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The Elder Statesman


Two tall men in a state room: one a Protestant minister in his prime, full of zeal, beloved by millions all over the world; the other quite elderly, of a quiet demeanor, subtle, careful, yet absolutely clear in his thought.

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adenauer Konrad Adenauer

"What will you do, Mr. Chancellor," the preacher asked, "once you retire, if ever you do retire?"

The old man smiled.  He had first become chancellor at age seventy-three, when his doctor told him that he should keep the job for two years at most.  That was a very long time ago.

"I wish to find and present the evidence for Europe's only hope," said he.

The preacher waited.  Europe had placed her hopes in many a charlatan and many a system that could have been produced only in that great factory of idols and lies known as hell.  There had been the Communists, now a threat to world order and peace.  The fascists in Italy, socialists everywhere, even nihilists.

"The only hope," said the old man, who had lived through so much madness and misery, "is in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If Jesus Christ is alive, then there is hope for the world.  If Jesus Christ is in the grave, then I don't see the slightest glimmer of hope on the horizon."

That preacher passed away last year, no longer so well beloved by the people of the West whom he served with all his energy.  His name was Billy Graham.  The old man's name was Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967), the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, a Roman Catholic committed to the social teachings of the Church, and one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.

The watch on the Rhine

The year was 1933.

"Do you have room, Father," said the middle-aged former mayor of Cologne, "for a man without money and work?  I need to rest and pray."

The abbot smiled.  "Konrad," he said, "our home is yours."  They had known one another from when they were boys.  Adenauer had been removed from Cologne by the Nazis, whom he disliked intensely, believing them to be yet another manifestation of what he called the "Prussian spirit."  Adenauer had always looked west for allies, not east.  He was friendly to the French, and he would long harbor a desire to see his own Rhineland as an independent state.

"Many of our monks disagree with you about Herr Hitler," said the abbot.  "German soil, German blood."

"We are Catholics first, Germans second," said Konrad.

"Of course, of course," said the abbot.  He would change his mind eventually, when the Nazis began to destroy the churches.  It is a danger to which man is ever susceptible: to forget first principles and instead to be guided by the surging passions of politics, one of the worst forms of ­enthusiasm that can afflict mankind.

"Old friend," said Konrad, "may I have access to your library?"

It was granted, and for several months Konrad Adenauer studied two great encyclicals on the social questions of labor and capital, the rights of the individual and his duties to the common good, and the central role of religion in the life of a people.  Those were Rerum novarum, by Pope Leo XIII, and the recently issued Quadragesimo anno, by Pope Pius XI.

So, he sought to gather broad support and hold the socialists at bay.  How did he do it?  By employing the wisdom of Leo and Pius.

Adenauer did not just read them.  He studied them.  He'd grown up during the so-called Kulturkampf, the Prussian Culture War engineered by Bismarck, which attempted to centralize everything, including education, and to neuter the influence of the Church and her schools.  He was not going to buy that essentially rationalist and anti-religious politics in any form: Nazi, Bolshevik, socialist.

He read these words by Pius XI: "For justice alone can, if faithfully observed, remove the causes of social conflict but can never bring about union of minds and hearts."  Politics could never do the work of the Church, Pius saw, nor could it do its work most effectively without the guidance of the Church.  For all our institutions for promoting peace and the common weal "have the principal foundation of their stability in the mutual bond of minds and hearts whereby the members are united with one another….  And so, then only will true cooperation be possible for a single common good when the constituent parts of society deeply feel themselves members of one great family and children of the same heavenly Father; nay, that they are one body in Christ."

"One body in Christ," Herr Adenauer repeated.  Yet the body of Christ in his beloved Germany was divided, and Germany herself, battered and bankrupt, seemed on the brink of madness.

Nation building

After the war ended in Europe, it was by no means clear what the fate of the continent would be.  The Russians understood that whoever controlled Germany would, with Britain isolated, control the whole.  Yet France was still deeply suspicious of her perennial enemy, the Russians were firmly implanted in the east, Germany was devastated, and the Americans — they, Adenauer believed, were naive.  He was astonished that Roosevelt and then Truman could have placed any trust in the likes of Stalin.

Adenauer was past the age of seventy, but he undertook the task, working his way into friendship with de Gaulle in France, standing up for the slow but certain rehabilitation of the German military, the better to protect the nation from the Communists, and demanding an end to the policies that were short-sighted and vindictive.  If the punitive measures following the first war had set the stage for Hitler, Konrad Adenauer and his deeply Christian party did not want that mistake to be made again.

So, he sought to gather broad support and hold the socialists at bay.  How did he do it?  By employing the wisdom of Leo and Pius.  His party passed generous maternity leave for working women — almost all of whom would have been working for bare economic necessity.  They reduced the work week, they made sure that a man would be paid a wage sufficient to raise a family, they rejected the material obsessions of both the moneyed interests and the socialists, the better of whom would cure the patient by cutting his heart out, and the worse who looked longingly toward Russia.  He saw the connection between the Prussian spirit, which turned the state into a deity, and socialism generally: both tend to engulf the individual person and the family.

Adenauer became the chancellor of West Germany in 1949, and held the office until 1963.  By the time he stepped down, the unemployment rate in West Germany was 0.4 percent — one man out of 250, and the work week had been shortened by 20 percent.  West Germany experienced an economic ­miracle unmatched by any nation in Europe.  He had allayed all fears from France.  He paid for his success by assuming that eastern Germany was lost for the foreseeable future.  But if the Allies were not going to fight for that part of the country, there was nothing else to be done.

Youth of the West, awake!

Adenauer understood what many a worldly economist and politician in the West did not, because they did not really know the subject, man, made in the image of God, for God.

Adenauer understood what many a worldly economist and politician in the West did not, because they did not really know the subject, man, made in the image of God, for God.

"I see with fear," he said in 1962, "how the youth…are growing more and more distant from the Christian Faith and the Christian idea of the good.  So we must, far more than fifteen years ago, ever again show them and impress upon them that, despite the developments of this age, only upon the truths of the Christian Faith can the well-being of mankind be founded."

A rich people without God are poor indeed, nor will they be long for this world.  That's the implicit message of the final official statement Adenauer made, in 1967.  "I have a reputation," he said, "for being a disturber of the peace.  You have to take me as I am.  If I'm a disturber of the peace, it's for good reason.  And, ladies and gentlemen, if someone wakes up a sleeping man so as to make him watch out, then the man who shakes him is no disturber of the peace.  I wish to cry out, wake up! Watch out for the years to come."

Konrad Adenauer died on April 19, 1967.  His state funeral at the Cologne Cathedral was attended by many thousands of German citizens and foreign dignitaries, among them the American president, Lyndon Johnson.  I wonder how many of them really knew how wise, diligent, far-sighted, and able a statesman had passed from their midst.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Elder Statesman." Magnificat (November, 2019).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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