Farewell to Wolfgang Schäuble

Clay Clemens

William & Mary

Clay Clemens is a Professor of Government at William & Mary. His work has appeared in German Politics and German Politics & Society.

The Chancellor-behind-the-Scenes

Imagine a mountain climber who scaled every peak in the Himalayas except Everest. That was Wolfgang Schäuble. No postwar politician reached more top party and government posts. Although peers blocked him from ascending to the chancellorship, ultimately his impact in some ways eclipsed even their own. His policies often drew fire, but his intelligence and sheer willpower were beyond question.

Schäuble’s pragmatic conservative devotion to rules and order took root early. Like many young CDU recruits in the 1960s, he was turned off by the student movement’s demands for radical change. While studying economics and law, which led to a stint in tax administration, Schäuble joined the Christian Democratic youth wing and his local branch in Baden, launching a long career in the party that would take him to its top job. His equally successful legislative career began in 1972 with his election to a Bundestag seat that he would hold through thirteen more campaigns.

Early on, Schäuble joined a small team of young parliamentarians around Helmut Kohl, bound by their desire to shake up a stagnant CDU and challenge the governing Social Democrats. Never a man for specifics, Kohl quickly came to rely on his younger ally’s penchant for detail and discipline. When the CDU chief engineered a new governing coalition in 1982 and became chancellor, he made Schäuble whip of the “Union” Bundestag caucus. This post required working around its nominal chief, a prickly right-wing party elder that Kohl had no desire to alienate. Schäuble did so deftly, keeping restive MPs in line, even those from the autonomy-minded Bavarian CSU.

Kohl soon needed those talents elsewhere. In 1984 he made Schäuble minister for special tasks. His brief entailed overseeing the Chancellery and fractious cabinet, including its CSU members and their Liberal allies. Schäuble also directly handled sensitive dealings with the Communist government in East Berlin aimed at expanding cross-border travel for ordinary Germans, mainly by granting it desperately-needed credit but not formal recognition as a separate state. It was Schäuble who engineered aging East German boss Erich Honecker’s historic visit to Bonn in 1987 and discretely mediated a rift with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Throughout this time, Schäuble had Kohl’s back amid brewing CDU discontent. Characteristically impatient with disloyalty and disorder, he helped quash an attempt to replace the chancellor as party chair in summer 1989. Weeks later, Kohl could seize on the East German regime’s collapse to push for reunification, overcoming resistance from abroad. Unsurprisingly the task of effecting a formal merger fell to Schäuble, now interior minister. Bargaining from strength, he pushed to extend the Federal Republic’s legal, administrative, and political institutions upon the shaky, bankrupt new democratic government in East Berlin, completing the task quickly, if at the cost of lasting resentment over matters like property rights and abortion.

At the apex of his power, Schäuble was cut down by a deranged assassin while campaigning in late 1990. Paralyzed from the waist down, he faced the rest of his life in a wheelchair but took on rehabilitation with stoic determination and quickly returned to politics as head of the CDU/CSU caucus. In mid-1991, his calmly passionate plea clinched parliament’s vote to make Berlin united Germany’s capital. Beyond that, Schäuble labored for two terms on behalf of Kohl’s legislative agenda, keeping restless CDU and CSU deputies in line behind a chancellor who—basking in triumph—often took them for granted.

As the 1998 election approached, everyone expected Kohl to make way for Schäuble, but he blindsided his frustrated protégé by mounting one more campaign. Only after a bitter defeat did the torch pass. Now tasked with rejuvenating a demoralized opposition, Schäuble appointed a young, untested easterner, Angela Merkel—often derided as “Kohl’s girl”—general secretary. Yet the new team had barely begun generating a fresh party program when it was rocked by revelations of CDU campaign finance violations throughout Kohl’s reign. Schäuble was uninvolved in those transactions but faced charges of having transferred an off-the-books donation into party coffers and had to resign in early 2000.

Schäuble’s most controversial policy legacy came in his post as finance minister. Determined to restore traditional German fiscal discipline, Schäuble pushed through a constitutional debt limit and strict austerity, achieving a “black zero” in 2014.

For three decades, Schäuble’s political fortunes had been linked to Kohl’s. Now they rested with Merkel, who succeeded him as chair. Not part of her inner circle, Schäuble seemed to fade into the background. She also dashed his hope of being nominated to the post of federal president in 2004.

Yet when the CDU/CSU regained power in coalition with the SPD a year later, Merkel could not do without Schäuble. He returned as interior minister, pushing through hardline law enforcement and counterterrorism measures that critics assailed as an assault on civil liberties.

But Schäuble’s most controversial policy legacy came in his next post as finance minister. Lingering costs of reunification and stimulus to reignite growth amid the 2008-09 global recession had left the books badly out of balance. Determined to restore traditional German fiscal discipline, Schäuble pushed through a constitutional debt limit and strict austerity, achieving a “black zero” in 2014—a budget without new borrowing. Union supporters applauded him, but critics would long decry the resulting social spending cuts and straitjacket on public investments.

Schäuble’s priorities had broader impacts. Although a committed European, he characteristically insisted on conformity with German-style rules and fiscal discipline—even if some EU states thus integrated further, faster than others. His austerity almost created that two-tier Europe. While German exports surged and investment flowed in, partners elsewhere—especially in southern Europe—struggled with soaring debt, exerting huge pressure on the Euro. In league with the European Central Bank, Schäuble’s ministry insisted that stabilizing the common currency by bailing these “profligates” out required them to impose harsh austerity. His sermons on the virtues of fiscal rectitude appealed at home but enraged others, above all Greeks facing mass unemployment and poverty.

Throughout his career, Schäuble’s righteousness was the flipside of his intellect and dry wit. Critics could vent frustration with his rigidity, but he was beyond mockery, and his integrity rarely came into question. So perhaps unsurprisingly his final role would be non-partisan: as Bundestag president from 2017 to 2021, he, as usual, upheld order and rules, albeit with a more genial mien. When he at last departed his beloved parliament after fifty-one years, a record unlikely ever to be matched, it was amid demonstrations of genuine respect for this lifelong Staatsdiener.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.