This circumstance has inspired rants against a range of evils, from the tyranny of the baby boomers to the failures of parties to promote young talent. But the gist of many complaints is the fear that an older leader, even one who can attract young voters, may suffer age-related mental decline and confusion or be too embedded in the establishment to provide creative leadership in a crisis. Yet, the example of Konrad Adenauer, who became first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany at age 73, may be instructive and reassuring.
Adenauer, who was chancellor until age 87, shaped West German politics and Germany’s relationship with the wider world more than any other single person. Although far from perfect, his willingness to put his experience at the disposal of his country in its hour of need offers a model of service that other senior leaders can emulate, even as his eventual reluctance to prepare an exit plan should remind them of the need to plot a better transition. Most of all, however, Adenauer’s willingness to consider creative solutions to age-old problems should remind us the best thing an older leader can do is help his fellow citizens move in new directions.
Adenauer had a long political career behind him by the time he became chancellor in 1949. Born in 1876 in the Rhineland metropolis of Cologne, he rose through the city’s political machine to become the youngest big-city mayor in Germany by 1917. He led Cologne through war and economic crisis, working across party lines to create large public works and infrastructure projects. As a nationally recognized leader of the Catholic Centre Party, he nearly became chancellor during the Weimar Republic.
High national office did not appeal to Adenauer, who was more dedicated to Cologne, and his career seemed doomed in the spring of 1933, when the triumphant Nazis expelled him from both the mayor’s office and the city altogether. Spending his time puttering in his rose garden with his wife and children, Adenauer avoided direct participation in any of the plots against Hitler. That did not, however, keep him from being rounded up among the regime’s enemies in August 1944, leading to a harrowing escape from a Gestapo prison camp.
After the war, Adenauer gained a second political life thanks to American occupying forces, who reinstalled him in Cologne city hall. After disagreements with the British cost him that job, the widowed Adenauer became more intensely involved in party politics. He helped to found the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the Rhineland and emerged as one of its leaders in the provincial assembly. His age and experience, so valuable in a situation where so many adults in prime political age were either compromised by Nazism or killed in the war, allowed him to advance quickly. After chairing the Parliamentary Council that drafted the West German Basic Law and leading the CDU in the 1949 election, he convened a meeting of party leaders to plan a new government coalition, claiming his doctor said he could handle the job for at least a year or two.
As the head of a center-right coalition, Adenauer displayed an energy that belied his years, presiding over the consolidation of West German democracy. Reelected by a substantial margin in 1953, he then led the CDU and its coalition partners to a landslide victory in 1957. While Adenauer could be relentless in his criticisms of electoral rivals, he embraced the importance of democratic electoral norms. He used his reputation and experience to encourage belief in the potential of the Federal Republic to serve the needs of the German people and help in its rehabilitation after years of war and genocide. By 1961, the Federal Republic had developed into a stable democracy, avoiding the fragmentation that had plagued the previous effort at German democracy in the 1920s.
Adenauer was a conservative Catholic, but his combination of tactical flexibility and commitment to enduring ideals managed to merge this conservatism with creativity. He sold his fellow citizens on the need for a new path, rejecting simplistic nationalism and Germany’s traditional “seesaw policy” between East and West and embracing close cooperation with the West (Westbindung).
Understanding Western skepticism of Germany after decades of aggression, Adenauer pursued integration of the Federal Republic into the West, allowing Germans to demonstrate their commitment to democracy and gradually break down the fear and suspicion that Germany had earned.
Domestically, Adenauer embraced the social market economy, combining free enterprise with a generous welfare state, in cooperation with his popular Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard. This decision both encouraged economic recovery and defused the social tensions that had doomed German democracy in the 1930s. Ironically, he packaged his creative leadership in traditional garb, reflecting and profiting from the cautious sentiments of a deeply scarred German electorate. The CDU’s landslide win in 1957 was the product of all the changes Adenauer had wrought, but his main campaign slogan, which emphasized the need not to risk what had been accomplished, was profoundly conservative: Keine Experimente! [No Experiments]
Even as he succeeded in building both his party and the West German political system, however, Adenauer fell prey to the temptations that beckon all successful political leaders. He never shed an authoritarian streak when dealing with recalcitrant members of his party and his own painful life experiences left him deeply skeptical about the character of his fellow Germans. In a famous late-night conversation during 1955 debates about admitting the Federal Republic to NATO, Adenauer urged his European colleagues to “make use of the time while I am still here” to integrate the Germans into the West. If not, he sighed, “My God, who knows what will become of Germany!”
Without term limits, Adenauer became over-convinced of his indispensability and bristled at the suggestion he make way for his designated successor, the popular but far less aggressive Erhard. By staying on too long, Adenauer had an increasingly difficult time relating to world leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, who was nearly half his age. He eventually agreed to step down as chancellor in October 1963, though his subsequent meddling as CDU chair (a job he held until past his 90th birthday!) undermined Erhard. Yet the ability of the Federal Republic to survive Adenauer’s latter years and continue on the democratic path was ultimate proof of Der Alte’s accomplishment.
When Adenauer died in April 1967, he lay in state in Cologne Cathedral before his remains were taken upriver to a cemetery in Rhöndorf as mourners lined the banks and bridges along the way. Born in the age of the Kaiser, a survivor of the Nazi dictatorship, he left behind a new, democratic Germany, willing and able to play a constructive role in the modern world.
Adenauer’s example illuminates the possibilities and perils of an older leader. Pundits should not assume a septuagenarian president will be inflexible or ineffective due to their age. Indeed, Adenauer’s age and experience made him the leader Germany needed at a time of profound transformation and uncertainty. What matters is how a leader uses the confidence and respect that age and experience can bring.
Adenauer used his confidence to encourage political debate within republican institutions, rather than play to public anger or cynicism. As much as he relished campaigning, he also devoted his efforts to the hard quotidian work of governing, which meant being open both to creative solutions for serious problems and to negotiating with political rivals to achieve results. He also assembled a team of talented younger politicians to turn political ideas into practical reality. His biggest failure, which should also be instructive for presumptive presidents, was his reluctance to embrace and promote a clear successor who could carry on his work once the time came to step aside. An older leader can be the person of the hour, but should also know when the hour has come to let the next generation take the lead.