Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's secret, illegal fundraising has corroded the German public's trust in its political parties and in the party-dominated system itself. The revelations that surfaced in late autumn 1999 of illegal slush funds, secret bank accounts, and money laundering of campaign funds have undermined Kohl's vaunted reputation as the father of reunified Germany. Understandably, the financial scandal also dramatically diminished public support for his Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

But as the sordid story continues to unfold and Kohl stubbornly refuses to reveal his donors, it also weakens public confidence in all political parties, whose stability and influence were the most marked characteristics of West German political life for a quarter century. And the scandal has disgusted eastern Germans who, already resentful of western German political dominance, are now commenting that unification in 1990 meant simply exchanging one rotten system (in which communists ruled) for another (in which money rules).


In the Bonn republic, political parties were the most influential political institutions, governing according to the gospel of "reliability, calculability, stability, and continuity." They remain predominant today in the Berlin republic of unified Germany. Mainstream organizations such as the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are highly structured, from the national to the local level, and include diverse affiliates. They are lavishly funded by private and public contributions. The latest annual accounting of the CDU to the parliament (recently corrected in response to the scandal) shows that about 30 percent of the party's 1998 income of 252 million marks ($134 million) came from taxpayers.

Political parties got their original boost from the Federal Republic's 1949 constitution, which explicitly assigns them a role in "forming the political will" -- a mandate they have been interpreting ever more extravagantly in order to solidify their deepening influence. During the Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s, leaders of the democratic mainstream parties justified placing "trustworthy" individuals in key positions in government agencies and in a wide variety of quasi-governmental institutions and state-owned companies as a way of guarding against misdeeds by former Nazis or communists. This practice metastasized throughout society after ex-Nazis retired, the Cold War ended, and Germany unified.

These days, the CDU and the SPD -- with an occasional crumb for the smaller parties -- maintain control over the selection of judges, managers of all public radio and television stations, university professors, directors of wealthy state and savings banks, and even such mundane appointees as local school directors or the heads of community utility, bus, and trolley companies. In some German states, this sharing of spoils between the two largest parties is almost as pronounced as it is in Austria. Of course the result in Austria was the public disgust that eventually let Jörg Haider's Freedom Party into the national government.


The CDU was the quintessential party of post-1945 West Germany. Its identity was defined by anticommunism, antisocialism, and later, anti-Green Party prejudices. Its very name stood for the values of established churches -- primarily Catholic -- and for social and family values that might use the slogan "compassionate conservatism" in the United States today. The CDU's stand for strict legality has been fundamental to its identity and easily translatable into an emphasis on law and order.

The CDU has always been the party of NATO and strong defense. As veteran CDU politicians used to confide, NATO membership was West Germany's "second constitution." The Christian Democrats have likewise been America's favored German party from the beginning. This was hardly strange in a West Germany that depended so much on American military protection that it could almost be considered an American protectorate. The United States was woven into the fabric of West Germany, especially militarily and politically. Relations with Washington have generally been at their best when a CDU chancellor holds power. Never was this more true than with Kohl, a skilled practitioner of personal diplomacy who cultivated close ties with Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Personifying these relationships stands a figure deeply involved in the present scandal: the elegant and genial CDU politician, fundraiser, and defense-procurement lobbyist Walther Leisler Kiep. For most of the Kohl era, Kiep was the most prominent German representative in informal German-American relations, carrying out discreet missions, sitting on American corporate boards, and presiding over the leading quasi-official German-American friendship organization. Kiep, treasurer of the CDU for more than a decade, has been indicted on charges related to tax evasion. His acceptance of a secret contribution of one million marks from a German arms dealer (now a fugitive) first touched off reports of the scandal last November.


Today, the scandal is not only crippling the CDU, it also suggests that the party cartel system, which gave West Germany its uncanny stability, may now be unsuited to the Berlin republic. This dysfunction was hidden during Kohl's long tenure, which extended eight years into the newly unified state. His familiar face on the political stage gave an impression of continuity. But it was a false one. At most, this continuity applied to party politics but not to society and the economy, which have begun to change with increasing speed.

After 1990, German political leaders and policy intellectuals sang the praises of the Bonn republic system. They feared a surge of right-wing extremism in eastern Germany, a rebirth of traditional nationalism in both parts of the country, and a withering of the Western connection that had brought West Germany stability, prosperity, and a measure of influence in the world. But it was evident that the Bonn republic's stability had been purchased at the cost of acquiescence in a party system that was pervasive and more than slightly corrupt. This awareness was repressed by well-intentioned advocates of the Bonn republic, whose overriding purpose was to assure the transfer of the entire West German model to the former East Germany. In this they succeeded; their fears turned out to be groundless. And their system was incorporated into the rest of the now unified country.

But society in the unified Germany differs greatly from that of the old Bonn republic. The elites of government, business, and academia do not live by the traditional, paternalistic values that prevailed in the 1980s in much of West Germany, particularly in those regions where the CDU was strong, and for which Kohl stood so formidably but ever more anachronistically. Instead, today's elites have chosen the social and personal values of 1960s Germany, which resembled those in America. The values that were once central to the CDU's identity -- anticommunism, a close linkage with America, support for organized religion -- are far less relevant to daily life now that the Cold War has ended. Today's German society is highly secularized and dominated by media and entertainment; pragmatism, not ideology, prevails. In Germany today, tolerance, a relaxed view of life, and greater individual initiative are coupled with a sense of collective responsibility -- a feeling especially pronounced among eastern Germans.

The economy, too, is changing more rapidly than at any time since the "economic miracle" of the 1950s. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD-led government is quietly dismantling many of the controls and regulations that were a feature of Rhineland capitalism. Drastic cuts in personal and corporate income taxes have been scheduled. The government's proposal to eliminate capital-gains taxes for corporations has been hailed, mainly abroad, as the biggest tax reform in postwar German history. And Schröder is encouraging, or at least not opposing, the industrial restructuring necessitated by stiffer global competition -- a restructuring that has already gone quite far in the telecommunications and energy sectors.

The party cartel system inherited from the Bonn republic discords with these societal and economic trends. Nonetheless, even the impact of the scandal and the public contempt for political parties are unlikely to effect basic political reform any time soon. The reactions of the other parties, notably the SPD, to the CDU's current misfortune have been restrained and nonexploitative. Most Social Democrats figure that since the party-dominated system is not broken, it need not be fixed. Either way, it is unrealistic to expect the political parties to voluntarily give up their powerful, entrenched positions. As the regional elections last February in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein show, the CDU still enjoys a fairly large core of loyal voters: 30-35 percent of the electorate countrywide, the financing scandal notwithstanding. Voter participation remains high. Germans may be clinging to their political parties as a pillar of stability, perhaps even more so now that society and the economy are undergoing such rapid change. The CDU's embrace of Angela Merkel as its new leader demonstrates a radical break with the Kohl past.

Moreover, German civil society is underdeveloped. Except in the environmental field, influential political watchdogs, nongovernmental organizations, and other groups devoted to keeping government and the parties honest are noticeably absent. A reform-minded, nonpartisan elite hardly exists. Politics from below is likewise rare in Germany. Citizens' initiatives arose in West Germany in the early 1970s and in 1989 during the East German revolution. But such movements either rapidly flickered out or were absorbed by the established political parties. "Populism" remains a dirty word in German political parlance. Plebiscitary approaches, such as initiatives or referenda -- which could serve to check the parties -- have been suspect ever since the Nazis organized mass votes for their criminal regime.

For the moment, therefore, the CDU financing scandal -- serious as it may be -- will likely bring about only minor changes in German political practices and institutions. Perhaps it will result in stricter enforcement of party financing legislation or the introduction of term limits for the office of chancellor. But a danger lies in postponing reform and trying to perpetuate a party system that may have been appropriate to the Bonn republic of the Cold War but threatens to become increasingly irrelevant to contemporary Germans. Postponing reform of this hand-me-down cartel system will also deepen the public's cynicism about politicians and its weariness with the parties -- ultimately deadening German democracy.

In addition, ending the Bonn republic means ending its political subordination to the United States. Germany's relationship with the United States begs for revision, as Berlin's national policy -- domestic as well as foreign -- increasingly focuses on the European Union. Any emotional assessments of the alliance with the United States are being replaced by a pragmatic acceptance of NATO membership as a normal fact of German political life, coupled with an indifference to defense matters. The Berlin republic will be more distant, detached, and hard-headed in deciding whether to conform to American foreign policy than were the governments headed by the CDU during the Bonn decades.

It will take some time, but the pressures for reform unleashed by the current party scandal will certainly spark far-reaching change within the CDU, which always clung to its close ties with the United States. Basic change will also eventually occur in the party cartel system that, although more corrupt than previously realized, has helped ensure the stability and continuity that made dealing with Germany so easy for American policymakers.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Robert Gerald Livingston, former Director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is currently writing a book on Germany's relationship with the United States.
  • More By Robert Gerald Livingston