The new force
Bonn—The most controversial figure in West German politics today is Professor Karl August Fritz Schiller, the fifty-eight year old Social Democrat Minister of Economics. If the Grand Coalition is not returned after the general election which will take place a week on Sunday, much of the credit—or blame—will be his.
All this has been achieved from a position of comparative obscurity in an astonishingly short period of time. A couple of years ago Schiller was not much known in Germany: a year ago he was hardly known abroad. His background is as much academic as it is political: he did not really begin to enter politics at the national level until the end of 1964, when he was elected to the execu- tive board of the Social Democrat party. Before that he had been Economic Senator, first for Hamburg and then for West Berlin. Between times he served as Rector of Hamburg University.
His appointment as Minister of Economics when the Grand Coalition was formed in 1966 was his opportunity. This was the post from which Ludwig Erhard had built up his position as author of the economic miracle. and made himself the favourite of the German people and unassailable successor to Chancellor Adenauer. Schiller worked away quietly enough and got on well with his Christian Democrat colleagues. There was a time when he and the Christian Democrat Finance Minister, Franz Josef Strauss, were affectionately known as 'the stability brothers'.
Then, around the beginning of this year, the Social Democrats began to realise the strength of his electoral assets. He was both a successful minister and a professor —proverbially the Germans love professors much as the English are said to love a lord. A recent opinion poll showed him to be the most popular minister in the cabinet (though about half of those questioned turned out to believe he belonged to the mu).
In fact, the party underestimated him.
They reckoned without either his intellectual vanity or his political skill. (Which of these qualities is dominant will become dearer with the election results.) Around April Schiller became a convert to the revaluation of the Deutschemark. As a fairly orthodox economist, this was not in itself surprising. To a number of his governmental colleagues, however, the idea was death in an election year; nor did they like the way he had not discussed his conversion with them first, appealing instead straight to Chancellor Kiesinger. In the ensuing international currency crisis, Professor Schiller decisively lost his battle in cabinet.
If ever there was a case of a party firing its ammunition too early, this should have been it. Professor Schiller had been shown as a loser even before the election campaign began, and the party felt it. The surprising thing was that he chose neither to resign not to shut up. Almost from the moment of his defeat Professor Schiller began to wage a campaign to justify himself—only through a timely revaluation of the mark, he said, could West Germany be saved from im- ported inflation. (Note the very slight nationalist touch: West Germany must be preserved from the bad habits of foreigners.) Slowly and at first dubiously the party began to follow him. The result is that the conduct of the economy has been made the most important issue in the present electoral campaign.
Price stability has replaced full employ- ment as the most desirable aim of economic policy, according to the public opinion polls. It was precisely on the need to ensure price stability that Professor Schiller took his stand. The percentage of the electorate appearing to understand what revaluation means has risen dramatically. More than half of those who say they intend to vote Christian Democrat profess to believe that Professor Schiller is better equipped to run the economy than their own Herr Strauss. After the Chancellor he has become the best known politician in the country, and he rates particularly highly among those who will be voting for the first time, and among the 20 per cent or so of the electorate which is still undecided.
It has become a set piece of Chancellor Kiesinger's election speeches that it is only because he is of so charitable a disposition, and because the elections are so near at hand, that he has not told the Professor to `take his hat' long ago for his impertinence. 'I must bear,' the Chancellor says, 'my little Schiller cross a little longer.' This is nonsense. Chancellor Kiesinger has not been able to dismiss him because the Social Democrats have in the end come to his defence. The Chancellor was left in no doubt that sacking Professor Schiller would have meant the end of the Grand Coalition.
That, in a sense, is also the problem for the future. The Christian Democrats have gone for Schiller to such an extent, and have so obviously done their own unsuccess- ful best to find a rival to him, that they will not easily work with him again. As for the Socialists, Professor Schiller has become so much the symbol of their campaign that they cannot conceive of dropping him. Nor —if the question of renewing the coalition arises—could the problem simply be solved by shunting him sideways. Apart from any- thing else it would be dishonest to the public to give him another post.
Professor Schiller, then, has become, just by his existence, the biggest single obstacle to the restoration of the present form of government. In the closing stages of the campaign the Christian Democrats have come to dislike him more than ever for his dreadful habit of being proved right by events. A little earlier than expected perhaps, but certainly along the predicted lines, Professor Schiller's economic forecasts have come home to roost. In the past few weeks West Germany has been faced with a series of unofficial strikes and union wage claims of a kind which Germans normally associate only with Britain. Professor Schiller said that something like this would happen if preventive measures were not taken, and now, in his professorial way, he is stumping the country, wagging his finger 'and saying `I told you so'. No doubt he is enjoying himself.