The Catholic Nationalist: Rethinking Kohl's Notion of Germany

By Wicke, Christian | Nebula, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Catholic Nationalist: Rethinking Kohl's Notion of Germany

Wicke, Christian, Nebula


Religion can thoroughly shape the form nationalism takes: the notion of the nation itself can be filled with religious content. Politics, cultures or histories that are constructed to give meaning to particular concepts of the nation can be articulated in religious rhetoric. This analysis of the nationalism of the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will therefore move beyond the idea of modern nationalism as a protoreligious substitute for religion (see Hayes 1926, 1960; Smith 2003) by looking at a nationalism that has been articulated as religious per se. It reveals that his Catholicism facilitated a liberal type of nationalism, assisted a romantic conceptualisation of Germany, Europe and the West, and had a strong effect on the way he interpreted Germany's national history.

Kohl's upbringing in the Palatinate region, his Catholic parents, his political mentor Father Finck as a teenager after the Second World War and his early membership in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) signal an omnipresence of Catholicism in Kohl's life. Kohl's background facilitated a view on history that assumed positive continuities in the German past and encouraged him to falsify and relativise national history. His romantic notion of Germany stood in the tradition of political Catholicism that was suppressed in Bismarck's Reich, controversial in the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, and eventually revived and harmonised under West Germany's first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as a reaction to the failures of the past. The new official nationalism of the Federal Republic (est. 1949) that succeeded under Adenauer's newly founded CDU offered an alternative to the "failed" Prusso-Lutheran notion of the nation. It was based on a western conception of Germany, which should be integrated into the European and Transatlantic frameworks in order to safeguard the Christian occident. Kohl saw himself obliged to maintain this conception throughout his career.

His "liberal nationalist" principles (1) were derived from Catholic doctrines that comprised ideas of subsidiarity, individualism, solidarity and welfare. Further, his attacks of socialism and communism were based on Catholic Social Teaching. The non-totalitarian state had to be a transcendental community rooted in Christian values. Kohl thus projected patriotism and national self-determination as unconditionally Christian duties. He interpreted the West German constitution as deeply Christian, so that only his own party would be the most adequate national representative of its spirit. Kohl saw the advance of secularism that accelerated after the sixty-eight movement and the decline of Christian Democratic power in 1969 as a threat to national heritage. The cultural and ethical foundation of the Volk, the republic and Europe was in his eyes essentially rooted in Christianity. Consequently, socialist atheism would be anti-national, anti-European and anti-Western. Informed by a genuine European identity, it was an occidental concept of nationhood with strong poly-centric components that motivated Kohl during his Chancellorship (1982-1998) to play a leading role in the European integration process and the way he shaped the German (re)unification. His religious denomination served as both a factor of integration and demarcation in his nationalism.

Kohl's Catholic Nationalism

Kohl believed he had learned the lessons from the past. He was convinced that a functioning state had to be based on Christian principles and could thus not afford any complete secularisation (Kohl March 1975: 102). The national community, its culture, history and values rested, in Kohl's view, extensively on its Christian heritage and the churches played an instrumental role in maintaining this tradition (Kohl March 1975: 103, 15-06-1988: 294). Kohl, moreover, saw Christianity as an indispensible force against secular radicalism that he saw reviving in the 1970s, when he perceived an extreme threat to the national and republican tradition (Kohl March 1975: 107, 13-06-1976: 170).

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The Catholic Nationalist: Rethinking Kohl's Notion of Germany


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