Are Germany’s Christian Democrats Headed for a Rupture?

Are Germany’s Christian Democrats Headed for a Rupture?

Are Germany’s Christian Democrats Headed for a Rupture?

In a time of growing inequality, the free-market fundamentalists almost won the fight to succeed Angela Merkel as party leader—and they’re not going away.


The Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) is an organization whose founding dates, in a certain sense, to the moment in April of 1945 when an American army jeep pulled up at a house near Bonn and a soldier got out to see whether Konrad Adenauer still happened to be alive.

Adenauer, as he relates in his memoirs, had waited out the last days of the war in his wine cellar with 17 other people, but he did happen to be alive, and so the Americans reinstalled him as mayor of Cologne, the position he had held before 1933. From the rubble, Adenauer and his colleagues then helped build their country’s first stable democratic government, with Adenauer as the chancellor of West Germany and leader of the CDU.

One thousand and one delegates of this party, which is Germany’s largest, gathered in Hamburg last week to choose a successor to the woman who had been their leader since April 2000, Angela Merkel. Although Merkel intends to stay on as chancellor of Germany until the scheduled end of her term in 2021, her departure from the party leadership marks the beginning of the end of her political career, after 13 years as the head of government.

There is now a generation of people in Germany that has never known another leader. And yet, while watching the proceedings, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Hamburg convention had as much to do with Adenauer’s legacy as it did with Merkel’s.

Adenauer—and his economics minister and successor Ludwig Erhard—are associated with the concept of the “social market economy,” a kind of moderated capitalism where the state’s main job is to protect the individual against abuses of power. Adenauer was very clear in his writings that such abuses can be perpetrated just as much by private actors who manipulate markets as they can by the state, or by any bureaucracy.

Adenauer and others of his generation believed that their project was rooted in what they had learned about how a society slides into dictatorship and war. Nationalism, abuses of economic power, and social exclusion led to political dysfunction. To prevent a recurrence, the political and economic system had to create “prosperity for all,” which was the title of Ludwig Erhard’s famous 1957 treatise on the social market economy.

Adenauer and Erhard were conservative men, but you wouldn’t say they were “pro-business,” for they didn’t see politics as a place to engage on the side of business against other interests in society. Instead, the purpose of politics was to promote stability and to overcome class conflict through compromise.

In Hamburg, Merkel got her preferred candidate, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, elected leader over Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary leader whom Merkel pushed out years ago. But Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK) won with only 52 percent of the vote. Merz represents the extreme pro-business tendency within the CDU and was trying to make a political comeback after several years in the private sector. What has been missed in all the discussion about Merkel’s legacy is just how close the CDU came to putting itself in the hands of a market fundamentalist and throwing away any pretense of following the broader political and social vision of its founding fathers.

One thing was clear going into the convention: AKK was definitely not the candidate of the party’s free marketeers. The very serious business pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung fretted that “on economic issues AKK stands even closer to the Social Democrats (SPD) than Merkel does.”

As premier of the far-western state of Saarland and, since February 2018, as the CDU’s general secretary, AKK has developed a reputation for tilting left on economic issues, but right on cultural ones. She has described the problem of poverty as an “explosive device” in German society, but also favors restrictions on abortion, opposes gay marriage, and would approve deporting criminals back to war-torn Syria.

AKK is no progressive, but she seems to embody the socially conscious Rhineland capitalism of the CDU’s founders, rooted in Catholicism and passionate about European integration and Franco-German cooperation.

Merz was the candidate of the 1 percent, to which, despite a newfound reluctance to brag about his wealth, he certainly belongs, thanks to his years as a big-time corporate lawyer for the American firm Mayer Brown and as a director of the German subsidiary of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm.

It is from his American employers, one presumes, that Merz absorbed the kind of thinking that had him recently telling Bild Zeitung how, private plane notwithstanding, he was really just an ordinary member of the “upper middle class.” Linguistically, this phrase in German (gehobener Mittelschicht) sounds somehow foreign, as though along with American inequality the Germans have had to import the euphemisms we use to hide it.

Back when he was in parliament, Merz was always the guy showing up with the right-wing American economic ideas, like the one about how things would be better for everyone if only we could file our taxes on a postcard.

Since this is Germany, in Merz’s version of 1-percent populism, people were going to file on a beer coaster, not a postcard. But just like in the United States, this idea, which went nowhere, had little to do with reducing paperwork and a lot to do with cutting taxes for the rich—and services for everybody else.

This fall, Merz went about the country detailing to his compatriots the manifold glories of the defined-contribution retirement plan. It should have been an easy sell. After all, ask any American who also happens to be a lawyer at Mayer Brown, and they’ll tell you how much better life is when you don’t have a pension.

But then, Merz never was known for having the common touch. Once, when he was still in parliament, he forgot his laptop at the taxi stand outside a Berlin train station. A homeless man found it and turned it in to the police. Merz was so grateful that he had a signed copy of his latest book on the advantages of trickle-down economics, The End of the Prosperity Illusion, sent over to the homeless shelter.

Even with Merkel’s backing, AKK barely beat this guy. A swing of only 18 votes would have brought Germany’s version of Paul Ryan to within a hair’s breadth of the leadership of Europe’s most powerful country. With some disillusioned Merz supporters now grumbling about splitting from the CDU, and AKK pledging to find a way to work with Merz to keep the party together, it’s clear the views this wing of the party represents aren’t going away.

Around the time Merkel announced she was leaving politics, a think tank published its periodic “Distribution Report” showing that both “persistent poverty” and “consolidated wealth” in Germany were increasing and that, since reunification in 1990, the rich and poor have become increasingly likely to stay firmly planted on their assigned ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The Distribution Report was criticized by some for using a measure of relative poverty, rather than the absolute kind historically favored by those analysts who, once encumbered with awareness of the less fortunate, have always and ever responded by asking whether there are no workhouses. Some people just don’t see inequality in the absence of famine as a problem. Others, like the authors of the Distribution Report, argue that, since income determines “to what extent [a] person can participate in society,” the political consequences of inequality can be subtle and insidious, even when the poor are adequately fed and housed. One imagines the postwar generation would have understood what they meant.

“When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history,” Merkel declared this summer. It’s a good line, but it has a fatalistic ring to it, almost as if Merkel, after 18 years at the helm of Adenauer’s party, already knows the answer.

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