Konard Adenauer stands on the threshold of a Biblical fourscore years, an age at which most politicians retire, and the speculation as to who will succeed him to the Chancellorship has by now become a kind of parlor game in West Germany. The big question, however, is not who but what will come after Adenauer.
To be sure, what the West German republic stands for, both at home and abroad, cannot be divorced from the who of Adenauer. He has established himself so solidly as an institution that one feels a certain reluctance even to look ahead to the time when he will not be bestriding the German scene.
Adenauer is known to regard himself as the guarantor against any German relapse into rabid nationalism, a kind of faithful shepherd seeing to it that the German people never again go astray. A man harboring so high a conception of his mission does not willingly, even in jest, set a time limit for its accomplishment. And if he feels himself to be irreplaceable, he must experience a tightening at the heart to think that some day power must slip from his hands.
Possibly not unrelated to this intense feeling of his irreplaceability is the Chancellor’s own reluctance to consider seriously the problem of his successor. There are good enough reasons for this attitude. Adenauer is wise and experienced enough to know the limits of his authority. He knows that it cannot be passed on, either by yielding his place to a successor right now or by naming a political heir for the future. Only a politician of real stature who struck the public as a “natural” candidate could effectively claim Adenauer’s legacy—and such a politician is nowhere in sight at present in Bonn. And if he were, he would not need to deck himself in the mantle of an authority handed down from the present incumbent of the Chancellorship.
Emerging from the rubble of the Third Reich as the creation of foreign occupying powers, and dividing the German territory with a rival to the East enjoying even less legitimacy, the West German state could at first claim only the feeblest of authority for its institutions. How little prestige it enjoyed in the eyes of its subjects when it was founded cannot be overemphasized, and ought not to be forgotten. It was a state that floated as it were in air, without a history or any clear connection with the past, a synthetic product. Everything depended on whether it would have time to stabilize itself. Nor could stability be achieved simply through the working of its impersonal institutions. The rudimentary postwar political consciousness of the Germans needed a leading personality to incarnate and personify their new state for them. Adenauer became that personality—one all the more effective because it embodied what the Germans most keenly felt the lack of: continuity.
Of course, Adenauer’s present influence is grounded primarily in the success of his policies. But beyond this, there are other, deeper reasons that are not to be grasped so rationally. One of these is that Adenauer is rooted in the German past, however much he may seem to hold himself aloof from many aspects of it. During a period of restoration following upon convulsion and collapse, the politician whose person seems to extend back from the uncertain present, overleaping the immediate revolutionary past, to an earlier period of stability and legitimacy has his great chance. Even Adenauer’s enemies cannot deny that he has known how to exploit this chance—without having to rely too much upon outmoded ideas.
By 1949 the consolidation of the Federal Republic was beginning to be a fact; the Bonn regime was able to guarantee well-being, security, and stability. At the same time it seemed able to satisfy the German need for authority and obedience without doing harm to democratic forms and institutions. That democracy and authority are not mutually exclusive is a new discovery for Germans, and they have Adenauer to thank for it. The Weimar Republic never produced anything like it. Just because Weimar was unable to clothe its democratic forms with any real authority, a man like Hindenburg, who was completely estranged from the state he was called on to head, could satisfy the need for a national father-image. Adenauer has been called a Hindenburg in civilian clothes but, unlike the latter, he is inseparably identified with a democratic state, which is one moreover that he himself helped create. The strengthening of his personal authority has not signified the weakening of the state’s; rather has the one redounded to and enhanced the other.
That was a piece of good luck. But if ill fortune can breed good fortune, the reverse is also true. Wrapped up in that gift package to Germany which is Adenauer are certain serious dangers.
That West Germany’s public life, governmental organization, and political will are cut to the measure of one, and only one, person represents the first of these dangers. As absurd as most parallels between Adenauer and Bismarck are, there is a single deadly one. As the Prusso-German empire of 1871 was Bismarck’s creation, so the Federal Republic of 1949 is Adenauer’s. The latter has been formed in a way that allows a single individual to manipulate it almost at will. To be sure, the Bonn constitution, unlike Bismarck, did not intend this, and is doubtless susceptible of different interpretations among which “Adenauer democracy” is but one. But the living constitution of a state is not just a matter of text, it is also shaped by practical politics. And the practical politics of the Bonn Republic’s first, formative years have been completely dominated by Adenauer as the center around which all federal institutions turn and the reference point for every activity. Thanks to his will power, tenacity of purpose, and a clear-cut political line, power, both constitutional and extra-constitutional, became concentrated in his hands. And not only did he get control of the executive machinery of the state, he also came to dominate West Germany’s largest political party and, in great measure, parliament itself. This arrangement works well enough, no doubt, and may even offer considerable advantages, but only as long as the hand at the controls is strong and steady. A weaker hand than Adenauer’s might be unable to make the machine respond, and then everything would grind to a standstill.
A second danger of the present Bonn system need only be briefly hinted at. Even the ablest statesman cannot personally master all the complicated machinery of a modern state. He needs helpers. In the normal democratic state, the prime minister’s or president’s cabinet performs these auxiliary functions. At Bonn, however, there has arisen what arises under every personal regime: a non-responsible, shadow cabinet alongside the official one that is staffed by intimates of the Chancellor—in other words, a “kitchen cabinet” that exercises power not directly, but through the official and unofficial delegation of some of the Chancellor’s plenary powers, and whose operations, though Very difficult to grasp in detail, radiate far beyond the precincts of the Schaumberg Palace. One man, State Secretary Globke,1 whom Adenauer apparently trusts unreservedly, today exercises an influence not only greater than that of any single cabinet minister (who theoretically enjoys a higher rank), but one that insinuates itself by devious means into the sphere of competence of every cabinet minister.
More serious still is the atrophy of other, more crucial democratic institutions under Adenauer’s personal regime. The Bonn constitution, which intentionally gives the executive broad authority, also presupposes a strong parliament to balance it. Instead of gradually loosening his personal rule, as the necessity of it has become less urgent, instead of giving the developing republic room in which to breathe, Adenauer continues to maintain the power of this rule to the point where the organs of democratic autonomy threaten to become stunted. The utter subjection of the majority in the Bundestag to his will has been the most alarming symptom of this. Something similar has happened in the executive branch itself, where the collective responsibility of the cabinet is noticeably diminished. Elections to the provincial parliaments as well as those to the Bundestag have taken on the character of plebiscites in which the sole issue is Adenauer. And Bonn’s systematic meddling in the make-up of the provincial cabinets-done by the leaders of a party that has “federalism” and “provincial autonomy” inscribed on its banners—has led to a policy of Gleichschaltung which, while respecting democratic forms, treats the individual states of the federation as mere appendages of the central government. It is true that the crisis of German federalism is traceable to more fundamental causes than this, but it is also true that such methods have reduced rather than increased the already diminished vitality of the provincial governments.
Seen in this light, it is possible to appreciate the full meaning of the question of Adenauer’s successor. Clearly, it is not just a question of personalities. No state can count on having a never failing succession of outstanding personalities to guide it. Statesmen of average ability, too, are capable of solid achievement, as I think the case of Truman in the United States shows. But this presupposes healthy political institutions, whereas a system of government based on a personal regime and oriented toward a single center is liable to break down in the absence of a man big enough and strong enough to play an overwhelmingly dominant role.
It is here that Adenauer’s real responsibility in the matter of the succession lies. He himself could by now have encouraged initiative and resourcefulness in the lower echelons of government, fostered democratic responsibility and self-reliance, and involved a wider circle of people and governmental institutions in the formulation of policy. His failure to do so is perhaps the most glaring sin of omission in his record. Blame it on his temperament. There is not only his needlessly bad relations with the opposition in the Bundestag. A system of checks and balances like that so carefully set forth in the American Constitution is regarded by him as a nuisance and a hindrance. Instead of exploiting the clash of policies and interests among the different branches of the government, he tries to eliminate it entirely. This same suppression of differences of opinion goes on in the governing coalition of parties that he heads.
Everything now depends on whether West Germany’s democratic institutions will be able to gain in self-reliance and vitality to the point where they can function as mature and responsible agencies of government. This holds for the cabinet, which in the future will undoubtedly be called upon to function on a joint basis much more than on a personal one as now under Adenauer. It also holds for the Bundestag, which will have more room for action with some one else as Chancellor, and will be able to intervene more positively in the formulation of policy. But whether the transition to a less personal regime in Bonn will be made successfully depends, above all, on the ability of the political parties to shoulder their tasks of leadership. The West German political system assigns a very important place to political parties; but up to now their internal constitutions and their connection with the more politically developed sections of the people have not been such as to enable them to play the important role envisaged for them.
Nonetheless, the situation is by no means hopeless. There are many forces working against this concentration of responsibility in one center, all sorts of tendencies and aspirations towards self-reliance and the exercise of independent initiative. A critical period of adjustment will be unavoidable after Adenauer’s departure from the scene; whether the Federal Republic emerges from it unscathed depends on how far these forces will be able to develop while he is still Chancellor.
Such tendencies and aspirations are least in evidence in the cabinet. Coalition politics dictated a considerable increase in the number of ministries in 1953, which turned the cabinet into a swollen and unwieldy instrument. Of course, the ministerial structures of other countries suffer similarly; almost everywhere there has been a proliferation of portfolios, and a marked tendency for increasingly autonomous federal agencies to pre-empt control over large areas of government. In West Germany this has had the effect of weighting the scales of power even more heavily towards the Chancellor and his personal bureaucracy. Yet even here counter-forces are not lacking. Inter-ministerial coordination committees like the “economic cabinet” under Vice-Chancellor Bluecher and the new Defense Council set up on its pattern, are loosening the structure a bit. The Defense Council is presided over by Adenauer, it is true, but the moving spirit in formulating its military and political policies has been the ambitious and energetic Franz Josef Strauss. Even more important, perhaps, was Heinrich von Brentano’s appointment in June as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Adenauer’s relinquishing of this post reduces some of the top-heaviness of the ministerial structure and indicates a tendency to “normalization.”
The weakest thing about the Federal cabinet is its lack of any means to train new ministers. Great Britain has its Parliamentary Under Secretary, France its Under Secretary (also recruited from the legislative chamber); both posts have proved themselves excellent schools of leadership. In Bonn, however, just as under the Hohenzollerns, the second-in-command in every ministry is a civil servant, a state secretary, who is theoretically non-political. It is characteristic of Adenauer that he should have clung tenaciously to this inheritance from the old Prussian administrative system. Such an arrangement not only makes it difficult to train young talents in important if subordinate tasks; it gives the permanent bureaucracy, which survives changes of government, a decisive influence on ministerial policies and tends to split the executive and the legislative branches from each other.
The signs of regeneration in the Bundestag are much more positive. The postponement voted, before the long summer recess, of the Military Volunteer Law (intended as a preliminary to future legislation providing West Germany with an army) was generally regarded in Bonn as a turning point. It was the first real test of strength between the second Bundestag and the Chancellor on a question of high policy in which the former—thanks to the cooperation of both government and opposition parties—carried the day. And it did so by a remarkable display of energy and initiative. Despite many handicaps which have to do in great part with the unjustifiable increase in number of its members, the second Bundestag has on the whole shown greater stature than the first. The near future ought to show whether its victory in the matter of the Military Volunteer Law was more than a flash in the pan. At least the West German public seems to have sat up and taken notice. And in the last several months, public opinion surveys have revealed a steady rise in public approval of the Bundestag.
Those who know how alien a parliamentary system is to the average German, and the strength of the popular conception, even after 1945, of a parliament as nothing but a “talk shop,” will not underestimate the West German citizen’s growing appreciation of his parliament. Since the Bundestag will occupy the center of the stage when Adenauer is gone, it is all to the good that it has begun to develop a prestige and power of its own, and that it is showing a readiness to stand fast in its differences with the Chancellor.
The most interesting, and also the most difficult, of all the questions Adenauer’s departure will pose for German politics concerns its effect on the German party system. Since the founding of the Federal Republic, a very marked process of consolidation has been going on among the political parties. One splinter party after another has faded into oblivion. Now even the Refugee party, which seemed for a time to have a real political role to play, has succumbed to this trend. And since the German party, which once seemed to offer the nucleus for a new force on the right, has been reduced—at least on the national level—to a mere appendage of the Christian Democratic Union, a three-party system (the CDU, the Social Democrats, and the Free German Party) now prevails in West Germany.
This development is inseparable from the personal influence of Adenauer. He is the magnet that has attracted the overwhelming majority of non-Socialist voters to the CDU. The CDU knows very well why it has waged all its campaigns in his name. With its magic, it has been able to draw adherents from milieux far removed from the devoutly Christian sections of the population to whom its program is formally directed. The 1953 elections, in which the CDU won over 50 per cent of the votes and more than one half of the Bundestag seats, was an exceptional occurrence and isn’t likely to be repeated, but any decline of the CDU from its present eminence as Bonn’s leading conservative party is highly unlikely while Adenauer is still around.
Will the CDU be able to maintain its supremacy after the luster of his name is lost to it? Or, putting the question more broadly: will the process of consolidation taking place among the parties of the present coalition—a process fostered by the plebiscitary simplicity of elections fought solely in terms of for Adenauer or against him—be halted by his exit, and perhaps even reversed? Would not his departure mean a return to the old political fragmentation that proved so fatal to the Weimar republic?
I don’t think so. To expect the CDU to fall apart when no longer under Adenauer’s tutelage is to underestimate its cohesiveness. The danger of a split would arise only if the tendencies within it to revert to the type of simon-pure clerical-Catholic confessional party should come to the surface. For the time being, however, the overwhelming majority of Christian Democratic politicians show no public inclination to abandon the broad extra-confessional line. On the other hand, the division into right and left inside the CDU has been eliminated to an astonishing degree, quite apart from the influence of Adenauer, who has been rather indifferent to social and economic issues. Only an economic depression could revive it.
And it is equally improbable that the CDU will split over the issue of foreign policy. Though the dream of European Union is fading and, along with it, a good portion of the foreign-policy platform that did so much to hold the CDU together during the first five years of the Federal Republic, it is scarcely thinkable that any tendencies toward a rapprochement with the East and an estrangement from the West will make enough headway to disrupt the CDU. Its foreign policy might become more elastic, more prone to compromise, perhaps even more wavering, when no longer steered by Adenauer, but any such wavering will hardly involve the party as a whole. Neutralist illusions are not one of the CDU’s most pressing problems.
The likelihood is, therefore, that the CDU will preserve its present unity even without Adenauer. But the likelihood is not the same that it will keep its present hold on the West German electorate. Political tendencies now suppressed or imprisoned will then inevitably try to find organizational expression outside the present line-up of parties. Among such tendencies is a “new right,” for years a subject of discussion in West Germany and the goal of many plans that never came to fruition. A conservative “national” party patterned on the old German National party could become a possibility very soon, once Adenauer’s prestige no longer barred the way. Then the CDU, now a mass party, might find itself compelled to change back into a Center party that—like its prototype under Weimar, though more broadly based—would not be able to rule without finding allies either on the right or left.
Such a development, however, would really mean a regrouping of present political forces rather than their splintering. The three-party system itself would not be fundamentally altered if a new rightist party were to replace the ambiguous, dissension-ridden Free Democratic party. The tendency making for a few large, relatively broad-based political groups, though encouraged by Adenauer’s catalytic influence, also reflects the general growth in West Germany of a relatively non-ideological, opportunistic, pragmatic kind of politics based on combinations of special interests rather than on doctrinaire positions. If this tendency persists—and it seems to run deeper than it gave any appearance of doing in the first years of the Federal Republic—Adenauer’s departure might lead to a shift in West German party alignments, but not to a disruption of the present party system itself.
A regrouping of this sort would in any event prove dangerous only if it came during an economic crisis, when new and revolutionary forces might pick up the kind of dynamism that gave such impetus to the Nazis. But even in the face of this danger, the Federal Republic is not without resources. There is the Social Democratic party standing by. Just because it has been in opposition all along, it would be in a position to attract the votes of the dissatisfied and malcontent and keep their resentment within democratic channels. And there would also be the possibility, completely untried so far, of a regime based on cooperation between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Of course, as long as Adenauer remains the embodiment of the Federal Republic there is little likelihood of this; too much bitterness has been built up on both sides.
The force of Adenauer’s personality and achievements has undoubtedly stamped West Germany’s democratic institutions with a legitimacy and authority that have immensely benefited the country, but it has also meant a certain political polarization and the practical exclusion of a very important contingent of West Germany’s democratic forces—the Social Democratic—from the work of shaping the country’s destiny. Adenauer’s successor will have an incomparably better chance to overcome this estrangement of the socialist working classes from the West German government. And he will be in a better position to call upon these democratic reserves, now in opposition, for help in case of crisis. From this point of view, one can even envisage a political situation in which a less dominating and more conciliatory personality than Adenauer at the head of the government (or of the ruling party of the government) would be better for West German stability in the long run.
It may sound cynical to say so, yet it is a truth often confirmed by history that great ruling personalities can be burdens as well as godsends to a nation. All the greater, therefore, is the responsibility of their heirs.
1 Globke drafted the Nuremberg Laws in 1938.