June 26, 1945 is a day that will never be forgotten in the founding history of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
Exactly 70 years ago, the 35 party signatories stood in the ruins of the capital and declared what many would continue to deny for a long time: after 12 years of National Socialist rule, Germany had ceased to be a civilized nation.
“We are about to inherit a terrible legacy – the wreckage of our moral values and material assets,” the so-called “Berlin Appeal” said. It was clear to the signatories that the Nazi regime had followed a scorched earth policy from both a material and an intellectual viewpoint. “There is significant guilt in large parts of our populace, who were only too willing to stoop to act as Hitler’s henchmen and helpers.”
This unsparing analysis was so far ahead of its time that it was quickly forgotten. After the war ended, the people who had been so eager to follow the Führer’s orders seemed to have been transformed as if by a miracle into a community of Hitler opponents. Suddenly, many people were claiming to have resisted the regime – even if it was only through forbidden purchases and sales on the black market.
The debate over the Nazi era was soon pushed into the background in the face of widespread hardship and the urgent need for redevelopment. “We won’t make the slightest progress in Europe if we’re constantly looking back at the past,” said Wilhelm Zangen, the former head of the Reich Industry Group and by then director general of German steel company Mannesmannröhren-Werke, in January 1948, summing up the prevailing opinion in West Germany at the time.
The collective hushing up of things everyone was aware of, or at least suspected – the prohibition of trade unions and political parties other than the National Socialists, the construction of concentration camps, racial laws, pogroms against Jews, the unleashing of World War II, genocides in the extermination camps – must have left many founding members of the CDU deeply depressed.
Wherever Christian party groups sprang up spontaneously and independently of each other in post-war Germany, they had one thing in common: one in two of the original Christian Democrats had actually opposed Hitler or had been a member of resistance groups. That’s an impressive figure given the symbiotic relationship between Hitler and his people.
“A significant proportion of the CDU's founders in 1945 were made up of survivors of resistance groups.”
Unlike the regime’s accomplices, the founders of the CDU could tell it like it was even as early as 1945, because they were not judging the Nazi era from the perspective of the culprits or the sympathizers. They understood the era from the victims’ perspective.
The publicist Eugen Kogon, for example, a co-founder of the CDU in Frankfurt, was arrested by the Gestapo multiple times and deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939. The Americans liberated him from there in 1945.
The former centrist politician, Hanna Gerig, a co-founder of the new party in Cologne, was also among those persecuted by the Nazi regime. Her husband was interned at the Cologne-Deutz exhibition center in 1944 and later died in Buchenwald concentration camp. Hanna Gerig’s courageous commitment to prisoners at the camp in Deutz earned her the honorary title of “angel of the exhibition halls.”
Andreas Hermes, co-founder of the CDU in Berlin, was involved in the resistance against Hitler and was arrested following the assassination attempt on 20 July 1944 and sentenced to death in January 1945. His wife managed to get his execution deferred and the capture of Berlin by Soviet troops saved Mr. Hermes from the rope.
These are just three examples of many. In Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt, in Stuttgart, Düsseldorf and Essen, CDU founders invoked the “catacomb spirit” of the Nazi era, a time of extreme tension and danger, of existential fear and hope. Many of them had been brave enough to risk their lives in the underground battle against the criminal regime, to create a future society of freedom and human dignity.
“A significant proportion of the CDU’s founders in 1945 were made up of survivors of resistance groups,” political scientist A.R.L. Gurland said in his groundbreaking book on the origins and development of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. This fact would have a critical influence on Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in its early years.
A study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a political foundation associated with but independent of the CDU, emphasizes that the formation of the CDU after the end of World War II not only marked a break in the history of German party politics, but also sent out a lasting signal that this was the beginning of a new democracy.
According to the study, “the CDU managed to bring together those strengths that had developed during the time of persecution by the Nazis, by emphasizing its Christian foundations without the requirement for a specific denominational affiliation and by consciously turning away from the tradition of fragmentation in German parties.”
The integration of former National Socialists, discreetly hushed up by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was the third key achievement of the Christian Democratic Union - and its most controversial one.
The CDU has historically been credited with uniting Catholics and Protestants in one party for the first time and thus finally putting an end to the Kulturkampf, the culture struggle started by Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s, when he specifically discriminated against Catholics in the newly unified German empire. The policy backfired as Catholics came together politically and formed the Center Party. The party, an important force in both the Kaiserreich and Weimar Republic, was banned under the Nazis.
After their shared martyrdom in the Gestapo’s jails and concentration camps, the CDU’s founders felt it was senseless and anachronistic to divide political parties along denominational lines.
At the time if its founding, the CDU managed to win over not only large parts of the middle classes, but a significant proportion of the working classes too. This ability to bridge the gap between the classes was the party’s second key achievement in terms of integration. “Among the survivors who carried on the tradition of the resistance groups into the new political structure,” says A.R.L. Gurland, “exponents of the Catholic labor movement were in leading positions.”
Christian trade unionists, like the resistance fighter and later federal minister Jakob Kaiser and the future premier of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Karl Arnold, advocated a new beginning, both morally and and economically. They called for the nationalization of “key enterprises that resembled monopolies” and for a “true Christian socialism.”
The left-wing of the CDU reached the peak of its systematic powers of self-assertion with the “Ahlen Program” of 1947. This stated that the aim of “social and economic reorganization cannot be the capitalist pursuit of profit and power, but only the welfare of our people.” Advocates of the program believed that key industries needed to be nationalized and called for a certain amount of “planning and steering of the economy, even in normal times.”
By 1949, however, the tide had already turned. In the “Düsseldorf Principles” the CDU pledged itself to a social market economy, which stood “in stark contrast” to any kind of planned economic system. Two politicians in particular were responsible for the about-face: future Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his economy minister Ludwig Erhard.
Mr. Adenauer, whom the National Socialists had deposed as mayor of Cologne in 1933, had survived the Nazi era and continuously expanded his influence within the CDU. He warned with some urgency against any alternative involving a planned economy.
Mr. Erhard had been doing very good business with the Nazi authorities since 1942 as head of the Institute for Industrial Research. He had not only significantly influenced the “Düsseldorf Principles,” but had also created precedents as director of the Bizonal Economic Council with the currency and economic reform of June 1948.
Mr. Erhard largely abolished the previous system for regulating business, replaced the reichsmark with a new currency, the deutsche mark, and introduced a social market economy. The plans for economic reorganization drawn up by the resistance fighters no longer played any part in the CDU, unlike with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD).
This was associated with a “shift in environment” within the party and the federal republic it was shaping, away from its roots in resistance. The integration of former National Socialists, discreetly hushed up by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was the third key achievement of the CDU – and, of course, also its most controversial one.
While the influence of the party’s founders waned, former National Socialists and officials who had built a career in the Nazi party rose to ever higher positions on the CDU ticket.
One example is Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had been a member of the Nazi party since February 1933 and became a division head in Hitler’s foreign ministry, directly below the political management level. Mr. Kiesinger, a lawyer, was responsible for links with the ministry of propaganda and for combating “enemy radio stations.” Having been arrested by U.S. officers in April 1945 and released again after 18 months, the reformed CDU politician embarked on a steep career trajectory within the party. In 1947, he became regional manager of the CDU for Württemberg-Hohenzollern. By 1958, he was premier of Baden-Württemberg state and in 1966 Federal Chancellor of the first coalition government.
Theodor Oberländer, who joined the National Socialist party in May 1933, worked in the Nazi regional office for East Prussia, where he was responsible for monitoring national minorities. The agronomist and Eastern Europe specialist later served as a race expert in the SS paramilitary organization, had a career in the secret service and rose to the rank of advisor to the Armed Forces High Command.
After being held captive by the Americans in 1945/46, Mr. Oberländer became a member of the Bavarian state parliament in 1950. In 1953, Konrad Adenauer brought him into his cabinet as federal minister for displaced persons, refugees and war victims.
Hans Globke’s application to join the Nazi party was unsuccessful, due to his previous membership of the Center Party. However, the administrative-law expert had more influence in the Reich ministry of the interior than any other assistant head of a government department. Mr. Globke ensured that a “J” was stamped on the passports of Jews to stigmatize them. With the law that he drafted on changes to forenames and surnames – Jewish women were given the additional name “Sara” and Jewish men were now called “Israel” – Mr. Globke created the administrative conditions for the Holocaust. He also made his mark as a commentator on the Nuremberg race laws. In 1953, he took up a post as head of the Office of the Federal Chancellor.
These are just three examples of many. There are a great deal more. There’s Hans Filbinger, who once imposed death sentences as a judge in the Navy and later became premier of Baden-Württemberg. There’s Federal President Heinrich Lübke, who was responsible from 1943 onwards for the use of concentration camp prisoners at the army’s research institute in Peenemünde. They all used the CDU as a stepping stone for their careers.
By 1946, the Americans had lost interest in the “de-Nazification” of Germany. The Cold War was looming and the former National Socialists were, after all, staunch anti-Communists. At the same time, Mr. Adenauer was granted his request, first raised in March 1946, that “sympathizers” of the regime should now “finally be left in peace. … They can join our party.”
The integration of former elite Nazis into the party still leaves an uneasy feeling today, as they rejected any responsibility for what had happened. Their attempts at justification offer ample material illustrating the “inability to mourn” diagnosed by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in 1967.
Mr. Lübke, for example, denied the existence of a concentration camp during his time in Peenemünde. Mr. Filbinger justified the death sentences based on the law in place at that time. Mr. Oberländer emphasized that he had supported an improvement rather than a deterioration in conditions of imprisonment for Soviet prisoners of war. Mr. Globke pointed out that he had intended the Nuremberg race laws to protect “mixed marriages.” And Mr. Kiesinger declared that he joined the Nazi party in 1933 to counteract anti-Semitic racial propaganda. This lie earned him a slap in the face from Beate Klarsfeld at the CDU party conference in Berlin in 1968, in full public view.
The absence of any significant mourning in society has a lot to do with the “economic miracle” and the reinterpretation of biographies. This reinterpretation has turned supporters of the Nazi regime and people who benefited from it into opponents of the regime. This also applies to the icon of the “economic miracle,” Ludwig Erhard. This term was used to describe the rapid rebuilding and development of West Germany after the war.
Mr. Erhard, the brother-in-law of the managing director of the Reich Industry Group, had excellent contacts with both the Reich Group and the Reich ministry of the economy. Having been awarded the War Merit Cross Second Class, he got involved in the post-war plans of the Reich Group and the ministry in 1943-1944. Otto Ohlendorf, the head of the regime’s security services had joined the ministry in 1943 as deputy state secretary. He placed the post-war planners under the protection of the security service head office.
Whether it was about currency reform, pricing policy or balancing German industrial capacity, Mr. Erhard gave Mr. Ohlendorf to understand that his institution was “especially called upon” to deal with these issues. He did good business with Mr. Ohlendorf.
There is no doubt that Mr. Erhard knew who he was mixed up with. He no longer mentioned Mr. Ohlendorf’s name after the end of the war and did not respond to requests from former patrons for character references for the de-Nazification process. Many years later, Mr. Erhard heard that a copy of his position paper on “War financing and debt consolidation,” written for the post-war planners, had got into the hands of resistance fighter Karl Gördeler. Mr. Erhard now believed he actually remembered writing the position paper for Mr. Gördeler. Sources close to Mr. Erhard said that he had “risked his neck” at the time.
He also turned himself into a former resistance fighter. Mr. Erhard had not opposed the regime, but rather collected orders from behind the protective shield of the Reich security head office, the control center of the SS empire. Like so many would-be oppositionists, the icon of the “economic miracle” did not spend the Nazi era in the catacombs of resistance, but in the corridors of Nazi power.
Michael Brackmann is an editor at Handelsblatt’s central news desk. To contact the author: email@example.com.