The Christian Statecraft of Konrad Adenauer

The anniversary this spring of the end of World War II in Europe was an occasion to recall the great deeds of statesmen and the great sacrifices of millions in the unequivocally noble cause of defeating Nazi Germany. There is some truth to the old axiom that history is written by the victorious, so it is not surprising or unusual that most of our attention is focused on Allied heroes such as Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Patton, and Bradley. But the gloriousness of victory should not cause us to forget certain other figures who rebuilt Europe after the war’s end. Among these is Konrad Adenauer, who can be credited with the delicate and masterful job of reconstructing Germany into what it is today. Rebuilding a nation is far more difficult than destroying it; it requires a greater statecraft to rebuild a nation than to lead it in war. In this respect, Adenauer was a founder-statesman, a modern-day Lycurgus. He lifted Germany out of the ashes, restored its rightful dignity as a people, and set the nation on course to a peaceful future.

The extraordinary career of Adenauer more or less splits the difference between those who see history as solely the result of chance and those who see in history the workings of “fate,” providence, or destiny, for Adenauer’s rise seems at once destined and the outcome of merely random events. As mayor of Cologne from 1917 to 1933, Adenauer was one of Germany’s most prominent, if controversial, politicians. He was accused of harboring separatist designs for the Rhineland region and also accused of soliciting bribes; both charges were almost certainly false, but were conveniently revived after the war by his political adversaries.

Adenauer nearly became Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1926. Adenauer was invited to Berlin in May of that year to consider forming a new cabinet. We forget today how desperate Germany was in the years between World War I and the rise of Hitler. Hyperinflation wiped out the currency, and gradually rising unemployment peaked at a staggering 43 percent on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933. From 1920 to 1933, there were eight general elections, and twenty-one different governments took office; the average life span of each government was eight months.

Having closely watched the failure of the twelve governments from 1920 to 1926, Adenauer had little inclination to become simply another figure in the sorry procession. Adenauer agreed to attempt to form a government on the condition that the coalition government be limited to just a few parties, rather than all the parties—thus ensuring a more stable working majority—and that he be allowed to choose all his cabinet ministers—rather than having ministers forced on him by his coalition partners. When it became clear that these conditions could not be met—mostly because of jealousy by leaders of other parties—Adenauer refused to become Chancellor.

Adenauer was dismissed as mayor of Cologne by the Nazis in 1933; he had refused to fly the swastika flag outside city hall for Hitler’s parade through town. Warned of plans against his life, Adenauer fled Cologne and began a long internal exile—including several months spent in a monastery—that later culminated in house arrest and deportment to a concentration camp, where he was scheduled for execution late in the war. When the American army overran Cologne, the army sought out Adenauer to become mayor of Cologne once again. (American policy was to restore non-Nazi leaders to the positions they held before the war.) The city clearly needed Adenauer’s municipal talents; Cologne was among the most devastated cities in Germany; its population had fallen from 750,000 to 32,000. Andre Gide, surveying the ruins, was so shaken he immediately asked to be taken away.

But Cologne was designated as part of the British occupation zone, and when the British took over after hostilities ended, Adenauer was dismissed and was prohibited by the British from further political activity. It was this event that ironically catapulted Adenauer toward his future leadership of the West German nation; had the British allowed him to remain mayor of Cologne, he probably never would have entered national politics. Instead, during the ban on overt public life, Adenauer travelled widely in Germany, meeting quietly with the various emerging Christian Democratic parties. When the ban on Adenauer’s political activities was lifted and organized political activity approved by the Allies in 1946, Adenauer emerged as the natural leader of the new Christian Democratic Union.

Adenauer, a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, assuaged whatever mistrust there might have been by stressing ecumenical themes. Adenauer’s first public speech demonstrated his keen insight, based on long observation and contemplation, into the nature of our age. The new Germany, Adenauer stressed, must be based on Christian principles; the state must never again come to dominate the individual. In practice this meant that individual freedom, private property, and private initiative must be the fundamental building blocks of the new German society. Adenauer rejected all forms of socialism or government ownership of industry, which other German parties were advocating. “Socialism is not limited to the form of the economy,” Adenauer wrote in his Memoirs:

Excessive socialization of the economic structure concentrates too much power in the hands of the state and we know from experience how dangerous this is for a people. Socialism is bound to lead to a subordination of the rights and dignity of the individual to the state or to a collective like the state. It was my conviction that the deification of the state and the unlimited expansion of its rights, which rested on the materialist view of the world and which we had experienced in the past, must never again be allowed to prevail.

The coalition of parties led by Adenauer won the first post-war election in 1949. Adenauer was then 73; his doctor advised him to remain in office for only two years. He remained for fourteen (stepping down at age 87 in 1963), winning elections by large margins, and presiding over the “economic miracle” that saw West Germany rise from the rubble and become a prosperous industrial giant in just a few years. The “social market economy,” as it was called, stressed private initiative and free markets (all price controls were removed), yet also provided adequate social security and sponsored close government cooperation in areas such as health care and housing. “If the German people are ever to rise again from their present state of abject misery,” Adenauer declared, “if they will ever, work their way to prosperity again, they will owe this rise solely to the initiative of the individual, and never to the bureaucracy of the state.”

The other crowning achievement of Adenauer’s statesmanship was his firm alignment of Germany with the West. This could not be accomplished, sadly, without the division—perhaps permanent—of Germany into East and West. But the freedom and future of Germany could not have been secured in any other way, for Adenauer understood that reunification of Germany could only have been consummated under terms dictated by the Soviet Union. “From the very beginning,” Adenauer laments in his Memoirs,

the Russians seemed to pursue a clear policy toward Germany. It was their aim to include the whole of Germany in their sphere of power. They acted precisely in accordance with Lenin’s watchword: “Whoever has Germany has Europe….”The policy of the Western Allies towards us showed all too clearly that they had not recognized the Soviet aim….In my opinion the Western powers were not equal to the Russians politically. As far as I could see they lacked a clear and consistent understanding of the post-war situation….There were not many who looked further into the future.

Yet Adenauer’s strategy was determined by high principle as well as gritty Realpolitik:

There was only one way for us to save our political liberty, our personal freedom, our security, the way of life we had formed in many centuries and which was based on the Christian and humanistic ideology: we must form firm links with the peoples and countries that, shared our views concerning the state, the individual, liberty and property. We must resolutely and firmly resist any further pressure from the East.

Not only did Adenauer point Germany fixedly to the West, he also understood that the new division of Europe meant that Western Europe must be united if it was to remain free. Adenauer moved quickly to reestablish the confidence and trust of its Western neighbors, particularly France. For this Adenauer received severe criticism from opponents, who went as far as calling him “the Chancellor of the Occupation.” Adenauer also ruled out Berlin as the new capital of Germany: “Whoever makes Berlin the new capital will be creating a new spiritual Prussia.” The new capital must be “where Germany’s windows are wide open to the West.” “I am a European first,” Adenauer reassured the leaders of Western Europe, “and a German second.”

The statecraft of Adenauer was characterized, according to Paul Johnson, by “a strong streak of idealism and ample reserves of cynical cunning.” Indeed, Adenauer’s achievement was built on long days and tiny steps, on thousands of marginal decisions and petty maneuverings. His acute foresight and memories of the Weimar experience led him to devise a constitution providing for a stronger Chancellor and strong, stable party coalitions.

But beneath the Machiavellian surface of Adenauer’s statecraft was firm principle. “My impression,” Dean Acheson wrote of Adenauer, “was that his judgment was based on long-range views of purpose and consequences and not on immediate political convenience.” “Adenauer,” Walter Laqueur wrote, “had the self-confidence of a man whose formative years had been spent in a world less subject to uncertainties and self-doubt, the pre-1914 world.” Adenauer’s tall, thin figure and angular features, plus the “marble coolness” of his manner, no doubt contributed to his image, which was described variously (depending on whether one was friend or foe) as “paternalistic” or as that of “an old fox.” But the quiet, calculating, earnest old man had a sense of humor to match his sense of propriety: he used to hide the block of wood on which the short but stout Dr. Eugen Gerstenmaier, President of the Bundestag, stood to address the assembly.

Even with his firm principles and resolute character, Adenauer was keenly aware of the difficulties of Christians in politics. “Professional politics,” Adenauer told his biographer while still in office, “are not exactly favorable to a Christian. It is as though you were putting a staff into a pool of water. The deflection of the light rays will cause a perfectly straight staff to appear crooked and distorted.” Yet at the center of Adenauer’s understanding of his task was that the one thing needful for statesmen in our age is a clear recollection of our Christian heritage and a strong commitment of Christian principle. The struggle of our age, Adenauer said,

is essentially a conflict between Christianity and materialism. That is what the struggle is about, and this conflict also exists within the democracies. The modern technical world in which we live, with its movies, radio, and television, favors development toward a mass society, and this “man of the masses” will always incline toward materialism. To counterbalance this we need, in all countries, Christian parties which not only permeate political, social, and economic life with a Christian spirit, but over and above that aim at creating the essential conditions for a Christian existence of the individual.

It is well and right that we remember heroes of the war, but let us also remember and celebrate the heroes of the peace that followed.

  • Steven Hayward

    Steven Hayward is an American author, political commentator, and policy scholar. He argues for libertarian and conservative viewpoints in his writings. He writes frequently on the topics of environmentalism, law, economics, and public policy.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...