Konrad Adenauer has been a source of endless fascination for me. Equal parts spiritual, pragmatic and amenable to collaboration, he was genial and cooperative in his personal interactions but difficult to pin down in public. As lord mayor of Cologne he was aggressive, pursuing funding for expansive development and cultural projects for the city and the region.

During the years that he spent hiding from Nazi scrutiny in Maria Laach, tending to his roses, Adenauer developed a gentler side to his public persona. No longer the vigorous, ambitious young man, he was a seemingly unthreatening, grandfather-figure who was capable of leading (West) Germany from imperialism to democracy.

One question has constantly nagged me: was Adenauer’s personality a vehicle Germans used to repress the memory of the Holocaust? Did Germans bury the guilt of the Holocaust beneath the image of the gentle rose gardener?

Certainly Adenauer was responsible for the strong relationship that evolved between Germany and Israel. At a time when only Social Democrats advocated making reparations, Adenauer conducted secret negotiations with Israeli diplomats and leaders of Jewish organizations. Adenauer accepted the need for reparations (Wiedergutmachung), establishing a precedent by which ethnic groups (not just nations) could make demands for reparations for atrocities committed against them.

Adenauer saw the issue of reparations as an opportunity to moral credit for his state. As Jay Geller has written, Adenauer had complex moral and political motivations for pursuing reparations:

“Was he motivated by a sense of moral obligation, or was there an ulterior motive for his desire to reconcile with Israel? There is no doubt that Adenauer was determined to ensure the negotiations’ success. Adenauer was a deeply moral man, and this morality drove his policy decisions regarding the eastern bloc, Israel, Western Europe, and other issues. However, as Yeshayahu Jelinek has shown, Adenauer also intended to reap all possible political benefit from morally driven political acts. He considered reconciliation with Israel, and specifically making reparations for the Nazis’ crimes, a vital step in Germany’s rehabilitation.”

Rather than limiting negotiations to arguments over the nature of guilt and numbers, he kept the conversation at a high level of morality and ethics. He used his deeply-felt Catholicism to create an atmosphere of genuine interfaith dialogue. The friendship that emerged between himself and David Ben-Gurion overcame the suspicion of Jewish leaders.

Given the post-war atmosphere, it is not too much to say that Luxembourg Agreement succeeded because of the reputation Adenauer earned with Jews. To Jews in the 1950s, Adenauer was the face of German humility. Distrust pervaded German-Jewish relations, obviously because of the pain of the Holocaust. Indeed, Jewish leaders were not at first interested in pressing their demands with any German government. They wanted to extract payments via the occupational administration. Adenauer’s involvement validated the principles upon which they based their demands. A positive image arose among German scholars that turned Adenauer into a hero. Even Fritz Stern asked (as I have) whether Adenauer could have changed the fate of the Weimar Republic had he accepted the Chancellorship under Hindenburg.

Reparations were not controversial with the German public. Average Germans seemed willing to pay for the havoc caused by the Third Reich, particularly as it created a large body of displaced persons for whom the new Jewish state cared. Guilt was less easily accepted. German citizens were less concerned about paying for the cost of the Holocaust than accepting the blame for it. Consequently few politicians, with the exception of the Social Democrats, advocated reparations. Indeed, Adenauer turned more towards friends in the SPD than his own CDU during his secret negotiations with Israeli politicians and Jewish groups.

Adenauer also defined Holocaust guilt as something that belonged to the German nation, not to individuals. The deaths of millions of Jews was committed in the German name and without their opposition, but also without their participation. As early as 1946, he said:

“I think the German people and the bishops and the clergy bear a heavy guilt for what happened in the concentration camps. It is true that perhaps later there was not much that could have been done. The guilt was incurred earlier. The German people, to a large extent bishops and clergy as well, accepted the National Socialist agitation. It allowed itself to be regimented almost without resistance, even in part with enthusiasm. I think that if all the bishops had, on an agreed-upon day, spoken publicly from the pulpit against National Socialism, they could have prevented much from happening. If the bishops had gone to jail or to concentration camps because of such an action, that would have done no harm, on the contrary. But none of this happened, and therefore it is best to remain silent.” (quoted by Fritz Stern in Dreams and Delusions)

Adenauer argued that Germans had been generally guilty. Unwilling to oppose Nazism, especially at its earliest stages, Germans were integrated into Nazi projects, and they lost both initiative and will to oppose the Holocaust.

The definition of Holocaust guilt may have been acceptable to the German public in the 1950s, but it doesn’t hold up to contemporary scholarship. More and more Holocaust studies have shown how Germans were actively involved in the dispossession of German Jews.

It is difficult to find any denial in Adenauer’s definition. He could not be counted among the guilty, and it is unlikely that he wanted to hide anything. Shared national guilt may have been a practical definition that allowed Adenauer to move negotiations along without inciting too much opposition. But the definition survived as the public understanding of the Holocaust – something performed by the Nazi state in the name of the German people – until the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, the question remains. Did Adenauer interpose himself between Germans and guilt as he interposed himself between Germans and Jews?

History : Germany