Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967)

Even for politicians the age of 73 is quite late to start a national political career. Chairman Konrad Adenauer of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was that old when he was elected as first Chancellor of the new federal republic of West Germany. This was in 1949. The typical father figure (he was called Der Alte – The Old) had previously been mayor of Cologne. In that function, he refused to receive Adolf Hitler in 1933 and was temporarily held in custody by the Gestapo somewhat later. From 1935, he withdrew from political life until after World War II.

Adenauer reigned from 1949 to 1963, during which period Germany transformed from much maligned country to a valuable member of the European Community and a trustworthy ally of the West. Especially the latter was an Adenauer contribution, since the sincere catholic was a fanatic anti-communist. The story goes he told the Pope: "God ordered the Germans to stop the godless communism".

Integration in Europe stood high on his agenda. He was one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1957. Two years before Germany had become a member of NATO. Economically the country was also revived, which led the people to re-elect Chancellor Adenauer three times. At the age of 87, he was succeeded by Ludwig Erhard. He died in April 1967.

Some highlights from his political life:

  • 1917 elected mayor of Cologne
  • 1933 refuses to receive Hitler and leaves Cologne a few weeks later
  • 1945 reappointed mayor of Cologne by the American military regime, but abducted by the British half a year later
  • 1946 elected chairman of the newly founded CDU
  • 1949 elected first Chancellor of the German republic by only a small margin
  • 1958 meets French prime-minister De Gaulle for the first of many times
  • 1959 visited by US president Eisenhower
  • 1963 visited by US president Kennedy

Konrad Hermann Joseph Adenauer was born in Cologne on January 5, 1876, the third of five children born to Johann Konrad Adenauer and Maria Scharfenberg. The future West German chancellor's lifelong devotion to Catholicism was instilled in him by his parents, who were staunch Catholics despite both possessing mixed lineage. Adenauer was also greatly influenced by Carl Hilty, a Swiss Protestant philosopher, first discovered by Adenauer when he was in his early twenties. Hilty’s books mirrored Adenauer’s life by combining Christianity with stoicism and a sense of community with the rest of God’s creations. This latter aspect would develop into a lifelong passion for Adenauer—he loved to take long solitary walks outside, and would later spend massive amounts of time maintaining his incomparable rose garden in Rhoendorf.

Johann Adenauer was determined that his children receive the best education possible, and frequently lent out his basement to lodgers in order to help pay for it. He also spent numerous hours teaching his children to read to ensure that they were able to secure places in the Aposteln Gymnasium, a prestigious Catholic grammar school.

After spending nine years there, Konrad moved on to study law at the Freiburg University in Baden, which was made possible by a grant from a Cologne educational foundation. He spent a single term in Baden, followed by two terms at Munich University, and six terms at Bonn University before graduating in 1897.

After working for nine years as a legal assistant and then a barrister, Konrad made his transition from law to politics in January 1906, when one of Cologne’s Deputy Mayors suddenly retired and Adenauer was elected as his replacement. In 1909, thirty-three year old Konrad was elected First Deputy Mayor, a significant promotion for someone so young, although Johann Adenauer, who died three days after Konrad’s appointment in 1906, never lived to see it.

While his career was showing great promise, Adenauer’s domestic life was befallen by more tragedy. After giving birth to three children, his wife Emma’s terminal kidney problem which had rendered her invalid since 1912 finally claimed her life in October 1916. In March 1917, Adenauer suffered his own health problems after being involved in serious car accident which scarred his face but fortunately did not damage his brain.

Deeply moved by his wife’s death, Adenauer mourned her passing for over a year. When Adenauer emerged from mourning in December 1917, it was as the Mayor of Cologne, a post he had been appointed to two months previously. As Mayor at the end of the First World War, Adenauer earned himself a reputation as an efficient administrator and a patriotic leader who could remain calm in a crisis. Konrad remarried in September 1919, to twenty-five year old Auguste Zinsser, a Protestant dermatologist’s daughter who lived next door to the Adenauers.

A member of the Catholic Centre party since 1905, Adenauer disliked extremism on either side of the political spectrum, and Hitler’s Nazis were no exception. Hitler was infuriated when he came to visit Cologne on February 17, 1933, and Adenauer refused to meet him at the airport and allowed the Nazis to hang swastikas only in the hall where their rally would be taking place.

When the Nazis took power, Adenauer was dismissed from office and spent several years in exile from Cologne before being imprisoned in August 1944. He was released three months later when his son Max, a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht, visited the Gestapo and told them that detaining the fathers of loyal officers for no reason could be damaging to morale at the front.

Soon after the war ended, Adenauer was asked by the Americans to reassume his position as Mayor of Cologne. Less than five months later, the British gained control of Cologne and dismissed him from his post. Within months of his dismissal, Adenauer had a new position as the leader and co-founder of a joint Catholic and Protestant political party, the Christian Democratic Union.

In 1948, Adenauer was appointed President of the Parliamentary Council, which was in charge of drafting a provisional constitution for a democratic West German state. In its first elections, Adenauer’s party won 31% of the vote, and on September 15, 1949, the seventy-three year old Adenauer became West Germany’s first chancellor.

Adenauer’s foreign policy was one that encouraged affable relations with the West, with whom Adenauer shared a common enemy—communism. As a result of Adenauer’s efforts promoting European integration, Germany was able to join the Council of Europe in 1951, and in return submitted the Ruhr valley to international control. He persuaded the Allied powers to cease dismantling German industry, and permit the opening of German consulates abroad, while playing a key role in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community with France, Italy, and Benelux in 1952.

As chancellor, Adenauer worked toward the loosening of the Allied occupation regime and the eventual prospect of German rearmament and admission to NATO. He also negotiated and signed the German-Israeli Compensation Treaty in 1952, in an effort to atone for the atrocities committed against the Jews in the Second World War. Germany was made a full partner in NATO in 1955, and was also a founding member of the 1957 European Economic Community.

The Paris and Bonn conventions signed by Adenauer ended the period of Allied occupation and normalized relations between Germany and the West. Accomplishments such as these earned Adenauer and his party greater majorities in each subsequent election, until he was able to form his first majority government in 1957. Unfortunately, after 1961, the CDU/CSU had to form a coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), who made their lack of confidence in the chancellor extremely clear.

The last few years of Adenauer’s career were somewhat tarnished by the Spiegel Affair of 1962, when Defense Minister Franz Strauss, in collusion with Adenauer, ordered the arrest of a journalist who had accused the army of bribery in an article in Der Spiegel, along with two of the publication’s editors. By this time, Adenauer’s popularity even among his own party had been steadily waning, and he sought the advice of his two most trusted colleagues, Heinrich Krone and Hans Globke. They both advised Adenauer that his best course of action was to resign as chancellor by mid-1963 at the latest—and much to their surprise, Adenauer agreed willingly.

When the time for his resignation came around, Adenauer stalled bitterly, claiming that his designated successor, Ludwig Erhard, was unsuitable for the job. Forced by his own party to concede in favour of Erhard, Adenauer would later make a point of visiting the Bundestag on November 30, 1966, the day on which Erhard resigned due to an economic recession.

The man affectionately known as “Der Alte” died on April 19, 1967, at his villa in Rhoendorf. In his capable hands, West Germany had weathered the damage of the war, and emerged even stronger with the support of its Western Allies. Although his aversion to communism eventually caused Adenauer to lose credibility even within his own party, his fourteen years in power returned Germany to its former economic and political standing and established Adenauer as one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

Irving, Ronald. Adenauer. London: Pearson Education, 2002.
Prittie, Terence. Konrad Adenauer 1876-1967. London: Tom Stacey, 1972.
Williams, Charles. Adenauer: The Father of the New Germany. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.

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