Following World War II, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union–CDU) was founded by a diverse group of Catholics and Protestants, businesspeople and trade unionists, and conservatives and moderates. The party espoused a Christian approach to politics and rejected both Nazism and communism. CDU members advocated conservative values and the benefits of a social market economy–that is, one combining capitalist practices and an extensive welfare system. Konrad Adenauer, the CDU’s first leader and West Germany’s first chancellor, envisioned the CDU as a conservative catchall party (Volkspartei) that would attract a majority of the electorate.
The CDU is a national party except in the Land of Bavaria, where it is not active, in deference to its sister party, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union–CSU). Bavaria has the largest concentration of conservative, rural, Catholic voters, and the CSU has dominated politics there since 1957. The CSU was personified by its leader, Franz-Josef Strauss, until his death in 1988. By 1994 no clear heir to Strauss had emerged, but the CSU nonetheless retained its absolute majority in the Land election of September 1994. Germany’s population increased through unification, and thus it has become more difficult for the CSU to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold at the national level. However, the CSU performed strongly in the 1994 national election, garnering 7.3 percent of the vote. The CDU and the CSU form a single Fraktion in parliament, choose a common candidate for chancellor, and have always governed in coalition. Below the federal level, the two party organizations are entirely separate.
From 1949 until 1963, Adenauer and his CDU dominated German politics. At the time of the 1961 election, Adenauer was eighty-five years old, and the opposition SPD was gaining in popularity. Ludwig Erhard, a CDU member credited with engineering Germany’s postwar economic miracle, succeeded Adenauer as chancellor in 1963 (see table 3, Appendix). An economic recession then hastened the end of the CDU/CSU’s hold on power. November 1966 brought the creation of the Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD with Kurt Georg Kiesinger (CDU) as chancellor and Willy Brandt (SPD) as vice chancellor. The FDP was relegated to the opposition benches. After the 1969 election, the SPD formed a coalition with the FDP, leaving the CDU/CSU in opposition for the first time in West German history.
For thirteen years, the CDU/CSU waited to regain power. By the early 1980s, the CDU had adopted a new party program consisting of conservative economic policies, resembling those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and moderate social and foreign policies. Helmut Kohl, as leader of the CDU/CSU Fraktion in the Bundestag, was also rebuilding a political bridge to the FDP. In 1982, as West Germany’s economy weakened, the liberal SPD and the economically conservative FDP could not settle on a package of economic remedies. The FDP chose to leave the coalition and form a new government with the CDU/CSU. The constructive vote of no-confidence was used successfully for the first time to unseat Helmut Schmidt as chancellor; Kohl replaced him. West Germans ratified this change through early elections called for March 1983.
By the late 1980s, the CDU/CSU was growing increasingly unpopular. The CDU/CSU was also facing a new challenge from the right in the form of a new extreme right party, the Republikaner. In a series of Land elections, the Republikaner successfully eroded some of the CDU/CSU’s support. The collapse of the German Democratic Republic, however, provided Kohl with a historic opportunity to reverse the fortunes of his party. While most Germans reacted to the change in the geopolitical landscape with amazement, Kohl seized the moment and actively advocated early unification (see Unification, ch. 8). The first, free, all-Germany election since November 1932 took place in December 1990. In essence, this election became a referendum on the process of unification; the CDU/CSU emerged victorious, with Kohl promising greater prosperity for all Germans. As the costs of unification, in economic, social, and psychological terms, became more apparent to both western and eastern Germans, the CDU began suffering setbacks in Land and local elections. Nonetheless, Chancellor Kohl was able to claim a narrow victory in the national election of October 1994. Kohl’s governing coalition benefited from an increasingly positive economic outlook in Germany and from the fact that the opposition Social Democratic candidate, Rudolf Scharping, was seen by many as lackluster.
The organizational structure of the CDU is a product of the party’s evolution. In its early years, the CDU was a loose collection of local groups. Over time, a weak national party emerged to complement the strong Land party organizations. In the early 1970s, the CDU built up its national organization to compete with the more tightly structured SPD. Membership and party income increased accordingly. The Federal Executive is the primary executive organ of the CDU. It consists of about sixty individuals, including the party chair (elected for two years), several deputy chairs, a general secretary, a treasurer, the CDU’s main legislative representatives, and the leaders of the Land party organizations. Because the Federal Executive is too large and does not meet frequently, a smaller subset called the Presidium, composed of the highest ranking CDU officials, actually sets party policy and makes administrative decisions. Each Land except Bavaria, where the CSU is active, holds semiannual party congresses and has an executive committee. These party structures are primarily responsible for the selection of party candidates for Bundestag elections. Every two years, the CDU holds a full party congress of several hundred party activists. Kohl has served as national chairman of the CDU since 1973, headed the parliamentary Fraktion from 1976 until 1982, and continues to lead the party as chancellor. Kohl’s single-handed management of the party has given him a political dominance within the CDU that only Adenauer surpassed.
The CDU maintains several auxiliary organizations designed to increase the party’s attractiveness to particular societal groups and to represent their views within the party. CDU statutes list seven organizations representing youth, women, workers, business and industry, the middle class, municipal politics, and refugees. Other, unofficial groupings exist as well. The most powerful of the auxiliary organizations has traditionally been the one representing business and industry. Although these auxiliary organizations are legally autonomous from the CDU, a high percentage of their members are also members of the CDU.