Building the Big Tent: Christian Democrats and the Political Integration of the Right in Post-WWII Germany

Berenike Firestone, Columbia University

Center-right parties play an important role in preventing, or enabling, the success of the far right. They need to strike an oftentimes tricky balance between, on the one hand, being open enough to the right to integrate those who might otherwise join the far right, and, on the other hand, grounded enough in the center to avoid legitimizing far-right ideology and being pulled to the extreme. Historically, European conservative parties were instrumental in facilitating both democratization and, several decades later, the success of fascist movements. What are the conditions under which center-right parties successfully build the proverbial “big tent” that integrates those with sympathies for the far right without letting them dominate? In this paper, I demonstrate how a combination of enabling open participation on the local level with setting clear boundaries on the level of party leadership facilitated a successful big tent approach in post-WWII West Germany. Drawing on historical and contemporary election and census data, as well as archival documents from local and regional Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chapters, I show how counties where the Christian Democrats were less embedded in pre-existing Catholic milieus provided more opportunities for displaced newcomers to integrate into the CDU after the war, contributing to a long-term decline in support for the far right in those counties that is still visible today. I furthermore demonstrate how party leadership simultaneously – discursively as well as practically – established limits to the influence of members who were on the far-right margin of the party. This paper contributes to broader conversations in the sociology of party politics, politics of the (far) right, and historical roots of present-day politics. It highlights how meso-level, intra-party processes, in conjunction with local determinants, shape spatial variation in the persistence of far-right support.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 21. Parties, leadership