Across the West, we are witnessing political upheaval brought on by both the rise of populists and a loss of confidence among those who make up the alleged establishment. Even well-established republics are struggling against a deepening partisanship that has led many political leaders — and more than a few voters — to abandon the compromises of representative government and simply denounce opponents as evil or corrupt.
Tuesday, as we mark the 85th anniversary of one of history’s most portentous democratic failures, that of the Weimar Republic, we should not only remember the failure, but also appreciate the roles of those who both tried to save the republic and lived to restore German democracy.
Here the story of Konrad Adenauer offers both instruction and hope. A member of the German political establishment in the 1930s, he watched fellow conservatives abandon the republic in the name of order. He refused to go along and paid a price. When the nightmare years ended, however, Adenauer proved both willing and able to help reestablish a republican system, demonstrating a commitment to constitutional order that sets a strong example for the present.
Adenauer had already enjoyed a remarkable political career by the early 1930s. The son of a lower-level government official, he managed, through a combination of hard work, a smart marriage and good connections, to become, at 41, the youngest Lord Mayor of any major German City in September 1917. He guided Cologne through the challenges of the First World War and the political chaos of the aftermath and presided over major building and beautification projects. Political success gave him a national reputation; he made many shortlists for the job of chancellor during the 1920s.
The rise of the Nazis threw Adenauer’s political career into chaos. Although he had speculated about how his Catholic Center Party could win over Nazi voters, Adenauer had little use for the local Nazi bigwigs, who had long attacked him as a separatist and had even caricatured him with Semitic features to emphasize his unreliability as a political partner. He opposed Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and provoked Nazi complaints by ordering the removal of swastika flags from bridges in advance of a party rally (which included a visit by Hitler himself), claiming the local party did not acquire the necessary permits.
The stage was set for a collision between the two forces in the aftermath of Hitler’s ascension.
As a president of the Prussian Council of State, Adenauer took his first stand less than a week after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. He resisted a Nazi plan to dissolve the Prussian parliament and protested efforts to limit the access of other political parties to the press and radio in the upcoming national election campaign. Although outvoted, Adenauer was undeterred.
In the subsequent election campaign, Adenauer warned against growing extremism, calling Nazis and communists “two radical camps [that] stand facing each other,” leaving supporters of the republic in the embattled center. Adenauer especially warned of “those on the Right who are undermining the ideals of justice,” by “committing the worst sin that a person or a party can commit against the soul of the people” and allowing their desire for order to undermine the republic.
After the Nazis triumphed electorally, friends warned Adenauer the Nazis planned his arrest. Local police officials admitted they could not protect him, so Adenauer was forced to flee Cologne. In his pocket calendar, he marked that day with a simple cross.
As Nazi power grew, Adenauer found himself systematically excluded from the public life of his hometown. The Nazi Gauleiter declared to the Cologne city assembly no one of “honor, principles and purity” could protect Adenauer, and in what he dubbed a “cowardly betrayal,” his own party colleagues “could not even muster the courage to make a statement on my behalf.”
Despite repeated humiliations, Adenauer was fortunate in that he survived the Nazi years in relative comfort. He stayed out of active resistance politics, partially because of personal rivalries and partially because he was concerned about the safety of his sons who served in the Wehrmacht. Occasionally harassed by Nazi officials, and arrested several times, he narrowly escaped a death sentence in 1944.
Nearly 70 at the end of the war, Adenauer nonetheless accepted an invitation from the American army to return as mayor of Cologne and became a key figure in Germany’s political rebirth. He helped organize a new political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which attempted to reconstruct center-right politics within the new Federal Republic of Germany.
Even as he helped rebuild German democracy, Adenauer did not forget the actions of his erstwhile partners. He was especially critical of his fellow conservative Catholics, whose objections to social changes and distaste for political compromise led them to be complicit in the downfall of the Weimar Republic, as well as in the moral and political catastrophe that followed. As he put it in a letter, he was “deeply outraged” how “thanks to a completely baseless rejection of a true democracy and contrary to all their traditions they followed a criminal adventurer and thus [took] upon themselves a deep guilt before God.”
Adenauer’s personal experience reinforced his skepticism about human nature, but also led him to spend his postwar career working to help Germany atone for its historical guilt. His awareness of the dangers that come with rejecting western liberal values shaped his response to the postwar world. As president of the Parliamentary Council, he helped draft West Germany’s Grundgesetz (Basic Law). Elected the country’s first chancellor in 1949, he advocated a policy of Westbindung, pursuing alliances with western liberal democracies and working for European economic and political integration rather than pursuing narrow national interest.
Although he indulged in hard campaign rhetoric, Adenauer always worked within the republican system he helped restore. He retired in 1963, having helped the Federal Republic manage its democratic transition much more quickly and smoothly than many had expected, in large part because he worked to ensure that the forces that had undermined Weimar changed their focus to support the new republic.
Adenauer’s life offers crucial lessons for those who believe in constitutional government. One is that republics can only survive if those entrusted with office are willing to stand up for constitutional rules and norms. Allowing themselves to be swept away, either by party-political interest or a desire to placate a public clamoring for change at any cost, opens the door to worse upheaval. Those who later try to claim they did not intend the worst still have to bear the “deep guilt” Adenauer described.
At the same time, Adenauer learned standing against such popular enthusiasm can have personal and political costs. Even if unsuccessful, the willingness to pay that price displays an important commitment to constitutional government far beyond any pious proclamations. Finally, Adenauer’s acceptance of the responsibility to help restore a constitutional order once the opportunity presented itself reminds us there is nothing shameful about being part of the establishment — indeed a strong, functional establishment is essential to a stable constitutional order.
Reflecting on his long life, Adenauer told an interlocutor: “Falling down is neither a sin nor a shame. Refusing to get up is both.” After watching the failure of one German republic, he accepted the challenge of helping rebuild the next one, applying his expertise toward the creation of new stable institutions to preserve peace, prosperity and democracy. His personal commitment to the cause of constitutional government remains an inspiration, an example of the best way for citizens to respond to the seductive challenge of dictatorship.