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Adenauer and the ‘Narrative of the centre’

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This study reconstructs the development of the historical narrative that Konrad Adenauer communicated in his public statements about National Socialism and the role of the Germans in it. It can be expressed in the succinct formula that the misdeeds of the regime had been committed “not by the German people but in their name”. In these few words we see the kernel of a historical narrative that was the general consensus for a long time in West German politics.

The end of the Second World War plunged German society into a profound identity crisis. The downfall of the Reich, the partition of Germany, the towns in ruins, millions of people killed or expelled and the troubling knowledge of the crimes of the Nazi Empire on the one hand, the hatred and contempt of foreign nations on the other, – all this forced Germans to confront the question of who they were and what should become of them and their country. Against this background, Konrad Adenauer emerged as the most important politician of West Germany. He took up the general feeling among Germans that under the rule of Hitler they had become the victims of political criminals, just as if the regime had not been able to rely on the Germans’ widespread approval and their willingness to take part. This narrative can be termed a narrative of the centre ground in the sense that it corresponded to the thinking of the broad centre ground of German society. Adenauer used his exculpatory formula to free Germany from the stain of the Nazi period and to restore it to its historical position as a great power.

Up to now no comprehensive analysis of the development of Adenauer’s narrative has been forthcoming, covering his key communications from the whole of the post-war period down to his death in 1967. So as to make a meaningful selection of texts, four key historical periods over the entire twenty years have been singled out to highlight Adenauer’s attitude towards the German past. The first ten months following the end of the war (1945-46) are the period in which Adenauer gives clear expression to the guilt of the German people. Between 1949 and 1953, during his first period of office as Federal Chancellor, Adenauer tried to “draw a line” under the past. This prompts an examination of his first Government Policy Statement of 1949 and his reparations policy. In 1959-60, the vandalizing of Jewish property forced Adenauer to revert publicly to the question of anti-Semitism. In 1966, as former Chancellor, Adenauer visited Israel. His trip there enables us to draw up the balance-sheet of his life’s work and provides some insight into the background of his narrative of history.

Publication (in English): Volker Wild and Jan Ferdinand: …Not by the German people, but in the name of the German people. Adenauer and the Narrative of the Centre Ground, in: Przegląd Zachodni 3 (372) 2019: 221-248. Full text can be found here.