Founding Father

Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer; drawing by David Levine


In the fall of 1944, in the wake of the bomb plot against Hitler, Konrad Adenauer was arrested by the Gestapo on the mistaken assumption that he had been an accomplice and was taken to a prison at Brauweiler. After he had been deprived of his braces, shoe laces, necktie, and pocket knife, and put in a narrow unheated cell, the warden said to him, “Now please do not commit suicide. You would cause me no end of trouble. You’re seventy years old and your life is over anyway.”

In the circumstances this was a not unreasonable remark, and the warden would have been astonished had he been able to guess the truth. For his prisoner had almost twenty years of active political life before him, during which time he was to serve as chancellor of Germany for two years longer than Adolf Hitler, to contribute largely to the overcoming of the traumatic effects of the Führer’s reign, and to transform West Germany from a beaten foe to a respected ally.

The accomplishments of Adenauer’s old age were indeed so extraordinary that they have tended with the passage of time to obscure everything that went before, leaving the impression that it was unimportant and irrelevant to his late triumphs. It is not the least of the merits of Charles Williams’s biography that he does not make this assumption, but sets himself the task of demonstrating that Adenauer’s tenure as mayor of Cologne between 1917 and 1933 was the school in which he developed the talents that were so conspicuously successful in his postwar career.

Konrad Adenauer was born in Cologne in January 1876, the third son of a father who had served for fifteen years in the Prussian army and been decorated for bravery at Königgrätz, and who had then risen to become a senior clerk in the Prussian judicial service. His sons grew up in an atmosphere of discipline and deep Roman Catholic religious faith, which in Konrad’s case was a principal source of the inveterate self-assurance that marked him from his earliest years. He was educated in the law at Freiburg, Munich, and Bonn, and in 1902 won a position as junior prosecutor in the state prosecutor’s office in Cologne.

In the same year he met Emma Weyer, the daughter of a prosperous, well-established family, whom he married two years later. It was a happy marriage, but it made him increasingly discontented with his modest and badly paid position as a lawyer, and in 1906, when an opening occurred in the city government, he applied for it, despite his complete lack of political experience. What Williams calls his “effrontery” worked; aided by his growing reputation as an eloquent and combative trial lawyer and the influence of his wife’s family connections, Adenauer was elected by the city council. This marked a decided improvement in his financial and social position, and he…

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