It seems to be no easy task to save conservatism in Germany. Angela Merkel never tried, former head of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Frauke Petry just failed spectacularly, and only Bavarian politician Horst Seehofer considers himself capable of accomplishing the feat. Why is this? Why did Ms. Merkel write off conservatism from the very beginning? And why isn’t the AfD able to seize the territory so painfully abandoned by the CDU? Why can only Horst Seehofer position his Christian Social Union (CSU) as the last refuge of conservatism in German politics? And why does he see no potential successors?
Frauke Petry also clearly failed because of personal shortcomings. But key to her recent ousting at the party convention in Cologne was a late attempt to shift the AfD from its fundamentally oppositional stance to a sort of reactionary conservatism. Not because that has always been Ms. Petry’s conviction, but because she must have realized that the unimpeded dynamism of the AfD was pushing the party ever further into radicalism – and away from any prospect of attaining political power.
In Ms. Merkel’s CDU, conservatism was condemned to resignation. That provided the emotional impulse to establish the AfD.
But Ms. Petry was just as interested in power as her predecessor Bernd Lucke, who also once attempted to set out some red lines for his party and to situate it on the political terrain that the CDU has abandoned in recent years. It is a clear irony that Ms. Petry’s downfall was brought about by the very forces she once used to topple Mr. Lucke.
It is those forces that are keeping the AfD from becoming a serious conservative party. The underlying impulse of its policies is anger at all forms of political correctness. This is why the party considers esoteric radical positions more legitimate than the attempts to limit them.
The AfD is a party that unleashes its own energies – which makes it pretty much the opposite of a conservative force. It yearns for upheaval. It doesn’t cut a better figure by using the terms that once laid out the conservative view of the world: family, “volk” and fatherland. Interpreted generously, these are nostalgic musings. Seen more critically, they represent resentments toward other ways of living; toward the host of foreigners that sully the AfD’s image of homeland and European heritage.
This disappointment and unfulfilled sense of longing is pushing the AfD into emotional and ideological realms. It marks a reverse of the process that the CDU went through. as Angela Merkel increasingly tended toward objectivity, pragmatism and consensus. It appeared easy for a politician socialized in East Germany to shove aside the conservatism of the old West-German CDU.
But even more crucial than Merkel’s biographical foreignness was the fact that conservatism turned out to be not a help but a hindrance for Ms. Merkel. She felt obliged to offer political answers to social, economic and global developments. She sought out viable solutions – for the labor market, education and immigration. She wanted to keep up with changes, not preserve or even restore familiar conditions. And the more conservatives reacted uncomfortably to Ms. Merkel’s unsentimental modernization, the more marginal they became in German politics. That is, while she herself failed to offer original proposals,
In Ms. Merkel’s CDU, conservatism was condemned to resignation. That provided the emotional impulse to establish the AfD. But the AfD is just as incapable as the CDU of solving the contradiction between conservative urges and accelerating social and economic conditions. In a modern society, even a party like the AfD is forced to deal with the forces of emancipation and globalization. It’s almost impossible to take this reality into account and simultaneously be pro-family, nationalist and anti-foreigner.
A stand has to be taken on one side or the other. Ms. Merkel chose an unsentimental, realistic course that neglected the needs of conservatives. In contrast, the AfD exalts conservative ideals, despite the fact that they constantly collide with their environment –one they view as increasingly hostile and foreign. This has given rise to a sullen displeasure that conservatives in the CDU have long radiated and now defines the atmosphere of the AfD. Instead of taking up the legacy of conservatism, the AfD is turning into a party of rabid, reactionary radicalism.
Only one party in Germany has managed during decades of rapid development to maintain a balance between conservatism and optimism about progress. The CSU has managed not only to endure the tension between ideology and reality, between conservative commitment and the dynamics of change, but also to turn it into a trademark. It elevated contradiction into a political program.
The quip by Franz Josef Strauß, a long-time CSU leader, that you have to hold your principles high enough to slip underneath shows how this can be done. That is, with a winking readiness to embrace paradox. The CSU has never turned its back on pragmatic solutions as long as they could be camouflaged as conservative or folkloric.
As long as the AfD appear incapable and Ms. Merkel remains unwilling to fill the conservative gap, the more exclusively the Bavarian model will shine.
However, this attitude can’t be transferred into national politics. Rather, the CSU’s is a historically unique and Bavaria-specific model consisting of economic strength, a down-to-earth mentality, efficiency and self-confidenc. This isn’t even guaranteed to last forever even in Bavaria, which became clear when the party lost its absolute majority in state parliament in 2008.
The rise of the AfD, who suddenly were competing for voters within the far-right fringe of the CSU, further chipped away at morale. This was the moment when Horst Seehofer’s jovial conservatism switched to populism. Then came the refugee crisis, which further revealed the limits of even the Bavarian model. Mr. Seehofer’s aggression toward Ms. Merkel simply covered that over. Only the upcoming federal elections have brought him back on course. Now he has even backtracked from his announcement to resign.
Part of this is doubtlessly the conviction of an aging politician who believes he is irreplaceable. But another factor is that after Mr. Seehofer, there is no one on the horizon who could effectively maintain the endangered project of a conservatism that is still open to the future.
As long as the AfD appear incapable and Ms. Merkel remains unwilling to fill the conservative gap, the more exclusively the Bavarian model will shine. And with it, the man at the top. Mr. Seehofer wasn’t one to resist the temptation of looking good. Perhaps he will be able to preserve conservatism for a while – at least in Bavaria.
Matthias Geis is a Berlin-based journalist at DIE ZEIT, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org