Konrad Adenauer:

Strong Leader and Principled Statesman

By Paul Shippy

Dr. Snyder

History of the Western World II

HIS 140 - 12:00 Section

April 19, 2005

Konrad Adenauer is called “one of the most gifted statesmen of modern times”[1] and is said to have accomplished a “titanic achievement,”[2] but most Americans today are unfamiliar with his life, even if they have heard his name. As the Chancellor of West Germany after World War II, Adenauer was very influential in restoring the German nation while joining with the West in the fight against communism. He had both the strong character and the right perspective to effectively lead the Federal Republic of Germany during the early Cold War.

Born in Cologne in 1876 as the son of a clerical civil servant, Konrad Adenauer grew up in humble circumstances.[3] Adenauer’s family was devoutly Catholic, so he became committed to the faith from an early age.[4] His father was a veteran of the Prussian wars, and he inculcated in his four children a strong sense of duty, which his youngest son, Konrad, would look back upon in his old age.[5] An unexceptional student as a child,[6] Adenauer was not very self-confident because, despite his work ethic, his grades were average.[7] After working as a bank apprentice, he decided to pursue a career in law.

In 1904, Adenauer married the daughter of a respected family in Cologne, Emma Weyer, which helped to launch his political career.[8] As a Catholic, he naturally joined the Center Party and began serving on the Cologne City Council in 1906.[9] But Adenauer’s life was changed dramatically in 1910 when he was informed that his wife was terminally ill.[10] She died in 1916 after bearing him three children, and the stress of taking care of his family while maintaining his career furthered the development of his strong, self-disciplined character.[11] When his late wife’s uncle resigned as Lord Mayor of Cologne, Adenauer was offered the job; the City Council, by an overwhelming vote, made him the youngest mayor in all of Prussia in 1917.[12] At age 41, Adenauer began to make his mark. Managing Cologne during the tumultuous end of the war was a test of character, and it transformed him from a diligent, unconfident young man to a self-assured, dominating leader.[13]

In the 1920s, Adenauer became a very influential leader in the newly-formed Weimar Republic, serving as President of the Prussian State Council. But his “fundamental federalist, Christian, and social convictions” along with “his republicanism”[14] made him an opponent of the Weimar’s adversaries, including Hitler’s Nazis. So he was banished from Cologne in 1933 and lived quietly off his pension during Hitler’s regime.[15] In 1944, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo in a concentration camp for several months as a suspected enemy of the regime until America liberated Germany from the Nazis.[16]

After World War II Germany was in dire need of leadership. Occupied by the Americans and then the British, the Western half of the nation was divided from the Eastern half, which was annexed by the Soviet Union.[17] The Americans reinstated Adenauer as Lord Mayor of Cologne, but the British dismissed him as incompetent.[18] While frustrated by the expulsion, he did not give up. For the next few years, he helped to found the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a new political party made up of a coalition of Catholics and Protestants.[19]

Adenauer’s political views were shaped by his experience of both Bismarck and Hitler. He was fiercely anti-nationalistic and anti-communistic, seeing worship of the state as the source of Germany’s downfall. As he stated in his memoirs:

For many decades, the German people had suffered from a wrong attitude to the state, to power, to the relationship between the individual and the state. They made an idol of the state and set it upon an altar; the individual’s worth and dignity had been sacrificed to this idol.[20]


These beliefs led him to the conclusion that West Germany must join the Christian West in order to survive the Eastern threat of communism. He was fully committed to integrating with the West by maintaining good relations with the United States and drawing closer to France.[21]

The CDU developed into a party with broad support, even embracing former Nazis with little hesitation.[22] Adenauer, the party leader, was elected President of the Parliamentary Council which was created by the allied powers to set forth the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), commonly known as West Germany.[23] Instrumental in the formation of the new nation, his fame increased and he was elected Chancellor at age 73.[24]

As Chancellor, his primary goal was Western integration. He argued that in order to restore German unity and defend the West from Soviet aggression, the FRG had to rearm itself under the confines of an Atlantic alliance. This argument convinced a majority of his countrymen and in 1954, he accomplished his goal in the London Declaration and Paris Agreements, where the FRG aligned with the Western powers militarily in exchange for the right to play a part in the West’s relations with Communist Europe.[25] Then, in 1955, the FRG regained total sovereignty when the Western occupation ended and four days later, the FRG joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[26]

Much of Adenauer’s success in diplomatic relations with the West can be credited to his strong relationship with the United States Secretary of State under Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles.[27] Adenauer and Dulles shared the same belief that a “policy of Western unity and firmness” was necessary in compelling Moscow to abandon its aggressive aims in Europe.[28] But Germany’s good relations with the United States did not last throughout Adenauer’s administration. President Kennedy’s willingness to negotiate over Berlin and even recognize the legitimacy of East Germany antagonized Adenauer and German-American relations were greatly damaged when Adenauer was accused of leaking private negotiations.[29]

In contrast, Germany’s relationship with France improved in the early 1960s. Adenauer began to aggressively seek ties with France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, who seemed to share his suspicions about the motives of the United States.[30] An agreement was signed in Paris in early 1963 that made the Franco-German friendship permanent, although Adenauer stressed that this was not a substitute for integration with the whole of Europe.[31]

Toward the end of his administration, Adenauer faced numerous difficulties besides the tension with the United States, including the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the illegal arrest of the editors of a leftist magazine under suspicion of treason in 1962.[32] Though he had survived many crises, his colleagues eventually grew tired of his style and forced his resignation in 1963 at the age of 87.[33]

Konrad Adenauer has been the subject of much scholarly debate. There are particular questions that are often discussed: Was he anti-Prussian? Did he appropriately handle relations with America toward the end of his administration? What is his general character? These are just a few of the many controversial questions about Adenauer.

Joseph Shattan describes the debate over Adenauer’s position on Prussia in his book, Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War. It is undisputed that Adenauer was a strong Catholic born into a time where the head of Protestant Prussia, Bismarck, saw the German Roman Catholic Church as a threat to unity. Some critics argue that the struggle “left Adenauer deeply embittered” against Prussia and caused him to be satisfied with East Germany (historic Prussia) under Soviet control.[34] Historian Paul Johnson says that Adenauer “had no trace of German racial feeling, no particle of respect for the Bismarckian state.”[35] German scholars Hoffmeister and Tubach argue that Adenauer was not really interested in reunifying East Germany with West: “Integration of West Germany into the West was achieved at the expense of Germany’s future reunification.”[36] However, as A. James McAdams points out, Adenauer’s argument was that an alliance with the West was the only hope for reunification.[37] Shattan strongly disputes the charge of anti-Prussianism by pointing out that Catholic Rhinelanders wanted “to reform the Prussian state, not leave it,” and also that Adenauer’s own father was “a proud veteran of Prussia’s wars.”[38]

As for relations with America, it is clear that Adenauer saw Kennedy’s willingness to negotiate over Berlin as a threat to reunification.[39] Adenauer had grown increasingly suspicious of the United States as both the Eisenhower and then the Kennedy administrations dealt with Khrushchev’s demands on the question of Berlin.[40]  But did Adenauer purposely distance himself from the Americans? In his article, “Kennedy and Adenauer,” Roger Morgan charges Adenauer’s colleagues with deliberately leaking German-American negotiations that revealed details of an American proposal of nonaggression with the Soviet Union.[41] But, as Shattan points out, Adenauer denied any wrongdoing and whoever was responsible ended up achieving Adenauer’s goal: Kennedy had to withdraw his proposal because of the ensuing uproar.[42] McAdams concludes, on the other hand, that Adenauer’s obstinate refusal to keep pace with the changes in U. S. foreign policy had brought the FRG dangerously close to a rupture in relations and damaged him politically.[43]

Finally, there is the question of his general character, or the effectiveness of his style. Hoffmeister and Tubach say that his style was a mixture of authoritarian control and grudging recognition of democratic institutions and that he was overcome by ambition toward the end of his rule.[44] McAdams calls him a haughty, aristocratic leader[45] who was completely unwilling to consider new options.[46] Historian Mary Fulbrook calls Adenauer’s chancellorship “high-handed” but acknowledges that he “essentially set the path for West Germany’s post-war development.”[47] Shattan considers him an anti-communist, anti-nationalist Christian, pointing to the care he showed to his dying wife as an example of his good character.[48] Richard von Weizsäcker, a later German politician, praises Adenauer as a “tough and plainspoken man, as skilled as he was power-conscious” who “helped our nation win worldwide respect.”[49] Finally, Johnson praises his life-long belief in the ideal of the family as the basic social unit and calls his 1946 speech “one of the most important in the post-war world.”[50]

The philosophy of Konrad Adenauer was clearly shaped by his upbringing. His strict father taught him duty while his family’s Catholicism taught him piety. Being raised in the Bismarckian state and enduring Hitler’s Nazi regime gave him a unique perspective on Germany’s strengths and weaknesses. He was both the strong leader Germany wanted, and the principled statesman Germany needed.

There is no doubt that Adenauer was a resolute leader. The son of a soldier, he developed self-determination during his early career, keeping order in Cologne by never backing down to the mutinous revolutionaries. But his strength was controlled by gentleness. His brother-in-law’s recollection of Adenauer’s care for Emma is poignant: “The way this man, overburdened with work as he was, stood by my sister during her illness was in my view a greater achievement than anything he’s ever done in politics.”[51] As Chancellor, Adenauer held firm in his convictions that Germany had to be connected with the West. He sought to demonstrate through resolve and democratic achievements that the East was no match for a united West.[52] This required him to be steadfast and unmovable in the face of mounting opposition even among his own people. He was no representative. He was a leader with strong opinions and he demonstrated that he had the power to enforce his objectives.

Strong leadership was not enough for Germany, however. They had a strong leader in Hitler. But Adenauer was different—vastly different. He represented a different kind of leader, a leader with true principle on his side. He recognized that both the nationalism of Hitler and the communism of Stalin represented an unhealthy worship of the state.[53] He presented the alternative view—that the state itself should be under the rule of law—which was probably his chief contribution to German political culture.[54] Committed to the virtues of his faith, he argued that “the Christian ethic must be the basis of the German community.”[55] Though he was diplomatically successful in bringing the FRG into the West politically, his greatest strength was his conservative outlook on life that brought the FRG closer to the West intellectually. Finally, he paved the way for the reunification of Germany on the side of freedom by ensuring that West Germany was not lost to communism.

Konrad Adenauer had his difficulties in life, enduring a Nazi concentration camp among the worst. He may not have always made the best decisions, and his “chancellor democracy” style may have made him arrogant. But his position in history is solid because his contributions were great. The German people, America, and the whole of Western Europe should be forever grateful for the vision and accomplishments of this hero of the Cold War.



Dill, Marshall Jr. Germany: A Modern History. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1970.


Fulbrook, Mary. A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Grabbe, Hans-Jurgen. “Konrad Adenauer, John Foster Dulles, and West German-American Relations” In John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War, edited by Richard H. Immerman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.


Hoffmeister, Gerhart and Frederic C. Tubach. Germany: 2000 Years Volume III: From the Nazi Era to the Present. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.


Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991.


Kleinmann, Hans-Otto. “Konrad Adenauer – Biography.” Konrad Adenauer Foundation. 24 May 2000. <http://www1.kas.de/stiftung/adenauer/lang-en.html> (19 April 2005).


McAdams, A. James. Germany Divided. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.


Morgan, Roger. “Kennedy and Adenauer” In John F. Kennedy and Europe edited by Douglas Brinkley and Richard T. Griffiths. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.


Shattan, Joseph, Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 1999.


von Weizsäcker, Richard. From the Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1999.


[1] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991), 584.


[2] Joseph Shattan, Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 1999), 130.


[3] Hans-Otto Kleinmann, “Konrad Adenauer – Biography,” Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 24 May 2000,  <http://www1.kas.de/stiftung/adenauer/lang-en.html> (19 April 2005).


[4] Shattan, 82-83.


[5] Ibid., 84.


[6] Kleinmann.


[7] Shattan, 84.


[8] Ibid.


[9] Shattan, 85.


[10] Ibid.


[11] Ibid., 85-86.


[12] Ibid., 86.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Kleinmann.


[15] Shattan, 94-95.


[16] Kleinmann.


[17] Shattan, 99.


[18] Gerhart Hoffmeister and Frederic C. Tubach Germany: 2000 Years, Volume III: From the Nazi Era to the Present (New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986), 100.


[19] Ibid.


[20] Shattan, 96.


[21] Marshall Dill, Jr. Germany: A Modern History (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1970), 445.


[22] Mary Fulbrook, A Concise History of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 221.


[23] Kleinmann.


[24] Ibid.


[25] A. James McAdams, Germany Divided (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 18-19.


[26] Shattan, 123.


[27] Hans-Jurgen Grabbe, “Konrad Adenauer, John Foster Dulles, and West German-American Relations,” in John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War, ed. Richard H. Immerman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 116.


[28] McAdams, 20-21.


[29] Roger Morgan, “Kennedy and Adenauer” in John F. Kennedy and Europe edited by Douglas Brinkley and Richard T. Griffiths (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999), 20-21.


[30] Ibid., 60.


[31] Dill, 463.


[32] Hoffmeister and Tubach, 101.


[33] Shattan, 128.


[34] Ibid., 83.


[35] Johnson, 580.


[36] Hoffmeister and Tubach, 102.


[37] McAdams, 19.


[38] Shattan, 83-84.


[39] Morgan, 20.


[40] Shattan, 124.


[41] Morgan, 21.


[42] Shattan, 127.


[43] McAdams, 65.


[44] Hoffmeister and Tubach, 101.


[45] McAdams, 32.


[46] Ibid., 54.


[47] Fulbrook, 212.


[48] Shattan, 85-86.


[49] Richard von Weizsäcker, From the Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1999), 125.


[50] Johnson, 581.


[51] Shattan, 86.


[52] McAdams, 10.


[53] Shattan, 96.


[54] Johnson, 585.


[55] Ibid., 581.