On the surface, today’s Germany appears a model of harmony and consensus. Led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is beloved by the citizenry, Germany boasts the eurozone’s strongest economy, which has flourished even during the financial crisis and Europe-wide recession. Merkel, 60, heads up the country’s most popular party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and has no serious challenger in sight. The current “grand coalition,” elected in 2013, is an affable partnership with the center-left Social Democrats; the trade unions and industry get along well, too. Many experts and journalists, such as George Packer in a recent profile in The New Yorker, envision Merkel’s reign—already in its 10th year—enduring well into the future, perhaps even outlasting those of her eminent conservative predecessors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
Many observers, including Packer, label Merkel as visionless and risk-adverse, a benevolent caretaker gently guiding a Germany set on autopilot. Yet in doing so, they overlook her historic role as an energetic modernizer of German—and indeed European—Christian democracy, as well as the deep rifts that this course has opened up in Germany. At a time when conservatism in some countries, from the United States to Hungary, looks ever more retrograde, Merkel has incrementally sculpted a conservatism fit for the 21st century. It is, however, exactly this feat that divides German conservatives. Many of the most relevant fault lines in the Federal Republic today run straight through the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). These and other divisions—over the eurozone, for instance—threaten the social consensus Merkel has built.