Gerhard Schroder

In 1998, Gerhard Schroder (born 1944) became the first challenger since World War II to unseat an incumbent chancellor in Germany. He defeated Helmut Kohl, who had been chancellor for 16 years. Schroder promised to continue social programs and reinstate mild cuts in worker benefits that Kohl had made, but he also pledged to modernize policy so that Germany could remain a global economic force.

When Germans went to the polls in 1998, they were reluctant to make major changes. However, the Social Democratic candidate, Gerhard Schroder, convinced them that he was not an extremist. Although his party's leftist policies could offer benefits, he would not always tow the party line. He supported the working class, but also understood the importance of championing business. He patterned his image after that of American president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair, both of whom claimed office after years of control by opposition parties.

While serving as a premier in the state of Lower Saxony from 1990 to 1998, Schroder emerged on the national scene as a charismatic, telegenic personality capable of stirring popular support for his party, which was eager to unseat Kohl's Christian Democrats. Despite a much-publicized divorce from his third wife in 1997, the charming Schroder, with his designer suits, cigars, and witty remarks, remained a favorite with the public. Many commentators professed skepticism about his leadership abilities, giving the opinion that Schroder was more interested in getting to the top than in effecting needed policy changes in the government. The country's generous social spending and rigid labor laws were making it difficult to compete in a world market, and critics wondered if Schroder would be willing to push through the unpopular, but necessary, reforms that Kohl had begun. The majority of Germans, however, were willing to try a fresh face, and were anxious to see if he could follow through on his promise of balancing social programs and economic stability.


Early Years

Schroder was born in the German town of Mossenburg on April 7, 1944, just a few days after his father was killed in Romania during World War II. His mother, Erika, remarried, but her second husband suffered from tuberculosis. In order to support her family of five children, she cleaned barracks for British occupation forces in the town of Lemgo, in northern Germany. Schroder began toiling in the fields at the age of 12 to bring in money. He quit school at 14 to take sales jobs in a china shop and then a hardware store. Schroder was an eager student, who paid for night courses in order to finish high school. Imre Karacs in the Independent reported that Schroder often told his mother, "One day I'll take you away from all this in a Mercedes." He went on to Gottingen University, where he studied law and joined the Young Socialists, a youth branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Schroder became the group's leader in the district of Hannover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, in 1977. The following year he became the national chairman of the SPD Young Socialists. Meanwhile, Schroder pursued post-graduate work and obtained a law degree in 1976; he was a practicing attorney from 1976 to 1980.

Schroder combined his profession and his politics, becoming noted for defending Red Army Faction terrorist Horst Mahler in a parole hearing, and also for his association with Willy Brandt, the former SPD chancellor. By 1978, he had completely embraced mainstream Marxism and was busy organizing protests against the United States and the deployment of NATO missiles in Germany. In 1980, Schroder won a seat in the Bundestag—the National Assembly branch of the legislature-as a member of the SPD from the district of Hannover. Shortly after that election, an incident occurred that became something of a folk legend in German politics. Schroder, according to Barry Came Wosnitza in Maclean's, was out drinking with friends one night and happened to walk past the government offices of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He climbed up the iron gates and shook them as he hung on, yelling, "I want to get in here," until police showed up and ordered him to get down.


Premier of Lower Saxony

After six years in the Bundestag, Schroder returned to Lower Saxony in 1986, serving until 1990 as opposition leader in the parliament and chairman of the SPD Party Group. He made an unsuccessful bid to become premier of the state government of Lower Saxony in 1986. He ran again in 1990 and won the election. As he began his rise, Schroder's views became more moderate. This undoubtedly helped his success in 1990, as did the assistance of his third wife, Hiltrud, nicknamed "Hillu." As an environmentalist, vegetarian, and animal-rights proponent, she forged important relationships with members of the Green Party. According to Wosnitza in Maclean's, one of Schroder's associates noted, "She gave him the credibility he needed among the tree huggers and their friends." The pair became known as the German equivalent of the Clintons, a political power couple who were young, attractive, and on the move.

As the premier of Lower Saxony, Schroder formed what was dubbed a "red-green coalition," a combination of the socialist SPD party and the environmentalist Green party. He became nationally known through his popularity with the public, rather than his leadership abilities within his party. In fact, he built a reputation as a leader unafraid to cross party lines, rather than one bound to ideology. Though he held to socialist programs such as nationalizing some failing industries, he was viewed as being more pro free-market than most Social Democrats, thus earning him the tag of the "German Tony Blair." Media-savvy and good-looking, many felt Schroder could be the new face of Germany.

In 1996, his marriage dissolved after Schroder became involved with Doris Kopt, a journalist who had a daughter out of wedlock while she was living in New York. The German media, normally rather stoic on such matters, turned the event into a circus. Hillu Schroder subsequently wrote a scathing exposé of the relationship accusing her ex-husband of being mean, egotistical, cowardly, and opportunistic. Schroder countered in the media, claiming that she tried to force him to become a vegetarian, a serious offense in a nation that enjoys eating meat. He managed to emerge with his popularity intact. Schroder married Kopf three weeks after his divorce in 1997. "I'm a constant guy," Schroder once quipped, according to Wosnitza in Maclean's. "I may swap wives every 12 years, but I'm faithful in between." His fourth wife quickly remarked, "Next time, you'll need somebody to push your wheel-chair."


Challenged Kohl

Schroder won reelection as premier of Lower Saxony in March of 1998 with a populist platform. "It makes sense that politicians think of people's feelings," he once announced to a cheering crowd, according to Lucian Kim in the Christian Science Monitor. By that time, he made it clear that he wanted to challenge longtime incumbent, Helmut Kohl, in a bid for the chancellorship. The SPD, long the underdog to the Christian Democratic Union, had managed to gain seats in 1994 and saw a chance to finally topple Kohl. Schroder lobbied to win his party's nomination against Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD chair. Lafontaine was more dedicated to the party's leftist politics, but Schroder was more popular among German voters. Though some criticized his state's fast-growing debt and high unemployment, Schroder pointed out that he suppressed the rise in unemployment by saving jobs. Again, critics observed that his methods included costly government bailouts. Schroder replied to a crowd, "It's always better to invest in jobs than to invest in unemployment," according to Mary Williams Walsh in the Los Angeles Times.

Schroder was ahead in the opinion polls and continued to win fans with his brief, ten-minute speeches. "People don't want to listen to hour-long oratory anymore," he commented, according to Jordan Bonfante of Time magazine. In fact, most of Schroder's campaign was marked by his willingness to give the people what they wanted. Observers noted that his reticence to discuss specific issues made it impossible to determine what he really stood for. He would appeal to the working classes, but he also held the title of the "Comrade of Business" due to his willingness to forge relationships with heads of industry. He promised to continue social programs and reinstate the mild cuts in worker benefits that Kohl had made, but he also pledged to modernize policy in order to remain a global economic force. Schroder also tapped into voters' reluctance to usher in an unproven leader after living with Kohl for 16 years. Not entirely happy with the way their country was heading, especially in terms of the double-digit unemployment, the conservative Germans were nonetheless concerned that a change could be for the worse. As a result, the SPD developed the slogan, "We won't change everything-we'll just do things better."

Schroder unseated Kohl in September 1998, making him the first candidate to oust an incumbent chancellor since the end of World War II. He won by a surprisingly wide margin of about six percentage points in an election that saw 81.5 percent voter turnout. The Christian Democrats suffered their worst numbers in over 40 years, taking just 35 percent of seats in the Bundestag, while the Social Democrats reaped about 41 percent. This was not enough to give the SPD a majority, so Schroder was expected to form another "red-green" coalition with the Green Party, who earned 6.7 percent of the seats. This put Schroder under some scrutiny, as the Green Party consisted of both pragmatic and extremist wings. It was possible that their radical elements could strain the partnership.

Schroder faced a number of challenges upon taking office, including participating in the unification of Europe with a common monetary system, balancing social justice and fiscal concerns, establishing ties with France, and promoting economic development in Russia. He also faced the task of establishing a policy on immigration (the SPD has generally taken a liberal stance in accepting non-Germans), as well as battling the high unemployment rate, especially in the former East Germany.


Further Reading on Gerhard Schroder

Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Research, 1999.

Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 1998; September 10, 1998; September 29, 1998.

Daily Telegraph, September 28, 1998.

Dallas Morning News, October 1, 1998.

Economist, February 17, 1996; August 29, 1998; October 3, 1998.

European, January 19, 1998.

Independent, September 20, 1998; September 28, 1998.

Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1998; October 4, 1998.

Maclean's, October 12, 1998.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 28, 1998; September 29, 1998; October 1, 1998.

New Republic, October 19, 1998.

Newsweek, October 12, 1998.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 28, 1998.

Sunday Telegraph, January 25, 1998; September 20, 1998.

Time International, September 7, 1998; October 12, 1998.