Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Germany: A tale of two conservatisms

Merkel is facing a slow moving political crisis caused by a schism between mainstream and far-right conservatism.

Photo: Florian Gaertner/Getty
Photo: Florian Gaertner/Getty
Published 2 Oct 2018 

It was a political scandal that cooler heads could so easily have resolved: Hans-Georg Maaßen, President of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, publicly expressed ‘scepticism’ that footage showing migrants being chased by right-wing demonstrators through the streets of Chemnitz was authentic, directly contradicting the statements of his Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Stories about Maaßen’s far-right sympathies have circulated for some time, but such a brazen political intervention rendered his position untenable.

The fundamental concern is the increasing inability of mainstream politics – and especially centre-right conservatives – to deal with a surging far-right.

However, what followed was little short of a farce. Following a meeting between the leaders of the three governing parties – Merkel, Andrea Nahles of Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and a Maaßen-sympathiser – Maaßen was instead promoted to the more lucrative position of State Secretary within Seehofer’s Interior Ministry. Members of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) were enraged that the Chancellor had failed to assert her authority; Social Democrats that Nahles had acquiesced to such a shameless political fudge.

But the scandal surrounding Maaßen is significant for much more than the event itself. For one, it revealed in full public view the sullen tenor of the current government. Back in March, the governing ‘Grand Coalition’ was forged in an atmosphere wholly lacking in enthusiasm and will. Since then, it has advanced from abjection to purposelessness to fatigue. The government now hangs in political purgatory, unable to act but terrified of an election that would further weaken the Christian conservatives and possibly catapult the SPD into lasting irrelevance. The Coalition, it seems, is held together by fear alone.

Yet the willingness of Germany’s leaders so flagrantly to foreswear all principle for the sake of power is only part of the story. The other, more fundamental, part concerns the increasing inability of mainstream politics – and especially centre-right conservatives – to deal with a surging far-right.

Many representatives of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party proudly attached themselves to the Chemnitz demonstrations, leading SPD figures to call for the party to be put under official surveillance for ‘unconstitutional activity’. This was resisted by both Seehofer and Maaßen, who in turn have been accused of disregarding the threat posed by right-wing extremism and the politicians who legitimise it.

For the centre-right, the problem is of profound importance. On the one hand, they fear haemorrhaging more support if they go on the offensive; on the other, as conservatives, they take seriously their role as defenders of the constitutional order.

The CDU and CSU are ‘sister parties’ (together ‘the Union’) belonging to a deeper tradition of German conservatism born in the ashes of the Second World War and whose initial raison d'être was to transcend the confessional schisms that had bedevilled Christian conservatism in the Weimar Republic. At least in a superficial way, they subscribe to the stereotyped German traditions: punctuality, frugality, discipline, order, stability and a deep respect of hierarchy.

In these respects, they have more in common with parties of the centre-left than with the iconoclastic upstarts to their right. Not only do the Union’s traditional voters tend to baulk at the AfD’s flagrant displays of racism and hostile rhetoric, they also despise their ‘destroy the system’ mentality. In their eyes – and regardless of their attitudes to immigration – the AfD are dangerous radicals, not fellow conservatives.

The political dilemma this poses is personified in the figure of Horst Seehofer himself. Seehofer is an old-school CSU figure who cut his political teeth under the long imperium of Franz Josef Strauss, premier of Bavaria between 1978-88. He adheres to Strauss’ dictum that ‘there may not exist a democratically legitimate party to the right of the CSU’. In his view, the AfD’s rise necessarily reflects the Union’s failure.

By rallying against Merkel and adopting the policies and politics of the AfD, the Interior Minister believes he can bridge the two conservatisms and reconstruct the now-splintered right-wing bloc that has dominated Germany since 1949. In July, he channelled his inner populist by threatening to resign over the Chancellor’s immigration policy, which he has attacked repeatedly. The crisis he triggered, and which threatened to topple the government, was plainly designed to appeal to AfD voters in the lead-up to October’s Bavarian state election.

But Seehofer’s quixotic effort to draw the admiration of AfD supporters by aping their subversive methods failed spectacularly. What’s more, it collapsed on two fronts, destabilising the already-brittle Grand Coalition while further discrediting the image of the CSU in its native Bavaria. Opinion surveys there have revealed a dramatic dive in CSU support since Seehofer’s antics in July. Should that be reflected in October’s state election, many predict the end of the CSU leader’s career.

In a telling indication of the tension between the two conservatisms, the CSU’s collapse of support has not translated into a boost for the AfD. Instead, regional Bavarians – wealthy, traditional and generally anti-cosmopolitan – have begun turning to the so-called ‘Free Voters’, an association of predominantly regional independents, and – perhaps more surprisingly – the Greens, whose growth in support throughout 2018 has mirrored that of the AfD.

The concurrent growth of the Greens and the AfD is also a symptom of the collapse of the SPD. The fact that it is bleeding voters to both the cosmopolitan left and the radical right reflects a fundamental conflict that is paralysing the old working-class parties all across the Western world. But it also shows that pseudo-populists like Seehofer are mistaken in thinking that the AfD is but a stray branch of the Union family.

The Maaßen scandal has again exposed the government’s inner weaknesses and contradictions. It may not be long until they can no longer be contained.

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