For the past 50 years, the Christian Democratic Union has served as a pillar of Germany's vaunted stability. Under leaders stretching from founding father Konrad Adenauer to his political godson Helmut Kohl, the mainstream conservative party has buttressed the country against communists on the left and nationalists on the right.

The Christian Democrats have been Germany's dominant party in the postwar era, elected to govern for a total of more than three decades, largely because of the trust they established with German voters and Western allies alike. With Germany on the front lines of the Cold War, the Christian Democrats were seen as a safe, reliable movement that could be counted on to defend freedom, open markets and conservative social values in a divided nation still struggling to cope with the heinous legacy of the Nazi era.

But these days, the party is so mired in scandal that even ardent supporters are wondering whether the ideals it claims to represent are merely a sham. Less than two months after Kohl shocked the nation by admitting he broke the law by running secret slush funds provided by anonymous donors during his 16 years in power, the Christian Democratic Union is suffering through a serious moral and political depression that has raised questions about its very survival.

"We're all walking around in a state of shock," said Ole von Beust, a rising Christian Democratic star and Hamburg party chief. "Nobody seems to have an idea how we can get out of this mess."

With some Christian Democrats openly speculating that the party may fragment into several political movements, concern has risen about the impact on Germany's political equilibrium. Even Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leader of the left-of-center Social Democrats who are the Christian Democrats' principal rivals, has warned against rooting for the party's demise because it would be "a disaster" for the nation.

"If this goes on much longer, we could soon reach the stage of a real crisis in the democratic party system of Germany," said Manfred Goertemaker, a Christian Democratic party member and professor of political history at Potsdam University. "The Christian Democrats are such a vital part of this society that any threats to its existence would have profound repercussions for the entire country."

Almost every day, new revelations about furtive funds, money laundering and possible bribery traumatize the Christian Democrats. A half-dozen investigations are underway, and Kohl is refusing to comply with the law to identify the donors who contributed to the secret accounts. Comparisons to Italy's Christian Democrats, who governed for more than 40 years before succumbing to a devastating corruption scandal and disappearing, seemed exaggerated just weeks ago but now look plausible.

These worries are particularly telling in Germany given the Christian Democrats' importance as a bulwark against right-wing extremism.

"All of the nightmares of the Nazi era and World War II flowed from the scandals that weakened the democratic parties of the Weimar Republic," said Ernst Cramer, a prominent historian who fled the country when Hitler rose to power. "We need to remember how quickly life can get out of control."

Existential Crises

The political troubles engulfing the Christian Democrats are not unique among mainstream conservatives in Europe. Center-right political movements that dominated postwar governments in Britain and France are also in disarray and suffering existential crises.

Their long tenure in power appears to have nurtured an arrogant complacency that left British Tories, French Gaullists and now Kohl's Christian Democrats vulnerable to various scandals.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the triumph of free-market reforms have stripped the heirs of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Adenauer of their compelling, anti-communist political agenda.

Europe's mainstream conservative parties also have been forced on the defensive by rival Social Democratic parties that have moved toward the center by embracing deficit-cutting measures, deregulation and other free-market policies.

Britain's once-powerful Conservative Party, which transformed the nation under Margaret Thatcher's radical free-market policies from 1979 to 1997, has been hurt by a succession of sex and sleaze scandals. The party is also fighting a bitter internal war over its attitude toward the European Union and the single continental currency, the euro. The governing Labor Party under Prime Minister Tony Blair now enjoys a 20-point lead in opinion polls.

In France, President Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic party has broken apart over the euro currency and whether to surrender more sovereignty to the European Union. After Chirac miscalculated by calling early parliamentary elections in 1997, the Socialist Party scored enormous gains and formed a new governing majority that forced the president into an awkward power-sharing arrangement.

Like Blair and French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Germany's Schroeder has tried to prevail over the left wing of his Social Democratic Party in pushing through tax reforms and welfare cutting measures that would reduce the state's role in the economy. Even before the scandal, Germany's Christian Democrats were struggling over whether to support or obstruct Schroeder's proposals--which closely resembled their own prescription for the economy.

But now, those concerns have been swept aside while the party leadership strives to heal divisions caused by Kohl's recalcitrance to name his benefactors and the likely torrent of more bad news with the imminent release of a financial audit carried out by an independent accounting firm.

Already, there is speculation the audit may produce evidence that tens of millions of dollars--far more than the $1 million Kohl says passed through his secret slush funds--were channeled illegally through banks in Switzerland and Liechtenstein during Kohl's years in power.

Spoiled by the Cold War

The scandal has prompted much soul-searching among Christian Democrats, who are asking whether they can ever recover from the lies and hypocrisy that have sullied their leadership. Even Wolfgang Schaeuble, the beleaguered party chairman, succumbed to pessimism about its prospects when he remarked, "This is not yet the end, but it could be the beginning of the end."

Like Italy's Christian Democrats, the German conservatives may have been spoiled by the Cold War environment that made their presence in government so reassuring to Western allies. Just as their Italian cousins kept Europe's largest Communist party from sharing power, Germany's Christian Democrats enjoyed special status at home and abroad as a political bulwark against the Soviet-backed Communists next door in East Germany.

That privileged role is now seen to have encouraged Kohl, who ran the party as his personal fiefdom for 25 years, to do everything he felt was necessary--including the acceptance of illegal cash donations--to preserve the Christian Democrats' hold on power.

When he feared the resurgent former Communists would become too much of a political threat in eastern Germany, Kohl dispensed lavish amounts of money for building up Christian Democratic party structures in those six states. Much of that money, Kohl acknowledges, came from his secret slush funds.

When he sought to reassure French President Francois Mitterrand that a reunited Germany would not drift toward the East and abandon a special relationship with France, Kohl encouraged the French state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine to buy the Leuna oil refinery in eastern Germany.

By giving France a presence in the east and control over a key fuel resource, Kohl believed he was helping maintain a healthy partnership with a key ally. Not coincidentally, investigators believe that some of that money found its way into Christian Democratic coffers--at least $40 million is missing, and documents related to the Leuna sale vanished from the chancellery shortly after Kohl was voted out of office in 1998.

Finding a New Mission

Whether the Christian Democrats can survive the scandal may depend on finding a new mission as the paramount conservative force in Germany. Many analysts say the party's continued presence in German politics is more vital than ever to prevent the rise of right-wing extremists.

However, while support for the Christian Democrats has plummeted to 29 percent according to some opinion polls, there has been no discernible increase in backing for far-right parties such as the Republicans or the German People's Party. On a national basis, the combined support of the extreme-right parties in Germany represents less than 3 percent of the vote.

"Nobody in Germany can have an interest in seeing political space open up for the far-right parties," said Martin Sueskind, a political analyst. "This is one of the proudest accomplishments of the CDU, and it should be preserved at all cost."

But the Christian Democrats also need to find a new message for the post-Kohl era. The all-embracing movement built by the man once known as "the eternal chancellor" included arch-conservative thinkers and industrialists as well as liberal social workers and trade unionists whose main purpose, it now seems, was to keep Kohl in power at any cost.

With the absorption of 18 million eastern Germans and the shift of the government to Berlin, some analysts believe the Christian Democrats must broaden their appeal beyond the prosperous, Catholic regions of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg. Otherwise, the party could find itself not only disgraced by scandal but marginalized in scope. The party has considered redefining itself as a movement supporting high-tech industries, social reforms and the interests of the elderly.

"A complete break-up like the kind that happened in Italy seems like a far-fetched scenario, but you still can't rule it out," said Heinrich Oberreuter, director of the Academy for Political Education near Munich. "It's possible to conceive of the liberal wing of the party breaking away or the more conservative wing joining up with Bavaria's Christian Social Union."