (dt.: Landespräsidium der CDU in Nordrhein-Westfalen). Arnold, who was running for a seat in the Bundestag in 1957, made a considerable effort to obtain a secure position on the party list for his former protégé. In the event, Barzel was constrained to forfeit that position to a trade unionist. At that point, not just Arnold but Adenauer, Krone, Globke, Dufhues, Lensing and the general secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Heinrich Köppler, all spoke out in support of a seat for the talented young Catholic in the new Bundestag. As chance would have it, a procedural error meant that the selection of a candidate for the constituency of Paderborn-Wiedenbrück, a CDU stronghold, had to be re-run. Barzel won the support of a slim majority of the party delegates and subsequently fought his first election successfully, entering the third Bundestag with almost 70 percent of the popular vote.
First Steps in Parliament and Rapid Rise
Rainer Barzel used the first months in parliament for intensive work in his constituency – his electoral district of Paderborn-Wiedenbrück would remain a secure base of support for him until he entered the Bundestag via the state party list for North Rhine-Westphalia, beginning in 1980. On 24 April 1958, Barzel created a stir in the Bundestag with his first speech, which concerned the referendum on nuclear armament proposed by the SPD. His trenchant rhetoric was lauded in the ranks of his own party, and the sometimes tumultuous protests of the opposition guaranteed widespread media coverage. This established his reputation as an outstanding orator – a reputation he retained until he left the Bundestag almost thirty years later.
Barzel also encountered pushback in this period, however. One example was the reaction to the staunchly anti-Communist committee ‘Rettet die Freiheit’ (Rescue Our Freedom), which came under fire in the press, especially the left-leaning media. Barzel was the chairman and co-founder of the committee, which was formed in response to a movement of West German activists who opposed equipping the Bundeswehr with nuclear weapons and stationing them on German territory (dt.: Anti-Atomtod-Kampagne). It was poorly funded from the very beginning and made some missteps in the material it published, which only exacerbated the negative press coverage. Following several legal disputes, Barzel drew the logical conclusion and withdrew from the committee, after which it quickly lapsed into insignificance and was dissolved. He had already been entrusted with a more important task anyway, to which he devoted all of his energy. The CDU leadership had long been aware of its dwindling support among Catholic groups. Moreover, the Godesberg Programme of the SPD had ensured that the Social Democrats became an electable alternative to the CDU for devout Catholics. In response to this, Chancellor Adenauer instructed Heinrich Krone, the chairman of the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag, to deploy Barzel as a liaison to the Catholic portion of the electorate. He was supposed to establish (or re-establish) and maintain contacts with bishops, Catholic associations, working groups and especially young people. In addition to shoring up the Catholic vote, Adenauer had an ulterior motive. In the summer of 1959, the talented young Barzel had supported his rival Ludwig Erhard, whom Adenauer had unsuccessfully tried to sideline with a nomination to the position of Federal President. The assignment was therefore also intended to keep a tighter rein on the junior politician. For Barzel, the increasingly close collaboration with his third political patron, Heinrich Krone, proved to be a boon. He learned the work of the parliamentary group leadership from up close, and he was given more and more responsibility, as well as greater opportunities to make himself indispensable through good and diligent work. The unassuming Krone had a high opinion of Barzel, but he also viewed the latter’s urge to prove himself with growing concern and irritation. In 1960, Barzel was elected to the national committee of the CDU for the first time. In November 1961, Adenauer assigned him to produce a study of the ‘the present-day spiritual and social situation and the future tasks of the CDU’. Barzel went into seclusion for several months and presented his results to the CDU national committee in the spring of 1962. His report, which in many cases provided a precise examination and critical appraisal of future issues affecting the CDU and CSU as well as offering new proposals, did not meet with Adenauer’s approval: it was too Catholic, too subservient to the Pope! The reaction came as a complete surprise to Barzel, who found himself suddenly exposed to the biting criticism of the party chairman; the study was also torn to pieces in the press. Evidently, the response was a calculated political manoeuvre, but Barzel retained the confidence of the Chancellor nonetheless.
Junior Member of the Cabinet – Brief Term of Office, Major Success
The Spiegel affair in the autumn of 1962 (involving the alleged publication of state secrets and the subsequent arrest of several journalists) became a springboard for the career of Rainer Barzel. The ensuing resignation of a number of his ministers compelled Adenauer to rebuild his cabinet. In a surprise appointment, Barzel was named Minister for All-German Affairs. Adenauer’s intention was to make provisions for his resignation from the chancellorship. He wanted to put men with potential in place while there was still time and strengthen ties to them before Erhard took over the government. The first steps taken by Barzel in his new office were followed with a critical gaze. The Berlin CDU, especially, was filled with indignation at the sight of an inexperienced newcomer taking the reins in place of the popular Ernst Lemmer. But the critical voices quickly fell silent: within just a few months, the mood changed completely, and in the end, there would be loud protest at Barzel’s dismissal. Although new to ministerial office, he quickly familiarised himself with the subject matter and made sure that the German question was given due attention, which earned him a great deal of respect. Tirelessly, he demanded humanitarian relief for the citizens ‘in the other Germany’ and was soon considered a leading policy expert of the CDU on intra-German affairs. Barzel also knew how to give a good account of himself, becoming more and more self-confident in his appearances before the press. His greatest success as a minister initially went unnoticed by the general public. At the initiative of Axel Springer, and with the backing of Adenauer, he began ransoming political prisoners in the GDR with the assistance of a team of lawyers – a practice that continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and brought freedom for about 35,000 people.
When Ludwig Erhard became chancellor, Barzel had to step aside in favour of Erich Mende, the vice chancellor and FDP chairman. The CDU and the general public reacted with consternation and criticism. Barzel’s steadfast refusal to accept a different ministry earned him respect and sympathy across all the major parties.
‘Shooting Star of the CDU and CSU’ (Christ und Welt) – Beacon of Hope at the Head of the Parliamentary Group
After leaving the cabinet, Rainer Barzel was elected deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag. And just a few days later, he was promoted: when Heinrich von Brentano, the chairman of the parliamentary group, became incapacitated due to cancer, Barzel became acting chairman of the CDU/CSU group overnight. He familiarised himself with his new responsibilities very quickly and once more earned immediate respect for his excellent performance. He continued to make his mark in the field of intra-German policy and was especially well regarded for his skills as a mediator with the coalition partner, the FDP. For a long time, Barzel proved himself to be a true master of the key functions of a parliamentary group chairman: mediating, acting as a countervailing influence, finding compromises and then being able to follow through with them. As a gruelling battle raged – sometimes internally and sometimes quite publicly – between Erhard and Adenauer, who had remained party chairman after stepping down as chancellor, Barzel took the opportunity to play to the gallery. He acted as a ‘clearing house’ between the party of Adenauer and the government of Erhard; he admonished, mediated, corrected, criticised and commended – and always took pains to keep the parliamentary group out of the fights. He accomplished this with great skill, especially during the conflict between Atlanticists and Gaullists over the direction of German foreign policy, which only enhanced his reputation among the general public.
1965 was Rainer Barzel’s year. Largely at his instigation, Germany established diplomatic relations with Israel; multiple trips to Western allies increased his standing. The national and international press celebrated him as an upcoming talent, the ‘star of the CDU and CSU’, the chancellor-in-waiting. His influence became ever greater, in part because Erhard failed to impose his authority internally and left others room for manoeuvre – the parliamentary group, too, took advantage of this, which in turn gave Barzel added momentum.
1966 Brings Crisis for Barzel – Rehabilitation in the Grand Coalition
Rainer Barzel’s self-assurance – which was already very well developed – continued to grow, and he showed it. Nor did this circumstance escape the notice of Chancellor Erhard and those close to him. After the Bundestag election of 1965, Erhard granted the FDP and, above all, the CSU more influence than Barzel considered proper. Soon, the relationship between the Chancellor and the head of the parliamentary group became increasingly distrustful. Besides that, there were many who felt that Barzel had risen too far, too quickly. For that, he was envied both by older party members who had lost out in the post-Adenauer jockeying for influence and by talented younger members, who saw in him a long-term risk for their own prospects. After his meteoric rise, 1966 was a year that brought Barzel back down to earth.
At the start of the year, having publicly announced his intention to succeed Adenauer as party chairman, he was compelled to withdraw his candidacy. Alarmed at Barzel’s sudden initiative, Erhard had asserted his own claim to the leadership. Within the party, Barzel’s reputation took its first real knocks – a situation that was little changed by his selection as first deputy chairman of the CDU, a position that Erhard created especially for him. Then, in the summer of 1966, Barzel gave a speech on intra-German policy in the United States. In the address, which had not been coordinated with Chancellor Erhard or Foreign Minister Gerhard Schröder, he made proposals with regard to the Soviet Union that went far beyond what the CDU and CSU were prepared to contemplate at that time. In the event of German reunification, for example, he suggested that Soviet troops could remain stationed on the territory of a united Germany within the framework of a European security plan. For months prior to this, he had pressed Erhard to launch an intra-German policy initiative. Despite this, the government, party leadership and Bundestag group viewed the speech as merely another attempt by Barzel to burnish his image. The ensuing criticism was correspondingly harsh. When the Erhard government finally collapsed in October 1966, in disagreement within the coalition over the federal budget for 1967, many observers, including the disappointed chancellor himself, laid most of the blame for his fall on Barzel. This was fatal to any chance that Barzel had of succeeding Erhard as chancellor. In the crucial ballot of his own parliamentary group to select a candidate, he garnered just 26 votes, suffering a crushing defeat to Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who won 137 votes. Even the third man on the ballot, Gerhard Schröder, had a considerable lead over him, with 81 votes. Barzel let that be a lesson to him, at least for the period of the upcoming grand coalition of CDU, CSU and SPD in the Kiesinger government. He declined the offer of a ministerial post under Kiesinger, but he won admiration, up to the Bundestag election of 1969 and beyond, for the service he rendered – with a business-like attitude and without any attempts at personal advancement – as a hard-working and effective chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. In his daily work with the Social Democrats, he had the opportunity to make full use of his talent for finding common ground. He mostly enjoyed an outstanding working relationship with Helmut Schmidt, the leader of the SPD parliamentary group, which proved to be an important mainstay of the cooperation between the CDU/CSU and Social Democrats, especially in the final months of the coalition. That cooperation at the ‘personal pivot of the grand coalition’ (Klaus Schönhoven) enabled the adoption of a number of important legislative projects, including the Emergency Acts, the reform of public finances, the question of statutory limitations for the crimes of murder and genocide, and the issue of statutory employee sick pay. At the end of the coalition, Barzel was sitting more firmly in the saddle as parliamentary group chairman than he ever had before, or ever would again.
Opposition Leader Amidst Controversy: Ostpolitik and Intra-German Policy
When, to their surprise, the CDU/CSU lost the Bundestag election of 1969, Rainer Barzel responded more quickly than anyone else and marshalled the parliamentary group into a powerful opposition under his leadership. At first, this worked extremely well. While the party remained in a state of shock, his energetic actions made Barzel appear to be the sole opposition leader, and he was voted national chairman of the CDU in preference to the young Minister President of Rhineland-Palatinate Helmut Kohl in 1971. Nevertheless, the hard work of the opposition CDU/CSU, which drew up some 120 legislative initiatives, was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the Ostpolitik (policy towards the Eastern Bloc) and intra-German policy of the Brandt/Scheel government. And it was Ostpolitik, Barzel’s particular passion, that ultimately became his stumbling block. Since leaving office as Minister for All-German Affairs in 1963, he had developed his own strategy on intra-German policy in response to Egon Bahr’s ‘change through rapprochement’ – and in the long run it would prove to be more realistic and effective than Bahr’s approach. Barzel based his thinking on the assumption that Communism would necessarily fail. Accordingly, the German question had to remain open until it could be peacefully resolved in the framework of a pan-European solution through negotiation with the Allied powers of the Second World War. Until then, efforts ought to be made to provide humanitarian relief and achieve freedom of movement in East Germany, beginning with small steps and moving on, if possible, to larger ones. And on principle, no advance concessions should be made without firm promises of something in return. However, Barzel never managed to lay out his approach clearly and convincingly enough to gather support, even from his own people.
The line he took on Ostpolitik as opposition leader was actually always clear. He wanted to exert influence from the opposition benches, changing and improving what was proposed by the government – only if that proved impossible would he reject it. Furthermore, he wanted to make sure that the CDU and CSU would be ready to govern if they assumed power early and that the parliamentary group remained intact. That meant, however, that he stood exactly in the middle, between those of his colleagues who strictly rejected the Ostpolitik of the SPD/FDP and those who largely approved of it. The path he trod between these two camps was misconstrued as tactical manoeuvring at best, or simply not understood at all. By 27 April 1972, when the government majority had crumbled to such an extent that the CDU and CSU were able to initiate a constructive vote of no confidence just before the adoption of the treaties with the Eastern bloc, Barzel unexpectedly failed to win the motion by a margin of two votes. It is now known that the Ministry for State Security of the GDR had bribed members of the CDU and CSU group in the Bundestag to vote against Barzel’s motion and thereby allow Willy Brandt to remain in office as chancellor. Brandt had lost his majority nonetheless and now depended on votes from the opposition in order to ratify the treaties with Moscow and Warsaw. In the ensuing negotiations, Barzel obtained the greatest possible concessions from the government. A joint resolution of all the parties in the Bundestag was to clarify that the treaties with the Eastern bloc did not represent arrangements in the nature of peace treaties and did not define borders; they merely arranged a modus vivendi. The German question had therefore not been resolved, but remained open. The actual content of the treaties was acceptable to Barzel and now he wanted to approve them, but for many, all of this came as too much of a surprise -– and on top of that, the CSU refused to go along with it. The only way forward was for the greater part of the CDU and CSU parliamentary group to abstain during the vote. The treaties were thus adopted by the Bundestag, but Barzel’s authority was dealt a severe blow by the defeat within his own party group.
Since the constructive vote of no confidence had led to a stalemate in the Bundestag, an early general election was called for November 1972. The election campaign went well initially, but Barzel was unable to generate sustained enthusiasm in his own camp or inspire commitment from supporters and those on the sidelines. He had always had a reputation for being too technocratic, too reserved, too smooth – and that did him no good in the highly emotional electoral campaign of 1972. Furthermore, the SPD succeeded in framing the issues quite skilfully in the final weeks. The opposition also had to contend with the enthusiasm and energy of grassroots campaign groups for the SPD chancellor, which turned the election into a referendum on Willy Brandt the man, with slogans like ‘Vote for Willy!’. The CDU/CSU lost the election (CDU/CSU: 44.9 percent, SPD: 45.8 percent, FDP: 8.4 percent) and, by the slimmest margin, was no longer the largest group in the Bundestag. Fellow party members refused to accept Barzel’s resignation as parliamentary group chairman on the night of the election, not so much out of genuine support for him as due to a lack of alternatives.
In keeping with his motto, act or suffer the actions of others, Barzel tried to make provision for the future in the first months of 1973 and pressed for renewed efforts to reform the party. He had already set up a policy commission in 1971, headed by Richard von Weizsäcker. The chairman and his general secretary, Konrad Kraske, created an important foundation for the party platform the coming years, but Barzel’s position grew more and more insecure. He became more distrustful; there was a steady deterioration in his team play, which had never been especially good, and in his communication, even with his closest co-workers. When the parliamentary group failed, by a slim margin, to follow his recommendation for the resolution on the joint accession of the Federal Republic and the GDR to the United Nations, he announced his resignation as its leader. He actually wanted to continue serving as the national CDU chairman, but quickly saw that he no longer had any support and refrained from standing again.
Between Withdrawal and Comeback
At first, Rainer Barzel completely withdrew from the front ranks of the Bundestag group. The ‘youngest elder statesman of all time’ (Welt am Sonntag) began working at a solicitor’s office in Frankfurt.
Barzel had consistently advocated a Christian-model of society with an emphasis on social policy. For a time, up until the resignation of his friend Hans Katzer as chairman of the social committees of the CDA (Christian Democratic Employees’ Association) in 1977, he affirmed his support for his political role model, Karl Arnold, more strongly than ever. This positioning was occasioned by issues then on the agenda for political debate, such as co-determination and property rights. After the Bundestag election of 1976, he became chairman of the Committee for Economic Policy of the Bundestag and again advocated the overall position of the CDU and CSU. A deep rift developed that year between Barzel and Helmut Kohl over the parliamentary office of President of the Bundestag. Prior to the election, Barzel was convinced that Kohl, his successor as CDU chairman, had promised him that office. Kohl, however, intended to become chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and thus the opposition leader, so he arranged for the previous chairman, Karl Carstens, to become the new president. Barzel was appalled at what he took to be a broken promise. As far as he was concerned, this permanently damaged his relationship with Kohl, which had never been good anyway.
Since 1974, the press had been predicting that Barzel would soon stage a magnificent comeback. However, he first suffered devastating personal misfortune. In 1977, he was deeply shaken by the suicide of his only daughter, and in 1980, shortly after the Bundestag election, his wife passed away following a serious illness. Barzel turned down the opportunity to make a comeback at state level as chairman of the Rhineland CDU, instead throwing himself into his new responsibilities as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Bundestag. To that end, he relinquished his position as Coordinator for German-French Affairs – to which he had been appointed by Chancellor Schmidt in 1979. His relationship with Kohl improved a bit, at least at the working level. On 1 October 1982, Barzel introduced the constructive vote of no confidence against Chancellor Schmidt, paving the way for Kohl to take over the chancellorship.
Brief Success as a Minister Again, and Brief Suffering as President of the Bundestag
In Helmut Kohl’s first cabinet, Rainer Barzel took over the Ministry of Intra-German Relations – he, more than practically anyone else, was associated with policy on the divided Germany and on the future of Germany as a whole. From the very beginning of his term, he was full of activity and made sure that intra-German policy once more found its place in the limelight. In a soothing signal toward both East and West, he stressed the desire for continuity – but that included the desire for unification, as laid down in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic. Through notably self-assured speeches and his insistence on observing existing treaties with the GDR, he soon established the baseline for all concerned and – less visibly but nevertheless effectively – set the course for future progress.
Following the Bundestag election of 1983, Barzel finally became President of the Bundestag. He doubtless seemed more qualified than anyone else for that office. It gave full expression to both his rhetorical skills and his ability to serve as the calm and dignified face of the parliament. His matter-of-fact handling of the Greens, who had entered the Bundestag for the first time, won approval. He was also the first president ever to have encouraged a discussion of how the members of the Bundestag viewed their own role.
Barzel was completely unprepared for the accusation of involvement in the Flick affair, a scandal relating to illegal donations made to a wide range of German politicians by a large German conglomerate. It was discovered that Flick representatives had made payments to the solicitor’s office for which Barzel had begun working in 1973, and he was accused of having accepted bribes in return for using his political influence – an allegation that ultimately could not be proven. Amidst wild speculation in the media, Barzel initially tried to defend himself, but soon threw in the towel in late October 1984, disappointed by the lack of support from the government, the party and the parliamentary group. His full rehabilitation by the Flick Board of Enquiry came only in 1986; he refrained from standing in the Bundestag election of 1987. He served once more as Coordinator for French-German Affairs until 1990 and then devoted himself to writing more books. Barzel remained a sought-after expert and commentator well into old age. His second wife died in an automotive accident in 1995, and he married a third time in 1997. Following a long and serious illness, Rainer Barzel died in Munich on 26 August 2006.
The original german text was translated by Richard Toovey.
- 1941 Completes secondary education (Abitur) in Berlin, then military service until May 1945
- 1945–49 Studies law and economics in Cologne
- 1948 First state law examination
- 1949 Doctoral degree in law (Dr. jur.)
- 1949–56 Works in the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia
- 1956–57 Managing member of the presidium of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia
- 1957–87 Member of the Bundestag
- From 1960: Member of the CDU national committee
- December 1962–October 1963: Federal Minister for All-German Affairs
- December 1963–December 1964: Acting chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group
- 1964–73 Chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group
- 1971–73 National chairman of the CDU
- 1972 Chancellor candidate of the CDU/CSU
- October 1982–March 1983 Federal Minister for Intra-German Relations
- March 1983–October 1984 President of the Bundestag