Conservatism is increasing in Europe

Thomas Biebricher on conservatism : Constant goat singing

What characterizes a conservative political style? Edmund Burke, one of the forefathers of conservative thought, identified the following three core elements in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790): First, an experience-based approach to the problems to be overcome. Second, a creative on-site driving to minimize the collateral damage caused by wrong decisions. Third, a sober, matter-of-fact process of weighing, negotiating and bringing together. In short, an ongoing balancing of interests and opinions, with patience contrasting negotiation with the violence of overthrow.

If one follows this reading, one can imagine Angela Merkel as a conservative politician. Even if many in your party see it differently. Her critics accuse her of having gutted the CDU conservatively in the 18 years of its chairmanship. In this context, the book by Thomas Biebricher, a history of German conservatism from the change of government in 1982 to the present, provides illuminating insights. It becomes clear that the conservative debates of the past three and a half decades show many more continuities than breaks. What has changed is the intellectual framework in which they are played.

As early as the mid-1980s, conservative circles warned against a "social liberalization" of the Union being pursued by Helmut Kohl. In particular, the one-sided focus on economic issues while neglecting social policy pissed off many conservatives. A man like Konrad Adenauer, they complained, would be a lonely figure on the far right in the Kohl CDU. That sounds somehow familiar and is reminiscent of the accusation that Merkel has drawn a sharp dividing line to the right through the successive “social democratization” of her party, thereby depriving many conservatives of their political home.

Involvement of the tight

But Kohl succeeded (certainly better than Merkel) in giving the right in the Union what they longed for over and over again. On the one hand, through the involvement of staunch conservatives like Manfred Kanther as interior minister and Alfred Dregger as parliamentary group chairman - whereby Merkel's approach is reflected here, see Schäuble and Kauder. On the other hand, through a sometimes idiosyncratic form of historical politics. Think of the controversial wreath-laying ceremony with US President Reagan at the Bitburg war cemetery, where SS members are also buried, or the visit to Ernst Jünger, a figurehead of German conservatism, on his 100th birthday.

In addition, the black-yellow coalition, with the claim to want to bring about a spiritual and moral change, had cleverly missed an ideological superstructure. The fact that the plan to break through the “cultural hegemony” of the 1968 and revive the spirit of the reconstruction of 1948 failed in the end does not diminish the integrative effectiveness of the “project”, especially in the conservative milieu. One searches in vain for comparable pathos in Merkel's reign. The historic appearance is not their thing. And nothing is known of a media-effective visit by the Chancellor to Botho Strauss in the Uckermark, for example.

In factual politics, too, as Biebricher's book shows, the major debates that move the conservatives are characterized by continuity. Then as now, the focus is on migration and Europe. In the 1980s the number of asylum seekers had risen steadily, at the beginning of the 1990s there were civil war refugees from the former Yugoslavia as well as Russian repatriates. The fear of "foreign infiltration" fueled the debates and washed the "Republicans" into numerous state parliaments. In 1992 in Baden-Württemberg they received a good ten percent of the vote with the slogan "Germany first", which sounds familiar again today.

Monetary union as the price of unity

In European politics, everything revolved around the deepening of the European Community. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) was seen by many as an irreversible step towards political union. While party-politically organized conservatism predominantly supported Maastricht (economic and monetary union was seen as the price to be paid for German unity), the outlook on the “United States of Europe” in the camp of intellectual conservatism was viewed much more critically. In both immigration and European politics, the eloquent protagonists of that time, from Hermann Lübbe to Dieter Grimm to Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Jürgen Habermas, engaged in sharp and well-founded debates.

This is exactly where Biebricher sees the decisive break with the present. German conservatism has lost its culture of debate. Where a few years ago questions of politics, nation and history - Biebricher goes into detail on the historians' dispute - were bitterly negotiated, intellectual conservatism has lost significantly in clout since the mid-1990s. Even the occasional requests to speak by Udo di Fabio could not distract from that. In addition, party political conservatism has largely lost its former civil society allies, above all the churches, to the Greens, among others.

A German "En Marche"?

Nevertheless, the conclusion was drawn, it was too early to speak of a crisis in German conservatism. Rather, conservative thinking has exhausted itself in the past 35 years and urgently needs a fresh cell treatment, although it remains to be seen by whom this can be administered. Merkel's foreseeable departure offers an opportunity, but Biebricher makes no secret of the fact that his expectations of protagonists such as Jens Spahn or Paul Ziemiak, whose discourse skills are primarily trained by Twitter and Facebook, are limited. The formation of a new, cross-party conservative movement based on the model of “En Marche” in France is not ruled out. Biebricher is certain that the last word on German conservatism has not yet been spoken.

And one more thing is certain after reading this book that is well worth reading: Angela Merkel is not the gravedigger of German conservatism. Rather, it is thanks to them that after the failure of Kohl's spiritual and moral turnaround, the CDU was reconciled with the legacy of 1968. There is no question that this was associated with a readjustment of traditional positions, especially in family and social policy. Forming a contemporary conservatism out of this is the task that their successors face.

Thomas Biebricher: Spiritual-moral turn. The exhaustion of German conservatism. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2018. 318 pages, 28 €.

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