In June, the controversial German historian Ernst Nolte was awarded the Konrad Adenauer prize. Many observers thought the distinction, supposed to honour those whose works "contribute to a better future", was wasted on a man best known for suggesting that the Holocaust was the result of a Hitlerian pre-emptive strike against a phantasmagoric Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. Adenauer, after all, was not only the first postwar German chancellor, but also the man who almost single-handedly set in motion the difficult and far from completed reconciliation with Israel. At the same time, however, Adenauer was a ferocious anti-communist and supporter of the Atlantic alliance: perhaps it is not so strange, after all, to see his name linked to historians such as Nolte, who were widely derided by leftwing critics in the 1980s as "Nato historians".
This new biography of Adenauer by Charles Williams went to press before this particular controversy erupted, and the book ends sharply with its subject's death in 1967: there is no discussion of Adenauer's protean legacy. It is, nevertheless, a highly readable and admirable book. The pace is judicious: Williams resists the temptation to fast-forward to the post-war apotheosis, but nor does he dwell more than necessary on Adenauer's rather colourless childhood.
Williams is, of course, only one of a long line of biographers, at least one of whom, the distinguished Hans-Peter Schwarz, has recently been published in English with the help of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. But Williams's study is more succinct and has the advantage of incorporating some of the Soviet material that has emerged since the end of the cold war. The author also - as we might expect from Lord Williams of the Elvel, a former Labour deputy leader in the upper house - has a good feel for the cut-and-thrust, as well as the nuance, of parliamentary politics.
Sometimes, admittedly, the style and homespun wisdom grate. We are assured that "honeymoons can end either in disaster or in increased love", that Adenauer's wife was "even in her mid-20s, well on the way to developing the physical characteristics of the placid German housewife", and we are helpfully told that "then as now, there were two semesters in a year". Perhaps more seriously, there are some interpretative weaknesses, for example when Williams misunderstands the distinction - well known to Adenauer - between the importance of Bavaria to the early development of National Socialism and the relatively low level of electoral support enjoyed there by the Nazi Party. There is also a smattering of insignificant factual errors.
But all this is a small price to pay for a tale well told. Williams takes us persuasively through Adenauer's unremarkable youth in the Catholic petit bourgeois milieu of pre-1914 Cologne. The description of his period as mayor during the first world war and after is particularly vivid. Adenauer, far from being a Centre Party time-server, quickly revealed himself as a visionary, responsible for the "green belt" around the city and for an imaginative, if sinfully expensive programme of infrastructural development. Moreover, as Williams shows, this profligacy was matched in his private finances. In the early 1930s, bankruptcy was only narrowly averted by the indulgence of Deutsche Bank and the generosity of wealthy friends. On two occasions, in 1921 and 1926, he was even offered the chancellorship of Germany, which he wisely refused.
Unlike many of his subsequent colleagues, Adenauer had taken a reasonably - though not consistently - robust line with the Nazis. He spent the period between 1933 and 1945 effectively in internal exile. In 1944 he was caught up in the general hysteria following the failed attempt on Hitler's life and briefly, if alarmingly, imprisoned. But, as Williams shows, Adenauer was by no stretch of the imagination a resister. In an embarrassing letter to the Reich's minister of the interior, Wilhelm Frick, he even tried to make peace with the regime. Adenauer also kept all attempts by the conspirators to involve him at arm's length, not least because he distrusted their garrulousness and incompetence.
The cataclysmic effects of defeat in 1944-45 changed the character of Germany for good. For the first time since 1870, Adenauer's petit bourgeois Catholicism and his increasingly strident Prussophobia were at a premium. Much of the old Germany was sidelined, even supplicant, in the new dispensation: for example, the east-Elbian aristocrats and the bruised and sometimes vengeful expellees. Many found a new home in the new Christian Democratic Union, which comprised not only the old Catholic Centre Party that Adenauer had led in Cologne, but also substantial elements of the Protestant middle class. As non-socialists they had nowhere else to go, unless they wanted to join the liberal FDP or fringe rightist parties. In some of the most interesting passages in the book, Williams shows how Adenauer triumphed over his rivals within the CDU and led his party to electoral victory and into government.
The principal credit for the West German economic miracle or Wirtschaftswunder should go to Ludwig Erhard, as Williams shows, following the historiographical orthodoxy. But Adenauer was certainly instrumental in the development of a new consensual form of federal politics that provided the context for unprecedented prosperity. Moreover, it was primarily thanks to Adenauer that Germany became and remained one of the most loyal members of Nato. He pressed for rearmament in 1955, in the face of massive opposition from public opinion across the political spectrum. This policy gives the lie to the enduring myth of Adenauer's congenital opportunism. He was also cautious to the point of inertia in the question of German unification, and firmly resisted Soviet attempts to lure him out of the western orbit with promises of a neutral but united Germany. His arch-rival, SPD leader and staunch nationalist Kurt Schumacher, dubbed him the "chancellor of the Allies". At the same time, as Williams shows, Adenauer initiated the long process of Wiedergutmachung (making good) with large payments to Israel: the attendance of David Ben Gurion at his requiem mass in 1967 was a testimony to his efforts in that regard. Finally, Adenauer was a central, though increasingly sceptical, figure in the early stages of European integration, of which reconciliation with France formed only a part.
Adenauer's Germany died three times. It died in 1968-69 with the students' revolt and its sustained attack on the values, politics and economics of the 1950s on which the "economic miracle" had been built, and with Willy Brandt's famous call to "risk more democracy". It died again in 1989-90, when the old Federal Republic transmogrified into a united Germany, more northern, more protestant, and more eastern. And it was finally laid to rest in 2000 when the financial scandals surrounding payments to the CDU brought down his political heir Helmut Kohl, and exposed the tangled web of financial impropriety and cronyism that has characterised Christian Democratic parties across Europe. But each time it died, Adenauer's Germany was reborn. It was the pragmatic spirit of Adenauer, not of Schumacher, that underlay Brandt's Ostpolitik after 1969 and the formal renunciation of what was unjustly, but irrevocably, lost. It was the euphoria of unification and the votes of the newly Christian-Democratic east that carried Kohl through much of the 1990s. And anybody tempted to write off the embattled CDU today would do well to remember the extraordinary resilience of a political culture that has weathered everything thrown at it since the Reformation.
Adenauer left an indelible mark on Germany. He helped to shape its staunchly federal character and almost unconditional support for the Atlantic alliance and the United States. He oversaw the start of the reconciliation with Israel, and the beginning of Germany's anchoring within the European process of integration. It was not the only Germany on offer, but it was far from the worst.
Brendan Simms is director of studies in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Adenauer: The Father of the New Germany
Author - Charles Williams
ISBN - 0 316 85298 8
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £30.00
Pages - 594