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What do the conservatives want?

Gustav Seibt looks at the tradition of German conservatism.

If the signs are to be believed, and if the conservative parties manage to avoid doing everything wrong (a possibility that cannot by any means be ruled out), then Germany can expect the early elections – set to take place this autumn following the recent lost vote of confidence – to bestow on the conservative camp a wealth of power not seen since the days of Bismarck or Adenauer’s election landslide of 1957.

Bismarck instrumentalised the unification of the German Reich and the subsequent domestic crises to smash the National Liberal Party and launch a crusade against Catholics and social democrats. For a few years he ruled dictatorially, keeping the workers quiet with Germany’s first social security laws. Adenauer successfully took the credit for the successes of the West German "economic miracle" – not least through a generous pension reform passed on the eve of the national elections that brought him his greatest victory. Thus two of the triumphs of conservative power were intimately bound up with abundant material beneficence.

Helmut Kohl acted similarly in 1990, in the midst of the reunification process. A generous currency reform, the promise of "blooming landscapes" and the debt-financing of German unity conjured up a champagne atmosphere that was soon to land the state of Berlin, for example, under a mountain of debt from which it stands no chance of escaping on its own. It is by no means certain that the national state will be able to manage any better with its budget deficit.

Any government of Angela Merkel’s will be operating under very different circumstances. Admittedly, if things turn out as planned she will be assisted by the best imaginable constellation of constitutional institutions: majorities in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (the chamber representing the interests of the federal states), and a president from her own party. So Angela Merkel would be able to govern for at least one whole legislative period unhindered by the encumbrances of federalism. She would also benefit from an incalculable external factor. The German electorate has been softened up as almost never before. If reforms are carefully planned, consistently coordinated and rapidly implemented – well-crafted, without "red-green chaos" (referring to the current SDP-Green Party coalition), without bureaucratic headaches – then the electorate will go along with them. And the gain in clarity – knowing where we stand again at last – could have a greater effect on domestic demand than pumping money into the economy on expensive credit.

Unlike Bismarck, Adenauer or Kohl, the coming Merkel government will have nothing to give away in material terms. The national debt – a legacy of the Kohl era – is as disastrous as ever, Gerhard Schröder’s reforms remain unfinished and for the moment unsuccessful (having failed even to achieve savings, let alone stimulate growth and revive the labour market), and time is ebbing away. The real demographic challenge, discussed on all sides today as if it were a given fact, has not actually even arrived yet. Currently the baby boom cohorts are still in their most productive years, they are still contributors to the social insurance funds, not claimants. That change, for which the whole system needs to be reconstructed here and now, will not actually occur for another 15 or 20 years.

What can we expect from the conservatives in this configuration of great potential power combined with extremely narrow room to manoeuvre? The worrying thing is, we do not have the slightest idea. Contradictory statements from marginal figures breaking the leadership’s discipline of silence provide no clues.

And the lady standing for the chancellorship has perfected the art of evading all questions, refusing to be pinned down, saying nothing, to a degree not even achieved by Neues Deutschland, the organ of the East German ruling party. After all, the East German state-run newspaper did not have to deal with public criticism. Merkel’s interviews of recent days are little less than a mockery of the German public. If she does not want to say anything then she should not give interviews to journalists. Even in her reply to the Chancellor in the debate preceding the confidence vote she refused to give us even the slightest hint of her alternative.

So we will have to wait for the moment, until the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, present their programme, which promises "policies all of a piece", "a fundamentally different kind of politics, so that things really get better" (Merkel). A conservative revolution? True to the cleverest sentence of conservative thought that was ever spoken, the bonmot of Tancred in Lampedusa's "The Leopard", that if we want things to stay the same, things will have to change?

The sentence is clever because it marks the line dividing conservative from reactionary thinking. True conservatism, originally an English invention, is a flexible stance whose purpose is to preserve the status quo through unceasing reform, a vital traditionalism whose essence lies in the old European liberty of the individual in clear, simple ways of life – fruit of the anti-absolutist corporatist state. Reaction, on the other hand, thinks ahistorically, simply wishing to turn the wheel of time back, it is as doctrinaire as revolution, in opposition to which it arose in the first place.

Reaction is rational through and through, sometimes brilliantly, so it is intellectually often a match for the party of progress and its high-flying theories. The current fashion for "Sunday supplement Catholicism" is a literally fascinating recent by-product of that kind of reaction. It finds its most impressive current expression in the attitude of Pope Benedict XVI, who would prefer to take his Church back into the catacombs than to adapt to dubious modern trends.

Conservatism, by contrast, has no programme other than faith in life in its existing grounded, successful condition, a system that occasionally needs correction, but preferably in homoeopathic doses. It is respectably unintellectual and unprogrammatic. The paltry construction of "laptop and lederhosen" is typically conservative – and what do you know, it works.

Is this vital but flexible unintellectuality at the heart of the current vagueness of the German conservatives? If only that were the case! Instead, it must be feared that they are following an often almost subconscious unsound tradition, one characteristic of conservatism especially in Germany. This tradition manifests itself in a belief among conservatives that theirs is the country's natural party of government, and that the other side is only occasionally called on to take power for brief intervals, for the sake of democratic appearances so to speak.

This attitude – always staring at the social democrats' dirty boots when they enter the salon of power – leads to the worst weakness of German conservatism, which is summed up by two characteristics: an ambiguous attitude towards the legality of the state and a lack of honesty towards the public.

There is a direct line from Bismarck's putsch plans (the founder of the German Reich seriously believed he could put his creation back in the box again), through the personal rule of Kaiser William II, Paul von Hindenburg’s emergency powers, Franz von Papen's cabinet of experts and Konrad Adenauer's Spiegel affair to the Christian Democratic Union's slush funds, Helmut Kohl's "word of honour" and most recently Manfred Kanther's dreadful attempts to justify his party's Swiss bank accounts through a supposed crisis in the struggle against the left. Legality is for others, because we are the real lords of the realm; we know when extraordinary circumstances justify us to set up a putsch plan, a state of emergency or a slush fund.

To avoid any misunderstanding: There is corruption and law-breaking on all sides, but few enjoy such a good conscience in the process as the German conservatives. The realm of the left is emotionally unbridled moralism; the conservatives are at home in the cold calculations of the state of emergency. And this disdain for legality – well concealed behind statesmanlike rhetoric – corresponds directly with a second vice: not telling the public the truth.

The economic side of reunification provides one example here, one whose consequences Germany will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. Expanding the West German welfare state to 17 million additional beneficiaries was at least a highly risky venture, the exchange rate between the East and West German currencies did not correspond to the facts, and the hopes for a self-propagating upturn ("blooming landscapes") were castles in the air – and none of that was exactly unpredictable in 1990. Furthermore, at the time there were many calls for a patriotically grounded willingness to make sacrifices – which would certainly have been a plausible option in the exceptional situation of reunification.

Who, if not the conservatives, could have convincingly put forward such an appeal? Especially where the sacrifice would not really have had to be particularly grave – from the outset it would have been of about the same magnitude as the supplementary tax that had to be introduced later anyway, except that that tax has been largely devoured by the interest on the debts incurred.

This example taught us what it actually means when conservatives occasionally brandish "values", what they really mean when they talk of "patriotism" and "dominant culture". Almost nothing. Generally "values" are taken off the leash against marginal groups such as homosexuals ("marriage and the family") and Turkish people ("dominant culture"). They are not associated with any overarching interest that would apply to all.

The conservatives' deep mistrust of their own values and of the citizens' willingness to follow them is expressed to this day in a welfare state populism that leaves their calls for reforms so lacking in credibility. If there was ever a moment for conservative – indeed traditional Prussian – values like truth, clarity and frugality, then it is now.

Occasionally a traditional conservative like Arnulf Baring stirringly calls "citizens, to the barricades"; but the tactician leading the CDU has nothing but a sardonic smile for such talk of U-turns. An honest programme for saving the welfare state for coming generations, one that calls a spade a spade, would definitely represent a patriotic project for which the support of citizens could be won – if they were taken seriously. That is what was behind Kohl's generous post-reunification course: mistrust of the citizens, which is hardly distinguishable from disdain. The disdain of the law practised since Bismarck and this arrogance towards the citizens, who apparently have to be guarded from the plain truth, demonstrates the continuing unbourgeois character of German conservatism: still half feudal, half petty-bourgeois, but definitely not urbane.

It would appear that the roots of this mistrust of the citizens are also to be found in a historical experience: in the failure of the austerity policies of Reich Chancellor Brüning during the great depression. The price of Brüning's risky course – demonstrating Germany's bankruptcy to the Versailles Treaty powers in the most brutal possible way while clandestinely fixing the state budget – was temporary mass destitution. It was conceived as a bold thrust, and even in the hour of his dismissal, Brüning himself believed he was "just one hundred metres from the finish line". Perhaps he was not so wrong there, because at least the foreign policy fruits of his era were reaped afterwards by Von Papen and Hitler.

Overall, however, Brüning's policies were a catastrophic failure. They ended in a state close to civil war on the streets and a constitutional crisis brought about by the radical parties in the Reichstag. This was the last time a conservative government attempted to harness the country's willingness to sacrifice. The moment chosen was the wrong one, the efforts required were much too great, and Brüning, who had all sorts of radical constitutional plans up his sleeve, had not actually honestly put his cards on the table either. Neither Adenauer nor Kohl ever had to operate in such precarious circumstances, so they held to Bismarck’s recipe – which Hitler also followed – of keeping the nation happy with generous social policies.

This long historical background is the source of our concern over the coming conservative programme. During the past decade some of the most interesting descriptions of the situation, and consequently most convincing proposals for improvements, have come from conservative observers like Meinhard Miegel and Kurt Biedenkopf. In today's public debate they have taken over the role filled 30 years ago by social democratic intellectuals like Erhard Eppler. The traditionally so pragmatic, unintellectual conservatives are currently unusually well served in programmatic terms. And if there’s one thing the public wants to know, that is where it stands.

That is the tradition and background against which the tactically strongest conservative party Germany has ever seen will now have to lay out its ideas. With East German style mealy-mouthedness and outmoded conservatives underestimation of the public and its sense of responsibility they will waste their historic opportunity.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on July 2, 2005.

Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Rom oder Tod" deals with the founding of Italy in 1861.

Translation: Meredith Dale.

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