Following Republican Playbook, German Conservatism Breaks the Post-WWII Taboo

"Earlier this year, a CSU delegation visited Ron DeSantis in Florida, and gave the Governor rave reviews. Andreas Scheuer [left], former secretary of transportation, praised DeSantis’ attack on the rights of LGBTQ (but especially trans) people." Image: Twitter/X

It was the one taboo in German post-World War II politics: No German party on the democratic spectrum would ever collaborate with a far-right party. And since the arrival of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) on the national political landscape, this taboo hadn’t been broken—even if the country’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), often tried to signal to the far-right, in a fruitless attempt to “win back” voters from the AfD. Yes, there had been some instances of parties, mainly the CDU, voting with the AfD on a local level—but there had never been a collaboration endorsed by party leadership.

Until now. 

That taboo was broken on July 23rd, 2023 when Friedrich Merz claimed in a TV interview that his party’s resolution, which forbids cooperation with the AfD, only referred to legislative bodies. What this means, in other words, is that the party would be free to collaborate on the local level with a fascist party. Merz clarified: 

Of course we are obliged to accept democratic votes. And if the head of a district authority or a mayor is voted in who belongs to the AfD, then of course you find ways to continue to work in that town.” 

The backlash, even from those within his own party, was immediate. It was so intense, in fact, that Merz reverted to a positively Trumpian posture: lying and pretending that what everyone had seen with their own eyes was not the truth.

And while Merz’s support has since taken a beating in national polls, he remains the head of the CDU. Advocating for collaboration with a far-right party on the local level and lying about it afterwards wasn’t enough to topple him—a truly stunning revelation of the state of German conservatism. 

The temperature has clearly changed in German conservatism. Merz may have gotten a slap on the wrist from his own party, but they seem content to stay the course he’s set the party on. And while the disinhibition we’ve witnessed in parts of German conservatism in recent months might be new, it builds on old authoritarian impulses and narratives in parts of German conservatism. In fact, the CDU has a long history of pandering to racist grievances (like the infamous “Kinder statt Inder”—“Kids, not Indians”—quote by Jürgen Rüttgers in 2000) and has long echoed the AfD’s racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

Merz’s endorsement of collaborating with a fascist party on the local level may have seemed to him like the logical step in normalizing far-right views—but he misjudged the situation. Only four years ago, communal CDU politician Walther Lübcke, who had refused to adopt far-right politics, was killed by an AfD-sympathizer. In dismissing local politics as less important, he not only proved his ignorance in understanding how the far-right seeks to undermine democracy, but also dishonored the memory of an elected official of his party, who was murdered by a fan of those who Merz was opening the door to.

With the January 2022 election of Friedrich Merz as party leader from the CDU’s right flank, after 16 years of Angela Merkel, change was in the air: He wanted to sharpen the CDU’s conservative profile, Merz said. It became apparent rather quickly what Merkel’s former arch-rival meant by this. In just the last year, the elected CDU politicians have openly embraced the “culture wars,” pulling directly from the American Right’s anti-trans playbook by fear-mongering about the German equivalent of “Drag Queen Story Hour.” 

Munich’s CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party), for example, recently tried to ban such an event at Munich’s public library, with Secretary General Martin Huber claiming it was “woke sexualization” of children. Hubert Aiwanger, using a narrative directly copied from the GOP’s playbook, added: “This is child welfare endangerment and a case for the Youth Welfare Office, not cosmopolitanism as the Greens trivialize it.”

While Republicans have decided to defend stoves as part of their effort to fight the “culture war,” German conservatives have decided to do the same—only with oil-fired central heating as the cause. And, since DeSantis has declared war on “wokeness,” prominent German conservatives have followed suit. Friedrich Merz called “Cancel Culture” the “greatest threat to freedom of expression,” tweeting: “I see with the greatest concern what is happening at universities in the US; this is now spilling over into #Europe.”

Markus Söder, head of the CSU, railed against “wokeness,” claiming that the Greens want to “re-educate Germans,” while Carsten Linnemann and Christoph Ploß (both CDU) called “wokeness” a “dangerous” frame of reference.

Earlier this year, a CSU delegation visited Ron DeSantis in Florida, and gave the Governor rave reviews. Andreas Scheuer, former secretary of transportation, praised DeSantis’ attack on the rights of LGBTQ (but especially trans) people: 

“There are current issues, for example regarding the so-called gender-switching law of [the German government], which I see very critically. DeSantis also addresses this clearly in a different context. He warns against it and wants to stop certain zeitgeist developments. I share DeSantis’ analyses. It may shock some. But I stand by that.”

Markus Söder, head of the CSU, has spread lies about the food in Bavarian day-care centers on TV, alleging that leftist indoctrination meant that meat had been banned in the region. Several years earlier Söder had ordered that a cross be hung in every Bavarian government office, a clear violation of the separation of church and state—and yet, courts have allowed them to stay up, arguing that the cross is an “essentially passive symbol with no proselytizing and indoctrinating effect.”

German conservatives have also been trying to prevent a law from being passed which would make the process for trans people to register an official transition in a less dehumanizing way, with former secretary of digitalization (and member of the DeSantis delegation) Dorothée Bär calling it “the deconstruction of identity and family.” German conservatives are also all in on the authoritarian “law and order” rhetoric. In Munich, climate activists were sent to jail after a peaceful protest. For climate protesters of the group calling itself “The Last Generation,” for example, Markus Söder demanded

“punishments that are effective, not light fines, but, for example, arrests, or an appropriate prison sentence when it comes to particularly serious cases.”

The secretary-general of the CDU, Carsten Linnemann, demanded court martial for young men from Muslim immigrant communities who disturb the peace at outdoor pools. For weeks a right-wing panic about outdoor pools, allegedly swarming with young Muslim men assaulting unassuming German citizens (read: White women) was rampant. The CDU was all too happy to participate in it—until it turned out that the whole thing was completely fabricated. Contrary to this alleged crime wave in outdoor pools, the number of assaults had actually gone down compared to previous years

Merz called the Green Party the CDU’s “main enemy” after the AfD won their first ever district council seat earlier this summer, blaming the AfD victory on the center-left national government coalition and has since referred to his CDU party as “alternative for Germany with substance” (AfD stands for “alternative for Germany”). One can’t help but feel, German conservatives have lost their inhibition—or whatever had remained of it. 

But it’s not only conservative politicians who seem emboldened to say things or infer concepts and ideologies that seemed unfathomable mere years ago. Ulf Poschardt, head of the right- and libertarian-leaning newspaper Die Welt recently adapted a quote from an obscure fiction writer who dabbles in apocalyptic frontier stories and bigfoot tales (yes, really), which was previously popularized by Tucker Carlson’s “documentary” The End of Men

“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.” 

In the trailer to Carlson’s propaganda flick, which promotes racist anxiety about falling (White) birth rates caused by low sperm count in men who’ve grown too weak to procreate, the narrator’s voice rumbles “and so the cycle begins again.” The spiritual tone is no coincidence as I pointed out in a previous piece for Religion Dispatches

“[…] the video describes a form of traditionalism which Steve Bannon and Putin confidante Alexander Dugin subscribe to. In their ideological ponderings about society, both refer to René Guénon, the founder of traditionalism, and the Italian fascist Julius Evola as a big influence. At the core of traditionalism is the rejection of modernity (with the exception of its technical achievements), combined with esotericism and mysticism. Similar to fascism, it also glorifies rural life, or at the very least presents an anti-urbanism. So it’s only fitting that in Carlson’s trailer full of sweating men’s bodies we see one of them milking a cow: sweat and soil.”

The quote about the alleged cyclical nature of history has been spread far and wide in the most disturbing, hateful corners on the internet: alt-right and neo-Nazi message boards, where it’s circulated in meme-form for years now. Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan established bridges between the far-right fringe and mainstream conservatism, making them accessible to millions of people—including, apparently, Poschardt, the head of a major German newspaper. 

Poschardt used a slightly adapted version of the quote to lament the weakness of Germany’s young, educated academic middle class—echoing the classic, anti-intellectualist complaint from the Right against universities and students as the roots of both societal decay and hotbeds of liberalism, detached from the “real people.” Of course he switched out “weak” for “cabbage,” presumably to be able to reasonably claim that he was only using the quote in a humorous kind of way—a popular tactic by right-wing actors attempting to mainstream far-right talking points

But Poschardt isn’t alone. One of his head writers, Anna Schneider, has lauded Jordan Peterson and Argentinian anarcho-fascist Javier Milei, who welcomes comparisons with Trump and Bolsonaro; sees socialists as “enemies of humanity”; denies climate change; has close ties to the Christian Right; wants to ban abortion, and supports unrestricted gun ownership. 

Schneider, who Die Welt has comically named “chief freedom reporter,” tweeted gushingly about Milei’s politics, claiming that she was “very much in love right now, except for the abortion issue, of course.” She doesn’t seem to have any problems with Milei’s other staunchly right-wing views, and approvingly quoted a claim from Milei that states are “criminal organizations.” 

Poschardt, meanwhile, her boss, supportively tweeted about a recent lead article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung—once a respected conservative newspaper in Switzerland that has in recent years descended into reactionary fear-mongering—claiming that Germany was under a new “dictatorship,” and that leftist indoctrination from the Green party was sweeping the country against the will of its people, who, according to the author, are under “siege.” 

Adrian Daub, a professor of literature at Stanford University, has lived in the U.S. for 27 years now. Visiting Germany this summer, he was struck by the shift he saw in German politics. Recently, on our podcast “Kreuz und Flagge” (“Cross and Flag”), where we analyze the struggles of American democracy, he told me and my co-host Lukas Hermsmeier: “I was there, when Aiwanger and Scheuer directly copied off DeSantis’ playbook.” In his view, what we’re seeing isn’t a Trumpification of German conservatism so much as it is, as he calls it, a Republicanization: 

“It’s based on much older things. I think there’s a strong orientation towards American right-wing populism. But I think it’s going too far to want to associate that just with a billionaire from Mar-a-Lago. It’s a Republicanization, and is referencing things that they’ve actually been doing since the 1980s.” 

This disinhibition of German conservatism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a global far-right mobilization. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni of the fascist Fratelli d’Italia party (who’s been lauded by some German conservatives), has declared war on same-sex parents, while in the UK the Tories are echoing natalist fears about declining birth rates. At the “National Conservatism” conference earlier this year (which was put on by a U.S. think tank), conservative MP Miriam Cates blamed “cultural marxism” as well as university attendance and “mass indoctrination of young minds” for falling birth rates in “western countries.” In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has accused the EU of “leading a LGBTQ offensive” by “rejecting Christian heritage.” 

While climate change has led to unbearably hot European summers, the continuing disinhibition of conservatives and those on the far-right—in Germany and beyond—has a chilling effect. And, in many cases, to those familiar with developments in more than one nation, the playbook has looked strikingly similar.