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The CDU: Germany’s major postwar party seeking to redefine itself

  • September 26, 2021

No party has led the German government as often as the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), having occupied the chancellor’s office for 57 of the 72 years of the Federal Republic of Germany’s existence. But, despite that, the CDU is anything but a monolithic or homogeneous political bloc.

Founded in 1945 as an interdenominational Christian party, the CDU effectively succeeded the prewar Catholic Centre Party, and it has never polled lower than the 31% it won at the first vote in postwar Germany in 1949.

If anything, the key to the party’s success over the years has been its ability to speak to the political center — and to produce iconic, broadly popular leaders.

Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was the father of the modern CDU and modern Germany

The Adenauer era

The CDU began coalescing in the immediate aftermath of World War II while Germany still lay in ruins, and the first party chairman was very much a man of history. Sixty-nine-year-old Konrad Adenauer was a former mayor of Cologne and a member of the Center Party in the Weimar Republic. He had clashed repeatedly with the Nazi regime during the Third Reich and thus had anti-fascist credentials.

Adenauer led the CDU to a 31% plurality in the first-ever election in the Federal Republic in 1949, becoming chancellor by a single vote (in essence, his own) in parliament. But, although Adenauer initially just scraped into power, the party gained in popularity, the four governments he led were very stable, and the CDU came to be seen as the guarantor of German solidity and prosperity. Campaign posters often featured the slogan “No experiments!”

In many respects, Adenauer set a centrist tone that continues today. He was a staunch advocate for West Germany’s alignment of itself with the Western Allies, particularly the US. But he also encouraged the country’s rapprochement with Western Europe and especially France and remained convinced that the Federal Republic would reunite with Communist East Germany someday — though it was a day he would never see for himself. 

Adenauer’s reign came to an end in 1963, and he died four years later at the age of 91.

Kohl was another German patriot at the head of the CDU

The Kohl epoch

Together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU traditionally commands the most votes in Germany, but the party spent 13 years out of power in the late 1960s and 1970s until lumbering Rhinelander Helmut Kohl recaptured the chancellery in 1982. He hardly swept to power, only becoming chancellor because the Free Democrats (FDP) abandoned their coalition with the SPD and formed a new alliance with his conservatives. 

Kohl wasn’t really a government-slashing conservative in the mold of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. Initially, he wasn’t known for much of anything at all except a stagnant economy and was considered likely to get chucked out of office sooner or later. Then came November 9, 1989.

Kohl’s handling of the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany continued Adenauer’s policy of advancing German national interests while further integrating the country into Western Europe. Thanks to Kohl, whose death in June 2017 was marked by an unprecedented memorial service in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the CDU will forever be known as the “party of unity.”  

Kohl wasn’t able to solve the socioeconomic problems accompanying reunification, however, and, after losing the 1998 election, he left the CDU in the midst of a campaign contributions scandal and a new leadership battle. But from that wreckage emerged the CDU’s third notable leader.

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    ‘Kohl’s girl’ no longer

    Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other political insiders once called her his “girl.” She stepped out of his shadow in 2001, when she led the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the opposition. But it was 2005 when her real moment came.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Narrow victory

    2005 general elections: The CDU, along with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, ekes out a win over the Social Democrats (SPD), led by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It was actually the CDU’s worst election performance in its history and an inauspicious start for Merkel, but she hit the ground running.

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    The new chancellor

    The CDU and SPD formed a “grand coalition” government and Merkel became the first woman, first former East German and the first scientist to become chancellor — as well as the youngest person ever to hold the position.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Host with the most

    Merkel quickly showed prowess. At the G8 summit in 2007, she welcomed the leaders of the eight largest economies to Heiligendamm, on the Baltic Sea. She joked around with then-US President George W. Bush (l) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Boys being boys

    European politics in fall 2008: Merkel had to share a stage with the big male egos of French President Nicolas Sarkozy (front) and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The growing financial crisis quickly became the European Union’s most pressing concern.

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    Help or hinder?

    Public debt for some European Union member states kept growing, threatening the very existence of the euro as a currency. Merkel’s offer to help came with austerity demands. That did not go down well, especially in Greece, where newspapers ran images comparing the moment to Nazi Germany’s occupation in World War II.

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    Reluctant campaigner

    Merkel is not the best orator. Her speeches are often halting and she rarely goes into depth on policy. Yet her quiet pragmatism and down-to-earth modesty have won wide appeal. That has helped her run four governments.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor


    At some point in her long tenure, Merkel went from chancellor of the country to mother of the nation. She was often referred to by supporters and foes alike as “Mutti,” a rather old-fashioned word for “mama.” It can be meant a little sarcastically, but it is often also said with affection, as in this Merkel supporter’s poster, a play on words that translates as “fully Mutti-vated.”

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    ‘We can do this’

    Few of her statements have had such a lasting impact as the above. Merkel won widespread praise in 2015 for staying committed to EU open-border policy and allowing more than 1 million migrants and refugees, many escaping the Syrian war, to enter Germany and the bloc. A vocal minority, however, pushed back against open migration.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Person of the Year 2015

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  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Model of discretion

    Merkel is discreet. She remains silent on her personal thoughts about less agreeable leaders and deals with them as a matter of state interest.

  • Angela Merkel: 16 years as German chancellor

    Down to earth

    She knows what a liter of milk costs, and years leading the country seem not to have gone to her head. Here in 2014, she visited a Berlin supermarket with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. It is not unusual to spot her grocery shopping on her own in downtown Berlin.

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    The diamond of trust

    Merkel is known for holding her hands together in a diamond form. She has said it helps her stand up straight. And it has helped the CDU: The party used the diamond symbol on campaign posters for the 2013 general election. It became synonymous with trust and calm.

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    A private life

    Merkel is a very private person. The public knows little more than the fact that her husband, Joachim Sauer, is also a scientist. The two have spent many Easters on the Italian island of Ischia. Due to the global travel slowdown caused by the COVID pandemic, 2020 was the obvious exception.

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    And then came coronavirus

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    Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Dr. Merkel

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    Author: Christoph Hasselbach

The Merkel years

Chancellor Angela Merkel hardly stormed into office, reluctantly forming a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) after a close election in 2005 to gain power. But she grew into the job and consistently ranked as Germany’s most well-known, most trusted, and most well-liked politician. If there’s one reason why the CDU vastly outperformed the SPD in opinion polls for many years, Merkel was it.

Like Adenauer and Kohl, Merkel was a centrist and a pragmatist. The position for which she may be remembered best is her welcoming stance toward refugees, which caused her to dip temporarily in the polls and hurt her popularity in the party.

Over the past years Merkel’s CDU has moved further toward the center than ever before in its history. Abolishing military conscription and phasing out nuclear energy were two of the most radical changes during her tenure.

Many CDU members reject same-sex marriage and abortion, while Merkel — a Protestant pastor’s daughter — and others paid lip service to Christian values, turning the CDU into an outwardly secular party, leaving the Catholic-dominated CSU to take up more overtly religious positions.

Ever the pragmatic tactician, Merkel opened the door to legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017  by allowing a conscience vote in the Bundestag and then voted against it herself.

The CDU stands for fiscal stability, but it doesn’t advocate the sort of hostility toward the social welfare state that’s a feature of conservative movements in other parts of the world. The CDU advocates canceling out the country’s debt, favors security and increased state surveillance and is generally more market-friendly than the SPD.

In foreign policy, the CDU is traditionally very positive toward the United States and a strong trans-Atlantic partnership. Critics say the chancellor has always been more interested in smooth governance than ideology, and Merkel herself might very well not disagree with that assessment.

Though Adenauer and Erhard cooperated with non-Nazi parties to their right, the CDU has more recently worked to marginalize its right-wing opposition.

In the last general election, in 2017, the CDU lost over eight percentage points from the 2013 vote, when it polled 41.5%. Analysts found that many voters abandoned Germany’s biggest party for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Armin Laschet took over the CDU chairmanship in January

Post-Merkel era

When Merkel stepped down from the CDU party leadership, she was succeeded initially by one of her allies: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who resigned after a dramatic drop in support. She, in turn, was succeeded in January by Armin Laschet , who promised to continue Merkel’s course.

But, in view of a looming defeat in the Bundestag elections, there is growing concern among the CDU/CSU about serious upheavals. “If the CDU/CSU is not in government, the party will face the most difficult times,” CSU Chairman Markus Söder told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Leading CDU politicians expect enormous “shock waves” in the party if it loses the chancellorship after 16 years of Angela Merkel and goes into opposition. Wing fights and personal disputes could break out openly. Laschet would be expected to resign as CDU leader and the party conservatives would emerge strong. The conservative wing of the party could rally around finance expert and former Blackrock CEO, Friedrich Merz, an old Merkel foe who lost to Laschet in the race for the party leadership.

Many CDU supporters no longer know what their party stands for. Party researcher Oskar Niedermayer told the Tagesspiegel newspaper: “It’s quite clear that the CDU is on the verge of losing its status as a big tent party forever.” In the European Union, he said, there are enough examples of Christian democratic parties that have collapsed after electoral disasters and never regained their former strength, pointing to the Democrazia Cristiana in Italy as an example.

This is an updated version of a previous article.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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