First chancellor Konrad Adenauer the father of modern German politics

Adenauer wanted a rebuilt Germany to strive for European unity and reconciliation

Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer in 1967. Photograph: Reuters

Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer in 1967. Photograph: Reuters


The roots of modern German politics don’t lie in the sandy soil of Berlin but in a white house on a hill in Rhöndorf, a pretty village across the Rhine from Bonn.

Every airy room in the 1930s villa is just as it was left by the man of the house: West Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In the hall, two black rotary phones, in the livingroom, hardback editions of Goethe, Schiller and The Forsyte Saga. Upstairs and down, each room contains at least one religious icon as well as a clock, testament to this Prussian civil servant’s son’s two life-long beliefs: Catholicism and punctuality.

Born in Cologne in 1876, Adenauer built his Rhöndorf home as a refuge when his resistance to the Nazis saw him ousted as mayor of his hometown in 1933. His death here in 1967 aged 91, just four years after retiring as a four-term chancellor, ended a political career that spanned Germany’s monarchy, dictatorship, war and democratic rebirth.

It was here in Rhöndorf that Adenauer pondered the political principles he later enacted in Bonn: western alignment, European unity and reconciliation with France and Israel. Around his home are mementos to each: paintings from Dwight Eisenhower and WSC – Winston Spencer Churchill; a silver-covered Hebrew bible from Israel after the first reparation payments in 1952.

European unity
In the back garden, statues of Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle recall the September 1962 visit of the French president to discuss Franco-German co-operation, enshrined four months later in the 1963 Elysée treaty. In this heartfelt endeavour and another, the push for European unity, Adenauer kept moving forward despite the setbacks of daily politics.

“He had a typical Rhineland nature: firm commitment to principles and his end goal, but with room to manoeuvre on the way to get there,” says Dr Corinna Franz, manager of the foundation that manages the Adenauer house, the adjacent museum and archive.

De Gaulle’s visit was a rare political intrusion into Adenauer’s Rhöndorf refuge. Another was the meeting a week after West Germany’s first general election in 1949 by leaders of the victorious Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which Adenauer headed.

Though many favoured a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), Adenauer pressed through his preference for a regular coalition with the smaller Free Democrats (FDP). His aims: to strengthen the political centre of the young Bonn democracy and anchor its philosophy of social market economy by which, as Adenauer never tired of explaining, business should serve people and not people business.

Bonn republic
To walk around Rhöndorf is to step back in time to Adenauer’s Bonn republic, where tradition and prosperity fit together like the sports cars parked outside half-timbered houses.

You don’t have to go far here to find Adenauer fans. Like Karl-Josef Jakobs, born in 1929 and a lifelong friend of the ex-chancellor’s son. A CDU member since 1952, he pulls out a photograph of him congratulating a typically austere Adenauer on his 90th birthday.

Mr Jakobs said Adenauer employed his “mask of a melancholic Mongol”, hiding his cheery Rhineland nature, to advance his political ends. In that he sees a parallel to today’s CDU leader, Angela Merkel, whose sober public image hides her humorous private self.

Mr Jakobs has little time for Berlin’s chattering classes who complain Merkel has sacrificed the CDU’s traditional values to chase floating voters in the political centre. The first CDU leader was no different. “He always liked to say, ‘What interest do I have in yesterday’s claptrap?’,” remembers Mr Jakobs. “What was right for Adenauer one day wasn’t necessarily the right thing the next.”

Adenauer, dubbed the “Old Man of Rhöndorf”, never saw his CDU as a traditional conservative party but a broad-based centre-right political force that changed with the times. Why else, Mr Jakobs asks, have they allowed a divorced, East German pastor’s daughter assume the leadership – and stay there for 13 years?

“Merkel is good but we won’t see the likes of Adenauer again,” said Mr Jakobs. “He wasn’t the most intelligent, but he was by far the most the most shrewd, a real visionary for Germany’s reconstruction.”

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