Germany’s Cold War Enemies May Become Partners

In eastern Germany, center-right Christian Democrats are considering teaming up with far-left former Communists.

Election billboards of Angela Merke and Gregor Gysi, top candidate of the Left Party, on Sept. 16, 2005 in Berlin. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
Election billboards of Angela Merke and Gregor Gysi, top candidate of the Left Party, on Sept. 16, 2005 in Berlin. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

POTSDAM, Germany—On a rainy weekday evening in February, Ingo Senftleben, the head of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, sat down with about 20 party members and local activists to discuss politics and strategy ahead of state elections this fall. With an increasingly fractured party system here, his CDU has a chance at coming in first and leading the government for the first time in the state’s post-Berlin Wall history.

During a two-hour back-and-forth, supporters asked him about a range of issues, including education policy, security and migration, and stopping the brain drain from Brandenburg to other German states. But one of the more contentious moments came when a woman criticized Senftleben for his refusal to rule out cooperation with two parties on the fringes of German politics—Die Linke (“The Left”) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

“The state elections that are around the corner, whether in Saxony or Thuringia or Brandenburg, will be difficult when it comes to forming a government,” Senftleben said. He had “no desire” to team up with the Left or the AfD, he said, but added: “We should be a little bit realistic here.”

It’s worth remarking nevertheless on what now qualifies as politically realistic in Germany. A potential coalition between the CDU and AfD is one thing: Both are on the same side of the political spectrum, and there is significant overlap in the pool of voters they draw from, even if there remains a taboo on cooperation because of the AfD’s penchant for xenophobic rhetoric and equivocating on Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era.

The CDU and the Left, by contrast, couldn’t be further apart. There hardly ever needed to be a taboo on cooperation between the two because cooperation seemed inconceivable. The Left, for example, calls for an end to German participation in all military efforts abroad and wants Germany to leave NATO; the center-right CDU oversaw the government as many of those missions were authorized and strongly supports NATO. The Left is anti-capitalist and wants to radically reform Germany’s social welfare system; the CDU, meanwhile, effectively helped build the country’s capitalist system and would never agree to many of the Left’s proposals for reforms.

There’s also the fact that the parties (or, in the Left’s case, its predecessor) were ideological and political enemies during the Cold War. In West Germany, the CDU was founded in the aftermath of World War II with a fairly hardline anti-communist, pro-American foreign policy. Its influential postwar leader, Konrad Adenauer, actively opposed the East German regime. The Left, meanwhile, has only existed in its current form since 2007—but is seen as a successor of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which ran East Germany’s Soviet-era dictatorship until the fall of the wall. Following reunification, the SED morphed into the Party of Democratic Socialism, many members of which then became part of the Left.

The ideological commitments of the CDU and the Left haven’t changed dramatically since the Cold War—but Europe’s political landscape has. The rise of populist parties has frustrated coalition-building efforts across the continent; as right-wing populist parties have gained a significant foothold in their respective national parliaments, it’s become significantly more difficult for traditional parties to build a coalition. Sweden, for example, went 134 days and seven rounds of talks between various parties before a (minority) government eventually took shape, to see the latest proof of that on the national level.

In Germany, coalition building has also become more difficult, and the trend is especially pronounced in eastern Germany, where the two biggest centrist parties—the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD)—entered the scene only after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, Germans in that part of the country are less wedded to supporting one of the two main parties out of a sense of tradition.

In eastern Germany, “you have a very different … vision of politics, in the sense that there is no strong support for the more traditional parties,” said Julian Göpffarth, a researcher at the London School of Economics who focuses on the far-right in eastern Germany. “In the west, you have way more traditional affiliations—to the CDU, for example. That is not really the case as much in eastern Germany.”

Polling bears out Göpffarth’s point: If current numbers hold, none of the governments in the three eastern German states preparing to vote this fall—Brandenburg and Saxony on Sept. 1 and Thuringia on Oct. 27—will be re-elected with a majority. What’s more, a traditional two-party coalition between, say, the CDU and the liberal Free Democrats or between the center-left SPD and the Greens—or even the sort of grand coalition between the SPD and CDU that rules the federal government in Berlin—looks mathematically impossible in all three states on the ballot this fall. In Brandenburg, four parties currently stand at or near 20 percent: the CDU, SPD, the Left, and the AfD.

That’s why discussion of a possible CDU-Left coalition has started, even if it remains unlikely. Eastern German CDU parties are realizing that if they rule out governing with their former archenemies, they may risk permanent political paralysis in their states.

Speculation about possible CDU-Left coalitions in eastern Germany began last summer when Daniel Günther, the premier of Schleswig-Holstein and a member of the CDU’s national leadership, said eastern German party leaders should be pragmatic and open to partnering with the Left in an increasingly difficult governing environment. “If there are reasonable people in charge in the Left, there’s nothing wrong with looking for reasonable solutions,” he told Rheinische Post. And three decades after the fall of the wall, Günther added, cooperation at the regional level has led to “a great deal of normalization between the two parties.”

Senftleben and his counterpart in Saxony haven’t ruled out formally cooperating with the AfD, which has become firmly entrenched in eastern Germany in recent years. But the reputational risks would be great; the CDU could expect to receive a great deal of flak domestically and internationally for working with the right-wing populist upstarts.

The Left, by contrast, is considered a part of the political establishment in eastern Germany. It has already served in a handful of state governments with the SPD—in some cases as the senior partner. “The Left party never provoked the degree of rejection [in the east] that it has in the west,” said Peter Matuschek, the chief political analyst at the German polling institute Forsa. “It is a much more established party in the east and a much more accepted party in the east even for voters of other parties.”

Still, Senftleben’s counterparts in the two other eastern German states with upcoming elections dismissed a CDU-Left coalition as untenable. In Thuringia, both CDU leader Mike Mohring and Left leader Susanne Hennig-Wellsow said they don’t believe a cooperation between their parties would be feasible. And Saxony’s CDU premier, Michael Kretschmer, said the same: “The positions are incompatible,” he tweeted after Günther’s suggestion last summer. “The CDU is the party of the social market economy. Freedom and security have priority. We want a strong but not all-powerful state.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, also rejected the idea in a press conference last summer. “I back no cooperation with the Left party, and I’ve said that for many years,” she said.

Getting such a coalition past the party’s rank and file—and Senftleben said he’d put any potential coalition up to a vote among members—could also be a nonstarter. Asked their thoughts on the prospect, several of the attendees at Senftleben’s regional event said they couldn’t support joining forces with the Left. “Because of certain values and ideas, it wouldn’t work,” said Anna Lüdcke, the head of the party’s youth wing in Potsdam. “That’s why I think I would argue for a minority government, rather than being tied closely to someone even when our values just don’t match.”

Then again, when the time comes, they may not have much of a choice about who they partner with. In Thuringia, even one of the more left-wing members of the Left, Katharina König-Preuss, admitted the CDU in her state is less conservative than it is elsewhere. Partnering with it may end up being the lesser of two evils, she told Die Zeit: “You have to weigh whether you’d rather accept a right-wing government or grit your teeth.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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