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 made the most of it by the energy with which he threw himself into his work. In 1909, when the position of first deputy to the mayor fell vacant, the Center Party successfully pushed Adenauer for the job.

By this time Germany was rushing toward war. Later in life Adenauer was to say that “the 1914–1918 war was…brought about by the stupidity of everyone,” but Williams finds no evidence that he feared the coming of the conflict or was particularly percipient about the special problems that it would pose for Cologne. It was only after the fighting had begun, and after the mayor, who believed in keeping a low profile and delegating difficult jobs to others, had placed the organization of the city in the hands of his first deputy, that Adenauer was inspired to set about creating a cross-party alliance of Social Democrats, Centrists, and Liberals to run the city during the conflict.

This arrangement—the first of many that Adenauer would negotiate in his long career—and the diplomatic skill and stubbornness that enabled him to preserve it during the hardest days of the war enhanced his reputation, and in September 1917, after the mayor had gone to Berlin to become under-secretary of state in the Ministry of the Interior, the Cologne city council elected Adenauer as his successor by fifty-two out of a possible fifty-four votes. It was a position that he was to hold until 1933.

For Adenauer and for Cologne the first months of his tenure were a difficult time. After bearing him three children, his wife died of cancer at the end of 1916, and he had to face the myriad problems caused by the collapse of the German army and the end of the war without the support she had always provided. In the immediate wake of the war the city was threatened by the annexationist ambitions of Marshal Foch and a separatist movement of local politicians and journalists who advocated a Rhenish Republic. Adenauer, whose attitude toward such a new state, Williams writes, “fluctuated in inverse proportion to his perception of the French threat,” had to maneuver between them, while cultivating the support of the British occupying power. This was a difficult game, and in later years he was often accused of having been a separatist in 1919.


Even more difficult was the task of rebuilding the city to conform to the demands of the postwar settlement. To this the new mayor responded boldly by carrying out an extensive plan that replaced the city’s outer fortifications with a “green belt,” expanded its port facilities so that Cologne became the main port of exit to the North Sea, built up a vast new industrial area on the right side of the Rhine, and established a new university to compete with Bonn. Important parts of this master plan were bitterly opposed by special interests and successfully carried through only by the mayor’s patience and sense of timing and by the ingenuity in devising expedient solutions that was to become the mark of his career after 1945.

These political gifts were powerless to influence the horrendous inflation that overwhelmed Germany in 1923 as a consequence of the reparations crisis, the French invasion of the Ruhr, and the national government’s resort to a policy of passive resistance. While the savings of the German middle class were wiped out, Adenauer concentrated on seeing that his city continued to receive the basic necessities of life. This he did by making deals with friends in the business world to procure coal and food supplies and by negotiating with the British occupation authorities to ensure that they reached the city. It is clear that (not for the last time) he concealed much of what he was doing from the public eye and even from the city council. Williams writes that he “acted in public almost as a dictator,” but adds that the task he had set himself was, on the whole, accomplished.

Almost from the beginning of his term, Adenauer was a national as well as a local figure. In 1921 and again in 1926, the moderate conservative Center Party put his name forward as a possible candidate for the chancellorship, although he failed to be nominated the first time, Williams writes, because his demands for authority were excessive and offended all of the parties involved, the second time because the Socialists and Gustav Stresemann’s German People’s Party refused to support him. Between 1921 and 1933, however, Adenauer was president of the Prussian State Council, the upper house of the parliament of Germany’s largest state, and this gave him an excellent opportunity to keep in touch with national affairs.

Even so, most of his energies were concentrated on Cologne, and here, after the problems of the inflation period were overcome, he enjoyed five years of relative relaxation and productive work. This was followed, however, by the Great Depression in 1930, which not only involved Cologne in new financial difficulties as a consequence of having to repay short-term dollar loans and of the sharply rising bill for welfare payments but also wiped out Adenauer’s considerable personal wealth because of bad investments. Forced to appeal to Berlin for aid for his city, he had to deal with a new chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, and the two, Williams writes, although sharing membership in the Center Party, did not much take to each other. Brüning in any case was bent on a policy of retrenchment that made no provision for cities that were seeking handouts. Adenauer did not get the aid he sought. Instead, as Cologne’s fiscal problems worsened, he found himself confronted with a serious diminution of his local support, for in the Reichstag elections of September 1930, the main beneficiary was the hitherto underestimated National Socialist Party, which now launched an all-out attack on the mayor, concentrating on his contacts with the Jewish community in Cologne, including his support for the emigration of German Jews to Palestine. This onslaught continued without let-up until Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, after which Adenauer was stripped of his office and driven into retirement.

Williams makes clear that Adenauer did not understand Hitler, having always regarded communism as the real threat to the kind of Germany he believed in. Indeed, in December 1932, in the last days of the Weimar Republic, he wrote a letter to the head of the Center Party saying that the most urgent issue was to see that “entry of the National Socialists into the Reich government [was] resolved in a positive sense.” Williams writes:

As President of the Prussian Staatsrat, Adenauer was prepared to encourage the formation of a Nazi-led Prussian government, headed by Göring, as a testing ground for a Nazi-led Reich government, headed by Hitler.

Whatever his motives (Williams suggests that he was concerned about his personal financial difficulties and was prepared to support any political combination that would let him keep his job), the scales soon fell from his eyes. Once Hitler was in power, the essential brutality of his policies revealed itself and Adenauer recognized it for what it was. He realized also that his prominence probably put his life in danger and resolved to live as unobtrusively as possible, foreswearing all political activity. In particular, as the years passed, he had no contacts with the resistance movement. When Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig and an active conspirator against Hitler, sought to enroll him, he refused to see him. It was clear enough, nevertheless, that he was on somebody’s blacklist, for he was twice arrested by the Gestapo for brief periods, in 1935 and again, with his second wife, in 1944, after the bomb plot.


Politics continued to be much on his mind during these twelve years of personal abstention from it. Williams has a fascinating passage in which he describes Adenauer studying the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, which defined the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward the social and political questions of the day. Adenauer, he writes, was seeking a theoretical and authoritative underpinning for the practical policies that he intended to espouse in the future. It is clear also that, particularly during the years of Hitler’s war, he spent a lot of time thinking about Germany’s future, which he was the first to realize must be governed by different principles and policies than in the past.


Despite his advanced age, therefore, he resumed his life in public affairs as soon as the occupying powers authorized a new beginning for party politics in Western Germany. After some hesitation, the Western Allies made it clear that they favored him over the courageous but doctrinaire Socialist Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). More important in advancing his new political career, in Adenauer’s own opinion, was the alliance that he negotiated between his own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the more conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria, for it was this coalition that won the parliamentary elections of 1949 and made his chancellorship possible.1

In his first years as head of the government, he left problems of economic policy to his colleague Ludwig Erhard, whose plan for a free market economy was registering its first successes, while he concentrated on foreign affairs. From the beginning his policy was revolutionary, for he was convinced that the old Europe of national states was no longer relevant to the needs and hopes of the postwar generation and that there could be no European great powers in the old sense of the word. His goal was the integration of Western Europe, and during his first visit to the United States in 1953 he made this clear at a luncheon at the National Press Club, when he said:

Every historical epoch has its own tasks. In Europe every single rational argument points toward a united advance at the end of which there will one day be the United States of Europe. No one has better understood this than the young people of our continent.

In the years between 1949 and 1954 Adenauer held before the German people the vision of a new European order, which would be founded on the twin pillars of the European Coal and Steel Community and a European Defense Community with German membership. That this captured the imagination of the electorate is attested by the magnitude of Adenauer’s victory in the elections of 1953, in which, with a turnout of nearly 86 percent of the electorate, the CDU/CSU won 45.2 percent of the vote to 28.8 percent for the SPD. The campaign was marred by the kind of vicious personal attacks on his opponents that were becoming increasingly characteristic of the chancellor’s political style, including, on this occasion, his entirely uncorroborated charge that two prominent Socialist leaders had been aided by a 10,000 Deutschmark subvention from the German Democratic Republic. Such tactics were hardly necessary to assure the result. Nor was the unprecedented intervention by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who, concerned by the outbreak of the Korean War, and believing that Adenauer would be readier than his Socialist opponent to supply a troop contingent for the Western forces, said at a press conference that a defeat for Adenauer “would have catastrophic consequences for the prospects for German unification and the restoration of sovereignty.”

Adenauer’s hope of European integration suffered a serious setback in 1954, when the French Assembly refused to approve of the European Defense Community. This left the chancellor greatly embittered, and in a conversation overheard by a reporter of Der Spiegel he expressed the fear that the French rejection would lead to a revival of nationalism and militarism in Germany. Not only was his view exaggerated, but the British and American governments persuaded the French government to agree to the admission of West Germany to NATO as a member with full sovereign rights. This would, in other circumstances, have been regarded as a diplomatic triumph of the first order, and a Swiss newspaper pointed out that, when one considered the state of Germany in 1949, it was almost impossible to believe what had been accomplished since then and that no more remarkable feat of statecraft could be imagined than Adenauer’s transformation of his country “into a partner no longer dictated to but wooed—and all this by means of a consistently pro-Allied policy.”2 But to many Germans these accomplishments threatened to postpone national unification indefinitely and to impose on West Germany military costs that were excessive.

During the Bundestag debate on the ratification of the NATO treaty, Adenauer sought to persuade his critics that a policy of strength based on rearmament and the Western tie would eventually persuade the Soviets that reunification was inevitable. This was farsighted but injudicious; when the chancellor went to Moscow in 1955, he found that his hosts were contemptuous when he tried to raise the question. Indeed, in order to assure the release of ten thousand prisoners of war still held by the Russians, Adenauer had to agree to the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic and the Soviet Union, an agreement that annoyed his allies because it augured an eventual recognition of the German Democratic Republic.

That this was no idle fear became apparent in the wake of the Suez and Hungarian crises of 1956, which in different ways showed the Western powers to be inept and ineffectual. This heartened the Soviets to make a grab at Berlin, and in November 1958 Nikita Khrushchev sent a note to London, Paris, and Washington informing them that Berlin’s four-power status had come to an end and that a new status for the city must be negotiated within six months or the Soviet Union would conclude a separate treaty with the German Democratic Republic. Khru-shchev’s ultimatum brought about a crisis that was to last until 1962 and that was to show Adenauer both at his worst and at his best. During its course he came to distrust all of his allies, often on wholly insufficient grounds. He was sure that Dulles, in his last days, wanted a nuclear war, that Harold Macmillan was “stupid” and too amenable to Soviet blandishments, that John Kennedy, whom he called “a cross between a junior naval person and a Roman Catholic boy scout,” was not keeping him informed of his exchanges with Moscow. In the end he convinced himself that only Charles de Gaulle could be trusted, and in January 1963 he concluded a treaty with the French leader that he henceforth regarded as the best guarantee of the future of Europe.

That Berlin was not lost during this difficult period was owing to a number of complicated factors. One of them was De Gaulle’s unwavering refusal to negotiate under the pressure of ultimatums, which prevented the Western powers from agreeing on a policy of concessions to the Soviet Union. Much also depended on the actions of Khrushchev: his breaking up of the summit of 1960, which might have given him most of what he wanted in Berlin, including control of the city by the East German regime; his decision in August 1961 to settle for half of what he wanted by authorizing the building of the Berlin Wall; and his subsequent mistake in abandoning a strategy concentrated on Germany and becoming involved in the Cuban missile adventure.

Yet if these were the determinative factors, Adenauer’s role was far from unimportant. As Williams’s account makes clear, he contributed to the final result of maintaining control of West Berlin by stubborn opposition to and detailed criticism of all Allied plans for meeting the Soviets halfway, by the production of elaborate but generally impractical solutions of his own, consideration of which slowed down the negotiations, and perhaps also by hints that he might meet with Khrushchev himself if worst came to worst, which would have greatly alarmed his allies.


Meanwhile, Adenauer continued to dominate the domestic scene; the national elections of 1957 were a greater success for him than those of 1953. Thanks to an economy that was growing at a rate of 7 percent a year and an enormously popular reform increasing old-age pensions, the turnout measured 87 percent, and the CDU/CSU polled 50.2 percent of the total. It was the first time that a single party had won an outright majority in German electoral history, and Williams writes that “at the age of eighty-one [Adenauer] was almost the uncrowned king of Germany.”

This, however, was his last triumph. The elections of 1961 came immediately after the building of the Wall, to which the chancellor’s reaction was inappropriate in manner and disastrous in result. In sharp contrast to his opponent Willy Brandt, he refused to go to Berlin to make a public protest against the Soviet action and continued to campaign as if nothing extraordinary had happened, meanwhile making offensive personal attacks upon Brandt that were much resented in the country. In the elections of September 17, 1961, the CDU/CSU vote fell sharply, and its majority was lost. Forming a new government proved to be difficult, and before it was accomplished the chancellor had to promise the leader of his Free Democratic allies that he would step down in two years’ time or at least before the next elections in 1965.

All the available evidence indicates that he hoped to find a way of circumventing this promise. But in October 1962, the journal Der Spiegel published an article revealing some of the details of a secret NATO staff exercise showing that civil defense arrangements would be inadequate in case of war; and Adenauer’s defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, backed by the chancellor, foolishly brought charges of treason against its editors. The convolutions of this affair, which outraged the country and left the cabinet in ruins, lasted until April, but the result was that on the 23rd of that month the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in effect dismissed Adenauer from office by choosing Ludwig Erhard as his successor.

This had to be done, as Williams writes. With every succeeding year the Old Man had become increasingly unreliable and disingenuous. But what was to be remembered as his political allies let him go was that Konrad Adenauer had made the party that dismissed him the dominant force in German politics and, more important, that his long tenure of office had provided the West Germans with a sense of continuity and stability as well as the time to become used to democratic institutions and to learn how to make them work. The title of Williams’s excellent book is fully justified.

This Issue

November 1, 2001