The German Election Is a Christian Civil War

Germany’s far-right is saying out loud what Angela Merkel’s party has always quietly believed: that Christian culture depends on Christian demographics.  

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 24: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the state funeral of the late former German President Roman Herzog at the Dom Cathedral on January 24, 2017 in Berlin.  Roman Herzog, who died at the age of 82 on January 10, 2017, served as German president from 1994 to 1999. (Photo by Max Menning-Pool/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 24: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the state funeral of the late former German President Roman Herzog at the Dom Cathedral on January 24, 2017 in Berlin. Roman Herzog, who died at the age of 82 on January 10, 2017, served as German president from 1994 to 1999. (Photo by Max Menning-Pool/Getty Images)

The true winner of Germany’s much anticipated chancellor’s debate last week wasn’t even present on stage at the event. Millions of voters tuned in to watch a decisive duel between the leaders of the country’s two largest parties, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, but what they witnessed instead was a discussion dominated by the specter of a third, ascendant party that has recently burst onto the political scene: Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing organization led by breakaway members of Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc. According to the latest polls, this populist group has climbed to the number-three spot in the lead up to the general vote on September 24. Political analysts predict it has the potential to become much larger and much more disruptive in the years to come.

Americans would do well to take note of the conflict now unfolding between the AfD and the incumbent chancellor, even if Merkel is widely expected to win a record-tying fourth term. In general, liberals in the United States have been paying far less attention to the German election season compared with the widespread hand-wringing over the growth of populism in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France earlier this year. But in fact, it will be in stable, boring old Germany where the most dramatic challenge to open borders and multiculturalism comes.

The emergence of a viable alternative to the “establishment” conservative politics Merkel represents is so important because of the role played by her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in the shaping of post-Nazi Germany, where it has ruled for almost three quarters of the country’s history. The CDU was founded after World War II by men and women who vowed to protect the Christian character of the German nation and Europe as a whole, but it has always held an on-again, off-again relationship with white nationalists.

This has been true since even before the beginning. The CDU’s founders, most of whom hailed from the western regions of Germany where Christianity is most historically rooted, originally voted to support Nazism. Far from being a fluke, their alliance was a logical consequence of demographic fears. The man who would go on to become the party’s leader and first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was not alone in his belief that the northeastern part of his country — the heart of Prussia, with its capital in Berlin — was populated by a mongrelized, Asiatic, not-entirely-white race whose non-Christian culture threatened to spread. While Adolf Hitler, prior to coming to power was suspect for many reasons, at least he vowed to protect the nation’s Christian identity from such pernicious elements.

After World War II, when Hitler proved more interested in conquest than Christianity, those same politicians emerged to offer a new vision for German, European, and world politics — this time with a more dependable and powerful partner, the United States of America. Distancing themselves from Nazism, they advocated a “Christian image” of politics based on the values of individual freedom, economic liberty, and cultural openness. The vision appealed to the U.S. occupiers, which ended up tipping the scales in the CDU’s favor when it helped the western German regions secede from the Russian-occupied northeast. Though they officially called for reunification during the early part of the Cold War, CDU leaders such as Adenauer were secretly pleased that their Christian heartland was now demographically sealed off from the Asiatics.

But they weren’t pleased for long. Adenauer, who attended Catholic mass every Sunday and ruled until 1963, insisted that the state guarantee a Christian culture by ensuring church leadership in lawmaking, governance, and public education. Since then, the sexual revolution and rising immigration from the non-Christian, non-white part of the world (especially Muslim-majority countries) forced the CDU to change course in order to maintain relevance at the polls. Helmut Kohl, the party’s chancellor of the 1980s and 1990s who oversaw reunification with the East at the end of the Cold War, emphasized the Catholic piety of his parents but rarely attended church himself and kept in place many of the Social Democratic educational policies that de-emphasized religion in schools. He married a non-Catholic woman and raised two sons who went on to marry non-Christians and non-whites (one a Turk, the other a Korean). Over time, the party’s social policy has become less and less distinguishable from Social Democracy, its leadership forced into increasingly difficult acrobatics to justify the word “Christian” in its party’s name.

Merkel, Germany’s current leader, is perhaps the least pious yet of the long-standing CDU chancellors. At the debate last week, when a moderator asked her and her Social Democratic rival if they had been in church earlier that day, both replied in the negative. In this she is representative of the vast majority of Germans, only 10 percent of whom are regular churchgoers, but it makes her vulnerable to a Christian conservative challenger such as the AfD. As the first Protestant to hold her position, she depends largely on the legacy of her Lutheran pastor father for her Christian legitimacy. She is married to an East German man who was raised without the church and, in her speeches, relies rhetorically on vague appeals to the maintenance of a “Christian image” of humanity, which she seems to define mostly as a commitment to established Western legal freedoms. And for eight of her 12 years as chancellor, she has led a government coalition with the Social Democrats.

But the chancellor’s lack of piety appears not to have bothered the more conservative members of her Christian party — until she made the decision in 2015 to allow hundreds of thousands of non-Christian, non-white refugees from the Middle East into Germany. It was only at that point that many began to jump ship in favor of the new rival Christian conservative party, Alternative for Germany, which had been founded two years prior.

The founders of the AfD took their name from a phrase Merkel used in 2013, “There is no alternative,” when arguing in support of the German-led bailout of the Greek government, which she said was necessary to maintain the economic integrity of the European Union. While signifying its nationalism and Euroskepticism, the word “alternative” pulls double duty as a description of the party’s goal to become the true guardian of Germany’s — and Europe’s — Christian identity.

Despite disavowal by a majority of the country’s bishops, several influential Catholic and Protestant theologians have come out in favor of the AfD or urged their listeners and readers to take their arguments seriously. The manifesto of their organization, “Christen in der AfD,” calls for a strengthening of religious consciousness in public education and warns that an evaporation of Christian identity would “endanger nothing less than the foundations of our system of state and of our civilization.” In this it sounds like a document from the Adenauer era, except that the demographic threat it identifies comes not from Eastern Europe but from North Africa and the Middle East. “The AfD is the new CDU,” supporters were quoted saying at a recent rally.

Beyond their call for the devolution of the European Union, the AfD’s policy recommendations are easy to sum up: stop Muslim immigration and foster the production of white children through family welfare. Its candidates are citing a recent government report that nearly 400,000 more Syrians could come into the country in 2018 just through “family reunification” policy, creating what she calls “social chaos.” In its election posters, the party shows young women on the beach with the slogan “Burkas? We’re into bikinis” and a young pregnant white woman with the phrase “New Germans? Let’s make them ourselves.”

Although the AfD (like the CDU) came out against last summer’s successful gay marriage bill, its top candidate in the upcoming election, Alice Weidel, is lesbian. The important thing is optics. Weidel is raising two young children birthed by her white Swiss German partner. And the AfD’s party chief, Frauke Petry, is an attractive 41-year-old mother of five white kids — a powerful contrast to the childless Merkel, the “refugee chancellor” whom they implicitly cast as a traitor to her race and religion.

The AfD is eager to show that Merkel and the CDU will not dare to fight for what it has always claimed to value: the conservation of a Christian Germany and Europe. And in doing so, they are exposing the tension inherent in the CDU’s program: the repressed assumption that the maintenance of a certain type of ethnic majority is necessary for that project. The AfD claims it is no more deserving of the “white nationalist” label than the historic CDU upon which it is modeled.

The conflict between the AfD and the CDU in Germany sheds light on the current civil war between the pro-Trump wing and the establishment wing of the Republican Party, the dominant representative of Christian politics in the United States. Like Merkel, Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are often seen by their internal challengers as too “politically correct” to clearly articulate the demographic dangers that threaten white Christian America. To appreciate this transatlantic convergence, one might look to the fact that the AfD has has hired Vincent Harris, the young Christian conservative political strategist of Harris Media, to consult on its election media blitz. Harris became known through his work using sexualized ad campaigns for Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linking ethnic demographic fear and religious identity.

According to the latest polls after the campaign, the AfD will take around 10 percent of the vote, but this may be just the beginning. According to the Berlin political scientist Oskar Niedermeyer, the potential for its brand of populism is great given the way that migration has polarized German society — a potential that has not yet been fully tapped because of the lack of professionalism in the party’s leadership. Indeed, many of the party’s leading lights are academics or experts with little political experience. (In 2015, the press dubbed it the “party of professors.”) The question is whether young German voters, who are becoming increasingly active in political parties compared to generations past, will embrace its message.

Merkel said in the debate last week that a CDU coalition with the racist AfD was out of the question. She has also insisted that right-wing extremism must be confronted not only in Germany but “no matter where it happens in the world.” What she cannot say in public, however, is that the history of her own party is deeply rooted in the type of politics she now condemns.

Photo credit: CHRISTOPH SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Noah B. Strote is associate professor of history at NC State University.

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