One day in the turbulent fall of 2015, Peter Tauber, secretary general of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), lost his temper. Angela Merkel, the CDU’s leader and German chancellor, had recently decided to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and her “welcome culture” was splitting not only the nation but also her party. At a closed meeting of Christian Democrats, passions flared. “Whoever isn’t with Angela Merkel is an asshole and is free to leave,” Mr. Tauber reportedly blurted out.
Unwittingly, Mr. Tauber had put his finger on the essence of the CDU since its founding just after the Second World War. It has always stood less for any particular worldview and more for a general promise of stability, competence, and assurance, from which it derived a claim to field the chancellor. The Christian Democrats have won 12 of the 18 parliamentary elections since 1949, and are favored to win their 13th next week. They have governed Germany for 48 of the past 68 years and given the country five of its eight chancellors.
Whereas their arch-rivals, the Social Democrats, are notorious for infighting, Christian Democrats tend to rally around their leaders when it matters. Short on ideology, long on loyalty and organization, they have earned themselves a fitting sobriquet: Kanzlerwahlverein, or “club for the election of chancellors”.
As a party, the Christian Democratic Union was founded not long after Germany’s “zero hour” of 1945. The remnants of various centrist parties of the failed Weimar Republic coalesced, embracing both Catholic and Protestant movements – hence the “Union” of “Christians” who were “Democrats”. Thanks to the preponderance of priests in the party’s early base, rivals mocked it as “black” for the clerical robes. The CDU liked the suggestion, and adopted black as its color, as did its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Various other (often conflicting) interest groups, from pro-business conservatives to Catholic socialists, gathered in the party as well.
From the start, being in power mattered more to the CDU than specific domestic policies. The party’s, and West Germany’s, first chancellor was Konrad Adenauer, a former mayor of Cologne and anti-Nazi. His main legacy was to anchor West Germany firmly in the West. This meant that Germany was “bound” within a transatlantic alliance to America, and through European integration to France. Short on other details, the CDU presented itself as anti-Communist and united behind its leader. Its campaign slogan in 1957 — Keine Experimente! (“No experiments!”) – was one of its most successful ever, and in its simple message still captures the party today.
The CDU also became associated with Germany’s “Social Market Economy”, which is associated with Ludwig Erhard, West Germany’s first postwar economics minister and second Christian Democrat chancellor, from 1963-66. (Erhard, however, was not partisan by character, and only became a party member retroactively in the 1960s.) This economic model, sometimes nicknamed “Rhineland capitalism” abroad, advocates free markets and a hawkish approach to monetary and antitrust policy, but also a strong safety net for society’s weaker members. The CDU has thus always been far to the left of America’s Republicans, for example.
After a forgettable next chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the Christian Democrats next occupied the chancellery in 1982, with Helmut Kohl. A towering, bumbling provincial, he too appeared destined for forgettability, until history caught up with him in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Against many odds, he succeeded in reunifying the divided country in less than a year, then went on to become Germany’s longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismarck a century before him. Angela Merkel began her political career in his cabinet; dismissively, he called her “the girl”.
As a childless, divorced, East German, Protestant woman, Ms. Merkel needed a few years to navigate a party that was still dominated by Catholic men from western Germany. But after she upstaged the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder in a tight election in 2005, she imposed her will, and the party, as is its wont, rallied around her. Even by Christian Democrat standards, Ms. Merkel has proved unideological. The CDU had long supported military conscription; Ms. Merkel ended the draft. The party had favored nuclear power; Ms. Merkel decided to phase it out. The CDU opposed gay marriage; Ms. Merkel, this June, allowed a vote to legalize it.
“We came to the conclusion that the question 'What does the CDU stand for?' was difficult to answer.”
So much flexibility can be confusing, even for party stalwarts. “We came to the conclusion that the question ‘What does the CDU stand for?’ was difficult to answer,” one disgruntled Christian Democrat, Jürgen Rüttgers, said in 2010, after a failed bid for reelection as North Rhine-Westphalia’s state premier. But thanks to its inexhaustible pragmatism, the party has stayed relevant for seven decades — through secularization, the fall of Communism and today’s multipolar and multicultural era.
True to the moniker Kanzlerwahlverein, what matters most to the CDU’s base is the office of chancellor. That’s why turnout among Christian Democrats is higher in federal elections than in regional and local ones, according to Manfred Güllner, a pollster. This is good news for Ms. Merkel, as she coasts to her fourth term and a continuation of the CDU’s reign. It is not yet clear with whom she will form a coalition, nor whom she will groom as her eventual successor. But as she likes to say, “we’ve always found somebody.” For the Christian Democrats, that wouldn’t make a bad motto.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.