Radicalising the establishment from within? The CDU and the Werte Union

On Saturday, Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats face a new leadership contest at their annual conference. The growing discontent of the party base with the current leadership opens up new avenues for far-right ideology in the party not from the outside but from within. CARR Doctoral Fellow, Mr Julian Göpffarth, explores how the CDU’s new radical right faction, the Werte Union, is radicalising the CDU from within while at the same time carefully distancing itself from the AfD.

Merkel opened the CDU conference on 22nd November 2019

Over the past years an interesting pattern has emerged in Western party politics. In several countries established parties were first challenged by new and often radical outsider parties before groups inside these established parties tried to radicalise them from within. In the U.S. the grass roots, Tea Party movement has played a central role in pushing the Republicans further to the right. In the UK, both in Labour and the Tories more radical grass roots movements have managed to increase their influence – with in the latter case increasing pressure coming from the outside in the form of UKIP and the Brexit Party.

In Germany, the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has led to the establishment of a similar group in Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the so-called Werte Union (or ‘Union of Values’). Founded in March 2017 in a small town in the south west of Germany, the group describes itself as a “conservative grassroots movement” that is working for a “liberal conservative renewal”. With about 3000 members, it is dwarfed by the CDU’s overall cohort of 400000 members. Yet, despite its size, it has become increasingly visible at the national level. As an alleged voice of those dissatisfied with Merkel’s modernisation of the CDU, it challenges not only Merkel but also current party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. More recently, for example, it has lobbied for Merkel’s old rival, Friedrich Merz, to replace her and eventually become chancellor.

The groups visibility is due in part to radical positions that it shares with the AfD: an anti-Muslim resentment and focus on Islamism, fears of islamisation, calls for assimilation of immigrants and a Christian Leitkultur (leading culture). It also symbolically taps into visions of a German economy and culture in decline, a call for a Europe of fatherlands, restrictive immigration policies and a fortress Europe. Moreover, on social issues, it opposes abortion, same sex marriage and so-called “feminist gender ideology”. Finally, and in a more authoritarian strain, it calls for the strengthening of state powers in matters of security as well as its promotion of German nationalism and emphasis on Heimat and tradition.

The Werte Union is associated to other more radical groups inside the CDU such as the Berliner Kreis, Christian Democrats for Life, or the so-called Action to Stop the Trend to the Left, aimed against a perceived social-democratisation of the CDU and the defence of Christian-conservative values and market liberalism.The core strategy of the Werte Union can thus be described as radicalising the CDU from within while at the same time distancing itself from the AfD. The aim, so its representatives say, is to turn the CDU into a party that makes the AfD obsolete. Another reason for the group’s visibility are its relatively prominent members. A closer look at them shows that AfD and Werte Union do not only share a thematic platform. They also rely on common networks.

The most known figure is Hans-Georg Maaβen, former president of the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Maaβen became a martyr-like figure for German conservatives as well as the far right when he had to step down from office after denying that people of colour had been hunted during the far-right marches in Chemnitz in 2018. Ever since, Maaβen has been touring Germany to promote the Werte Union becoming one of its most known political figures in the process.

Though relatively unknown until recently, the group’s chair Alexander Mitsch has equally managed to be increasingly visible in the German media. While he has repeatedly ruled out a cooperation with the far right AfD in public, he spoke at the Library of Conservatism, a far right think tank based in Berlin, that is not only a popular meeting space for an educated-bourgeois AfD supporters but that has also welcomed sympathisers of fascism, such as Tarmo Kunnas, a Finnish academic with links to the Italian neo-fascist social movement, Casa Pound.

Such links also emerge when looking at another prominent member, the Dresden-based Professor of Politics, Werner Patzelt, a controversial academic who in the past advised Saxony’s AfD branch and has recently been central to the designing of Saxony’s CDU election programme and campaign. Like Saxony’s CDU as a whole, Patzelt has been open not only to the AfD but also more academic far right milieus more generally and has also spoken at the Library of Conservatism.

Another important link between the Werte Union and the AfD is the so-called New Hambach Festival that first took place in 2018. Located at the Hambach Castle, a national memorial for 19th century struggles for a democratic, liberal and anti-monarchic Germany that is celebrated also by Germany’s current social democratic President, it allows the Werte Union to present itself as the legitimate re-incarnation of a nationalist struggle for democracy and liberalism.

The event mirrors the AfD’s Kyffhäuser-Meeting organised by far-right extremist and Thuringia’s AfD-leader Björn Höcke at another national memorial, the Kyffhäuser. Speakers, like AfD-leader Jörg Meuthen, have spoken at both events. Yet, by focussing on the Hambach tradition, the Werte Union tries to symbolically draw the difference to a mythical, illiberal and radical nationalism embodied by Höcke and the AfD more generally and an alleged liberal and less radical nationalism embodied by the Werte Union – giving itself a more educated, mainstream and less radical image.

Supporters of the AfD (as well as the Werte Union) use the history of the festival to portray themselves as new fighters for national freedom and democracy today allegedly under attack by left-liberal and Islamic totalitarianisms. Yet, behind the more educated-bourgeois façade, many positions are as radical as those presented at the Kyffhäuser. Speakers at the event include Thilo Sarrazin, whose racist bestselling book Germany Abolishes Itself is widely interpreted as central to the mainstreaming of far-right positions, normalising anti-Muslimism as well as introducing a pseudo-academic version of the far right’s population replacement theory. Another speaker was CDU member and former East German anti-socialist activist Vera Lengsfeld, who propagated that the current German “system” is a re-incarnation of the East Germany’s socialist regime.

These conceptual and structural links between AfD and the Werte Union are not the exception but the rule. Other, less known members of the Werte Union have written for known far-right newspapers such as the Junge Freiheit, authored books on the demise of German culture and economy or called for the exclusion of non-German speakers from primary schools. Still others called homosexuality abnormal and presented Muslims as “invaders” and “conquerors” and cooperated with far right think tanks close to Björn Höcke. After Höcke’s AfD reached more than 20% in Thuringia’s state elections, the Werte Union was quick in calling for talks with the far right party despite Höcke’s embracing of radical and extreme right positions.

After having been led by Angela Merkel for 18 years, the CDU currently lives through one of its most severe leadership crises. Though Merkel stepped down from the party’s leadership more than a year ago, the new party leader and Merkel’s apprentice Annegret-Kramp Karrenbauer has been under constant attack both by groups and individuals in and outside the CDU.

Despite its attempts to distance itself from the AfD a close look at the Werte Union shows that it represents the same economically liberal and socially conservative-reactionary milieu that formed the cradle for the AfD’s founding in 2013. It remains to be seen if the Werte Union will be able to follow examples of other parties in the US and Europe and push the CDU to the right. What is sure, however, is that scholars and observers of the far right should not only look at the party-political margins but also keep a close eye on how – under the pressure from inner and outer challengers -established parties like the CDU succumb to the lures of the extremes.

Mr Julian Gopffarth is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at European Institute, London School of Economics. His profile can be found here:

©Julian Gopffarth. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).