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Rebuilding Europe:
Germany 1950-69

What were the challenges facing the new Federal Republic of Germany?

Konrad Adenauer secured the Chancellorship by the narrowest of margins, he faced determined opposition from the Social Democratic Party, and his Christian Democratic Union party could only rule with the support of smaller parties. The Chancellor of the new state faced a series of challenges, internal and external.

The Economy

In 1950, the process of economic recovery in West Germany was far from secure. There were 2 million unemployed, over 10% of the workforce. To this number were added the continuing flow of German internal immigrants from the East (c. 447,000 between 1951-53) with all the attendant problems associated with integration. There was still an acute shortage of housing, basic consumer goods and the danger that frustration at economic failure could find expression in political extremism. 


The GDR would remain a challenge and a source of efforts to undermine the West German state throughout the Cold War. Should the FRG fail, the existence of an alternative national model could prove an attraction for dissatisfied citizens. West German politicians had to live with the dilemma of pursuing unity with East Germany or integrating the FRG more securely into the American led western bloc. The Socialist Party opposed Adenauer’s pro-western policies.

The Cold War

West Germany faced front line exposure to Soviet pressure. In 1949, the year in which the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, the Soviet Bloc armies vastly out-numbered those of the West. When, in 1950, Communist North Korea attacked Western-backed South Korea, the parallels with the World’s other ideologically divided state, Germany, were obvious.  

International Relations

Germany was still mistrusted by neighbouring countries. Germany’s history placed constraints on German politicians as they articulated national interests. This lingering pariah status is underlined by the Brussels Pact of March 1948, in which Britain, France and the Benelux countries formed an alliance against future German aggression.


West Germany did not immediately gain full independence; the military occupation of Germany continued and German politicians’ scope of action was curtailed by the Allies’ power of veto.  The Ruhr industrial region was placed under international control and France retained control of the Saar coal-mining region. West Germany was not permitted to rearm or to manufacture weapons.

How successfully did West Germany deal with these problems?

Adenauer was the dominant political figure of West Germany in the new state’s first decade, the years of the economic miracle – Wirtschaftswunder. Economic progress was rewarded with an increased share of the votes for Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in elections in the 1950s. From this secure foundation Adenauer was able to take steps towards addressing the nation’s challenges.

Adenauer and his economics minister, Ludwig Erhard, oversaw a period during which the economy grew by an average of 8% per year, the fastest in Europe. By the end of the decade unemployment had fallen below 1% and there was a labour shortage. Inflation remained low throughout and West Germany’s share of World exports trebled. (The German Economy in the Twentieth Century. Hans-Joachim Braun, Routledge, London, 1990:168).  Erhard’s ‘Social Market Economy’ comprised free market economics regulated by the state as far as necessary to ensure adequate distribution of wealth, and welfare provision for weaker members of society. It represented a third way between American style capitalism and the strictly controlled command economies of the Eastern Bloc. A co-operative approach to industrial relations helped avoid economic disruption. Workers had the right to significant representation on company boards through which they could influence and share responsibility for decisions. Productivity per man hour more than trebled in the two decades after 1950, far outstripping British figures, and highlighting the efficiency of the ‘German model’. An extensive building programme offered millions of Germans the chance of gaining a home of their own. The Equalisation of Burdens Act, 1952, redistributed wealth from those fortunate enough to have survived the War with their property in tact, to those who had suffered losses.

Adenauer and Erhard were assisted by external factors; the Korean War provided a surge in demand for German steel and manufactured goods establishing the pattern of an export-led economy. As the Western Allies bore the burden of Cold War military spending, disarmed Germany could allocate resources elsewhere.

Under Adenauer, the CDU broadened its support from its Catholic origins to include other denominations and non-religious conservatives to position itself as a powerful centre-right party. The dominance of this strong centre, and the economic stability that underpinned it, contrasted with the polarised politics of the Weimar years and exerted a magnetic appeal.  During the 1950s, over 2 million, often skilled and well-educated, East Germans moved west to take advantage of the greater personal freedom and increased job opportunities. In 1956, the inhabitants of the Saar region rejected French plans to develop as an independent state in favour of the ‘small reunification’ with West Germany.

Adenauer’s policy of deeper integration into Western alliances alarmed the Soviet Union and drew criticism from domestic opponents who argued that German Unification should be the priority. Stalin’s proposal, in 1952, of uniting the two states as a neutral Germany in which free national elections could be held, attempted to exploit these divisions. The plan was rejected by the Allies who insisted that free elections would have to come first and that Germany should be allowed to join military alliances of its choice. Adenauer agreed that Stalin’s real intention was to split West Germany from the West and create a demiltarised Germany in the Soviet shadow. However, to his opponents this demonstrated Adenauer’s subservience to the Allies and his disregard for the 17 million Germans on the other side of the Iron Curtain. “From then on suspicions lingered that at heart Adenauer was not really interested in reunification. All that can be safely said is that he was more anxious to safeguard West Germany’s freedom and security as a member of the Western Alliance than to achieve national unity, if both could not be had at the same time and at the same price.” (L. Kettenacker: 58)

In May 1955 West Germany’s rehabilitation was marked by the abandonment of the Occupation Statute and, following the signing of the Germany Treaty, the western Allies’ recognition of West Germany as a fully independent state. In the same month, 10 years after the Nazis’ defeat, West Germany joined NATO and as a member was expected to contribute to the defence of Western Europe. Adenauer faced opposition to such a contentious policy, and could only proceed with rearmament by placing strict constitutional limits on the use of the German military. Domestic opponents argued that history proved the folly of pursuing military power, and that Adenauer’s policies reduced the chances of achieving German Unification. The Soviet Union responded to West German membership of NATO by announcing the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, an opposing military alliance of Eastern Bloc sates including the GDR.

The two German regimes settled into a pattern of mutual hostility each denying the other’s legitimacy and each claiming to be the true representative of Germany. West Germany also denied recognition of other countries which recognised the GDR  The only exception to this ‘Hallstein Doctrine’ was the Soviet Union; Adenauer visited Moscow in 1955 and secured the release of some 10,000 German prisoners of war still held in Russian camps. Berlin remained an anomaly, a Western enclave surrounded by East Germany and the scene of an increasing flow of East Germans into the West. The GDR was the only European country to experience a decline in population during the 1950s. In August 1961, the East German authorities began to halt this process by constructing the Berlin Wall, giving physical shape to the city’s political division.  Willy Brandt, Social Democrat candidate for the Chancellorship broke off from his election campaign to travel to Berlin. Adenauer’s response was slower; he didn’t go to Berlin until nine days later, giving the impression that, for him, Berlin was not a priority. Nevertheless, the CDU, as architects of West Germany’s solid economic performance, won the election.


The death of Peter Fechter in August 1961,
shot whilst trying to cross the wall.

The building of the Berlin Wall from CNN Cold War

Adenauer’s cautious conservatism had set West Germany on a path from being Europe’s problem to a position of respect as a stable component in Western Europe’s response to the constraints of the Cold War. However, critics perceived a failure to deal honestly with the legacy of Nazism. Although Adenauer acknowledged Germany’s guilt and agreed to pay reparations to Israel, the emphasis of the Adenauer years was on reconstruction rather than recrimination and many ex-Nazis retained their positions in the civil service and in government. The benefits of honestly confronting the past were balanced by an awareness of the destabilising effect such a comprehensive purge may have.

Adenauer’s final term as Chancellor was marred by the Spiegel Affair in which journalists of Der Spiegel were arrested following a controversial article in the magazine on the German military. The arrests were widely seen as an attack on the freedom of the press. The episode exposed the complacency and arrogance of a government in its 13th year in power. The old, authoritarian attitudes and echoes of Nazi intolerance were amplified by the fact that one of the journalists was arrested while in Spain by officials of General Franco’s regime. The affair provoked protest from the public, the press and other political parties. Adenauer could only secure the continued support of his coalition partners by promising to stand down in 1963. At the age of 86, Adenauer’s rule was coming to an end.

By 1966, West Germany’s economic growth had begun to slow down. Unemployment and the success of neo-Nazi candidates at local elections revived fears of a return to the problems of the Weimar years. The CDU had formed a ‘Grand Coalition’ with the Socialist Party – between them they controlled over 80% of parliamentary seats – diminishing the power of opposition within parliament and encouraging those who chose to oppose the government elsewhere, often violently, in street protests that were a feature of many European cities at the time.  At the same time the Grand Coalition enacted a programme of social liberalisation in which adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy all ceased to be criminal offences. The CDU’s long dominance of West German politics finally came to an end in 1969 when Willy Brandt became Chancellor at the head of a Socialist/Liberal (FDP) coalition.

 Verdicts on Adenauer

In 2003 German television channel, ZDF, invited viewers to vote for the greatest German of all time. These are the results.

  1. Konrad Adenauer

  2. Martin Luther

  3. Karl Marx

  4. Hans und Sophie Scholl

  5. Willy Brandt

  6. Johann Sebastian Bach

  7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  8. Johannes Gutenberg

  9. Otto von Bismarck

  10. Albert Einstein

 “Adolf Hitler and other Nazis were excluded from the poll. Winner Konrad Adenauer served from 1949 to 1963 and helped re-establish German democracy after the Nazi era. He also oversaw the first years of the German economic miracle – a cause for some nostalgia today as the country’s economy lags in the doldrums”. 


 “Adenauer and the CDU made West Germany in the 1950s their own. They brought economic prosperity, material wealth, political stability and relative security to a population that wished to move on and put the recent past behind it...Adenauer also secured for the Federal Republic a respected place in the international community...” (P. O’Dochartaigh: 71)

“There can be no doubt that he provided the kind of safe leadership the Germans badly needed if they were to climb out of the abyss into which Hitler had led them. Above all, he felt it his mission to protect Germans from themselves, from their penchant for political follies, by tying them as closely as possible into the Western European community of nations.” (L. Kettenacker: 54)

“Bitterness towards Adenauer remained in Berlin long after his death: such behaviour seemed to confirm the widely held belief that for him anything east of the River Elbe was Siberia” (P. O’Dochartaigh: 74)

“The Resurrection” GDR cartoon    Adenauer, Time Magazine Man of the Year, 1953.
Source     Source
CDU Poster 1950s.    


CDU Poster 1950s.


Capitulation, Military rule,
Occupation Statute, Germany Treaty,
German unification,
European unity. The way to peace and freedom.


No Experiments!

  • What were Adenauer’s greatest achievements?
  • Are criticisms of Adenauer justified?
  • To what extent do these posters explain Adenauer’s electoral successes in the 1950s?

German political posters can easily be found on the internet. The websites  and  contain several good examples. Select one or two and analyse the images used. What messages are communicated?


Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic