The greatest German

December 09, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Choosing the worst German who ever lived would be about as hard as naming all the countries on the continent of Australia. But Germans were recently asked to select the greatest person their land has ever produced, and that's a tough one.

Among the contenders in the poll, conducted by the ZDF public broadcasting network, were colossal figures known to everyone. Martin Luther, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Gutenberg, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Otto von Bismarck each had a claim to the distinction.

But when the results were counted, the winner was the one least known today beyond Germany: Konrad Adenauer. That he could be largely forgotten in much of the world is a tribute to what he accomplished.

It understates his achievement to say he was merely the greatest German in history. Mr. Adenauer was also one of the most important statesmen of the last 50 years, and deserves considerable credit for the freedom and prosperity that now prevail in Europe.

All Mr. Adenauer did was make his a normal nation, bordering on dull. For most of the previous century, Germany had been the source of more excitement than Europe really needed. After the ghastly savagery of World War II left Europe littered with corpses and rubble, Mr. Adenauer stepped forward to lead his country at a time when the world regarded it with distrust and loathing.

He had been mayor of Cologne until he ran afoul of Hitler in 1933 for refusing to fly a swastika over the city hall. Much of the opposition to the Nazis came from the left, but Mr. Adenauer was a conservative Catholic who detested totalitarianism of any sort. He eventually ended up in a concentration camp.

His flinty nature was usually an asset. As one of the few surviving politicians untainted by association with the Nazis, he was asked to take over running the Cologne city government - which he did until his blunt criticisms of the occupation led to his dismissal by the British, who had authority over that portion of Germany. He then turned to drafting a new constitution, and in 1949, at 73 years old, was elected chancellor of West Germany, an office he held for the next 14 years.

The federal republic that he did so much to bring into existence was rooted in principles of democracy and individual freedom. He insisted on moving the capital from Berlin to Bonn, "where Germany's windows are wide open to the West." He felt no particular pride in his nationality. "Germans," he said, "are Belgians with megalomania."

He also had no use for socialism. Mr. Adenauer rejected proposals to nationalize basic industries, and chose as economics minister Ludwig Erhard, who had dismantled the price controls and rationing imposed under occupation. Their free-market policies unleashed what became famous as Germany's "economic miracle."

Criticized for allowing former Nazis to occupy high offices, he took the view that only the unrepentant should be shunned. He cultivated friendship with the new state of Israel and embraced West Germany's obligation to pay restitution to Jews for Hitler's crimes.

Mr. Adenauer also made a priority of reconciliation with France, which he regarded as his most important contribution. He thought his country could function only in humble partnership with its neighbors.

You might say that Franco-German unity on the Iraq war, in opposition to Britain and the United States, had its roots in the friendship between Mr. Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle. The Bush administration bitterly resented the criticism, while failing to note the novelty of Germany causing trouble by being insufficiently warlike and too friendly with France. Those weren't problems for most of the last century.

Mr. Adenauer was responsible more than anyone else for the successful creation of a free and democratic state where Nazism once reigned. He also did everything he could to make sure Germany would never again pose a threat to the peace of Europe and the world.

With his aversion to nationalism, Mr. Adenauer was once accused of being "a good European but a bad German." From a "bad German" came a good Germany.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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