Mark Tooley speaks with Christian Forstner, who directs the Washington, DC, office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, which is associated with Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, junior partner to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
On this 75th anniversary of WWII’s conclusion, Forster discusses the central role of Christian Democracy in Germany’s recovery from dictatorship, democratic Germany’s longtime friendship with America, and recently more troubled German-USA relations as President Trump relocates some US troops away from Germany.
Very familiar with both German and American politics, Forstner offers special insights on one of the world’s most important strategic partnerships of the last 70 years. Viewers will certainly learn a lot from him!
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, DC. Today I am speaking to my good friend, Christian Forstner, who works for the Washington, DC, office of the think tank related to the Christian Social Union of Bavaria. Christian, thank you so much for joining us and please explain to us a little bit more about your work and your background.
FORSTNER: Yes, [I am] happy [to] Mark, and thanks for having this conversation and inviting me to participate. I’m honored and privileged to be a part of your series of dialogues with DC-based speaking partners. Yeah, so, I’m Christian Forstner, [of] Hanns Seidel Foundation. The Hans Seidel Foundation is a think tank based in Munich. It’s a big think tank in Munich, the leading think tank in Bavaria, and we are closely working with the government of Bavaria, with the governing party, with the ruling party, political party, Christian Social Union, as you have mentioned. Hanns Seidel Foundation — Hanns Seidel was the prime minister of Bavaria in the fifties, and he was, so to say, the first real big politician like Konrad Adenauer at the federal level, Hanns Seidel at the state level in Bavaria, modernizing the Bavaria, facilitating this huge jump from an agricultural stage to what we know today Bavaria, as the powerhouse, the economic powerhouse in Germany. And as Germany is the engine of Europe, Bavaria is the powerhouse of Germany and [inaudible] as well.
So Hanns Seidel, the prime minister, in the sixties he died in a car accident, well related to a car accident in the beginning of the sixties. So the foundation later was founded at the end of the sixties and named after the most prominent CSU, Christian Social Union, politician at that time, Hanns Seidel. With the foundation been founded, later after the death of Franz Josef Strauss, it would certainly carry the name of Franz Josef Strauss. So if you think of politicians in Bavaria in the past, certainly Franz Josef Strauss comes into mind. Hanns Seidel not so much, but the foundation—this is interesting enough—is more famous and more widely known than the name giver, than Hanns Seidel himself.
So myself, I’m here in the Washington office. I belong to the international employees of the foundation. I had a previous posting in Brussels, dealing with European politics. And before Brussels, I was posted in Eastern Europe, in Moscow, and I engaged in eastern policy, Russian policy, which is also an important part of our work. But the core, and the most enlightening part, of our international work is transatlantic relationship. We know how valuable all our relationships with America, with the United States [are], dating back to not only German immigrants, but if you look at now contemporary history. There wouldn’t be a German unification without America, there wouldn’t be an end of World War I or World War II without US interference and bringing this European civil war to an end. So, we are very grateful to the role the United States plays in Europe in maintaining stability, peace, and human rights, and rule of law in geopolitics.
TOOLEY: And this summer as we commemorate the seventy-five years having passed since the end of World War II, arguably humanity’s greatest calamity, and what that means for Germany, if you could reflect on that, [on] all of the evils that afflicted Germany the first half of the twentieth century, and yet [how Germany became] this remarkably stable democracy for the last half of the twentieth century and the first twenty years of the twenty-first century, [which] is the kind of transition rarely seen in human history. So how do you and how do most Germans view that history?
FORSTNER: It’s a mix. So, the end of World War II, [in] Germany it’s celebrated, or it’s marked, the eighth of May. It’s a day of mixed feelings. It’s a day of liberty, of liberation, on the one hand, from Hitler, fascism, from aggressive foreign policy, from the devastation there from the Second World War, on the one hand. And the other side, of course, it includes the losses, the sacrifices the German people had to suffer during those years. So it was defeated as well; Germany was defeated; it had to surrender on May 8. So it’s a mixed day. For the first time this year, it has declared a national holiday. It took a while. So, after ’45, it took a while until the Germans really addressed the end of World War II. It took a generation before really we had developed in Germany a kind of remembrance culture. The first impetus, the focus was laid on economic recovery, and [not digging] too much into the sins of the past. But let’s build back up Germany again; let’s build up Germany. And what do you know, this economic miracle of the sixties, [with] Ludwig Erhard, you have the social market economy, [and] Germany re-entering the world stage, being a member of the European Union, of NATO, of the international society, after being an outlaw during the Hitler times. So all this was the focus. But [in] the late sixties, [after] a generation passed away, then Germans turned back to their past and addressed the cruelties during the Second World War. And that’s why the end of World War II, the eighth of May, is a day of mixed feelings.
Which, by the way, if anyone is interested, read the speech, a famous speech of the then President, Richard Von Weizsäcker, he delivered it on the day, on the commemoration of forty years of the end of the Second World War, so in ’85. Richard Van Weizsäcker and his famous speech. And he made clear that we have two perspectives. The one perspective of course is the Germans as perpetrators. It was clearly a wall which originated in Germany, originated because of the Hitler regime, of the aggressive foreign policy, the desire to [make] extinct another races, like the Slavic race, to expand German territory, and to establish a fascist regime. So this is no doubt. But there’s another perspective as well: the Germans as victims. Also during the war, the German soldiers, civil society in Germany, and after the war, deportations, and sufferings after ’45. So this is this mixed balance package, this historic package of the Germans. But the Germans faced their past, and they had really developed their—we—as I’m a German as well—we really have developed a remembrance culture here, which is outstanding. It has some shortcomings today, so we have to face problems as well. So a remembrance culture cannot limit itself just to addresses, to dates, and to commemorate dates. So sometimes, it seems like we know the dates, but we forget what stands behind the dates and what’s the historic dimension of the date. So it’s too much on the surface, remembering a date but not the dimension, the historic dimension. And the second of course lesson, which is very important today, [is to] never accept nationalism again. So nationalism is one of the big challenges in Europe, as you can see if you follow contemporary European politics.
TOOLEY: And of course, the German republic now dates back seventy-one years and its success is in large part due to the Christian democratic parties of, at first West Germany, and now, of a united Germany. So tell us a little bit about the Christian democratic parties. What are their core beliefs and why have they been so successful in establishing German democracy?
FORSTNER: Yes. The founding father of the Christian Democratic Union [was] Konrad Adenauer. The party had been established in ’49; Konrad Adenauer [led] the economic success [inaudible], the reintegration into the Western world, whereas before Germany always had kind of a mixed foreign policy approach—one foot in the Western camp, one foot in the eastern camp, special relations with Russia, maybe a friendship with the UK. But now with Konrad Adenauer, [Germany had] a firm stance and a strong commitment to transatlantic partnership, to European integration, and [to] economic recovery. This is the CDU, Christian Democratic Union, based on a social market economy, based on individual responsibilities, based on individual liberties, on the rule of law, and on a Christian understanding of the individual. So, each individual is a valuable person, is an individuality. This is a core Christian belief. And it’s a social market economy. You help your neighbor; you help those in need. It’s based on this Catholic social teaching. So this is all the tradition. And it’s overcoming divides which existed before between Protestants and Catholics. So all religious groups should find a home in one conservative party, which is the Christian Democratic Union.
We are the little sister, the Christian Social Union. But we subscribe to all the party platforms, to all the basic principles of the party. The distinction is only for a historic and political [purpose], because Bavaria feels a bit distinct from the rest of Germany. It’s a distinct state with its own statehood, with its own kingdom, dating back long before Germany was established. Germany was established there in the late nineteenth century. Bavaria has a state history of more than 1,000 years. There was a kingdom before. And just to express it, the Bavarians wanted to have their own political representations, like a political party, which is not like a state party of other states, but it’s something special. That’s why it’s called Christian Social Union and not Christian Democratic Union. But for [everything else], for the party platform, we subscribe to it [one] hundred percent. It’s hardly any difference. So that’s the core success, economic success, tradition, Christian values in economy [and] in society, and Western integration.
TOOLEY: Of course, Bavaria is historically strongly Catholic, and so the Catholic church has played a strong role, traditionally, in the CSU. Lutherans and Catholics have played a role in the CDU, historically. But as Europe and the West have secularized, have the churches’ involvement and interaction with the Christian democratic parties receded or simply changed and become different?
FORSTNER: It becomes different; it becomes different. It has always been like a separate world. So it’s not as far as the French state goes, a clear separation and secularity, so secularization and a clear distinction. In Germany it’s more intertwined so [inaudible] you have links. For instance, the state collects the special funds for the church, which dates back to a special agreement with the Vatican. So, you pay a certain amount of your taxes to the church, and once you’re a member of the church, you pay taxes to the church, and this is automatically collected by the state authorities. So, there are special arrangements, but in principle of course, but in general it’s separate. But we live to our traditions, we live up to our traditions. So, you have crucifixes in schools, in public buildings. You have in private schools and Catholic schools, many Catholic schools. And the teachers pray, and they pray in the morning, and they make the children pray during school hours. So, there are interlinks between state and the churches, but those links are becoming weaker.
TOOLEY: And if I recall correctly, the current premiere of Bavaria is unusually Protestant, is that true?
FORSTNER: Yes, that’s true, yeah. So the religious — Protestant, Catholic — it’s not a major factor in politics today. It’s not a major factor. So the big challenge for the churches there in general is that the core members are less, or the allegiance to the church is becoming weaker. They have fewer members regularly attending masses, regularly living up the communal life in a church. So, this religious allegiance is getting weaker. And this is a big challenge.
TOOLEY: Now in recent years, the major parties in Germany, the Christian democratic parties and the Social Democratic Party, have weakened in terms of their electoral following and have been displaced in part by smaller, more ideological, radical parties. How do you assess that trend? Will it continue indefinitely, or do you think that trend has already peaked?
FORSTNER: It’s difficult. So we had for years, Mark, we had for years and decades almost, since the coming forward of the Green Party, we had a development that German politics is becoming more diverse. So for decades, from ‘49 to the 80s, we only had three major parties. So we had a conservative block, a socialist block, and like a king maker, the liberals in between. So big blocks. A conservative, a socialist, and a smaller liberal wing in between. [This was] German politics for almost half a century. And then you had new political developments, new formations entering politics—an environmentally oriented movement, the Green Party, Ecological Party. It comes from, or it has a foot in, the environment, in the ecology, and in the anti-nuclear energy, anti-missile policies. So the pacifists. And so it has an environmental and a pacifist route. And they merged, and the party suddenly is a player in the political landscape. Then you had the former socialists from the GDR [German Democratic Republic] after the German unification. So the one party ruling, the one party system, collapsed in ‘89 and the Socialist Party emerged and entered German politics as well, as a left party. They first merged and then they split again with the socialists, but now you have a leftist party, left from the Social Democrats. Then you had, with the introduction of the Euro, of a common European currency, you had anti-European resentments in the society, and an anti-Europe party emerged. It’s called the Alternative for Germany. First it became strong as an anti-monetary-union party; then with the immigration crisis, it re-oriented and addressed the anti-immigration feelings in society, and the anti-establishment feelings and the resentments in society. So you have another party, AFD, Alternative for Germany. So [there is] a Green Party, a Left Party, a liberal party, an extreme right party, and the center weakens. But now, today, we have a reverse trend. [And we are] in a crisis, and we [are living] through a crisis; it’s a European crisis, with the financial crisis, migration crisis, [and] now the pandemic, COVID-19.
There’s a strong leader, there is a strong politician in Germany, and this strong politician is called the Chancellor Angela Merkel. So people turn to her stewardess, to her experience in governance, and we have an uptick for the party she belongs to, for the Conservative Party. So the crisis management skills are linked to the political party, and with the chancellor and the prime minister of Bavaria, who is also fairing very well during the crisis, and he gets a lot of credit from the people for his crisis management. So Angela Merkel, and the prime minister of Bavaria, the party leader of the CSU, Markus Söder, they have a jump and they’re wise in the eyes of the population, and with them, the popularity of the party. So suddenly we have again, we have the CDU around forty percent. This is a record, which was possible only two decades ago. Now it seems again possible. So it’s an open question, whether the demise of this mainstream center right, center left party will continue, or whether you can reverse the trend by a strong crisis management, by strong leadership. I would argue the latter. So a strong leadership will be beneficial to the party as well and will raise the party as well.
TOOLEY: And as you say, Angela Merkel has had a remarkable career as chancellor. She is, at this point, the longest serving chancellor of Germany, having exceeded Konrad Adenauer at this point. And yet, American-German relations seem to be, by some measures, at a low point. And the latest being this potential relocation of some of the US military presence outside of Germany. Does this signal a new downgrading of US-German relations, or is this merely a blip, and a long-term, strong friendship that inevitably will continue?
FORSTNER: Let me start Mark with this. So, we deeply regret the announced plans to withdraw and to reduce US troops in Germany. It’s not only for security reasons, [or] that we feel safe once we have a strong presence there of US forces. We feel much safer with US troops in Germany. We appreciate the commitment of every US soldier doing service in Germany. So this is the security dimension. Of course, we regret it. But there is a human dimension. We had so many interactions with the US soldiers during their time when they were deployed in Germany, and when I talk to US soldiers, [when] they are coming back from Germany, they often tell me, “Oh, we had a fantastic time; we had fantastic years; I so much enjoyed it. And I met so many Germans; I still have fun memories of my years, of my interactions, with the Germans.” So this people-to-people contact will just create a big void in our personal relationships. So we deeply regret it.
As for the relationship, yeah in general of course they are in a troubled moment today; we are. Because it seems like we have different policy priorities. So in Germany, we believe German foreign policy—and this is a non-partisan consensus—it’s based on multilateral cooperation; it’s based on cooperation; it’s based on peaceful means; it’s based on economic cooperation, on civil and development cooperation; climate change is a big issue; trade is a big issue. So we want to have open trade, we want to have a clear set of rules, and we are committed to a rules-based international order. And now we come to the priorities, in some regards, of the Trump administration, where we see this declaration of ‘America first’ policy. It’s sometimes hard, or we cannot reconcile it with, the core understanding of our belief in international relations. There are other points where we align very well: in the notion of human rights, of rule of law, of anti-corruption, now we see our stance, maybe, hopefully, towards Venezuela, Belarus, towards dictatorships in the world. So we align. So we shouldn’t just say our relationship has reached such a low point where we don’t have much to cooperate between each other or tell each other. No, we discuss frankly, but sometimes we disagree on the tools we deploy to achieve those goals. We believe in on both sides of the Atlantic.
TOOLEY: Christian Forstner, head of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, Washington, DC, office. Thank you so much for a very enjoyable and educational conversation.
FORSTNER: Thank you so much for hosting, Mark.