“Political barometer” of the current legislation period (2017-2021) in Germany. [Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]

Part 1: Old Nazi Networks and Cold War Crooks

While voter support for Germany’s most powerful party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU),[1] had been crumbling in the course of the current legislation period (2017-2021), with the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the tables have turned importantly in favor of the party: Polls had dropped to under 30% at the end of January this year, but have risen in the wake of Covid-19 to almost 40%. It is too early to tell whether this trend will hold up until the 2021 general election but, assuming that it does, Germany will most likely have a CDU-led government in the forthcoming years—a good occasion to have a closer look at the origins, development and current structure of the party.

In hindsight after one million people have lost their jobs, over 10 million people having switched to part-time work, and a predicted slump of the economy of 6.8 percent in 2020, it seems odd that people would back a party known for being the henchman of capital’s interests.

This is particularly so after it became clear that the massive “rescue” package the German government took on (over 300 billion Euros so far) resembled more of a dinosaur feeding: Fossil-fuel industries, such as Germany’s over-boarding car industry, or flagship airlines, such as Lufthansa, benefitted from state aid to continue their business as usual. Companies are granted a major share of the aid funds, 200 billion euros, while in comparison, municipalities will receive a mere 57 billion.

The sudden surge of the CDU certainly shows a tendency of Germans to fall back on what they know when push comes to shove, not deeming either the weakling Social Democrats, the high-flying Green Party or the far-right Alternative for Germany as capable of handling a crisis of such dimensions. While, last year, the Green Party briefly passed the CDU in polls, the Green wave seems to have suddenly ebbed, falling back from 27% to a mere 17%. Current polls indicate that the CDU gained its new votes to the detriment of all other parties, particularly the Greens. It may take some more time for the Covid crisis to show mid-term effects on working life and society, for the political situation to change again, but for the time being, the CDU will likely be in the comfortable position of setting the tone in any forthcoming coalition, and to have only to choose one mid-player coalition partner in order to obtain a governing majority.

The CDU, including both Catholics and Protestants, was founded in June 1945 as a merger of several Christian-oriented parties that had sprung up in the immediate postwar period, therefore carrying the word “Union” in its name. Many early members, among them Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, had previously belonged to the “German Center Party” (Deutsche Zentrumspartei),[2] a conservative Catholic party established in 1870 that was reconstituted after  World War II. But many had deserted the party because they deemed it socio-politically as too left-wing, for example, since it rejected Germany’s rearmament, and, due to its confessional limitation to Catholics, the German Center Party was less liberal with regard to cultural policies. The founding of the CDU as an interdenominational and largely secular party made it possible, in contrast to the former Center Party, to gain a foothold in Protestant and non-denominational circles.

From the first general elections in 1949 onwards, the CDU held its ground as Germany’s largest party, as well as the party of choice for capital’s interests, and in the Cold War became a reliable anti-communist partner of the Allied powers, particularly the U.S. The party played a crucial role in maintaining the prewar ownership structure, and many companies that had made a fortune during the war were able to continue their business as usual. The list of companies of worldwide renown today, which have directly profited from slave labor or expropriations in the wake of the Holocaust, is rather staggering:

  • several banks and insurance companies including Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank and Allianz;
  • steel producers Krupp and Thyssen (now ThyssenKrupp);
  • engineering companies, such as Siemens and AEG;
  • car manufacturers BMW, Mercedes Benz (now Daimler AG), Porsche and the Volkswagen Group;
  • most of the six chemical companies that made up the I. G. Farben conglomerate, including BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, and Agfa, as well as Degussa AG (now Evonik Industries);
  • aircraft manufacturers, such as Focke-Wulf and Messerschmidt (both later part of Airbus);
  • other well-known companies such as Hugo Boss, Dr. Oetker, or Steyr-Daimler-Puch.

Among the Forbes top 10 richest Germans, four are associated with businesses that had profited from slave labor and the Holocaust, among them: Susanne Klatten (BMW), Stefan Quandt (BMW), Klaus-Michael Kühne (Kühne + Nagel) and Heinz Hermann Thiele (Knorr-Bremse).

The above list does not include the many foreign WWII profiteers, among them various U.S. businesses, including the Chase National Bank, the motor company Opel (then subsidiary of General Motors), Ford Germany, Standard Oil, ITT, Dehomag (the German subsidiary of IBM), or Coca-Cola. It does not come as a surprise that the CDU became the party of choice, particularly of American corporate interests, and U.S. secret services as their defenders.

1949 election poster of the CDU reading “The Rescue: CDU.” [Source: Wikipedia]

From the start of the Cold War the CDU was instrumental in the onslaught against anything remotely smelling like communism. Much like McCarthy in the U.S., Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, issued a ban on members of the German Communist Party in 1951 to work in the public service, and finally banned the party altogether in 1956. Furthermore, the CDU used all conceivable tricks to defame the Social Democrats (SPD) and the political left as willing pawns of the “Red Menace.” In its anti-communist crusade, the party was aided by German and U.S. intelligence agencies, which did not shy away from resorting to old Nazi networks, closely collaborating with, or even operating within, the Christian Democrats.

CDU campaign poster reading “All roads of Marxism lead to Moscow. Therefore CDU.” [Source: Wikipedia]

This story may well start with Reinhard Gehlen, former head of the Nazi military intelligence organization Foreign Armies East (FAE), who, following the collapse of the Nazi regime, started to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. After his surrender in May 1945, in exchange for his freedom, he offered the U.S. access to the FAE’s intelligence archives, and also to his anti-communist espionage network in the Soviet Union. This was a double score in the eyes of his U.S. contacts, who were more than accommodating to Gehlen’s offer. Subsequently, Gehlen was made the head of the Gehlen Organization, the precursor to Germany’s current foreign secret service, the “Federal News Service” (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND), which at first consisted entirely of former FAE personnel. The habit of resorting to old Nazi networks to staff the young agency continued: By the 1960s an internal BND report estimated that approximately 200 staff members were from former Nazi security agencies, some of them implicated as war criminals, and up until the early 1970s around 25 to 30 percent of BND’s personnel had a Nazi past.[3] During the Cold War, Gehlen’s “Org” and later the BND were for many years the CIA’s main partner in leading operations against the Soviet Bloc, for which they received ample funds as well as directions from the agency.

The Pullach compound close to Munich, a location the US Army had acquired for the Gehlen Organization in 1949. It was built in the 1930s for senior Nazi figures under the oversight of Martin Bormann. The BND moved its headquarters from Pullach to Berlin in 2017. [Source: Merkur]

To support these operations on a political level, Adenauer’s right-hand man, CDU politician Hans Globke, despite his stained past, would become Gehlen’s liaison in the government, being made Secretary of State as well as Chief of Staff of the West German chancellery after the war. During the Nazi era, Globke had worked for the Office for Jewish Affairs, and in this role had co-authored the official legal commentary to some of the anti-semitic Nuremberg Race Laws, the legal framework which ultimately set the path for the Holocaust. Globke became a key agent in West Germany’s alignment with the United States, which included the adoption of a broad range of anti-communist policies, and was the government’s main liaison with NATO and other western intelligence services, particularly the CIA.

Germany’s rearmament fell to yet another prominent Nazi figure in Adenauer’s government, Adolf Heusinger, who had served in the German Army High Command and had assisted in the planning of operations for the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). By 1940, he had become number three in the Wehrmacht planning hierarchy and had made himself indispensable by coordinating the fight against partisans in the occupied Eastern territories. As a witness at the Nuremberg Trials, he testified that the treatment of the civilian population and the methods of combating partisans in the area of operations provided the political and military leadership with a welcome opportunity for a “systematic reduction of Slavs and Jews.”[4] Heusinger would not only be appointed as the first head of the post-WWII German army, the Bundeswehr, but managed to move up to chairing NATO’s military committee from 1961 to 1964.

Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan at the Bitburg cemetery in 1985. [Source: rtl.de]

Another notorious, though practically invisible, figure was former Nazi propagandist and Goebbels adviser Eberhard Taubert. Taubert worked in 1940 on the script for the anti-Semitic propaganda film Der ewige Jude (English: “The Eternal Jew”) and was responsible for the law requiring Jews to wear the yellow badge (Judenstern). After the war, Taubert went into hiding, most likely with the help of Western intelligence,[5] and appeared in the guise of various pseudonyms. In 1958, Franz Josef Strauß, Minister of Defense from 1956 to 1961, recruited Taubert as a consultant for his newly established “Psychological Warfare” department (Psychologische Kampfführung). In Bonn Taubert maintained a liaison office that worked for NATO in matters of psychological defense (PSV).[6] According to Stuart Christie, Taubert was a co-founder of the “Combat Association of German Soldiers” (Kampfbund Deutscher Soldaten, KDS), a militant and revisionist neo-Nazi group[7] that formed a considerable part of the mercenary terrorist organization Aginter Press.[8]

As an eminence gris behind the Adenauer government appears Hermann Abs, the most powerful banker of the Third Reich, whom journalist Adam LeBor dubbed “the lynchpin of the continent wide plunder.”[9] Formerly entrusted with the robbery of Jewish property, Abs took over Deutsche Bank after the war, the same bank that, decades later, would fund several of Donald Trump’s business ventures.

This cooperation of the CDU with former Nazis as well as German and U.S. intelligence has been commemorated through the years, even in the highest political echelons.

In 1985 U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Germany’s then chancellor Helmut Kohl laid down a wreath at a cemetery in  Bitburg in the immediate vicinity of the graves of 49 SS officers, which at the time caused a major public outcry. They were accompanied by former Wehrmacht colonel and air-ace Johannes Steinhoff, whose body count must have been quite considerable, having flown around 1,000 combat missions in World War II. Despite that history, he became inspector of the German Air Force and, finally, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 1971 to 1974.

With the Cold War coming to an end, and the Western powers finally managing to topple one Soviet-allied state after another, this also included the German Democratic Republic, which existed from 1949 to1990. In order to gain political and economic control after the GDR’s demise, the CDU allied with the most conservative political forces in Eastern Germany after the fall of the wall in November 1989.

These included “Democratic Awakening” (Demokratischer Aufbruch, DA), a party that appeared just one month prior to the toppling of the GDR in September 1989. Democratic Awakening, conceived mainly by a small group of protestant theologians who were known for their agitations against the GDR government,[10] quickly became the most conservative party in the reunification period, and would merge with the CDU in the course of 1990.

It was within Democratic Awakening that Germany’s current chancellor Angela Merkel appeared in the political arena for the first time, her father being a Lutheran pastor involved in the GDR opposition.[11] Initially, the DA sought a compromise between democratic socialism and liberal ideas and called for reforms to the GDR system.[12] But with the borders open to the West in December 1989, immediately a programmatic reorientation took place. Socialist concepts disappeared from the deliberations, while an orientation toward a market economy quickly prevailed, and German unity was formulated as a goal, which was highly controversial within the party.[13]

Within Democratic Awakening, Merkel, without any political experience, first served as editor of the party newspaper The Awakening, and later as deputy spokesperson for the first democratically elected East German Government led by Lothar de Maizière. In August 1990 the DA merged with the CDU branch in the GDR and, two months later, this alliance merged with the West German CDU in which, soon after, Merkel started to climb her steep career ladder.

After Germany’s reunification in 1989/1990, the CDU, having swallowed the DA, was pivotal in the robbery of the former GDR infrastructure, by way of selling former state properties for peanuts to potent Western German and foreign investors through the Treuhand organization. While the looting went on, the government was in need of a conciliatory and deflective face, which it found in a young, naive, Eastern German woman. As a protégé of CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl (Chancellor from 1982-1998), Merkel was appointed within his cabinet as Minister for Women and Youth in 1991, later becoming Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in 1994, as she proved her loyalty.

In the course of the giant CDU donation scandal in the late 1990s, Helmut Kohl’s star fell rapidly. Kohl’s employees in the Konrad Adenauer House had been operating a system of illegal slush funds since the 1970s, which Kohl could access to further his political ends. The money in these accounts had come from German industry and had been laundered in Switzerland. The funds handled in Switzerland alone amounted to approximately 200 million euros.[14]

In the aftermath of the revelations about the CDU’s and Kohl’s Mafia-like conduct, voter support finally dropped to under 40%, leading to a temporary takeover of the political landscape by the Social Democrats. Following Kohl’s defeat in the 1998 general election, Merkel was named secretary-general of the CDU, she was chosen party leader in 2000, and finally ran successfully for the presidency in the 2005 general elections.

Results of the German general elections from 1949 to 2017.

During her 15 years as chancellor, Germany became the country with the largest temporary and low-paying job sector in Europe. While this boosted the country’s economy and brought more wealth to the rich, it plunged almost every fifth person, even full-time workers, below the poverty line. This went hand in hand with the rigid post-2008 austerity measures which led to a steady erosion of the welfare state and labor law.

Whether next year’s leadership change in the CDU will lead to any drastic departure from the party’s inherently neoliberal (in the European sense, meaning essentially aggressively capitalist) policies, of course, is doubtful. Due to historically bad polls Merkel had already stepped down as party leader in 2018, and announced that she will not run for another term as chancellor. Her protégé, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served as leader of the CDU since 2018, has also announced that she would resign from her position later in 2020, not putting herself forward as a candidate for chancellor. This announcement shortly preceded Covid-19, and it was speculated Kramp-Karrenbauer’s abdication was a result of the mounting pressure of more conservative forces within the party. With the looming financial crisis caused by Covid-19, in order to enforce capital interests, and potentially also social unrest, it is most likely that the CDU will adopt even more regressive policies.

Several party bigwigs have already announced their candidacies for party leadership, including Friedrich Merz, an old rival of Merkel and, until this April, CEO of the German branch of the U.S.-based corporation BlackRock, the largest investment company in the world. Since the emergence of the Corona crisis has put the leadership question on hold for the moment, it is too early to speculate which faction of the CDU will gain the upper hand in the forthcoming legislature. But, given CDU’s notorious opportunism and brown-stained past, Merkel’s call on the party to “return to its roots” can only leave a bitter aftertaste.

These different factions of the CDU will be explored in part two of this series in more detail, particularly the right wing of the party, as well as its rapprochement with the far-right AfD, which progressives across party lines watch with great concern. Part three will focus on the most likely coalition scenario in the upcoming general elections in 2021, the so-called “black-green” coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Green Party.

Ellen Rivera is an independent researcher who specializes in the post-war German far right, with a particular focus on post-war anti-communist organizations. In the framework of her research provided for the George Washington University’s Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), she has been studying the current links between proponents of the German and the Russian far right, mostly by means of extensive social network analyses and media monitoring.

[1] The full name of the party is Christian Democratic Party/Christian Social Party (CDU/CSU) or “union parties.” The CSU is the Bavarian branch of the CDU. For simplicity’s sake both parties will be referred to as CDU.

[2] The German Center Party continues to exist as a minority party, but is not represented in any state parliament or the Bundestag.

[3] Peter McFarren and Fadrique Iglesias, The Devil’s Agent: Life, Times and Crimes of Nazi Klaus Barbie (Xlibris, 2013), 136-138.

[4] Whitney R. Harris, Tyrannen vor Gericht. Das Verfahren gegen die deutschen Hauptkriegsverbrecher nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg in Nürnberg 1945–1946  (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2008), 184.

[5] Bernt Engelmann, Schwarzbuch Helmut Kohl oder: Wie man einen Staat ruiniert (Göttingen: Steidl, 1998), 39.            

[6] Jo Angerer, “‘Schlacht um Herzen und Hirne’ – Die Geschichte deutscher Kriegspropaganda,” in Wissenschaft und Frieden, Issue 3, 1993, 24.

[7] Fabian Virchow, Gegen Den Zivilismus: Internationale Beziehungen und Militär in Den Politischen Konzeptionen Der Extremen Rechten (Springer, 2006), 290.

[8] Stuart Christie, Stefano delle Chiaie: Portrait of a black terrorist (Anarchy Magazine, 1984), 39-40, https://libcom.org/files/Stefano-Delle-Chiaie.pdf.

[9] Adam LeBor, Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World (PublicAffairs, 2013).

[10] Including Rainer Eppelmann, Friedrich Schorlemmer and Ehrhardt Neubert.

[11] Alexander Osang, “Karrieren: Die Schläferin,” Der Spiegel, November 9, 2009, https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-67682698.html.

[12] Ehrhart Neubert, Unsere Revolution. Die Geschichte der Jahre 1989/90 (München: Piper, 2008), 195.

[13] Neubert, Unsere Revolution, 351.

[14] “Insider zu Helmut Kohl und Spendenaffäre: ‘Ehrenwort ist absolut unglaubwürdig,’” SWR aktuell, December 2, 2017,                                https://web.archive.org/web/20171205100203/https://www.swr.de/swraktuell/rp/insider-zu-helmut-kohl-und-spendenaffaere-ehrenwort-ist-absolut-unglaubwuerdig/-/id=1682/did=20728294/nid=1682/wkglwq/index.html.

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About the Author

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  1. It was Gerhard Schröder from SPD, who declared Putin as “lupenreiner Demokrat” and then worked for Gazprom, together with the Green Party who introduced a “neoliberal agenda” and started “steady erosion of the welfare state and labor law.”. Merkel just carried on.

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