Considering Adenauer as a leader: Good, Bad or….indifferent?

By 1949, the Cold War between the western powers and the Soviet Union was becoming more important than the question of how to deal with defeated Nazi Germany. In the American, British and French zones of occupation, the introduction of Marshall Aid and the currency reform of 1948 were already beginning to help the economy to pick up, and the black market was coming under control. The political split between the three western zones, which by 1949 were economically merged into ‘Trizonia’, and the communist-controlled Soviet zone now appeared too great to bridge. But joint economic administration also required coordinated political leadership. Over several months, from the summer of 1948 to the spring of 1949, a new constitution or ‘Basic Law’ was devised for a democratically elected government to take power in a newly constituted West German state, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

A new constitution, in this case it was to indicate it was provisional until the ultimate reunification of Germany. In May 1949, the new constitution was officially adopted and the Federal Republic of Germany came into being. In August 1949, following the first free elections for seventeen years, a new, democratically elected German government under the leadership of conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took power. Adenauer was to stamp his mark on the character and development of the FRG for the next fourteen years – longer than Hitler’s rule in the Third Reich. But in 1949 the future was by no means clear. A mere four years after the defeat of Hitler, and in the light of the disastrous experience of Weimar democracy, how could the stability of the new democratic system be ensured in the long run? The circumstances of its birth were hardly promising. In 1918, Germans had themselves brought about the defeat of the monarchy and established a democracy; in 1949, the new democratic political system was at least in part imposed by the occupying powers. The provisions of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 had been harsh; but the experiences after 1945 of total defeat, continued occupation and massive losses of territory were far harsher. The physical, social and psychological consequences of war losses, bereavement, hunger, and problems of post-war reintegration into civilian society had all been great after the First World War; but arguably these were all far greater in the wake of Hitler’s aggressive war of expansion and genocide, with massive brutalisation of young men in the slaughter at the front, widespread casualties and suffering among the civilian population at home, and traumatic experiences of expulsion or flight for millions from former German homelands in the lost eastern territories. The defeat of 1945 was far more total than that of 1918.

In 1949, the majority of Germans were not committed democrats. The experience of the Weimar ‘party system’ was still very much alive in people’s minds. The introduction of parliamentary democracy in Germany after the First World War had been associated with revolutionary unrest, inflation, continued political instability, economic depression and ultimately descent into dictatorship. Although the NSDAP had never won an absolute majority of votes in 1932–33, and although the ‘Hitler myth’ had begun to wane after German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, twelve years of Nazi propaganda and brutal practice had made a serious impact on the attitudes of Germans.
Adenauer was elected the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (German: Bundeskanzler) after World War II with the support of his own CDU, the Christian Social Union and the liberal Free Democratic Party. Due to his age (of 73), it was initially thought he would only be a caretaker. However, he held this position from 1949 to 1963, a period which spans most of the preliminary phase of the Cold War. During this period, the post-war division of Germany was consolidated with the establishment of two separate German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The first elections to the Bundestag of West Germany were held on 15 August 1949, with the Christian Democrats emerging as the strongest party. Theodor Heuss was elected first President of the Republic, and Adenauer was elected Chancellor on 16 September 1949. He also had the new “provisional” capital of the Federal Republic of Germany established at Bonn, which was only 15 kilometers away from his hometown, rather than at Frankfurt am Main. At the Petersberg Agreement in November 1949 he achieved some of the first concessions granted by the Allies, such as a decrease in the number of factories to be dismantled, but in particular his agreement to join the International Authority for the Ruhr led to heavy criticism. In the following debate in parliament Adenauer stated: The Allies have told me that dismantling would be stopped only if I satisfy the Allied desire for security, does the Socialist Party want dismantling to go on to the bitter end?
The opposition leader Kurt Schumacher responded by labeling Adenauer “Chancellor of the Allies.” When the rebellion within the Soviet sector of Germany “was unceremoniously and brutally suppressed by the Red Army” in June 1953, Adenauer quickly appreciated that the event strengthened his electoral hand and he was reelected to a second term as Chancellor. The majority was large enough that his CDU/CSU party coalition could dispense with the FDP as a partner in government.
The election of 1957 essentially dealt with national matters and would revolve around the question of whether Germany and Europe remain Christian or become Communist. Adenauer had brought home the last POWs from Soviet labor camps — “which was greeted with jubilation,” his recent accomplishment in pension reform “was enormously popular,” and his assurance of “no experiments” allowed him to gain reelection to a third term as Chancellor with the CDU/CSU winning convincingly, “the first time that a single party had won an outright majority in German electoral history” in a free election. “His personal position could no longer be seriously challenged. At the age of eighty-one, he was almost the un-crowned king of Germany.”
The temper had changed by election time in September 1961. Adenauer had tarnished his image when he announced he would run for the office of federal president in 1959, only to pull out when he came to the realization that his vision of a much more powerful presidency conflicted with the Basic Law and the precedent established by the departing and respected Theodor Heuss. The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 and the sealing of borders by the East Germans made his government look weak. His “reaction was … lame;” he eventually flew to Berlin, but he appeared to have lost his once instinctive, ultra-swift power of judgment. After failing to keep their majority in the general election 36 days after the wall went up, the CDU/CSU again needed to include the FDP in a coalition government. To strike a deal, Adenauer was forced to make two concessions: to relinquish the chancellorship before the end of the new term, his fourth, and to replace his foreign minister.
Adenauer’s achievements include the establishment of a stable democracy in defeated Germany, a lasting reconciliation with France, a general political reorientation towards the West, recovering limited but far-reaching sovereignty for West Germany by firmly integrating the country with the emerging Euro-Atlantic community (NATO and the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation). Adenauer is closely linked to the implementation of an enhanced pension system, which ensured unparalleled prosperity for retired persons. Along with his Minister for Economic Affairs and successor Ludwig Erhard, the West German model of a “social market economy” (a mixed economy with capitalism moderated by elements of social welfare and Catholic social teaching) allowed for the boom period known as the Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) that produced broad prosperity. Adenauer ensured a truly free and democratic society which had been almost unknown to the German people before — notwithstanding the attempt between 1919 and 1933 (the Weimar Republic) — and which is today not just normal but also deeply integrated into modern German society. He thereby laid the groundwork for Germany to reenter the community of nations and to evolve as a dependable member of the Western world. It can be argued that because of Adenauer’s policies, a later reunification of both German states was possible; and unified Germany has remained a solid partner in the European Union and NATO.
However, contemporary critics accused Adenauer of cementing the division of Germany, sacrificing reunification and the recovery of territories lost in the westward shift of Poland and the Soviet Union. “In his view, he said with the greatest emphasis, full integration into Western Europe was a precondition of the reunification of Germany.” During the Cold War, the United States was “aiming for a West German armed force, after their [U.S.] costly experience in the Korean War,” and Adenauer linked this rearmament concept to West German sovereignty and entry into NATO. In 1952, the Stalin Note, as it became known, “caught everybody in the West by surprise.” It offered to unify the two German entities into a single, neutral state with its own, non-aligned national army to effect superpower disengagement from Central Europe. Adenauer and his cabinet were unanimous in their rejection of the Stalin overture, they shared the Western Allies’ suspicion about the genuineness of that offer and supported the Allies in their cautious replies. Adenauer’s flat rejection was, however, out of step with public opinion; he then realized his mistake and he started to ask questions. Critics denounced him for having missed an opportunity for German reunification. The Soviets sent a second note, courteous in tone. Adenauer by then understood that “all opportunity for initiative had passed out of his hands,” and the matter was put to rest by the Allies. Given the realities of the Cold War, German reunification and recovery of lost territories in the east were not realistic goals as both of Stalin’s notes specified the retention of the existing “Potsdam”-decreed boundaries of Germany.
Others criticize his era as culturally and politically conservative, which sought to base the entire social and political make-up of West Germany around the personal views of a single person, one who bore a certain amount of mistrust towards his own people. His re-election campaign centered around the slogan “No Experiments.”
As chancellor, Adenauer tended to arrogate most major decisions to himself, treating his ministers as mere extensions of his authority. While this tendency has become somewhat less pronounced under subsequent chancellors, Adenauer established the tradition of West Germany (and later reunified Germany) as a “chancellor democracy.”
The West German student movement of the late 1960s was essentially a protest against the conservatism Adenauer had personified. Another point of criticism was that Adenauer’s commitment to reconciliation with France was in stark contrast to a certain indifference towards Communist Poland. Like all other major West German political parties of the time, the CDU refused to recognize the annexation of former German territories given by the Soviets to Poland, and openly talked about regaining these territories after strengthening West Germany’s position in Europe.
In retrospect, mainly positive assessments of his chancellorship prevail, not only with the German public, which voted him the “greatest German of all time” in a 2003 television poll, but even with some of today’s left-wing intellectuals, who praise his unconditional commitment to western-style democracy and European integration.

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