The Very Elder Statesman

Konrad Adenauer transformed West Germany, doing his best work as an octogenarian

KAS-ACDP/Peter Bouserath, CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE
KAS-ACDP/Peter Bouserath, CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE

The date was September 22, 1957. Just one week after his landslide reelection to a third term as West Germany’s chancellor, Konrad Adenauer was the guest on CBS’s Face the Nation in a special television broadcast from Germany. The network’s Bonn bureau chief came right out and asked him: “Next January you will be 82 years old. By the time your term has run its course, you will be in your 86th year. Do you really want to continue working at this hard job that long?”

Adenauer allowed a faint smile. Through an interpreter, he answered that when Pope Leo XIII turned 90, the dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps had congratulated the pontiff and expressed a wish that he should reach 100. Adenauer, who was Catholic, added, with a twinkle in his eye, “The Pope replied to the dean: ‘But why should you want to set any limits to divine grace?’ I reply the same to you!”

The polls today show that many voters regard Joe Biden as too old or enfeebled to serve another four-year term. How can anyone know whether someone that age will be up for the demands of the Oval Office? Yet the life of Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) proves that a dedicated head of state can not only serve robustly at an advanced age, despite periodic illnesses and public criticism, but can be transformative and make history. Like President Biden, Adenauer was repeatedly accused of senility. He occasionally tumbled in public. His political obituary was written up in the press numerous times. Yet he served in the West German government as an extremely competent head of state, vigorous and active, into his ninth decade.

When Adenauer was first elected chancellor of the newly formed Federal Republic of (West) Germany in 1949, he was 73 and widely regarded as a caretaker, too old for lengthy service in office. He even announced before the vote that his doctor had given him the all clear for another two years. Octogenarians who still went to work were far rarer then than today. Adenauer was so old that he had first been a leading candidate for chancellor back in the late 1920s. Yet he ended up being reelected three times (in a 1956 Gallup poll, 75 percent of the electorate “recognized his achievements”) and served until he resigned in the middle of his fourth term in 1963. Age 87 at that time, he continued in office as head of the Christian Democratic Union party until he was 90. The West German public referred to him as Der Alte (roughly, “the old guy”). Der Alte, who had never even traveled to Washington, Rome, or Paris until he was 75, almost single-handedly transformed a bombed-out, impoverished, and reviled rogue nation into a civilized democracy and economic powerhouse, repaired the century-old rift with France, and became the chief architect of the continent’s Euro-federation model that has held firm for 75 years. In an address to the House of Commons on May 11, 1953, Winston Churchill praised Adenauer as “the wisest German statesman since the days of Bismarck.”

There are several surprising parallels between Joe Biden and Konrad Adenauer. Both had to overcome chronic impediments from their youth (Biden’s stutter, Adenauer’s weak lungs). Appointed lord mayor of Cologne in 1917, Adenauer was the youngest municipal leader in Prussia, just as Joe Biden at 29 was the youngest U.S. Senator in 1972. Both men were thought to have reached the end of their long political careers in their early 70s, only to reinvent themselves, capture the top job, and embark on dramatic policy innovations. Both men were doubted and ridiculed by the press and their political opponents for being too old and missing a step, though not by pols who worked with them behind closed doors. Both attended Mass regularly while holding the top office. Both men repeatedly overcame devastating emotional setbacks and stayed in the political arena.

And like Biden, Adenauer was scarred for life by a terrible automobile accident in his young adult years. Adenauer never learned to drive and preferred his official chauffeurs to drive fast. In mid-March 1917, Adenauer was deputy mayor of Cologne when his driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a streetcar. The impact catapulted Adenauer through the glass partition and shattered his face. Both of his cheekbones and his nose were broken, several teeth were knocked from his jaw, his eyesight was blurred, and he bled profusely from multiple lacerations. Yet he stood up and walked unaided to the hospital, where he was sewn up without anesthetic. This stoic refusal to capitulate to medical setbacks (or political defeats) characterized the rest of his life. At the beginning of October 1923, still mayor of Cologne, Adenauer was hospitalized with appendicitis, a life-threatening illness requiring a long convalescence in those pre-antibiotic days. Only three weeks after the surgery, he was back at his desk dealing with the British and French occupation and crises of public unrest, unemployment, and hyperinflation.

The auto accident happened only a few months after Adenauer’s beloved wife Emma, after repeated difficult childbirths, died of kidney problems at only 36. When the lord mayor of Cologne resigned in August 1917, deputy mayor Adenauer was in a sanatorium, still convalescing from his injuries (and no doubt still bereaved). A delegation from Adenauer’s Centre Party visited him to check his eligibility for lord mayor, suspecting that he had sustained a concussion and brain damage. They gave him a challenging two-hour cognitive assessment test, and Adenauer answered everything perfectly. He was elected lord mayor in September and served until Hitler took power in 1933. He was also head of the upper house of the Prussian State parliament from 1921.

On February 17, 1933, Adenauer ordered swastika flags be removed from a bridge in Cologne. Soon afterward, the Nazis not only threw him out of the mayoralty but also out of his house, denying him even his salary, pension, and bank account—in part because of his friendly relations with the Jewish business community in Cologne. Having made bad investments and gone bankrupt in the stock market crash not long before, Adenauer was suddenly destitute. Unemployed, and a target for the Reich, he had to keep a low profile, and lived an itinerant life in monasteries and safe houses for several years, supported by a Jewish businessman friend of his, Daniel Heinemann, until his assets were restored to him in 1937. Adenauer had belonged to Pro Palastina, a support group for Jews who wanted to emigrate to Palestine that would ensure “a safe residence” once they got there. Though he never repaid Heinemann’s cash loan, they stayed friends till late in life, and in the early 1950s, Adenauer became the driving force behind West Germany’s reparations payments to Israel, over the objections of some of his cabinet ministers.

But after Claus von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler failed in July 1944, Adenauer was pursued by the Gestapo, though he was uninvolved in the plot. He was briefly imprisoned at a detention camp near Cologne, but managed to escape and elude recapture. The Gestapo arrested his second wife, Gussi, and interrogated her. Under extreme psychological duress, she broke down and revealed where her husband was. The Gestapo found him and reincarcerated him in the same prison where she was held, but kept them separate. Distraught over having revealed her husband’s whereabouts, Gussi tried to commit suicide twice. The Gestapo then released her. Later, Adenauer’s son Max, who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht, was able to pull strings to get his father out just before he was about to be deported to a death camp. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Austrian SS leader who was later hanged at Nuremberg, signed off on Adenauer’s release.

Gussi Adenauer died at 52 in 1948, partly from medical aftereffects of her suicide attempts. Adenauer never stopped blaming the Nazis for effectively murdering his second wife. A two-time widower, he never remarried and had no intimate companionship for the rest of his long life, apart from the company of his adult daughters on holidays.

Adenauer’s own health was affected by his ordeals under the Third Reich. Skeletal after his release from two months in prison, he appeared frail during the immediate postwar aftermath, when food was scarce in Germany and malnutrition widespread. Previously Adenauer had always been disciplined about his health and self-care. Since receiving a false diagnosis of diabetes when he was 29, he had been abstemious in his diet, drinking wine sparingly. After a childhood bout of TB, which had disqualified him from serving in the Prussian Army as a youth, he never smoked or even allowed office personnel in his presence to smoke. In office as chancellor, he made time to take brisk walks.

Repeated bouts of pneumonia plagued him throughout his adult life. By the time he was 80, his doctors advised him not to vacation in the mountains anymore because they thought the thinner air would strain his lungs, though he jetted around the globe extensively on diplomatic trips to the end of his chancellorship. He had headaches for years after the car accident, and chronic insomnia (worsened after 1933) led him to take nightly sleeping pills. As Cologne mayor, he had taken a short nap at lunch every working day; as chancellor he extended his daily lunchtime nap to an hour, a practice he shared with Churchill and Lyndon Johnson. Der Alte knew how to pace himself.

As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, the American military governor of Cologne restored Adenauer to the mayoralty; the city had been badly damaged by Allied bombing. It was a brief restoration, though: a few months later, the British, who were by now occupying Cologne, summarily fired Adenauer for “incompetence.” It was a public humiliation. He appeared to be finished politically and physically at 70.

Somehow, remarkably, Adenauer got a second wind. He organized a new political party, the Christian Democratic Union, to unite the Catholic and Protestant political blocs. “I was born on 5 January 1876, so I am probably the oldest person here,” Adenauer told the room at the first CDU meeting. “If nobody objects, I will regard myself as president by seniority.” By 1949, he had worked his way up to the top job. Who better than someone who had held government office since 1909, through three eras: the pre–WWI Kaiser era, the Allied postwar occupations of the 1920s, and the Allied postwar occupations of the 1940s—and who had survived close calls under the Nazis without collaborating? His almost Olympian calm and dignity were antidotes to the hysteria of Hitler.

In 1948, a journalist reported that Adenauer “looked like a wrinkled mummy with a disconcerting capacity for breaking into speech.” His first term in office was quickly interrupted by illness. In July 1950 he came down with pneumonia and took a month off from work. He was reelected by a large margin in 1953 but in October 1955, a month after his diplomatic trip to the Soviet Union, he was bedridden with pneumonia for six weeks. As one of his biographers, Charles Williams, writes, “the mutterings started almost immediately. The Federal Republic, it was widely said, was run by a very sick and very old man; obviously he could not go on. There were long discussions in the press and on the radio about the date of his retirement—or death—and the identity of his successor.” Even Winston Churchill had retired as prime minister at 80.

But Adenauer bounced back. In 1957, unknown to the German public and press, he was taking the controversial “fresh cell therapy” anti-aging treatments developed by the surgeon Paul Niehans at the Clinique La Prairie in Montreux, Switzerland, where Pope Pius XII and other world dignitaries had also been treated. Apparently, it helped. He was again reelected. As he got older, Adenauer husbanded his energies by more frequently conducting State business from his second home in a town on Italy’s Lake Como. Yet he still embarked on an arduous world tour in March 1960, enduring a 16-hour flight to New York while riding in the cockpit, and from there traveling to Washington, San Francisco, Hawaii, and Japan. On the return flight to Bonn, he stopped over in Alaska and Iceland.

Though he had a bad case of bronchitis in December 1960, he pushed through at work until a public celebration of his 85th birthday seemed to return him to health. Soon enough, he flew to Washington to meet with the newly elected President Kennedy and in April 1961 visited Vice President Johnson’s ranch, where he donned a 10-gallon hat for the cameras. As Adenauer had walked off the airplane and onto the tarmac with Johnson, a TV newsman commented, “He’s 85 years old, and yet he has all the vigor of a man of 50.” Elected a fourth time on November 7, 1961 on the promise that he would resign before the end of his term, Adenauer flew to Washington D.C. for meetings on November 19 despite a fever and a full-blown case of the flu. On December 9, he flew to Paris to meet with Charles de Gaulle.

On January 21, 1962, at age 86, Adenauer had a minor heart attack. The public was told he was suffering from a recurrence of influenza. He stayed home in bed for two weeks, but on February 15 he traveled by train to Baden-Baden for another meeting with de Gaulle. One year later in Paris, Adenauer, now 87, and de Gaulle, 72, signed the Élysée Treaty, the Franco-German entente that put an end to centuries of enmity between the two nations.

What if Adenauer had been replaced in November 1961 by a younger leader? No younger West German leader had the necessary stature and personal rapport with General de Gaulle to be able to deliver the historic treaty. De Gaulle spoke German, Adenauer some fractured French. They had been meeting one-on-one for years. They had become friends. They were twin icons of their nations’ histories nearing the ends of their lives, and they knew they had to get it right.

Throughout his 14 years as chancellor, Adenauer’s political opponents in the Bundestag would try to make fun of his age. In 1958, he tripped and almost fell on the steps to de Gaulle’s house, but 24-hour cable news had not yet been born to record such events. Despite his periodic illnesses, however, Adenauer consistently impressed dignitaries with his youthfulness. In 1953, the former British MP Harold Nicolson, who had met Adenauer in Cologne in 1928, reencountered him and thought he looked “a good twenty years younger.” Prior to Adenauer’s arrival in London for meetings with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in November 1959, the British political class had gossiped that the West German leader was semi-senile. But after the meetings, Macmillan reported that he was struck by the man’s vitality and that rumors of his senility were nonsense. One of Adenauer’s cabinet ministers, Heinrich Krone, wrote in his diary upon Adenauer’s 87th birthday in 1963: “The Old Man is 87. Fresh, elegant, full of humor, without any sign of weakness. It is not surprising that he does not want to go.”

On June 23, 1963, Adenauer rode standing up in an open limousine beside President Kennedy (a man 41 years his junior) through the streets of Cologne. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous October, Adenauer had advised Kennedy that he supported the blockade of Cuba, in the belief that the Soviet missiles had been deployed on the island nation to obtain concessions over the then divided city of Berlin.

In early 1967, a 91-year-old Adenauer advised private citizen Richard Nixon that Washington should make overtures to Communist China in the hope of “counterbalancing” the Soviet danger. Nixon had met Adenauer many times as vice president and wrote in his book Leaders that he was so impressed by him that he felt that had Adenauer been made chancellor in the late 1920s, there would have been a better chance of Hitler not coming to power.

What else did Adenauer accomplish besides weathering multiple bouts of pneumonia, periodic withdrawals, a heart attack, and criticisms of his great age? He reinstituted a free-market economy and opened access to global markets for German industry so rapidly that by 1955, West Germany had become the most powerful economy in Europe. He created social welfare programs, built housing in bombed-out areas, advocated for peaceful nuclear power. He replaced the historically aggressive Prussian face of his nation with a cooperative, integrationist posture, reaching out to such other statesmen as France’s Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman and Belgium’s Paul Henri-Spaak, creating with them the building blocks of a political and economically united Europe: the European Coal and Steel Community; the Common Market; membership in NATO.

He ended denazification in the right way, letting ex-Nazis in his government know that if they didn’t toe his liberalizing political line, he would reopen denazification proceedings against them, and he established stringent democratic loyalty tests for ex-Nazis and soldiers in the Bundeswehr (the new armed forces). Though he was autocratic in style, he constructively used that role to gradually transition German citizens away from the custom of an authoritarian leadership to a democratic mode of governance. Above all, he pursued an unwavering alliance with the United States through three U.S. presidencies as a bulwark against possible Soviet aggression not only toward West Germany but to Europe as a whole. He did not succeed in reunifying East and West (that had to wait 25 years), but he set the internationalist template for all the German chancellors who succeeded him. He did all of this as an old man—and largely after his first four-year term. He needed succeeding terms in office to consolidate his achievements, much of which occurred when he was past 80.

In Leaders, Nixon recounted an anecdote from his 1970 meeting with Marshal Tito in Belgrade. Tito’s wife told Nixon about a meeting years earlier between her husband and Churchill. Churchill had supposedly looked at her husband and marveled at his youthful appearance. Then Churchill answered his own question: “I know what it is. It’s power. It’s power that keeps a man young.”

“When I saw Zhou Enlai in 1972 he was 73; de Gaulle in 1969 was 78; Adenauer in 1959 was 83,” wrote Nixon. “They were still in power because they were stronger and abler than the younger men in their governments. If an older political leader does not suffer from any serious ailments, he will usually make up in wisdom and judgment for what he may lack in stamina, vigor, and mental quickness.”

No one can predict the vagaries of old age. Konrad Adenauer himself suffered unpredicted health events after age 82 while still in harness as head of state. Yet no historian I am aware of has ever suggested that Adenauer, infirmities and all, did not remain in full command of his office and his powers till age 87, or that the accomplishments of his later terms were any less consequential because of his age. American voters, pols, and pundits would do well to consider these facts when assessing the fitness of an 82-year-old President Biden as he runs for reelection this year.

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Mark N. Grant is a composer. He is the author of Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America and The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.


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