German Conservatism Is Making a Comeback

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany during a government meeting near the city of Gransee on Thursday. Credit Axel Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany during a government meeting near the city of Gransee on Thursday. Credit Axel Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After years of Angela Merkel’s formless centrism and the rise of the far right, is German conservatism making a comeback? Last Saturday the Werteunion, or Union of Values, met in the small town of Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg, to adopt what its members called the “conservative manifesto.” Their mission: taking back their party from Ms. Merkel’s faction and redirecting it to its traditional, conservative roots.

The Werteunion was founded in March 2017, but the event in Schwetzingen, the group’s first national meeting, was also the first time most people in Germany had heard of it. Whether it gains traction, and whether its principles change as it grows, remain to be seen. But there’s no argument that the Werteunion fills a hole in the political landscape, and responds to the rightward tilt of many voters. It’s not too early to ask: Will the Werteunion render the resurgent far right obsolete? Or will it legitimize it?

Alexander Mitsch, one of the Werteunion’s founders, is typical of the new German conservative. He joined the Christian Democrats in the early 1980s, he told me, when Helmut Kohl first became chancellor. He engaged in local politics, but left when his career in the private sector took off.

Flash forward to the fall of 2015, when the images of tens of thousands of migrants and refugees crossing the German border became daily television fodder. Mr. Mitsch said he felt that the state was failing, and that he needed to act: “I did not want my children to ask me one day, ‘Dad, you knew back then, so why didn’t you do anything?’”

Like many Germans, and not only those on the right, Mr. Mitsch says he is worried that political Islam could change the country. He feels that the Western European culture needs to be defended. He demands a full stop of immigration until the country can process the pile of open asylum cases. And he is convinced that the Christian Democratic Union won’t retrieve its conservative roots as long as it is led by Angela Merkel.

According to Mr. Mitsch, the Werteunion has more than 1,000 members nationwide — a tiny fraction of the Christian Democrats’ 420,000 members. But there’s a reason its meeting in a small western German town made national news: The nation’s politics are changing rapidly, and there’s a sense that everything is up for grabs.

The Werteunion is also a sign of a larger trend. For about a decade, conservatism seemed to be vanishing from a German society intent on becoming ever more progressive. In recent months, however, conservative intellectuals and policymakers have started to speak up.

A few weeks ago, Uwe Tellkamp, one of Germany’s most renowned novelists, claimed that “95 percent” of immigrants were not really refugees, but migrants seeking a better living. He’s wrong — in 2017, 43 percent of all immigrants applying for asylum were granted humanitarian status — and Mr. Tellkamp faced harsh criticism for using false figures in such a charged debate.

But his comments also caught fire on the right. A group of conservative publicists and intellectuals published a “declaration” of solidarity, signed initially by some 30 people, members of a conservative salon. As of this week, the declaration, expressing concern over “Germany being damaged by illegal mass immigration,” has more than 100,000 signatories.

Traditionally, the anchor of German conservatism in the Bundestag has been the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. In the run-up to this year’s state elections in Bavaria, it too has been hardening its position on immigration and integration, explicitly to block the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German abbreviation AfD.

“If we talk and act in a manner that broad groups have painfully missed recently, we can render the AfD obsolete,” said Alexander Dobrindt, who heads the Christian Social Union’s caucus at the Bundestag.

In January, Mr. Dobrindt published his own conservative manifesto in the German newspaper Die Welt. The majority in Germany, he writes, thinks and feels “bürgerlich” — a term often rendered in English as “civic,” but in German, it also encompasses a sense of tradition, orderliness and normality. According to Mr. Dobrindt, the “civic” majority is underrepresented in the public debate, which, he claims, is dominated by left-leaning opinion leaders. It is time, he writes, for a “conservative revolution.”

But what would be gained if the AfD vanishes yet populist thought seeps into mainstream politics?

On the one hand, the “new conservatives” share some of the tangible policy positions held by the AfD — a reduction in immigration, repatriation of migrants, stronger domestic security policies. These are not new conservative policies per se, and they are a part of mainstream politics. But with the traditional right embracing them so loudly in the context of a resurgent far right, there’s no question that the far right itself is gaining ground as an ideology. There’s a new radicalism in the new conservatism.

Like the AfD, the new conservatives see immigration not just as a practical problem that poses difficulties for the welfare system, integration, housing and security. Many frame it as an existential threat to Germany’s national identity, and to “the Occident” more broadly. “Existential” threats can legitimize extraordinary measures.

Many new conservatives like to think of themselves as rebels against the Merkelian status quo. They often call themselves the “silent majority,” large in number but underrepresented in the country’s news media and political institutions. It’s an old trope, and not unique to Germany, but again, context matters — and in today’s climate, it reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with our democratic system.

The implication is that the system does not recognize the true interests of society. It also suggests that the system can no longer be changed by democratic deliberation, but that a more fundamental opposition may be needed, and a deposing of the elites allegedly manipulating the system in their favor. In brief, the new conservatism is populist.

Their words betray them. The term “conservative revolution,” which Mr. Dobrindt used in his Die Welt essay, goes back to Armin Mohler, a journalist who in the 1950s was the private secretary to the far-right novelist Ernst Jünger. Mohler published a history of the conservative anti-democrats of the 1920s, who embraced the phrase and, in doing so, arguably made it easier for Nazism to rise a few years later.

The historical allusion may not have been intended. Mr. Dobrindt appears to see himself as a longtime and upright conservative fighting the evil of populism, reclaiming some of the key concepts the far right has snatched from German conservatives during times of ideological neglect: patriotism, the nation, “Heimat” (or “home”). This may be authentic. The question is: Will the semantic magic work? Or will the embrace of far-right ideas as “bürgerlich” politics render them acceptable to the German public?

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

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