In the beginning was (…) Adenauer. So might begin a “scripture” on the history of the early Federal Republic. After 1949, the first Federal Chancellor, whom no one knows today, was instrumental in Germany’s accession to the West and the integration of the young Germany into Western economic and military alliances. In doing so, he diverted the country to its advantage from the hitherto German peculiar path, directed against the political culture of the West, which Adolf Hitler had pushed to the limit. At the same time, Adenauer co-founded the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) and became its charismatic chairman. It was probably the most important political party ever, newly founded after the war, but to some extent burdened with an angry membership and mindset. As a modern liberal-conservative popular party, like its counterparts in France and Italy, it soon became a leading force. Indeed, confessionally it did not confine itself to the Catholic Centre, and thus cut itself off from the anti-democratic conservatism which had strangled the Weimar Republic and which eventually succumbed to the National Socialists. By self-denazification, it drew a dividing line between itself and the far right. The way Adenauer’s successor Friedrich Merz speaks of the AfD (today’s brownish Alternative for Germany) shows that even he, as an experienced conservative, adheres to the Adenauerian commitment: no coalition with proto-fascists.
The many political taboos in Europe
In the United States, the question of whether conservatives can withstand or succumb to the influence of the radicals seems to have already been decided by the Republicans, who have submitted to Donald Trump without a murmur (…). The Tories in the UK are in a similar position. They are freely dissolving into the nationalist-racist amalgam dictated by the Brexiteers. In post-communist Eastern Europe, the ruling Tories are blinded by the clerical-fascist and national-authoritarian interwar traditions, including the inherent anti-Semitism. In France, the vastly mutated Gaullism has come under pressure from at least two versions of the New Right. Both bluntly repeat the ideas of the 1789 counter-revolution and have now united a full one-third of the electorate behind them.
The vacillation of the Conservatives has had a significant effect on the withering of democracy. It has been evident all over the world since the turn of the millennium.
Will Europe find itself underwater? Absolutely. So argues the recent President of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Pole Donald Tusk. The alliance of Spanish conservatives with the far right (VOX) for the first time since the end of the Franco dictatorship is not the only taboo-breaking so far. In Austria, the ÖVP, the CDU’s sister party, has already twice “launched” with the far-right FPÖ. According to the Viennese columnist Natascha Strobl, “radicalised conservatism” has gained the upper hand, characterised by six distinctive features: deliberate rule-breaking, a sharp polarisation of “us against the other”, strong men as leaders, targeted restructuring of state institutions, politics in permanent election campaign mode and the creation of a parallel reality through disinformation campaigns.
Staging as an alternative model to liberal modernity
The ultra-right current in question is based on a worldview that stretches from Los Angeles to Vladivostok and presents itself as a counterpoint to liberal modernity. Its most dangerous proponent has turned out to be one Vladimir Putin. He has stopped mincing words. The ideas of the new right have become so firmly established in Russia that the Russian president has long been the most ardent supporter of the so-called ‘populists’ or ‘right-wing populists’. In the aforementioned countries, they are promoting precisely the kind of ethnic-authoritarian nationalism that culminated in the horrific form of Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Through disinformation campaigns and financial injections flowing from Moscow, these ideas have seeped through to Washington, where Donald Trump has boasted of his special ties to Putin and as if it was he who had given the green light to shoot down Ukraine. His loyal minions at Fox News praise him for it to this day.
Hungary was also in the spotlight. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is close to Putin, also won the last elections against a united opposition. He has thus won a fourth mandate, which he wants to use to overhaul the European Union. However, he does not smell of subsidies from here and his corrupt regime is raking them in by the handful. Orbán’s Fidesz party is now enriching the original conventionally conservative ideas of family and homeland with historical revisionism. It is thus feeding on the fascist and Greater Hungarian Horthy regime of the 1940s. She is also no stranger to anti-Semitic rants (Soros). And so, in Budapest, the betrayal of the conservatives and their sell-out to the populist-authoritarian right has been completed without a hitch.
The moderate right has become irrelevant in France
The onslaught of the radical right in France has threatened the moderate right. In the first round of the presidential elections on 10 April, the Gaullist candidate Valérie Pécresse fell into irrelevance with less than five per cent of the votes cast, while Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round. Two other candidates further to the right received an extra nine percent. So a third of the French electorate followed the ethnic-authoritarian nationalism of this backward trio. Against Emmanuel Macron, more than four out of ten voters backed Marine Le Pen in the second round.
The Pécressees remained but poor paupers of the Gaullist grouping that dominated the French political landscape after 1945 and especially since 1958. Named after its founder, General Charles de Gaulle, it was a representative of bourgeois conservatism. It differed sharply from the reactionary conservative regime of Marshal Pétain, who collaborated with the Nazi German occupiers during the Second World War.
De Gaulle and his successors – Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy – were socially conservative politicians, yet they enabled the country’s technical and economic modernisation and, with the advent of nuclear power, consolidated its national sovereignty. They have always been opponents of the European federal state project. (…) After this year’s elections, however, this moderate right has probably become politically irrelevant for a long time.
Since the 1960s, the rise of the far right has been linked to the Le Pen family. Their worldview draws on almost all the sources of French backward thinking: the early fascism and anti-Semitism of the pre-war Action française movement and the authoritarian repertoire of the Vichy (Pétain) regime, whose slogan was ‘Family, Work, Country’. Last but not least, from the dream of an eternally French Algeria, which Le Pen senior defended as a soldier with torture and terror. (…) Marine Le Pen intends to subvert the French constitution, renew the traditional hatred of Germany and stir up resentment against the European Union by means of referendums.
Disaster in America
A certain European slow-motion disaster (the presidential elections in France) could be replaced by a disaster in one of the oldest and classical democracies in the world, the United States. They permanently bear the stamp of Donald Trump, President of the USA until 2021. The accelerating right-wing orientation of the Republican Party, which Trump has conquered, is unstoppable. Abraham Lincoln’s caucus was originally a reliable bastion of liberal-conservative thought. Since the 1980s, it has increasingly become the political home of religious fundamentalists. They have given birth to the two basic principles of modern constitutions: the ideal of equality of people of all colors and the separation of religion from politics. Thus, there is a sell-out of old American conservative values in favour of a populist-identitarian ideology, and the bankrupt Trump has been able to exploit it for self-promotion. He has branded the old isolationist inclination of Americans, that is, to keep their nation as far away from world conflicts as possible, with the slogan “America first”, and has thus mastered the populist trick of instrumentalizing the real or perceived disadvantages of white inlanders, the so-called rednecks, compared to the multicultural elites of coastal cities. Thus the billionaire sends the disillusioned working masses into a class struggle coiled to the right. While existing and deepening material disadvantages continue to exist, ideologically they have been successfully rethought. It no longer targets capital or the “rich”, but those who are even more defenseless because race, religion and origin have replaced class consciousness.
Like the French and Hungarian right, the Trump group, through Steven Bannon, has adopted the ideology of “population exchange”. This is a conspiracy theory, originating in France, according to which the conspiring dark forces intend to replace the white Christian essence of the state with coloured Muslim immigrants. (…) It is worth noting that this is not the usual race between government and opposition, but that the aim is to destabilise democracy itself.
The era of the “People’s Party of the Centre” is over
The German Christian Democrats first had to live through the Social Democratic government under Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt before they regained the ability to achieve a structural majority as a modernised “People’s Party of the Centre” with Helmut Kohl at its head. Kohl was brilliant in this respect, and the Unionist parties succeeded in conquering the old social democratic East German core in 1990. (…) Subsequently, Angela Merkel (his successor) integrated into the party an extraordinarily straddling political centre, into which it was a simple matter to incorporate social democratic elements, thus making the Chancellor’s electoral grouping once again invincible.
The turning point came from 2015 onwards. The resistance of the moderate right to a deal with its national-authoritarian rival, which was gaining strength thanks to populist propaganda within the disintegrating public, was weakening. Resentment against migration played a key role. It helped right-wing populists to get into governments in Scandinavia and to gain blackmailing power in France and southern Europe. From the countries of Eastern Europe, they began to shake the European Union at its normative and institutional foundations.
Conservatism continues to search for an appealing and contemporary message (…), but so far (…) it has mostly been mumbling generalities or enumerating secondary virtues. (…) Those who care about the survival of the conservative political current recommend opposing the “conservative revolution” of the far right with less abstract principles and vague values. Rather, institutional certainty: instead of rule-breaking, reliability; instead of polarisation, reconciliation with the “other”; instead of toxic masculinity, humanity; instead of xenophobia, friendliness to the needy; instead of lies, respect for institutions that guarantee truthfulness, for law, science and public discourse in a free media.
Moderation and humility could play a desirable role
Anti-fascism must not remain a special leftist or fringe issue. Even if it is not a unique selling point in the electoral market, the far right must hear a clear no. (…) The old-fashioned Unionist slogan of the Conservatives “Persevere!” doesn’t really fit. Especially from an ecological point of view – climate change and the extinction of animal species cannot be ‘sat on’. The choice is not between what is and what was, as classical conservatism understood it, but between what is and what will be. And what is to be improved. Paradoxically, basic conservative attitudes, moderation and humility, could play a positive role. However, the formula of “protection of life” cannot be narrowed down to “unborn life”, as in Poland and now in the USA. Here, the constitutional ruling on the right to abortion is overturned in its entirety. So far, this right is the only one that has respected the independence of women’s decision-making. But it is no accident that patriarchal anger is attacking this very achievement.
Let’s go back to Konrad Adenauer: in domestic politics, he was a value conservative, or, as his critics said, an arch-reactionary. However, in his old age, abandoned by his own party and personally intransigent, he foolishly lent his name to the prize awarded to intellectuals and artists by the far-right Deutschland-Stiftung.
But enlightened conservatism should not take this all-bad path.
Claus Leggewie is a professor of political science at Justus Liebig University in Giessen. He wrote the text of this essay for the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. The text has been editorially reduced and edited.
published: 20. 6. 2022