Der Alte

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus said in Matthew 22.  But what do you do when Caesar is Hitler?  And before that, an unpredictable German Kaiser named Wilhelm?

It would take a remarkable man to maintain his sanity, let alone be a just leader in the middle of chaotic regimes in the country largely held responsible for both world wars.  Konrad Adenaur (1875-1967) was that.

TIME Magazine Cover: Konrad Adenauer -- Dec. 5, 1949

Adenaur served as mayor of the city of Cologne during both war eras, and as West Germany’s first chancellor in the 1950s and 60s.  When he left that post, he was 87 years old.  His nickname, “Der Alte,” means “The Elder.”

Though I was in high school the year of his death, I don’t remember studying about him.  When I to college for a teaching degree in the 80s and took a world history course,  I read his biography.  All I could think of was, “How could anyone keep going through all that?”

Image result for konrad adenauer

Adenaur had a pleasant childhood.  He was born in the Victorian Era to civil servants.  His Roman Catholic family taught him well, and throughout his long life he was committed to his faith.

When he married, it was into a wealthy family.  He studied law, had the opportunity to vie for new political positions, had three children, and was appointed mayor of Cologne in 1917.  But not before tragedies came: his wife died and he was involved in a horrific car accident which changed his facial features permanently.

During World War 1 he managed the food supply for the city and for the troops.  After the Kaiser abdicated, he filled leadership roles of the new Weimar Republic.  At first, it seemed to be going well.  But the U.S  stock market crash’s ripple effect on Germany was disastrous.  Coal and iron mines were shut down and  printing presses made more paper money, which became worthless.

In 1933 the Enabling Act gave Adolph Hitler absolute rule over the country.  The Nazis tried to arrest Adenaur during World War 2, but he hid for many months in a monastery.  When they did put him in prison, they confiscated his leg braces.  He managed to hobble home without them at his release.

The Cologne Cathedral stands in the background of the city’s ruins after World War 2.

At the top of the list of “untainted politicians,” Adenaur once again became Cologne’s mayor.  But he clashed with British military leadership and was dismissed.  The Christian Democratic Union was formed in 1946; he was elected chancellor in 1949.  By one vote.  And he held the position for the next 14 years.

During postwar reconstruction he worked to restore relations with France and the US, and the economy, balancing relations between labor and management.  In 1953 he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.  He’d led his country back to “moral respectability,” the editors said.

Adenauer wanted to swap West Berlin

Critics would say he opposed the reunification of Germany after it divided into East and West.  He said this was the responsibility of the government who caused the split, not his.

In a TV segment which may be viewed on YouTube, an interviewer asks Adenaur why he had become good friends with John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  “He tells the truth,” was the reply.

Image result for cologne germany

Cologne today as seen from the Rhine River.

Sometimes it is not apparent there are leaders who make decisions with integrity.  Their counterparts often get the headlines.  But throughout history, if we look, we can see some like “The Elder,” who personified persistence, through loss and hardship, to help the whole of mankind.

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