DRESDEN — This city — where Allied bombing in 1945 created a 1,000-degree firestorm that melted glass and skin — symbolizes the principle: Things could be worse.

A tragic sense of life — along with cynical humor and a bit of a persecution complex — is typical of Saxony, a German state as culturally distant from Berlin as Kentucky is from New York City. After German reunification in 1989, about 80 percent of people in this portion of former East Germany had to find new ways of making a living. About 20 percent of the population — mainly younger people — moved away. While cities such as Dresden and Leipzig are now doing well, rural areas and small towns are aging, economically stagnant and demoralized.

This backwater is now at the center of German politics. Saxony is an electoral stronghold of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) — an extreme, right-wing populist party in a country where extreme right-wing populism has frightening historical associations. In the most recent national election, the AFD received about a quarter of votes in Saxony — double its national share.

It was the 2015 refugee crisis that catalyzed discontent. Chancellor Angela Merkel — in an act of exemplary moral leadership — opened the German border to about a million migrants, most fleeing from the Syrian conflict. The backlash both aided the rise of the anti-immigrant AFD and provoked dissention within Merkel's own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Merkel is now at the riskiest political moment of her career. If the CDU loses ground in next year's regional election here in Saxony, it will be interpreted as a repudiation of Merkel's refugee policy and could lead to her resignation as head of the party. It would certainty cause open revolt by the conservative wing of the CDU.

Many in the party admit that the initial implementation of Merkel's refugee policy was chaotic. But the real focus of populists — here, as elsewhere — is not on efficiency but identity. They fear that migrants — particularly Muslim migrants — won't become Germans.

But what does Germanness actually mean? Becoming an American involves accepting democratic values and respecting our constitutional order. Becoming a German involves embracing an intangible way of life — a combination of language, historical consciousness and eccentricities. In some versions of Germanness, Syrian refugees will never really belong. So (the argument goes) close down the border entirely.

The CDU faces a challenge duplicated across the West: How does a center-right party deal with a populist insurgency? One option is for the CDU to co-opt the AFD by moving to the right on immigration. This would be the effective repudiation of Merkel's leadership. And some fear that conceding political ground to populism would merely feed and legitimize it. Another option is for the CDU to draw a sharp distinction with AFD and consolidate control over the political center. But this might allow the AFD to appeal to the CDU's own right wing in culturally conservative places such as Saxony.

In America, the ethno-nationalists did not gather in their own party. They conducted a successful coup in the Republican Party, and are now consolidating their hold. What remains of the GOP establishment is faced with a similar decision: Imitate the populists or try to marginalize them.

In the CDU, this strategic challenge has led to an existential one. Following World War II, the party — as its name implies — stood for a conservatism humanized by Christian (particularly Catholic) values. The CDU also sponsored the project of European unity, which now seems under severe strain. Under Merkel, the unifying principle has been pragmatism. But this no longer seems enough compared to the simple, emotional appeal of resurgent nativism.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the general secretary of the CDU and possible successor to Merkel, told me that her party must answer a large question: "What are the values that hold us together, not just when it comes to immigrants, but for ourselves?"

The moral of the story: To effectively oppose right-wing populism, conservatives require a compelling, alternative fighting faith. But that does not emerge merely because it is needed.

Michael Gerson (michaelgerson@washpost.com) is a columnist for The Washington Post.