358. Editorial Note

On April 27, 1972, the Bundestag voted on the first motion of noconfidence in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Under Article 67 of the Basic Law, Rainer Barzel, chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, needed a “constructive” majority of 249 votes to replace Chancellor Brandt. During a conversation in the Executive Office Building the previous day, Assistant to the President Kissinger briefed President Nixon on the vote of noconfidence and the pending vote for ratification of the Eastern treaties. “Frankly, I would prefer it if he [Brandt] didn’t fall,” Kissinger explained, “because if he did fall, we might not be able to get the treaties ratified.” He then continued his assessment:

Brezhnev will be finished if the treaties don’t get ratified and, therefore, we will be in trouble too. If Brandt maintains himself tomorrow, he will still be so weakened. This is the first time in the whole postwar history that anyone has attempted a vote of no confidence. It shows how weak the government is. Because to overthrow the government it isn’t enough to get a majority against it, you have to get [Page 1012] a majority for somebody else. And that’s never even been attempted. Then he has to pass the treaties by a relative majority. Then they go to the upper house, which we know will turn it down as a result of those elections. Then it comes back to the lower house after your trip to Moscow, where he’s got to get an absolute majority, which is almost— which he cannot get without us. So we have a hell of a lot of leverage if he wins tomorrow.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Recording of Conversation Between Nixon and Kissinger April 26, 1972, 9:26–10:29 a.m., Executive Office Building, Conversation 333–7) The editor transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.

Kissinger also briefed Nixon on the situation in a memorandum that morning:

“Nobody can say with any certainty how the vote will go. Our Embassy thinks that Brandt will squeak by. Barzel himself told our Political Counselor on Monday that he is not sure of the 249 vote absolute majority required. Brandt himself is reportedly confident and seems to relish the contest. His speech yesterday in the Bundestag was a strong one. In the end, Germans’ reluctance to see a government overthrown may influence CDU/CSU deputies to cast blank ballots or abstain, thus depriving Barzel of his majority.

“Bonn is tense. A torchlight parade and possible counterdemonstration are scheduled in front of the Chancellery. Bundestag deputies’ houses are under guard. There have been reports of labor unrest elsewhere in the country and even of a general strike, but the SPD is reported working hard on the trade union federation to dampen the labor agitation.

“The CDU/CSU is under strain. Barzel implied to our Embassy that he had been pushed against his will into calling for the vote by Schroeder, Kohl, and Strauss. He or one of his confidants probably fed this same line to the New York Times Bonn correspondent, whose story appeared Tuesday. Strauss, on the other hand, is asserting, according to a [less than 1 line not declassified] report, that the noconfidence vote now, during the budget debate, was Barzel’s idea.

“The East Germans apparently are trying to help Brandt. The FRG government announced yesterday that negotiations on the FRGGDR traffic treaty had been concluded. The East German party chief Honecker told the press April 25 that the Bundestag vote would be a choice for the FRG between détente and ‘cold war’ and that the GDR, Poland, and Moscow would not renegotiate the Eastern treaties with a CDU government.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 40, President’s Daily Briefs, April 18–29, 1972)

Before the balloting began, Herbert Wehner, chairman of the Social Democratic parliamentary group, instructed his delegation to refrain [Page 1013] from voting while Wolfgang Mischnick, chairman of the Free Democratic parliamentary group, instructed several reliable members to vote against the motion. This parliamentary maneuver served to discourage dissidents within the governing coalition and to encourage those within the opposition. Bundestag President Von Hassel finally announced the results at 1:22 p.m.: 247 votes for, 10 against, and 3 abstentions. The motion of noconfidence had failed by two votes.

Four hours after the vote (11:30 a.m., EST), the Washington Special Actions Group, chaired by Deputy Assistant to the President Haig, briefly reviewed the outcome during a meeting in the White House Situation Room.

“Mr. Rush: The best news the President could have gotten was the vote in the Bundestag.

“Gen. Haig: In a sense, though, the vote could encourage the Soviets to get tougher.

“Mr. Rush: All this is part of the East-West fabric. The situation could have taken a serious turn for the worse if Brandt’s government had fallen. And that in turn would have serious implications on such things as CES and MBFR. It would all be reflected in the Summit, which would undoubtedly not turn out well.

“Gen. Haig: The Soviets made major concessions in order to have the Brandt government stay in power and in order to get the treaties ratified. If things were to turn sour with a Barzel government, there would be no ratification. And there would be serious implications with other things, such as CES. In fact, there could very well be a serious revanchist attack on Germany. I’m sure the President’s trip to Moscow would be affected.

“Mr. Johnson: I agree.” (National Security Council, Minutes Files, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals 1972)

In a special channel message to German State Secretary Bahr on April 27, Kissinger also expressed satisfaction with the news from Bonn, which, he wrote, was “most gratifying.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 74, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Moscow Summit, 1972 [2 of 2])

Secretary of State Rogers reported on the day’s events in a memorandum to the President that evening:

“The Opposition’s bid to unseat the Brandt Government today through a constructive vote of noconfidence failed. However, the results have not resolved the Government’s problems or clarified the prospects of ratification of the Eastern treaties. Barzel, the Opposition leader, gained 247 votes, two short of the 249 necessary for election as Chancellor. The ballot was secret but it appears that at least two [Page 1014] members of the FDP, Brandt’s small coalition partner, either voted for Barzel or abstained while one or more of Barzel’s own party voted against him. As a result, the Government, while remaining in office, does not have a clear majority on which it can rely in future Bundestag votes.

“This situation was immediately apparent since the noconfidence vote was to be followed by a debate and vote on the budget for the Chancellor’s office. The Government felt that it did not have the necessary majority to gain approval for the budget and Brandt during the afternoon sought to persuade Barzel to postpone consideration of the budget until mid-May, after the vote on the Eastern treaties. Brandt may have made other compromise proposals as well. Barzel was negative and the budget debate began early in the evening.

“As this is written the FRG Cabinet is in session and it is understood that new elections are under urgent consideration. According to reports we have received, Federal President Heinemann is of the opinion that only through political elections can the situation be stabilized. If Brandt decides to pursue this course he will presumably ask for a vote of confidence in the Bundestag under circumstances that will ensure his defeat. He will then ask the Federal President to dissolve the Bundestag and call for new elections which would then probably be held sometime in June.

“I would emphasize that the situation is extremely fluid at the moment. The picture may be clearer tomorrow. I think it is safe to conclude, however, that a period of unusual political turmoil is at hand in Germany.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 40, President’s Daily Briefs, April 18–29, 1972)