Konrad Adenauer is the ghost that hangs above my dissertation. He was the foremost Rhenish politician for several decades — one of the best examples of what a Rhenish mentality might be.

He was also and enigma. The father of democracy in Germany (although grandfather would be a better term given his age and his 1933-1945 “retirement”from public life) was not easy to know in life, less in history. He had a way of convincing people that he agreed with them, but he was really being obscure. He did not develop a political system or philosophy; he was sensitive to exigencies and sought practical solutions. And he tended to muddle the past, reinterpreting key moments in his life to meet the moment.

Adenauer could also be described as a traitor. And the Nazis did because he flirted with separatism in the early 1920s: he called for a West German Republic and met with French agents. Of course, Adenauer made enemies of the party when (in his role as the president of the upper house of the Prussian Parliament) he refused to abrogate sections of the constitution that would allow Nazis into the state administration in 1932. Twice during the Weimar Republic he was asked to serve as chancellor — to save the republic — and he refused because he would not head a coalition government.

This interpretation is harsh and excessive, but it has some truth to it. Many national founders, having once been revolutionaries, could have been described as traitors of one sort or other: to the mother country, to traditions, to decency, to order. They are redeemed because they represent the true “nation”.

It’s harder to make this argument for Adenauer that one nation’s Judas is another’s hero. He did not found a nation but broke one in two (turning the Allies’ octroi of the division of Germany into domestic policy). He made rapprochement between Bonn and Berlin nearly impossible. He even founded the Federal Republic by weakening the German sovereignty. West Germany was not a better expression of what the German people wanted — it was the best they could hope for under the circumstances. Even his experiences with the Nazis can’t be trumpeted too loudly: he refused them and was persecuted by them, but he was not freedom fighter.

Adenauer was not even larger than life. Although he could be lavish at times, he was the perfect picture of a Prussian civil servant: unassuming and spartan. A few biographers have commented that he had a “Protestant mentality”. Contemporaries, leaders who achieved less, have more notoriety because they were more outspoken.

His modesty was still perfect for the republic rebuilt in glass: transparent, unassuming, hesitant, pragmatic. He was the father of a nation whose self-consciousness had been diminished and ambitions tamed.

There are other examples of figures who turned defeat into national institutions. Adolphe Thiers brought the republic back to France after the Franco-Prussian War. At least the republic was a institution with which the French were familiar.

Adenauer does not fit the historical role he played — the man who broke apart a nation and put a less romantic one in its place. Unfortunately the origins of the Federal Republic cannot be understood without engaging Adenauer. It was the product of a man who dared to think differently about unity and national identity and who would listen to the proposals of the enemy.