Konrad Adenauer

Germany’s First Federal Chancellor

Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) was the first chancellor of West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany), an office he held for 14 years – an era in which the country recovered from the Nazi dictatorship, built up Europe’s strongest economy, dealt with the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, and gained a leading role in Europe.

JFK Brandt Adenauer 1963

President John F. Kennedy with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (right) and Mayor Willy Brandt of Berlin (center) during Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Germany and the Berlin Wall. PHOTO: Cecil W. Stoughton, jfklibrary.org

Adenauer as Mayor of Cologne
Adenauer studied law in Freiburg i.B., Munich, and Bonn. In 1906 he was elected to the Cologne city council. In 1917 he became mayor of Cologne (Köln). In that position Adenauer was responsible for many improvements to the city and the reestablishment of the university. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Adenauer refused to cooperate and he was put out of office. After several arrests, he was sent to a concentration camp in 1944. After the war the Americans restored him as mayor of Cologne in May 1945, but the British removed him from office in September when they assumed control of the city. However, Adenauer was by then active in the CDU party he had helped found. He became West Germany’s first chancellor, winning by just one vote on Sept. 15, 1949.

As chancellor, Adenauer worked to strengthen German foreign policy and ties with the US and France in particular. He became a respected world leader and pushed Germany’s membership in NATO and the EEC (later the European Union). After resigning as chancellor in 1963, he remained the head of the CDU until 1966. Adenauer died at his villa in Rhöndorf near Bonn in 1967.

Adenauer and the Autobahn
Konrad Adenauer’s name also belongs to another key historic event: the dedication of Germany’s very first autobahn. As Cologne’s mayor, Adenauer headed the ceremonies for the opening of the Cologne-Bonn autobahn in 1932. Construction had begun in 1929 and was completed in the summer of 1932. Mayor Adenauer opened the new 20 km (12 mi) superhighway on August 6 with the words: “So werden die Straßen der Zukunft aussehen.” (“This is how the roads of the future will look.”) Today this segment is part of the A555 autobahn. (No, Hitler did not invent the autobahn!)

Konrad Adenauer Timeline

  • 1876: Konrad Hermann Josef Adenauer is born January 5 in Cologne as the third of five children of the Catholic lawyer Konrad Adenauer and his wife Helene, nee Scharfenberg.
  • 1894-1901: Studies law in Freiburg, Munich, and Bonn.
  • 1904: Marries Emma Weyer. Three children from the marriage: Konrad, Max und Ria.
  • 1905: Becomes a member of the German Center Party (Deutsche Zentrumspartei).
  • 1906: Elected city councilman (Beigeordneter) in Cologne (Köln).
  • 1915: Adenauer patents his recipe for Kölner Brot (“Cologne bread”).
  • 1916: Death of his wife Emma.
  • 1917: Elected mayor (Oberbürgermeister) of Cologne.
  • 1919: On 29 September Adenauer marries Auguste (Gussie) Zinsser. Children: Ferdinand, Paul, Lotte, Libeth and Georg.
  • 1932: Mayor Adenauer presides over opening ceremonies for the Cologne-Bonn autobahn, the world’s first, on August 6.
  • 1933: In February Adenauer refuses to receive Hitler during a campaign visit to Cologne and has Nazi flags removed from the Deutzer bridge. In March Adenauer leaves the city and the Nazis announce his removal from office.
  • 1934: The Nazis arrest Adenauer but release him two days later.
  • 1944: After the attempted assassination of Hitler in July, Adenauer is arrested and put in a concentration camp.
  • 1945: Restored as mayor of Cologne by the Americans in May; removed from office by the British in October when they assume control of the city, which is in the British occupation zone.
  • 1946: Adenauer becomes a founder and leader of the Rhineland CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party in the British zone.
  • 1948: On 3 March Adenauer’s second wife Auguste dies.
  • 1949: The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, “die Bundesrepublik Deutschland” in German) is founded on 23 May, comprising the three western Allied occupation zones. Adenauer chaired the convention that formulated the new German constitution (Grundgesetz).
  • 1949: In August 1949 Adenauer is elected as a representative (CDU) in the German Bundestag (parliament). In September Konrad Adenauer becomes the first Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) of the FRG, winning office by just one vote. He is now 73 years old.
  • 1949: On 7 October the German Democratic Republic (GDR, “die Deutsche Demokratische Republik” in German) comes into being, comprising the Soviet occupation zone and East Berlin.
  • 1949-1963: Konrad Adenauer will hold the office of Bundeskanzler for 14 years until his resignation in 1963. He was re-elected three times (1953, 1957, 1961).
  • 1952: On 27 March a package bomb addressed to Adenauer explodes in a Munich police station, killing a police official. The bomb and the failed assassination attempt are later linked to a radical Jewish group known as Irgun, but this connection was hushed up by both Israel and West Germany, as neither wanted the matter to become public. No one ever stood trial for the crime (or for two other later attempts).
  • 1955: On 5 May, almost ten years after the the end of the war, Konrad Adenauer declares the end of the “Besatzungszeit” (“occupation period”) and West Germany is now a fully sovereign state.

“No experiments!” Konrad Adenauer on a 1957 election campaign poster.
PHOTO: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

  • 1957: Konrad Adenauer becomes the first German chancellor to address the US Congress (in two separate sessions). Fifty-two years later, on Nov. 3, 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a joint session of Congress for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9).
  • 1959: On 26-27 August, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower visits Bonn.
  • 1961: On 13 August the Berlin Wall suddenly springs up. Adenauer is criticized for not immediately interrupting a campaign tour. He does not fly to West Berlin until nine days later on 22 August. Nevertheless, he wins re-election on 7 November.
  • 1963: On 23-26 June US President John F. Kennedy pays a state visit to West Germany and West Berlin, where he makes his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Adenauer and Kennedy

JFK and Adenauer during the US president’s 1963 Berlin visit. PHOTO: Bundesarchiv (Simon Müller)

  • 1963: Following the so-called “Spiegel affair” scandal, on 15 October, 87-year-old Konrad Adenauer resigns as Bundeskanzler. On the next day he is succeeded by Ludwig Erhard (CDU).
  • 1964: In September, at the invitation West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt, Martin Luther King, Jr. visits both East and West Berlin. (Brandt would become Bundeskanzler in 1969.)
  • 1967: Adenauer dies at his home in Rhöndorf (near Bonn) on 19 April. He is honored with a state funeral at Cologne Cathedral, attended by many German and foreign dignitaries. He is laid to rest in the Waldfriedhof in Rhöndorf.

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