Global Policy Forum

Kohl's Christian-Democrat Scandals


Secrets and Spies in Germany

By Christian Semler

Le Monde Diplomatique
April 2000

The Christian Democrats meet for their party congress in Essen on 10 April. Their aim is to put the Kohl scandal behind them and resume their attacks on the coalition led by Gerhard Schrí¶der, fighting for the "centre" of German political life. The election of Angelika Merkel, now the only candidate for party leadership, will be particularly symbolic. If the CDU can overcome the growing contradictions between its traditional values and liberal commitments, it will survive the damage of the Kohl affair.

When the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elects its new leader at the Essen party congress in April it will not have much choice. The only possible candidate is Angela Merkel. A long-standing protégée of Helmut Kohl - who just called her the "girl" - Merkel is a physicist, a Protestant and a former citizen of the German Democratic Republic. At present she is party general secretary. The new Christian Democrat figurehead has no secret bank accounts to hide and since December has not hesitated to criticise the record of the former chancellor. In short she is credibility incarnate and, it seems, the only person able to lift the party out of its present rut.

Under the pressure of the crisis that has racked the party for the last three months, there has been an unexpected outburst of internal democracy, of which Merkel seems to be the sole beneficiary. The CDU used not to be a party in which ordinary members dared to question statements by the leadership, particularly under Kohl who brought a succession of electoral victories and thus secured the prosperity of leaders at all levels of the party.

Times have certainly changed. Even the former chancellor's successor, Wolfgang Schäuble, was suspected of having received an illegal donation and had to give up the leadership. This is why CDU party chiefs finally decided to "listen to the rank and file". In the hope of gaining a respite during regional party conferences they decided to address the issue of party leadership, but without rushing the matter. But supporters chanting "Angie, Angie!" transformed one meeting after another into triumphs for Merkel. The other candidates withdrew in fury, led by former defence minister Volker Rühe (whose machismo earned him the nickname of Volker Rüpel -- "boor" in German). "See luck in crisis" is the current slogan, backed by talk of a "new beginning" aimed at party militants.

Merkel wants a full enquiry into all donations and secret bank accounts but has received little backing from her own party. Public opinion is, however, strongly in favour of an investigation, which is why the CDU gave in. Yet despite seemingly brutal self-criticism, there is still a great deal to come to light. This tale of crooks and cronies, like a well constructed mystery novel, calls for a clear distinction between appearances and what went on behind the scenes.

At first glance there are two sides to the scandal. First it concerns the millions of Deutschmarks that the CDU pocketed - without any public record - and that Kohl dished out to the organisations and leaders of his choosing. This was not only a criminal violation of the law on political parties but also a betrayal of the party's statutory bodies which did not receive the funds. In addition the CDU collected money abroad, transferred it to bank accounts in Germany and then disguised it as "loans" or even - as was the case with the federation in Hesse - as "a bequest by Jewish donors". In other words, this was dirty money. A large number of such operations have been uncovered and it is suspected that there are many more.

Who were the donors?

Behind the scenes the key question is who the donors were. As he received the gifts personally, Kohl feels bound not to reveal their identity. There is no public discussion of the millions that the former French president, Franí§ois Mitterrand, is thought to have given him via Elf Aquitaine for his election campaign, but the CDU has not attempted to initiate legal proceedings against the television channels that started the scandal. As for the funds imported from abroad, it is assumed that they passed through systems that the party had previously used to launder company donations, in particular the Staatsbürgerliche Vereinigung, disbanded after the CDU's first big funding scandal in the 1980s (1). In other words the origin of the funds remains a mystery.

Yet another, even more interesting question remains unanswered. In exchange for these anonymous donations, did the Kohl government turn a blind eye to certain goings on such as arms sales to sensitive parts of the world, the allocation of factories in former East Germany or indeed the purchase of German companies by foreign groups? Did these donations have to be anonymous to achieve their full effect?

This leaves the worrying suspicion that the Kohl system - a network of individuals who were both loyal to and dependent on the CDU head - was perhaps fed by a group of bosses who hoped to establish a sphere of influence that was not subject to any form of control. The reality is probably much more approximate and primitive than the theory of "monopolistic state capitalism" would have us believe. Although it has scored a number of successes in this scandal, investigative journalism has so far failed to pierce the thick fog that surrounds this central issue. It is perhaps significant that even the most critical media have so far gone out of their way to avoid the word corruption.

Political columnist Karl-Otto Hondrich recently wrote that there is nothing quite like a good political scandal to boost moral rectitude. True, but it must involve three steps. First discovery, then public moral indignation and finally condemnation of those responsible. Unfortunately the CDU donations scandal seems likely to stop at the first stage. The party's chiefs have succeeded in laying most of the blame on Kohl and a handful of provincial leaders and members of the party's financial staff. Their aim is to put an end to the question of guilt by sacrificing the former boss and his successor, Schäuble.

Public criticism has focused far too much on superficial things like briefcases stuffed with banknotes and illegal accounts while the donors and their intentions have stayed well out of the limelight. The Germans have lost interest in the subject, despite spicy details of a smuggler of millions of marks in and out of Liechtenstein who turned out to be none other than the champion of law and order, the former minister of the interior, Manfred Kanter. In other words there is little prospect of seeing the full confession by all the guilty parties that Hondrich demands. All the CDU members who broke the law see their crime as an excusable slip-up. As a result the scandal will not have a purifying effect - so much for catharsis.

The party leadership and its militants may be "looking to the future" and focusing on "fundamental issues" in the fight to regain power, but that does not provide an answer to the vital question of whether the donations scandal has shaken the CDU in the longer term, threatening the substance on which it has fed for the last 50 years. Ever since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949 the Christian Democrats have claimed a high degree of legitimacy. They have always seen themselves as the true demiurges of the German state. In the Essen manifesto presented to the next party congress, this exceptional status is justified by three priorities: "social market economy, a Western outlook and European integration". As the text points out, the CDU fought long and hard to defend the third point against the Social Democrats and ensure that it was shared by all Germans.

Whereas the Christian Democrats in Italy, despite their monopoly of power, saw their Communist opponents as an integral part of the arco constituzionale (2), the CDU, even during its period in opposition (1969-82), stuck to the image it invented for itself as the only real state-party. This attitude has led to a strange conception of the constitution according to which, despite the rule of law, the party is the only true guarantor of the Federal Republic. As a result the practice of illegal donations may pass as a simple legal mishap because it serves a legitimate aim - the protection of the foundations of German political life. CDU members have a deep-rooted conviction that only their party can save Germany from ruin and disaster.

This proud ideological edifice is now, however, exposed to the assault of the elements, currently in stormy mood. What is more, the mortar holding the stones together has turned to powder: the fear of an all-powerful Soviet neighbour has vanished with the collapse of the USSR and its hegemonic system. The ghouls conjured up to take its place - the Social Democrats in the role of the party of ruinous sharing, or the Greens as the enemies of industrial development - are far less frightening. After all they have made the protection of state finance and German production the main themes of government policy. In addition the present government's policies have appeased popular fears regarding security and a "foreign invasion" by destitute immigrants. Once a key component in the CDU power base and the party's self-image, the centre is now occupied by Gerhard Schrí¶der's red-green coalition.

It would, however, be a mistake to see in this downsizing of CDU claims to super-legitimacy a sign of rapid decline or even decomposition. In the post-war years the party did a remarkable job of integration, drawing together disparate strands - socially oriented Catholics, nationalist Protestants and liberals from the southwest - as well as other groups that had never had a common denominator in German history. During the many years of a virtually one-party, Christian-liberal-conservative system that followed, contradictions between various religious denominations, regional offshoots and class conflicts naturally developed.

As there is nothing like success to smooth out differences, the CDU managed for a long time to keep any discord within the bounds of government policy based on traditional conservative values, such as family, home and fatherland, and modern ideas such supranationality, deregulation and international competition, which obviously contradict the first group. It was therefore quite appropriate to refer to this balancing act as "semi-modern" since it was based on a policy that promoted both the status quo and the dynamics of self-destruction.

The internal contradictions have been aggravated in recent years. The ethnic unity of the German people is a thing of the past, as is the cohesiveness of the traditional family or the political domination of men's clubs, and in particular the CDU. On the other hand there is no reason why this unitary Christian Democrat system should not survive in the 21st century. The enthusiasm drummed up by Angela Merkel proves that it is anything but a lost cause.

However, this rescue operation involves sacrificing aspects of conservative thinking that are already on the wane in the collective consciousness, whereas modern forms of the "defence and conservation" of the environment - not to mention the ecology of landscape - continue to flourish as "valuable forms of conservatism". It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the weight of inertia left by the forms of political organisation that proved successful in Germany in the past. To put an end to the CDU would take far greater disasters than the recent scandals surrounding illegal donations and dirty money. This was demonstrated by the recent regional (Land) elections in Schleswig-Holstein on 27 February. In the midst of a political and media storm the CDU polled 35.2% of the votes, losing barely 2% compared with its 1996 score.

Can the same be said of the party's right wing where those who have lost out on modernisation have gathered, where the fear of foreign competition for jobs is most frenzied and the already shaky concept of "German identity" is spawning ultranationalists and Eurosceptics? Historian Michael Stürmer recently warned of the uncertainties threatening the work of integration that has to be renewed with each successive generation of voters.

It is above all the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the CDU's small Bavarian sister - that has attempted to attract rightwing voters with concessions to populist movements in its programme. It has also sought to combat far-right organisations. The problem with this type of tactic is that it is tricky to borrow an opponent's ideas while attempting to limit its influence. It should come as no surprise that the CSU is Jorg Haider's favourite political formation.

Stürmer says the radical right lacks two essential items, a programme and an acceptable leader. It is still haunted by the image of old, bull-necked Nazis, the stench of beer taverns and the repulsive trappings of flags and roll-calls. It is unable and indeed unwilling to cut its ties with the small Fascist terror groups from which it recruits its cadres. But all that may change, and an intellectual scene is beginning to develop within the movement. The radical right could - perhaps in five years' time - become sufficiently well organised to join forces with the nationalist rightwing fraction of the CDU. This is really the only form of division that it is realistic to predict and fear.

For the time being the Christian Democrats are in party mood and Angela Merkel, the party's "new angel", as even opponents of the CDU call her, is preparing a triumphant entrance.

(1) This organisation was founded by German bosses in 1954 to fight socialism. It collected tax-deductible donations from companies on behalf of the Christian Democrats and Liberals.

(2) The constitutional arc comprises parties belonging to the wartime resistance movements that approved the 1945 constitution.


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