Seventy-six years ago, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was founded. For a long time, it has been Germany’s party of stability and economic success. Sure, the ‘union’ has had its problems. Now, it is preparing to lead the next government as well.
Berlin, June 26th, 2020. Update: July 12th, 2021 (The Berlin Spectator) — June 17th is an important date in Germany’s recent history. In 1953, people stood up against the GDR’s communist leadership on that day, in what is known as the East German Uprising. The protests were crushed by the Soviet army which had defeated Nazi Germany with the Americans, the British and the French a few years earlier.
Eight years before those protests, to the day, when Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender had just happened, political activists drafted the Cologne Principles. “National Socialism plunged Germany into a disaster that is unprecedented in its long history”, it says in the document. Germans had fallen “into racial pride and a nationalist frenzy of power.”
Nine days later, on June 26th, 1945, seventy-six years and sixteen days ago, the Cologne Principles were the basis the Christian-Democratic Union (‘Christlich-Demokratische Union’) or CDU was founded on, a democratic party which would be guided by Christian values. Striving for freedom and democracy after twelve years of Nazi terror was what the CDU wanted.
Seven decades later, in late 2017, Angela Merkel, the CDU’s Chancellor, was confronted with countless problems. First, it took her months to form a new government coalition, since her partner of choice, the FDP, pulled out of the coalition talks without any obvious reason. Then it took a long time to get the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to do it again.
Once that was done, with the help of President Frank Walter Steinmeier, Merkels junior partner in her new government coalition had to resolve big leadership problems. But this was not the end of the turbulence in Mrs. Merkel’s government. Just months later, Horst Seehofer of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian version, and some of his colleagues in Munich almost crushed the coalition by staging a big argument about refugees.
Their motive: They wanted to look at least as determined to stop the flow of refugees into Germany as the extremist right-wing AfD, shortly before the state elections in Bavaria took place. The strategy backfired. Instead of gaining, the CSU lost in the polls. So they switched back to a pro-Merkel course.
Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany since 2005. Like the late Helmut Kohl before her, she will have been at the Chancellery for 16 years when she leaves later this year. Contrary to Kohl’s approach, Merkel moved the CDU towards the left, into the political center. Some called her “the better Social Democrat”.
Her biggest success might have been steering Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, through the 2008 financial crisis quite well, as well as the 2015 refugee crisis. What the latter challenge is concerned, she was constantly attacked, not only by the far-right. But what should she have done? Say “Stay away”, while hundreds of thousands of refugees were already on their way?
After the refugee crisis, quite a few observers expected the end of the Merkel era to come soon. In some cases it was wishful thinking, in others just the outcome of analysis. Was Merkel a fading star? Many observers agreed. And all of them were wrong.
A bit later, she was more favored than ever. Dr. Angela Dorothea Merkel, a former GDR citizen born in Hamburg, embodies the CDU. Just like her party, Germany’s last major one, she is a pillar of stability. When Corona reached Germany, her popularity reached a new peak because she steered the country through the beginning of yet another crisis quite well, with her scientific no-nonsense approach.
Merkel, a scientist herself, was and still is into all details of Corona, she follows the research and incorporates the latest into her policies. Angela Merkel is not a fading star, but a superstar. Even though she officially passed on the CDU chair to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (a 24-letter name), before Armin Laschet took over more recently, she never stopped leading the party. Whenever something hit the fan that did not smell too good, Angela Merkel dealt with it.
Twenty-three years ago, in 1998, the late Helmut Kohl, also known as the “Reunification Chancellor” lost the elections to the opposition after a reign that lasted 16 years. The Social Democrats and the Greens took over, which also meant that Angela Merkel lost her job as Environment Minister. A year later, the CDU’s party donations scandal erupted.
Merkel was the party’s secretary general in 1999, and the only prominent CDU member who knew how to deal with Kohl. He refused to name the party’s contributors after the scandal broke. Via a courageous opinion piece in a daily, Mrs. Merkel told Kohl to face the consequences and step down as Honorary Chairman.
When Wolfgang Schäuble, today’s President of the Bundestag, got entangled in the scandal as well because of contradicting statements on the matter, he had to step down from the party chair. This was Angela Merkel’s hour. In the year 2000, she became the CDU’s first chairlady. This is how it happened.
But the CDU is a lot more than Merkel, Schäuble or Kohl. The first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer and his successors Erhard and Kiesinger ruled the young republic when the economic miracle, also known as the Miracle on the Rhine, kicked in and West Germany became a big player.
Before Angela Merkel, all CDU governments, from Adenauer to Kohl, were old-fashioned in their beliefs and approaches. Some issues persist even today. For instance, women are still underrepresented in the party and the government. Armin Laschet, who will likely become the next Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, has vowed to change things in this regard.
The CDU is not the party known for fighting for women’s rights. It is not the party known for fighting for same-sex marriage or an end to discrimination against homosexuals. It is not the party that reached out to the student revolution. But it is capable of learning. Modernizing the party was not really possible under Helmut Kohl. Therefore, this process started rather late, but it is ongoing.
During the Corona crisis, many leading CDU and CSU politicians did a good job. Angela Merkel herself was attacked for her Corona policies by some media, even though she acted wisely and resolutely most of the time. Who insisted on caution at moments when everyone else wanted to reopen everything? Angela Merkel. Angela Merkel. Who had to make First Ministers in Germany’s federal states follow their own decisions? Angela Merkel. And who turned out to be right every time? Angela Merkel.
Most German democrats, meaning those who support democracy and reject extremist parties like the AfD, are aware of the fact that the CDU is more important than ever. Germany needs this party, this pillar of stability. Especially in this crisis, its competence in the field of economy is essential. At times, the Christian Democrats have to be reminded of the importance of social aspects. That is what the center-left and left-wing parties do whenever they have the opportunity.
This is the dawn of a new era. Angela Merkel is leaving. Armin Laschet, the First Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, who did not always do a good job during the ongoing Corona crisis, is taking over. All in all, he stands for a continuation of his predecessor’s heading. Like Merkel, he is a moderate conservative. Judging from his most recent interviews, he is in the process of growing into his new role, also by becoming more statesmanlike.
Armin Laschet has big shoes to fill and big tasks to work on. One of those is to make sure there is unity, after a rather ugly fight for the position of candidate for Chancellor. His former opponent Markus Söder, the First Minister of Bavaria and today’s chairman of the CSU, would have been a more convincing candidate in the eyes of his own people in Munich, but also some in the CDU.
Together, the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian-Social Union (CSU) are known as “the union parties”. Even some opponents on the left know Germany needs them. According to the polls, they will likely win the elections by a large margin. Winning will not be a problem. Finding the right coalition partner(s) is the difficult part. The CDU’s most natural junior partner is the FDP, but these two parties will most likely not be strong enough to govern on their own.
Only very recently, Laschet’s CDU came up with an election manifesto. Its main points are are strong Europe, a strong Euro, a growing economy, no tax increases and no tax cuts, jobs for everyone, limiting energy prices, making the world of work more family-friendly, a stepped up fight against crime and providing affordable housing. Strengthening the economy and fighting climate change are the priorities the CDU is naming.
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