Franz Josef Strauss

The West German politician Franz Josef Strauss (1915-1988) was a founder of the Christian Social Union and its standard bearer for four decades. He was minister president of Bavaria beginning in 1978.

Franz Josef Strauss was born on September 6, 1915, in the Bavarian capital of Munich. A butcher's son, raised a strict Catholic, he proved to be a brilliant student until he was drafted September 1, 1939. He served two years on the eastern front, became an artillery officer, and ended World War II in American captivity.

In 1945 Strauss was active in founding the Christian Social Union (CSU), the quasi-independent Bavarian sister party to the larger Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Konrad Adenauer, West German chancellor from 1949 to 1963. Strauss quickly gained attention for his slashing speeches as a CSU parliamentary deputy. Short, stout, and earthy, the energetic Strauss seemingly personified the conservative majority of Bavaria. He was chairman and undisputed leader of the CSU beginning in 1961 and served as minister president of Bavaria beginning in 1978. This controversial and colorful right-wing politician's great frustration, however, was his inability to duplicate on the national level the power and authority he achieved in his regional base of Bavaria.

In 1953 Strauss entered the Adenauer cabinet and was soon dubbed "the elbow minister" for his ability to push himself to the top. After a brief stint as minister of nuclear power he became minister of defense in 1956. The Federal Republic had just instituted conscription, and when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided in 1957 to authorize the use of tactical nuclear arms, Strauss squashed the call for a "nuclear free" Central Europe. He forced parliament to vote in favor of nuclear arms. He also argued that West Germany must obtain nuclear weapons to remain on equal footing with her NATO allies. When the Kennedy administration resisted this goal, insisting on U.S. control, Strauss sought cooperation with General de Gaulle's France to build a Europe of states willing to share nuclear weapons. As a "German Gaullist," Strauss was viewed with suspicion by the supporters of Adenauer's heir apparent, Ludwig Erhard, who favored a pro-American, "Atlantic" posture. The liberal press also started writing in ominous tones that Strauss might become a hawkish foreign minister, or even Adenauer's ultimate successor.

Strauss helped bring upon himself the great crisis of his career in the "Spiegel Affair" of 1962. Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, published an article criticizing the West German army's lack of preparedness and Strauss' steward-ship of it. Two weeks later, police seized the magazine's office and arrested the publisher and other journalists, claiming they had leaked defense secrets. Strauss tried to minimize his own role before parliament, only to have it become known that he had personally authorized the arrest of the article's author, an arrest which was legally questionable since it took place outside the country. Demonstrations against the defense minister rocked a hitherto docile public, and Adenauer's small coalition partner, the Free Democratic party, forced Strauss' resignation from the cabinet. Bavarians stood by their beleaguered leader, however, and voted an increased mandate to the CSU.

Driven from national office and hounded by an often vindictive press, Strauss studied economics at the University of Innsbruck. He then staged an impressive political comeback. He was instrumental in toppling the Erhard government of 1963-1966 and helped fashion the "Great Coalition" of 1966-1969. The coalition was headed by a new CDU chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, and the Social Democratic vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Willy Brandt. Strauss became minister of finance and surprised his critics by working harmoniously with the Social Democratic minister of economics to tackle the economic recession.

When the coalition broke apart and the CDU/CSU was forced into opposition for the first time after the Social Democrat (SPD) victory in the election of 1969, Strauss became the leading critic of Willy Brandt's conciliatory foreign policy towards Eastern Europe. Strauss maintained the traditional West German rejection of the 1945 settlement, arguing that Brandt was bargaining claims away for uncertain promises. But public opinion was tiring of Cold War intransigence, with even Strauss' CDU ally moving towards acceptance of the treaties with the East. Although Strauss was able to keep the CDU from accepting the treaties, he could prevent neither their passage nor the reelection of the Brandt government in 1972.

The tensions within the CDU/CSU opposition became ever more strained in the 1970s. The maverick Strauss tried to become a dominating voice, but also threatened to make the CSU a national splinter party of the right. Divided, the CDU/CSU opposition was defeated in the 1976 national election by a Social Democratic/Free Democratic alliance led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Strauss finally became the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate in 1980. This electoral confrontation between Strauss and Schmidt was billed as the "clash of giants," but no clear issues emerged. The campaign turned out to be a national referendum on Strauss. The liberal-social democratic coalition united against him with the emotional slogan "Stop Strauss!" In victory, however, the Social Democratic/Free Democratic alliance would quickly disintegrate, and Schmidt was out of office by 1983.

Although the 1980 election was supposed to be Strauss' "last hurrah," he remained a formidable figure in West German politics for several years thereafter.

In 1983-84, Strauss served in the largely honorary post of president of the Bundesrat, in the upper house of the federal parliament. He lost his wife in a fatal car accident shortly thereafter. He died in Regensburg, Bavaria on October 3, 1988.

Further Reading on Franz Josef Strauss

There is no biography in English of Strauss. Michael Balfour's West Germany (2nd ed., 1982) provides an informative sketch. See also Ronald F. Blum, German Politics and the Spiegel Affair (1968). In 1985, a commemorative Festschrift honoring Strauss's 70th birthday was published, with a preface by Ronald Reagan and contributions by Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Schmidt, among others.