Breaking Ranks How To Become an Accidental Conservative

In an excerpt from his new book, SPIEGEL editor Jan Fleischhauer describes his childhood in a typical West German liberal family, with parents who wouldn't let him eat oranges because they were grown in countries ruled by dictators, and his coming out as a late conservative.

I can say with confidence that I know my way around liberals. I've spent half of my life in their company. My parents were on the left, as were my schoolmates and the majority of my teachers, my fellow students at university and, of course, all of my professors. Most of my colleagues are still liberals today.

It isn't as if I have suffered because of it. I had a very sheltered childhood; it's just that I was sheltered by liberals. I saw my first Disney film together with my own children. When McDonald's opened a restaurant in our neighborhood, my father gave me a serious talk about the corruptive influence of American fast-food culture. The enjoyment of my first burger was an act of adolescent rebellion, and to this day, I still feel slightly guilty on my occasional visits to McDonald's.

I am part of a generation in Germany that knows no other reality than the dominance of the left. Everyone was a liberal where I grew up. This isn't entirely self-evident, because the neighborhood in which I grew up would generally be described as an exclusive residential area. My parents' friends -- and their friends, of course -- all voted for the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), and later for the Green Party.

There must have been a few supporters of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) nearby, perhaps even among some of our neighbors. After all, Wellingsbüttel in the northern part of Hamburg was one of the few districts where the CDU captured more than 50 percent of votes in the 1970s. But you never saw them. You might have seen Henning Voscherau, the later Social Democratic (SPD) mayor, at the hockey club or, while shopping, the head of the NDR television network's "Panorama" program, who had just completed a critical feature about (conservative politician) Franz Josef Strauss and the arms lobby.

My mother joined the Social Democrats in 1969, because of her enthusiasm for (former SPD Chairman and Chancellor) Willy Brandt. She always took her obligations as a party member very seriously. She could become extremely passionate when the conversation turned to politics, which meant that discussions with her sometimes lasted so long that you would simply give up, out of sheer exhaustion. In all those years, I never heard her say that the party had erred on an important issue. There were certainly tactical weaknesses, she said, but nothing fundamental. The other side, in her view, was constantly in the wrong, making one faulty decision after the next, or it was so deeply corrupt that it was deliberately leading the country astray. It was astonishing, under these circumstances, that the Social Democrats had such a difficult time staying in power. But, in my mother's opinion, this simply proved that the other side was using dirty tricks.

In my family, the SPD was far more than a collection of like-minded people. Instead, it was seen as a sort of political Salvation Army, which would purge Germany of the remnants of fascism and lead it to a better, more just and democratic future. It stood for everything that was good about the country and, in a sense, represented, in the totality of its members and supporters, the wealth of kindheartedness that existed in Germany. Maybe that was why we never referred to the SPD as the SPD, but simply as the Party, speaking as reverently about it as people in Catholic households mention the Church. As I would later discover, it was one of several surprising parallels between the leftist and the Christian worlds.

The way we were supposed to feel about conservatives was obvious. They were either deeply reactionary, because they refused to accept progress, or dangerously narrow-minded. In other words, they were either despicable or pitiful characters. In our house, they were simply referred to as "the Blacks" (a reference to the CDU's official color, black), and also a term associated with the Bogeyman character every child was taught to stay away from.

My first political memory from childhood was the vote of no confidence against Willy Brandt in our national parliament, the Bundestag. I was nine, and the radio was on in the kitchen. I was waiting for lunch, but my mother stood at the stove, motionless and with her eyes closed, listening to the votes being counted in the broadcast. The tension in the room couldn't have been greater if the outbreak of another war depended on the outcome -- or the relief when, quite unexpectedly, the chancellor was saved from the CDU's cowardly attack, almost as if a miracle had taken place. I understood early on that in politics, two eternal powers are struggling against one another, the power of light and the power of darkness. The earlier you decided which side you wanted to be on, the better.

My father had more of an emotional connection to the Social Democrats. He was reserved during political discussions, yielding to my mother, but it was clear that he supported her in all respects. Later on, I suspected him of secretly voting for the conservatives when Helmut Kohl ran for re-election after reunification, but he has always vehemently denied ever having considered the CDU. A vote for Kohl would have meant immediate divorce, and even later in their marriage, an affair with another woman would have been more forgivable, in my mother's eyes, than infidelity on election day.

There is nothing wrong with growing up in a household in which the national origins of fast food are turned into a political issue, one that sheds light on correct awareness. From an early age, one is trained to be on the lookout for moral snares. In our family, as in all good leftist families, seemingly ordinary, everyday decisions were imbued with a momentousness difficult to comprehend for anyone but the politically initiated. Every item purchased at the supermarket was subjected to an assessment of not only its freshness and flavor, but also its moral quality. Organic oatmeal was clearly superior to industrial muesli, even if it tasted like bran, because we were always suspicious of major brands and supported small cooperatives.

Naturally, my mother was fundamentally opposed to buying Pepsi (because of its associations with the United States, big industry and Republicans) or Coca-Cola (USA, big industry, Democrats), except for children's birthday parties or when we were sick and nauseous. Then we were given small amounts of the ice-cold beverage, which is why I still associate Coca-Cola with sickness today. When the papers reported that children in Africa had died after consuming Nestlé powdered milk, Nesquik immediately disappeared from the breakfast table. When a friend told me that Smarties candies were also made by Nestlé, I prayed ardently that my mother would never find out.

She could be surprisingly rigorous when it came to political issues. I ate almost no oranges until I was 13, an experience I share with British journalist Nick Cohen, as I recently discovered to my surprise. It appears that all children of liberals throughout the West experienced certain deprivations.

Oranges were such a rare commodity for us because -- for a period that unfortunately coincided with our childhood -- the world's citrus fruit-producing countries had fallen into the hands of Latin American strongmen or otherwise questionable autocratic rulers. We couldn't buy Spanish oranges as long as General Francisco Franco was in power, because every purchase would have signified indirect support for his dictatorship. South Africa was out of the question, because of its apartheid regime, and Jaffa oranges from Israel seemed politically incorrect for as long as the Palestinians had to suffer. We still had oranges from Florida at first, but that ended when Richard Nixon was elected president. Franco's death in November 1975, at 82, was the only reason my brother and I did not succumb to scurvy.

But it's possible to have a happy childhood without Nesquik and citrus fruit. I have no reason to complain. Other children must grow up without pork chops and fast for four weeks every year, because of their religion. Besides, shocking exceptions were possible. To my chagrin, my mother had also developed a strong aversion to comics. They were trash, she concluded, and there would be no trash in our house. There was one exception: "Asterix." I owned every issue, from "Asterix the Gaul" to "Asterix in Corsica." Anything that came from France was considered culturally valuable and thus exempt from the taint of trashiness. There were also fine distinctions when it came to television. Hollywood was considered the worst of trash, unless the films were old and in black-and-white, or directed by German emigres like Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch, in which case they were cultural artifacts and suitable for children. How my father managed to convince my mother that the Western series "Bonanza" was suitable family fare for Sunday viewing is still a mystery to me.

I don't remember when it first dawned on me that not all families were like mine. I knew, of course, that there were people who rejected everything Social Democrats stood for, because they were constantly discussed at the table, but they were seen as more of an abstract threat. They didn't exist in my immediate environment. This has remained essentially the same to this day. I now know many conservatives, partly as a result of my profession. After seven years under an SPD/Green Party coalition government, the country is now being run by the CDU and its chancellor once again, and most states have a conservative governor at their helms. But that doesn't change the fact that conservatives are practically nonexistent wherever decisions are made on how we look at and evaluate things.

Go to any theater, museum or open-air concert, and you'll quickly realize that ideas beyond the mindscape of the left are unwelcome there. A contemporary play that doesn't critically settle scores with the market economy? Unthinkable. An artist who, until George W. Bush left the White House, could associate anything with America other than Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the Washington's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol? Out of the question. Rock concerts against the left? A joke.

The left has won, across the board, and has become the happy medium. When we search for a definition of what left means, we can draw on an impressive array of theories. Leftism is a worldview, as well as a way of explaining the world and how everything is interconnected. Most of all, however, it is a feeling. A person who lives a leftist life is living with the appealing awareness of being in the right, in fact, being right all the time. In Germany, leftists are never truly called upon to justify their views. In fact, their views have become the dominant views, not within the population, which stubbornly adheres to its prejudices, but among those who set the tone and in circles where they prefer to congregate.

Of course, the left has suffered its share of defeats along the way. Liberals have lost the fight against cable television, and they were unable to prevent reunification, but in retrospect all of this recedes to the point of insignificance. The other side doesn't even know what to call itself. No one in his right mind in Germany would refer to himself as right-wing. Middle-class, perhaps, or conservative, but even those terms are used with caution. Being politically to the right is not the other side of a spectrum of opinion, but a judgment of condemnation.

In the business of opinions, where I earn my money, there is practically nothing but leftists, and anyone who is not is well-advised to keep it to himself. One reason for the cultural dominance of the left may be that the other side has nothing to say or leftist ideas are so convincing that everything else pales by comparison. But I would hazard to guess that many are to the left because others are.

Man's tendency to assimilate, though well-documented in experimental psychology, is a trait routinely underestimated in everyday life. What we call conviction is often nothing but adaptation in an environment of opinions. Opportunism is an ugly word that doesn't apply here, because it assumes that we adopt opinions for purely calculated reasons. Let's call it social instinct instead. No one wants to be the only person in an office who isn't asked to join the group for lunch.

The liberal family has many clans competing sharply with one another, but in the end it remains a family, and it sees itself as a family. The left, with which I have dealt throughout my life, is a milieu that could be described as the leftist bourgeoisie. In English-speaking countries, terms like "chattering class" or "creative class" have taken hold. Middle-class socialism or leftist chic are other attempts at description, but they all mean the same thing. This milieu is inhabited by a type of person easily recognized by his consumption and cultural habits (even if he prides himself on his nonconformity), and who is characterized by a pronounced elite awareness, even though the word elite is much as a taboo for leftists as words like nation, homeland or ethnic group.

Liberals in Germany rave about Obama, fear climate change and the surveillance state, do their best to eat organically acceptable food and read the opinion pages of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine's Sunday edition and, with a certain amount of feigned contempt, the political section of SPIEGEL. Their children attend exclusive schools, even though they are fundamentally in favor of public schools. They like to spend their weekends visiting friends in the country who have been renovating a stone cottage for years -- with attention to historical authenticity, of course -- and in Italian restaurants they always order in Italian, no matter how well they actually speak the language. Of course, liberals and conservatives probably share some of these traits, but not to the point of excluding everything else, and certainly not as one of the prime attributes of a lifestyle.

Members of this social class are critical of the market economy, and yet are unable to specify an alternative. In their view, the current economic crisis is a gift from God, because it provides perfect fodder for all kinds of prejudices and practically eliminates the need for argument. All it takes is to mention words like "Deutsche Bank" or "Wall Street" in any discussion in which someone has dared to voice a cautious objection, and everyone standing around will quickly nod their heads in agreement, causing the troublemaker to withdraw, while mumbling apologies. In secret, however, they hope that this crisis of capitalism will not progress too far, because their own prosperity depends on capitalism and because, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to demonstrate that a comfortable retirement was not possible under good old Karl Marx.

I missed the connection at some point. I don't know when it happened. There wasn't a specific day or incident that turned me off to the left. I cannot even claim that I consciously distanced myself. It just happened. Suddenly I no longer found it amusing to listen to constant jokes about the physiognomy of (former Chancellor Helmut) Kohl. I realized that I was relieved when my sons converted the puppet theater my father-in-law and I had built for them into a parking garage. When the discussion turned to the uselessness of marriage and family, I was the one who was secretly rooting for every married couple, hoping it would last as long as possible. Once, at a party, I even dared to put in a good word for nuclear energy during a conversation about climate change. It immediately put a damper on the evening.

I tried to suppress my conservative tendencies at first. I convinced myself that they would eventually pass, like adolescent hot flashes. The next time I heard a joke about Kohl, I laughed more loudly than usual, hoping not to be noticed. In other words, I behaved like a 40-year-old married father who suddenly realizes that he's gay, and doesn't know what to do.

There were early signs of my tendency, and in retrospect they were clearly recognizable. Fontessa, a friend of mine from school, even claims that she has always known about it. When we talked about our younger days at a class reunion three years ago and I mentioned switching sides politically, she looked at me with pity in her eyes and said: "Jan, you were never truly liberal. It was always just a pose for you." I felt as if I'd been caught in the act, and yet she didn't mean it in a bad way.

The hardest part about being a late conservative is coming out. It's a moment you postpone for as long as possible. You worry about the way colleagues will react, and you don't want to humiliate your parents. My mother will be 73 this year, an age at which she is increasingly unlikely to ever shed her prejudices against conservatives. She tries to be polite in conversation and not let anyone see how she really feels, but sometimes her prejudices emerge with a clarity that even I find shocking.

"A horrible, horrible person," she sighed indignantly when I called her after CDU politician Ole von Beust won the mayoral race against Die Zeit publisher Michael Naumann, "and to think that someone like this is in charge of our city." She sounded as if Hamburg were being managed by a crook known to the authorities, and I cannot rule out the possibility that this is, indeed, her view. As far as her own son is concerned, she has decided to overlook all aberrations. She behaves like one of those English ladies who no longer find anything in life truly shocking, and who continue to babble on when someone next to them misbehaves.

I have since learned to go on the offensive with my conservatism. In fact, sometimes I even have the courage to address prejudices head-on. We recently invited a couple we have known for a long time, but with whom we had fallen somewhat out of touch, over to our house. He became a law professor at a university in eastern Germany not too long ago, and she promotes golf courses. The conversation quickly turned to the last Michael Moore film, and our friend suddenly claimed that the film could not be shown throughout the entire Midwest of the United States. He made it sound as if Moore were some French auteur filmmaker who was finally holding up a mirror to the Americans, which they couldn't abide.

I had a pretty clear idea of how the conversation would continue, and I knew that I would be upset with myself afterwards, once again, because I hadn't challenged him decisively enough. "To make it brief, because we'll get to this point anyway," I heard myself saying: "No, I don't believe that the CIA was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and yes, we liked living in America." He was quiet, we drank our tea, and the two said their goodbyes before long. I was shocked by what I had said, but also a little proud of myself.


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