In September 1957 the 81-year old Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Konrad Adenauer won a historic third-term in office. His party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) managed to increase its share of the vote and win an outright majority in the German parliament (Bundestag). This was a feat that has never been repeated in the history of postwar Germany: although Angela Merkel won a third term in office last Sunday, she fell just short of a parliamentary majority. Still, the similarities between the two elections - in terms of the campaigns that preceded them, the results but also the personalities of the two leaders - are revealing.
Adenauer, a long-serving and highly respected politician of the Catholic Centre party in the 1920s, had built a strong political profile as mayor of Cologne under the Weimar Republic. He was imprisoned by the Nazi regime and was forced to abandon politics altogether, leaving in effective retirement and seclusion. However, in the wake of the German defeat in 1945, at the age of sixty-nine, he rejoined the political fray, building a new centrist party from scratch (CDU, with its Bavarian CSU branch) and emerging as the most suitable candidate to take over the fortunes of the fledgling republic.
Conservative in his social outlook, fiercely anti-communist but with an ability to reach across political and other divides, he promoted the CDU as a dependable, decidedly pro-western, democratic and capitalist but also socially paternalistic catch-all party. His promise of stability, sovereignty for the new Federal Germany, and western cooperation won him the support of an exhausted, humiliated, and insecure German electorate. He worked hard, with the energy of a person half his age, to restore the international profile of the Federal Republic, pass a new democratic constitution (the so-called Basic Law)*, reconstruct the country, and rebuild the shattered German economy.
For an electorate historically rather averse to change of course in times of stability and relative prosperity, Adenauer represented a reassuring promise of uneventful continuity
Adenauer narrowly won the 1949 elections with 31% of the vote and formed a government with the Free Democrats (FDP) and other smaller parties. Four year later, in the crucial 1953 elections, he campaigned on his record of economic recovery, political stability, and western alignment (in combination with a strong anti-communist rhetoric that targeted the Social Democratic Party, SPD), to win a second term with a significant increase of the CDU's share of the vote to 45%.
By the completion of his second term in 1957 the Federal Republic had been in the middle of an economic boom that had brought near-full employment and a dramatic rise in living standards. It had also restored its full sovereignty, being at the forefront of western alliances (NATO membership) and European co-operation (European Coal and Steel Community, leading to the EEC). Predictably then, the ageing but energetic Adenauer led his party to a third election, with the slogan 'No Experiments. Adenauer". In contrast to 1953, the 1957 campaign was deliberately focused on the personality of the chancellor, as an internationally respected and domestically successful safe pair of hands. Election posters featured his oversized image, portraying him and the CDU as the guarantors of the successful German postwar political and economic record.
The positive message belied a negative one - that voting for the opposition SPD risked the achievements of the previous eight years. Adenauer, who had famously asked the Germans to entrust him with the responsibility to deal with politics while they were going about rebuilding their lives after the war, had become a parental figure for the nation - firm but protective, well-known and dependable - a natural choice in happier but still volatile times.
It thus came as no surprise that Adenauer won comfortably a historic third term in 1957. What was surprising was the extent of his victory, receiving more than 50% of the votes and ensuring an outright parliamentary majority for the CDU. The result represented a triumph of stability over the promise (but also insecurity) of change. It marked the peak of his political popularity - a moment of personal vindication and recognition by the German electorate of his crucial role in changing the fortunes of his troubled country. It was also a decisive step towards transforming the Federal Republic into a personality-based political system - a kind of 'Chancellor republic'. In the 1957 campaign, the CDU juxtaposed the tried-and-tested fatherly figure of Adenauer to that of the SPD candidate, Erich Ollenhauer. Ollenhauer misjudged the mood of the public, offering a set of alternative policies that appeared either too radical or potentially destabilising. Unlike 1949 or even 1953, a far larger section of the German electorate felt that change entailed simply too much risk in return for questionable gains.
Adenauer's third term in office was not his last. He went on to win a fourth election in 1961, albeit with a reduced share of the vote (a still impressive 45%) and failing to repeat the CDU outright majority of 1957. Aged eighty-five at that point, he remained Chancellor until 1963 before opting for a (second) retirement. The CDU did go on to win another election in 1965 but amidst scandals and now facing a far more effective opposition led by SPD's leader, and later Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Personalities have always mattered in German postwar politics.
For an electorate historically rather averse to change of course in times of stability and relative prosperity, Adenauer represented a reassuring promise of solid continuity. It took the SPD twenty years to demolish this perception and offer the electorate a proposition of change that they felt comfortable to take up. Merkel's current SPD opposition, reeling from a third consecutive defeat and its disappointing share of the vote (only marginally higher than the all-time low of 2009), must really hope that history will not repeat itself any further…
* In West Germany the term Grundgesetz was used to indicate that the basic law was provisional until the ultimate reunification of Germany.