It’s Time to Give Up on Eastern Germany

As the post-Merkel era looms, Germany’s center-right party needs to ditch its eastern base and go back to its western roots.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Jens Spahn, and Friedrich Merz at a regional German Christian Democratic Union gathering in Halle, Germany, on Nov. 22. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Jens Spahn, and Friedrich Merz at a regional German Christian Democratic Union gathering in Halle, Germany, on Nov. 22. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party prepares to choose a new leader from among Friedrich Merz, Jens Spahn, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Dec. 7 and 8, it needs to look back to the future. For most of the history of postwar Germany, the CDU has been the natural party of government. That remains the party’s self-perception today, even as the facts—amid the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in eastern Germany—no longer bear it out.

In truth, the CDU’s position has been untenable ever since German reunification. The essence of its traditional platform—its distinctly German model of “ordoliberal” economics, in which central government is assigned a vital role in the creation and maintenance of a free-market environment; its unambivalently pro-European Union, pro-NATO diplomacy; and its promotion of a relatively liberal model of social cohesion—was never cut out for popular success in eastern Germany.

The CDU managed to delay the inevitable for more than two decades, but the moment of reckoning has arrived. Rather than continue to attempt to appease the east, the CDU must affirm its identity as a western German party. Otherwise, it will risk disappearing as a major party entirely.

It’s indisputable that AfD, though founded only in 2013, has blown away what the CDU had come to think of as its natural ascendancy in the “new federal states.” And for all the fear and trembling it has aroused in the west, it remains decisively a party of the old east. The most recent AfD results in individual state elections (Bavaria, 10.2 percent, Hessen 13 percent) indicate that for all the sound and fury, often from the Anglophone press, the AfD has in fact reached its peak in the west, even as it continues its rise in the east.

It may seem obvious—voices in the Bavarian Christian Social Union have said it out loud—that the way to cope with the threat from the right is to shift towards the right. But this is what the CDU must resist, above all. If it understands German history correctly, it will see exactly why its success in the east until now was a massive anomaly—and one that came at an almighty price.

In 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl rammed through reunification far more quickly than most people thought possible or sensible, in order to win for himself an election he would almost certainly have lost had it still taken place only in the old West Germany. He smashed it in the east by abandoning most of the CDU’s policy traditions and going after his new voters by embracing out-and-out populism.

The key signature of populism, always and everywhere, is that it mobilizes economically frightened populations by making vague, factually impossible promises of an economic golden age and a perfectly united national community. That is precisely what Kohl did to win in 1990. His promise of a second economic miracle that would soon turn eastern Germany into a vista of “blooming landscapes” was so self-evidently the triumph of political fantasy over economic sanity that Otto Pöhl, the president of the Bundesbank, resigned rather than have to sign off on the massive tax increases he knew would be the only possible result. Amazingly few Germans at the time noted that telling prosperous western Germans they had to subsidize a bankrupt east on patriotic grounds was nothing new: It had been a central plank of domestic policy in both the German Empire and the Third Reich. Kohl was singing a very old Prussian song.

The founding father of the CDU, the great Konrad Adenauer (who served as chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963), would have understood this all too well. To him, it was axiomatic that the political traditions of Lutheran eastern Germany were entirely foreign to those of Catholic western Germany. What people came to see after 1871 as signature features of “German” political life—authoritarianism, state-worship, scar-faced officers stalking around the place scorning mere bourgeois businessmen—Adenauer saw as an entirely Prussian phenomenon. He called it simply “the spirit of the East.” That’s why he actually begged France and Britain (twice, in 1919 and 1923) to split Prussia clean off from western Germany after World War I. And it’s why he secretly told the British High Commissioner in 1955 that he intended to devote the rest of his political life to blocking German reunification.

For there is nothing whatever new about eastern Germany being a haven for right-wing authoritarian politics. From 1871 to 1933, the east of Germany—the Prussian heartland—was always the base for right-wing, authoritarian parties. This is clearest of all in the electoral map of the first stable elections in the Weimar Republic, in 1924.

The Social Democratic Party managed in 1924 to take a few regions east of the Elbe River, but the two parties that are the ancestors of the CDU/CSU (the Zentrum party and BVP) had no penetration there. The East of Germany was politically a different country in 1924, overwhelmingly in the hands of the German National People’s Party (abbreviated in German as DNVP), an openly anti-democratic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic party officially committed to the restoration of the Imperial German monarchy.

Adolf Hitler’s 1930 breakthrough took place overwhelmingly in that party’s backyard. In 1933, with all the resources of the state at their command and the old Prussian elite onside in the person of Paul von Hindenburg, it was still only thumping results in the east that took the Nazis to their national 43.9 percent—leaving them still needing the DNVP’s 7.97 percent (which also came overwhelmingly from the east) to enable Hitler to take absolute power by quasi-legal means.

So much for the previous Prussian-led unification of Germany. The post-Cold War unified Germany now threatens to head in the same direction.

Kohl’s cheap, populist promises soon came up against the unchanging cultural fact that the east of Germany is a different country (and one, by the way, that the Germans themselves had been deserting, gradually but consistently, ever since Ostflucht—the flight from the east—began to be noted around 1850). By 1992, eastern German GDP had fallen by about 40 percent. Industrial employers knew they simply couldn’t survive if they had to stick to the Stufenplan, which was supposed to equalize western and eastern wages by 1994, and survive, so they began to break the western German versions of the national wage agreements. In response, German trade unions, notoriously reluctant to strike, started acting more like the unruly British trade unions of the 1970s. By allowing politics to trump economics—by claiming that he could, within a couple of years, overcome a political and cultural chasm far older and deeper than America’s Mason-Dixon Line—Kohl threatened the stability of West Germany’s legendary economy at the same time as inflaming completely unrealistic hopes in Germany’s new citizens.

This is the root of the perfect storm now engulfing the CDU. The extraordinary continued ability of western German industry to produce world-beating exports—materially helped, of course, by its membership of the eurozone—and the continued readiness of Western German workers to accept low wage increases in return for safe jobs long disguised the extent of the failure. Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to run Germany pretty well on cruise control, even through the financial crisis.

The immigrant crisis of 2015 blew German politics open. In the east (where proportionately, the fewest asylum-seekers and economic refugees have been assigned) people who had been promised far too much, far too easily found a clear unifying narrative on which to hang their vague but bitter sense of being left behind. In the west (where places like Gelsenkirchen really have seen transformative numbers of incomers) it provided a focus, too—for discontent among people who have been increasingly complaining for many years that they are starved of infrastructure spending and wage rises, while over 2 trillion euros have been shipped from west to east in the name of solidarity with the new German states.

The way out for the CDU now is to retrench. Deep in the party’s DNA, it has always understood that the differences between the east and west of Germany cannot simply be explained by the 40 years of Soviet occupation but go much further back. The leadership election is an occasion for the CDU to again commit to seeing the essential reality of German politics, in line with the way we are perfectly used to seeing U.S. politics: in terms of red and blue states—or, in this case, CDU-affiliated black and light-blue AfD states.

The eastern states are simply not natural CDU territory. The populist attempt to make them so has been terrible for German politics. But if this is a crisis, it’s not a disaster: Unlike in the days of the Weimar Republic, today’s truncated eastern Germany doesn’t have the weight of population to swing national politics, provided that national politics is sound and stable. The CDU must direct all its efforts, and choose its new leader, on the basis of taking back its heartland as the party of unabashedly pro-Western diplomacy, pro-EU policies, economic success, and social cohesion. Germany is a mighty, wealthy country that can currently borrow money at near-negative interest rates. It’s a question of how that money is used. The eastern states of Germany show us what not to do. The 2 trillion euros thrown at a small country with ancient cultural differences simply hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked in Poland or Hungary either, to be frank.

It’s time for Germany to stop burning money in the vain effort to transform regions or countries that have been different forever, and where money simply isn’t the problem. It should aim its help, instead, in regions of Germany (and countries in Europe) where the cultural preconditions are already there and they just need a bit of financial assistance to set things right.

If the party’s new leader can get people in the Rhineland and Swabia back onside, it simply doesn’t need to try to please the many unmarried men of Saxony who, frankly, nobody can please anyway. Under the right leader, the CDU can stay true to Adenauer’s legacy and still win.

James Hawes' latest book is The Shortest History of Germany.

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