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Adenauer, Erhard, and the Uses of Prosperity

By Gray, William Glenn | German Politics and Society, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Adenauer, Erhard, and the Uses of Prosperity


Gray, William Glenn, German Politics and Society


This essay explores the relationship between West Germany's "economic miracle" and the goal of reunification in the early postwar decades. It argues that Konrad Adenauer was reluctant to mobilize economic resources on behalf of German unity-instead he sought to win trust by proclaiming unswerving loyalty to the West. Ludwig Erhard, by contrast, made an overt attempt to exchange financial incentives for political concessions-to no avail. Both of these chancellors failed to appreciate how West Germany's increasing prosperity undermined its diplomatic position, at least in the near term, given the jealousies and misgivings it generated in Western capitals and in Moscow. Only a gradual process of normalization would allow all four of the relevant powers-France, Britain, the United States, and the USSR--to develop sufficient trust in the economically dynamic Federal Republic to facilitate the country's eventual unification.

Keywords: Konrad Adenauer; Ludwig Erhard; Cold War; economic miracle; German reunification; German question; Hallstein Doctrine; Ostpolitik

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Wiedervereinigung (reunification) and Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle)--these two terms, both so characteristic of the 1950s, are seldom heard in the same context. (1) Studies of the "German Question" typically revolve around Stalin notes, German rearmament, and conferences in Geneva. One would hardly know from this literature that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1959 was considerably more prosperous than ten years earlier. For its part, historical writing on the "economic miracle" often takes the division of Germany as a given, focusing on the integration of the Western portion into the world economy. (2) This stark separation between politics and economics--between "Adenauer" and "Erhard" topics one might say--is not ahistorical, for it faithfully reflects the terms of debate at the time. (3) But, that is no reason for historians to refrain from thinking about the relationship between West Germany's economic dynamism and its long quest for national unity.

There are many connections that one might conceivably draw. Did material success, over time, tend to weaken the interest of West Germans in the plight of their less fortunate Eastern kin? While plausible, such an argument would be difficult to take beyond the stage of conjecture. The opposite phenomenon--East German attraction to the prosperity and personal freedom in the Federal Republic--requires no elaboration. There was little that Bonn could have done to dam the stream of refugees even had it so desired: closing the transit camps or cutting off "greeting money" would scarcely have made an impact. Only a wall in Berlin could put a stop to the ongoing "plebiscite." (4) This, in turn, drives home the extent to which the "German Question" was ultimately defined by the high politics of the Cold War. With this in mind, this article considers the consequences of the "economic miracle" for West Germany's international position.

The central issue here is trust. (5) In the absence of trust-in the Bonn leadership and more broadly in the political sensibilities of postwar Germans--no progress toward German unity was possible. The "trustees" in this case were the four victors of World War II, who would have to be persuaded simultaneously that German unification would not result in yet another geopolitical disaster. (6) Viewed from this broad, if overly schematic, standpoint, it is hardly astonishing that it took more than four decades to sort out the problem of German unity. Although abstract, the category of "trust" allows one to ask more specific questions. Why was it so difficult for the Bonn Republic to convert its economic prowess into trusting relationships with the Four Powers? Did the "miraculous" growth of the West German economy actually make unification less likely, at least in the short to medium term?

Adenauer's Instincts

"You would not believe how strong the mistrust of Germany still is in foreign countries," Konrad Adenauer wrote to historian Gerhard Ritter in April 1952.

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