Germany′s CDU battles over its soul | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW


Bianca Praetorius said she had to go on an “inner journey” before she could join the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This weekend she was attending the party conference in Hannover, but two years ago she was a climate activist and entrepreneur working on a TV series about tackling poverty, human trafficking, the consequences of the climate crisis, and “re-thinking our economic system.”

Then, at some point in late 2020, she decided that the only way to really get anywhere was to enter the heart of the party that has governed for most of Germany’s post-war history.

What Germany’s center-right party needed was a climate policy organization: a “Klima Union.” But to found such an organization meant, she realized, she’d have to join the actual party.

She lost friends. “There were people in my circle who said I was crazy, who distanced themselves from me, who said I was making a pact with the devil, that I was greenwashing,” she told DW.

Bianca Praetorius and Daniel Schnürer at th party conference

For Bianca Praetorius (l) it was no easy decision to join the CDU

But the Green Party, currently in government and only four points behind the CDU in opinion polls, was just not for Praetorius.

“In the Greens, you have a lot of people who feel some kind of closeness to nature — but that doesn’t really help if you want to change the climate all over the world, because it’s such a highly complex economic issue,” she said. “That’s why I think the CDU, the party of the economy, is a much greater lever for changing the climate situation.”

Keeping party politics alive

Praetorius’ life path offers hope to someone at the other end of his CDU career. Norbert Lammert, former president of the German Bundestag, and now chairman of the CDU’s intellectual institution, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, has been a party member for over half a century. What worries the venerable 73-year-old most is the increasing age of CDU members — the average CDU party member is 60.8 years old — and the dwindling number of party memberships in general. Pollster Infratest dimap found that, between the 2017 and 2021 elections, 1.1 million CDU voters died.

But every party has the same problem, Lammert said. “You only have to look at the notable engagement, especially among young people, for climate issues, and see how they have low expectations of politicians here,” he said. “The insight that you have to be active in an existing party or, if there’s no other way, create a new party — that is less widespread.”

Friedrich Merz laughing into the camera

CDU chairman Friedrich Merz and other major party figures cracked plenty of jokes at the expense of the Green Party

The soul of the modern CDU

But one problem for the CDU specifically — and especially new members like Praetorius — is the stubborn conservatism of the party base. Earlier this year, they electedFriedrich Merzas party leader, the most conservative of the three candidates they could have chosen in the wake of last September’s national election defeat, and the man who for many represented the party’s return to traditional values following its perceived liberalizing, leftward drift under Angela Merkel.

And yet it was Merz — a 66-year-old who joined the CDU 50 years ago, and in 1997 notoriously voted against a Bundestag amendment recognizing rape within marriage as a crime — who sealed the deal for the CDU’s feminist faction, by arguing with some passion for enforcing a female quota in the party hierarchies.

The mood throughout that debate was deeply divided. Early speeches against the quota received noisy cheers and applause, but the debate tipped when all the major party figures, including Merz, came out in favor of a compromise that will only be introduced incrementally reaching 50% only in 2025, and it will end after five years.

Nevertheless, Merz said this quota “was a signal that we take this issue seriously.” Few delegates had the stomach to rebel against their new leader, but it also meant that the party officially recognized the existence of structural sexism.

Ursula Groden-Kranich

Ursula Groden-Kranich, deputy leader of the CDU’s women’s organization, wants to win more female voters

Moving into the future

Ursula Groden-Kranich has felt the CDU’s recent defeats more keenly than most. She lost her Bundestag seat to a Social Democrat at the last election. Now, as deputy leader of the CDU’s women’s organization, the “Frauen Union,” she is trying to figure out how to win more female voters.

“The women’s quota alone won’t do that,” she told DW. “The party needs to address issues that interest women, and that’s not just childcare. Especially during the pandemic, women did everything that kept our state together. That strength needs to be channeled into the mindset of freedom. The freedom of choice needs to be constantly emphasized.” She, like many CDU members, is skeptical about quotas but views them as a necessary “bridge technology.”

Delegates in Hannover were locked in a debate on the party’s values. Arguments sometimes turned on fundamental points like what the Christian worldview represented. One delegate argued Christianity was centered on individual sovereignty, and adding inclusive language about equality in the party’s charter was the “collective, compartmental thinking” of the left-wing parties. In fact, Merz himself got his loudest cheers of the weekend when he condemned universities and public broadcasters for introducing gender-neutral language.

But however Christian and conservative it’s worldview, the CDU is also desperate to see itself as a “Volkspartei” — a people’s party — and that by definition means inclusion. One recent CDU leadership candidate was Jens Spahn, an openly gay former government minister.

Identity politics, distasteful to some in the CDU, is also vital to the CDU’s future, believes Matthias Block-Löwer, of the LSU, the CDU’s lesbian and gay organization. “It’s about being officially accepted into the CDU family. This is a big step in which the CDU opens up, and says, ‘Our basic values have changed about what our image of the family is, and about who loves who’,” he said.

“I’m sure we were the party that took the longest to address LGBTQ issues,” he added. “But that will be dealt with today, and I’m convinced of that, and for me, it’s one more step for me to say that I made the right decision to join the CDU.”

While on the main conference stage, Merz and other major party figures cracked plenty of jokes at the expense of the Green Party’s “woke politics.” That is even though Germany’s current political polling suggests that the Greens and the CDU are the two most popular political forces right now.

Block-Löwer, Groden-Kranich, and Praetorius all said their preferred coalition would be with the Greens.

“The Greens are much more economically minded than they were ten years ago, and the CDU is greener than it was 10 years ago,” said Praetorius. “Those are good preconditions.”

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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