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Who are Germany's new young conservatives?

With an eye on the next election, Mariam Lau portrays new conservative trends in Gemany today.

How to picture today's young German conservatives? Young people on picnic blankets in large, luxuriant villa gardens who dine on asparagus and white wine while listening to Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's Egmont Overture, as a colleague of mine suggested? The girls could be wearing tight Stussy t-shirts and something from Evisu with trainers or loafers, and the boys, pale beach pants, old rolex watches and flip-flops. And all of them equally au fait with the latest intricacies of pop culture as with Karl Friedrich Schinkel's paintings in the Nationalgalerie.

The way things look, the days of idyllic idling for Germany's young conservatives will come to an end sooner than they thought. Because their retreat into political Siberia is suddenly over. The signs have been pointing to stormy weather ever since the Red-Green government admitted failure to themselves and the rest of the world. In the flick of a switch, the spotlight is on the Christian Democrats. There will be an election campaign, which is also a war of ideas – in which horns will be locked not only over growth rates and taxes but also over weltanschauungen (philosophies). How well equipped is German conservatism for this battle? And is there really such as thing as German conservatism any more?

"Conservatism is not dead. It was just never this confused," comments US columnist Andrew Sullivan about the situation in his country. Sullivan sees a bloody battle under way between the "conservatives of belief" who want to enforce moral standards with the aid of the state, and the "conservatives of doubt", who want as little state as possible, and certainly not one that interferes in people's private lives. German conservatism will also have to withstand a whole catalogue of other very different breaking tests: market liberals versus social state preservers, pro-transatlantic versus pro-Europe, foundering national conservatives versus cosmopolitans, pro-lifers versus science freaks, little c versus big C, village pubs versus internet cafes.

We even have a significant number of Neocons, supporters of the trend in American conservatism, although these people are not generally linked to a party. The anti-communist common denominator which used to hold together Germany conservatism dissolved in 1989. Is the new glue hatred of the revolutionaries of 1968 (or '68ers' as they are called in Germany)? Or will the eclectic mix lend them the suppleness necessary to stay on the ball in a more or less social democratic society?

A good example of the contradictions of German conservatism is Eckart von Klaeden, a leading member of the Christian Democratic Union and one of party chairman Angela Merkel's "boygroup". He shot to fame as the Christian Democrats representative on the Visa enquiry committee, but if you catch him alone in his office, sitting between the mountains of paper which have long since suffocated the affair, there is little trace of his anti-Left vitriol. Von Klaeden, the son of a politically active, upper-middle class family of North German protestants and a Bob Dylan fan, was all set to join the SPD after hearing Helmut Schmidt's speech in 1977 about freeing the hijacked Lufthansa plane "Landshut" from the hands of terrorists, which sent shivers down his spine.

Von Klaeden then canvassed locally for the Young Socialists, where he came face to face with people's hatred of Schmidt which escalated sharply during the arms race debate. "My evangelical Christian youth worker friends were already referring to me as pro-missile Eckart. So I decided to ignore the fact that it was not in my nature to do as all young Christian Democrats did in those days, which was to drive to barbecues in Golf cabrios and drink sparkling wine, and I joined the CDU." Von Klaeden views himself as a conservative through and through with strong family values, a classical education, a sceptical view of the state and of people in general. He believes the generation of 68 are thoroughly overestimated. He credits them with having livened things up a little on the cultural front but with their weakness for dictators such as Mao and Ho-Chi Minh he would never let them take credit for the democratisation of the Federal Republic, particularly not Joschka Fischer. "Anyone who saw Brandt's genuflection at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970 and still believed that Germany was stuck in the past which therefore merited violence on the streets, had no right to talk about ideals." Von Klaeden was never worried about appearing uncool in the confrontation with Fischer. But he doesn't need to worry about it in the future either, and this is new.

Not everyone is quite so relaxed. And it is not only large numbers of Christian Democrats who see 1968 as the enemy castle that needs blowing up once and for all. Younger conservative-branded writers also seem to find it an affront to their sensibilities. The impression that the media, publishing, and politics are dominated by the 68ers might be misleading but that is irrelevant. Sophie Dannenberg, born 1971, and author of the controversial novel "Das bleiche Herz der Revolution" (the pale heart of the revolution) describes her parents' generation as irresponsibly self-obsessed, unkempt, power-hungry and all-round failures. "The 68ers I've met personally were mostly good people", she tells the magazine eigentümlich frei. The sacrifice of their children on the altar of emancipation, the murder of God, the lack of respect for the war-traumatised older generation, cynicism – the list of accusations she throws at the non-parliamentary opposition is long and contradictory. And she doesn't shed much light on how a more constructive life might look apart from taking a certain pleasure in humility and being enthusiastic about the Pope. Even when the author loosen things up a little with the odd foray into slapstick, she remains frozen in a pose of parental accusation - rarely a pretty sight in the over thirties. 1968 is a habit no impossible to kick. "It's left to my generation to clear up after this gigantic political carnival. That the 68ers are also trying to stop us, is particularly outrageous."

In Uwe Tellkamp's novel "Der Eisvogel" the young Mauritz wants to get rid of all this rubbish as quickly as possible. An underground organisation "W" for Wiedergeburt (rebirth) posits that a bit of terror is in order for these "old lefty well-poisoners", for the "people in power who don't belong there", who have softened the power of the state, who attacked the police in their youth, who broke the law and tried to let the state fall under communist influences". Even Goethe and Humboldt are used like weapons for the construction of a powerful insect state, which will put an end to "the presumptuousness of democracy" but also to "Q-10 face creams, kitchen fittings, balcony plants" and all the other things which preoccupy people. Tellkamp was born in Dresden (East Germany) in 1968, the wall was the formative experience of his life. Before the fall of the wall he was a tank commander with the NVA (National People's Army), but was then imprisoned and robbed of his university place to study medicine because he refused orders to take action against a crowd of demonstrators, one of whom was his brother. The penalties were severe for the educated classed in the DDR; maybe this explains Tellkamp's impatience with consumer society.

By comparison, the conservatism of "Generation Golf" seems aesthetically motivated. In his most recent book of advice "Stilvoll verarmen" (growing poor with style), Alexander von Schönburg (image), makes heroic attempts to amuse himself, the fallen aristocrat, but cannot disguise his unhappiness at the direction politics is taking. For him, the social-democratisation of the Federal Republic is a problem of taste: first, the masses lack consequential leadership, then feel compelled to buy up lorry loads of hideous plasma chairs and juicers. His book readings take place within closed family circles. And when sister Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis recites passages about ugly handbags or his uncle the Earl Henkel von Donnersmarck welcomes the guests from Berlin's cultural life, it becomes clear that the conservative German elite were always ill-inclined to actively embrace the tastes of the masses.

Big-league American conservatives make a name for themselves by founding libraries, opera houses and museums. Very few members of upmarket circles in this country would ever consider growing old with style in this way.

Of course, one will look in vain for snide comments about democracy in politically organised German conservatism. In the postwar era it fled its enmeshment with National Socialism for odourless pragmatism. Christian, European Occident versus totalitarian national temptation - that was sum total of German "Leitkultur" (defining culture) as they chose to name it. If it hadn't been for the conservative impulses of the 70s that brought Thatcher and Reagan to power, and for their think tanks in Britain and the USA, who knows if anyone today would still seriously speak about a German conservatism.

In any event, the intellectual poverty which resulted from this pragmatism is still visible today. Pick up a random copy of Cicero magazine and you'll be hit by the acrid smell of intellectual stagnation. The title story: "Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his women". And: "Bettina Röhl settles her score with the sex myths of the 68ers". Then in a discussion spanning several pages, fossils Joachim Fest and Wolf Jobst Siedler complain about the disappearance of bourgeois culture ("you no longer see anyone wearing a tie on the Kurfürstendamm"). And the initiators of the Stern magazine's "I had an abortion too" campaign in the 70s (in repsonse to Paragraph 218 of the German penal code) are looked up and their remorse admitted. Especially on its right hand fringe, German conservatism has never completely shaken off its two old ailments: self-pity and the persecution complex.

"In fact there is no conservatism any more", says Alexander Gauland, editor of the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper and one of Germany's few conservative intellectuals. "Because the social strata that once supported it no longer exists." Conservatism – a privilege of the noble class? Looking over Berlin, where the remains of grand Prussian architecture are surrounded by grim functional postwar buildings, it occurs to him that "to be conservative means to accept that certain things are irretrievably lost." Former head of the Hessian state chancellery under premier Walter Wallmann, Gauland was behind the evil anti-hero of Martin Walser's novel "Fink's War" (more). He belongs to the conservatives who for paternalistic reasons stand for the maintenance of the social state, as if it were a country estate. "People are not equal, not even equally talented. But we have a fiduciary duty to those with limited possibilities." As far as Germany's role in the world is concerned, it is not possible "to suck much honey" out of conservatism. But one thing is clear to Gauland: "There's not likely to be a seamless agreement between Europe and America. And it can certainly not be brought about on the basis of ideological bonds left over from the divided world of yesteryear. I have my problems with a world society of democrats who bestow their favours upon Iraq or anybody else."

Here however he is energetically contradicted by his friend and conservative comrade-in-arms Arnulf Baring. For Baring, who was barred from the SPD decades ago and famously summoned his fellow Germans to protest against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with the words: "Citizens, to the barricades!", German domestic and foreign policy is on the down and out. Baring termed the proliferation of the social state "GDR-lite", and was no less harsh on the foreign policy of the "SPD/Green dilettantes". "Every child knows we stand less chance than ever of limiting the power of the USA through confrontation. But the power to isolate Germany, and thus plunge it into disaster, remains with us."

But nowadays many see conservatism as a fresh, attractive and forward-looking mindset, "nothing to do with old folks hanging onto the past", as one member of the Young Christian Democrats put it. Many of them were previously leftist or green, now they get together in circles like Berlin's "Freunde der offenen Gesellschaft" in Cafe Chagall, or on Internet forums like "Statler-und-Waldorf". And many would have nothing against the label "neocon". But unfortunately they too cannot completes shake off 1968. As they say at "Freunde der offenen Gesellschaft": "We're sick of the lies and intellectual impertinence of the Left: their resentment towards modern society and individual liberty, their continual repetition of unproven allegations, their apology for Islamic terror, their misandrist anti-sexism, their attempt to drill behavioural precepts deep into the intimate sphere of every last individual, their intellectual logjam, phraseology and jargon, their moralising of any and every discussion whatsoever."

Whether the neocons find a place in German conservatism will also depend on whether they manage to swim free of 1968 and avoid developing a new "pure doctrine" of their own in which every word of criticism of the US president is seen as anti-Americanism, every idea on tax reform as statism and the term "United Nations" as a synonym for cowardice and corruption. Do sentences like "Western values are better" really sound different to "the Party is always right"?

It's the younger, less ideologically war-weary conservatives who give the first glimpse of how Germany would look if they were at the helm. For Johannes Bohnen of Scholz & Friends advertising agency, who came up with the campaign "Germany, land of ideas", an education at Oxford or Harvard and a Catholic upbringing go well with pride in the "new social market economy", in the Saarland, in the MP3 player and other German inventions. Bohnen interned with Karl Lahmers, foreign policy spokesman for the parliamentary faction of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag, and he was spokesperson for CDU politician and former General Jörg Schönbohm. But he also regularly took part in discussions with figures like Ralf Dahrendorf and Timothy Garton Ash. In his view, the "rather fainthearted" CDU/CSU could use "More Merz and less Blüm". Which translates as: tuition fees and more autonomy for universities, more support for entrepreneurial risk taking, distinctions for state premiers who excel as "Reformers of the Year", reconstruction - not dismantling - of the social state. All in all, it means simply making everything a bit trimmer, more flexible, more self-confident. But will that attract people in the current mood of panic?

Many have the impression that religion, above all Catholicism, is the only fountain of youth which conservatism could draw on to become fit to govern. While in 1995 only 18 percent of Germans said Pope John Paul II was a personal role model, the figure was 29 percent in 2004, and a quarter of them were Protestants! Annette Schavan, minister of culture and education in Baden-Wurttemberg and member of the Central Committee of German Catholics, gave a firm answer to the question of whether the Union parties can capitalise on this mood: "Every party programme of the Union states that religious belief is not synonymous with a political programme. The founders of the Union had Hitler's sentence in their ears that conscience is a Jewish invention. Belief cannot be instrumentalised." The most recent statements by the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, that the CDU should bar the "C" from its name and leave the interpretation of Christianity to the churches gives a foretaste of conflicts to come. Annette Schavan sees herself as a citizen of two worlds. That is interesting, and convincing. But is it conservative?


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on July 1, 2005.

Mariam Lau is editor of the Opinion section of Die Welt.

Translation: lp, jab.

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