Few concepts are as elastic as that of ``Conservatism.'' At one end of its spectrum of meanings, conservatism has (over the last two decades) come to be viewed as promoting too much of a civic life of greed and grab. At the other end, conservatism in many European countries has historically veered too close for comfort to right-wing extremism. In Germany today, conservatism was forged in the wake of the Weimar Republic's failures, experiences unknown to Anglo-Saxon conservatives. This history accounts for the type of conservatism practiced by the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian-Social Union (CSU), who focus on moderation and balance, preservation and innovation, and on commanding Germany's political center.
With federal elections due in Germany this autumn, much will be said about the nature of German conservatism. Some, looking at CDU/CSU candidate for Chancellor Edmund Stoiber's emphasis on Bavaria's economic success, will seek to portray the coalition as shaded dangerously by the ``anything goes'' market conservatism practiced in America. Others, pointing to the German conservatives' emphasis on social values, will say that we are as statist as the Social Democrats. The truth itself is far more complex than these facile comparisons, which also makes it more durable.
CDU/CSU policies are, of course, founded on the idea of individual freedom, but we believe in an individualism tempered by Western culture and the Christian tradition. We are skeptical about unfettered individualism because of our awareness of man's sins, but also because of our profound awareness of the historical defects and aberrations in Germany's 20th century history. Yet, despite this deeply ingrained skepticism about human nature, we embrace humanity's talent for progress and innovation, because we recognize man's ability to correct mistakes and errors.
These two traits, although they seem to conflict, and are certainly different from the values of American and British conservatives, nonetheless form a sound basis for a realistic pragmatism and the shunning of ideological politics - which is precisely the politics that Germany now requires. Far from being willing to coerce people to live in a certain way, German conservatives seek a politics that recognizes limits - the limits of the state, the market, and the individual.