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Observers who complain about the current state of the European Union would do well to look back to the years after the second world war, when Europe had been ravaged, millions of lives lost, aspirations shattered, rationing was common across the continent and the menace of a belligerent Soviet Union loomed. The case of Germany was even more dramatic: it was defeated, divided and had been annihilated physically and emotionally. By any measure, those were circumstances worse than today’s.

Yet Germany flourished and by the end of the 20th century it was unified, one of the world’s most prosperous nations and a clear leader in Europe. Under the government of Konrad Adenauer – the first chancellor of the new West Germany from 1949-63 – the country matched prewar gross domestic product by 1951 and tripled its income between 1949 and 1963. Time Magazine made Adenauer its man of the year in 1953, calling Germany “a world power once again”.

Adenauer played a key role in the recovery. His actions remind us how good leaders can open up new ways through example.

Adenauer held fast to certain core ideas about the world, society and humanity. He was convinced of the power of individual freedom, private ownership, fairness and the social market economy. These ideas sprang from his Christian roots and experiences as a player in the German drama. But he also realised that economic and social progress depended on citizens’ engagement. He paved the way to the notion of co-determination of capital and labour in large German companies (Mitbestimmung), a controversial law passed in 1951, with the support of the unions. This brave move led to the unions renouncing the goal of state ownership, an objective they shared with the Social Democratic Party (the opposition to Adenauer’s Christian Democrats). A few years later, the Social Democrats abandoned Marxism, helping to modernise socialist parties across Europe. Adenauer believed in free enterprise, but understood that wealth creation had to be shared fairly.

He had a view about the political design of West Germany and its relations with East Germany, and worked hard to achieve his desired outcome. He understood that important decisions mean difficult choices. We may not agree, but what we expect from political leaders is to make their choices clear.

Some historians argue that Adenauer postponed the reunification of Germany unnecessarily – the USSR was apparently willing to offer it in exchange for German neutrality – for the sake of West Germany’s success. Adenauer observed that the USSR had a history of violence across eastern Europe and its word was unreliable. He also preferred a free, prosperous West Germany seeking peace with France and integrated within western Europe, rather than a united but neutral Germany under the Soviet Union’s oversight. He reminds us of the importance of making choices, the courage necessary to do so, and the need to explain the implications of different options. In an era of hyperconnectivity, Twitter and mass marketing, political and business leaders seem to have forgotten the importance of arguing and persuading clearly.

He believed that the division of Germany was the outcome of east-west tension, not its cause. For this reason, he thought that the best way to reunite Germany was to work with France and reunite Europe. He was aware that dwindling Allied determination had allowed the USSR to swallow up much of eastern Europe. Adenauer became a staunch pro-European; he believed a strong Europe was the best medicine for the recovery of both his country and the continent. He was right.

In today’s politically divided EU, it is time to remember that good leadership makes a difference – leadership that uses a long-term perspective to address problems, that lucidly presents options to citizens, that puts national interests on a level with Europe’s, and that has the courage to follow through on decisions.

These are not extraordinary qualities. What made them extraordinary in Adenauer’s case was that he displayed them in the gloomiest of contexts. His actions quickly generated trust among his citizens and in western European countries, and West Germany became the driver of Europe’s recovery after the war. People like Adenauer are today more relevant for Europe and the world than ever.


Jordi Canals is dean of Iese business school. He is the author of ‘Building Respected Companies’ (Cambridge University Press, 2010), on the role of companies after the financial crisis.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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