THE “RHÖNDORFER KONFERENZ” BETWEEN DRAMATIZATION AND HISTORIC VALUATION
On July 15th 1949 democracy returned to Western Germany, when the first elections for the Bundestag were held. Christian Democrats (25.2%) and Christian Socialists (5.8%) merged into one parliamentary group and won the elections against the Social Democrats (29.2%).1 Now they were in charge to form the Federal Republic’s first government.
The central questions in the formation of the government were would the Christian Democrats govern with or without the Social Democrats. Who would be the first Federal Chancellor and who the first Federal President? The most important issue in the election campaign were economics. The devastated country needed to be rebuilt after the war, the unemployment was threatening and the country would need the help from abroad. Both major parties, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats represented con- trary economic ideas. The choice between CDU and SPD was also a choice of Social Market Economy versus Planned economy. After the elections the SPD claimed the Department of Economics, if they would participate in the government.
Although it was no official body of the party, a rather informal meeting on August 21st 1949 at the home of the party leader in the British Sector and head of the Verfassungsrat (committee to form the German constitution of the Federal Republic) Konrad Adenauer, seemed to be the focussing event in the memories of most main figures in the party. This meeting, seven days after the election, later known as the Rh ö ndorfer Konferenz (Conference of Rhöndorf), should become one of the first national myths of the young Republic. The following historiography analyzes the way the story of the conference had been told in the past and how these descriptions influenced our picture of the first Federal government to the present.
The published memoirs (1955-1972)
Based on the testimonies of Robert Pferdemenges, a banker from Cologne and friend of Adenauer, Paul Weymar published 1955 his first version of the formation of the government.2 Therefore “Adenauer invited the leading men of the CDU/CSU to a confidential discussion”3 to determine how to form the government. Pferdmenges described that Adenauer had to fight against a strong opposition within the meeting. His opponents favoured a great coalition with the Social Democrats, even for the price to relinquish the ministry of economics to them. Adenauer argued:
The elections have resulted not only in an impressive pledge to the basic ideas of the Christian Democratic conception of state and society also in an unequivocal approval of the Social Market Economy as opposed to Socialist economic planning. There is therefore an obligation to continue this policy in its entirety, in accordance with democratic processes, and to draw clear-cut conclusions from it for the formation of the federal government.4
The leading antagonist of Adenauer occurred to be Altmeier, minister president of the Rhine-Palatinate. According to Pferdmenges none of the opponents could win the majority of the audience until Adenauer presented his “carefully surprise move”5. He introduced his idea of a coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP (Free Democrats) and DP (German Party). After a short moment of slight unrest, “someone” proposed Adenauer to become the Federal Chancellor, and since nobody challenged him “in less than one minute, this question was settled”6 The opposition against a small coalition had been outmanoeuvred. The next question was the election of the first Federal president. Adenauer recommended Professor Heuss, from the FDP, disregarding the fact that he had not been informed so far. Further Pferd- menges reports that Adenauer wiped any doubts on his nomination with a sense of humor.7
Relying on the Pferdemenges report, Paul Weymar introduced the confer- ence of Rhöndorf as the milestone in formation of the Federal Republic’s first government. He leaves no doubt that Konrad Adenauer did not only host the meeting, but also dominated the discussions. Thanks to Ade- nauer’s leadership, humour and smart strategy, he accomplished his goals. After describing this success Pferdmenges compared the becoming chan- cellor even with Julius Ceasar. Although Weymar’s anecdotic portrayal lacks of important information, it left deep impression and influenced the following interpretations.
A decade later Konrad Adenauer himself published his Erinnerungen (memoirs) which were in general concordant to Pferdmenges descriptions. Both descriptions point out the dominant role of Adenauer. There is an agreement in the portrayal of the questions of the chancellorship and the presidency of the Federal Republic.8 Further Adenauer maintains that he convinced those who were against a small coalition, pointing out there were led by Altmeier.9 Therefore the main argument appears not only to be the different philosophy in economics, but also the need of a strong parliamen- tary opposition:
Apart from the question of economic policy there was another reason for re jecting the idea of a coalition with the SPD. If the CDU and SPD were to form the government after these first elections of the year 1949, there would be a forceful opposition in parliament. I was afraid of the development of an extra parliamentary opposition on a nationalist basis, with nationalist demagoges endangering the young state. I did not consider that we ran the risk of a na tionalist opposition in the case of the SPD.10
Adenauer did not seem to be convinced, that post-war Germany was al- ready ready for a democratic system. Adenauer maintains to be concerned about a strong national movement, which could endanger the young democ- racy and emancipation of Germany. He expected this threat to be displaced by a strong Social-Democratic opposition. Pferdmenges’s and Adenauer’s testimonials emphasize on the importance of Adenauer’s person. He is un mistakably the key figure in the establishment of the Federal Republic - more a charismatic leader, than a democrat.
So far only the winners of the meeting announced their version of the meet- ing the losers remained silent. This had its impact on the following publica- tions.11 1971 published Terence Prittie his interpretation of the Rh ö ndorf Conference, in his Adenauer biography. His work was deeply influenced by Adenauer’s memoirs, while he ignored the description of Dr. Robert Pferd- menges. In addition to that Prittie corresponded to an interview with the Manchester Guardian from September 9th 1949 (eleven days before the election of the Federal chancellor in the Bundestag), in which Adenauer ex- plained some of his future government’s policies.12 Hence Adenauer was portrayed Adenauer as the key-figure who had already “decided in advance exactly what was to happen.”13
Adenauer’s and Pferdmenges’s story were questioned for the first time, when further memoirs from participants of the informal conference had been published. Now the biographies of Herrmann Pünder,14 Günther Gereke15 and the by Klaus Dreher16 collected testimonies of Peter Altmeier, Ludwig Erhard, Franz Josef Strauß and again Herrmann Pünder expanded the per- spective. Like Pferdmenges and Adenauer the participants emphasized also the importance of the meeting in general, but highlight their individual role in Rhöndorf.
1 All results of the major parties in the elections of 1949 (above 3%) CDU/CSU 31%, SPD
29.2%, FDP/DVP/BDV 11.9%, KPD 5.7%, BP 4.2%, DP 4.0% and Zentrum 3.1%. KACK, HEINO: Geschichte und Struktur des deutschen Parteiensystems. Opladen 1971, p. 196.
2 WEYMAR, PAUL: Adenauer. His Authorized Biography, translated by DE MENDELSSOHN, PETER. New York 1957, p. 264-273.
3 Pferdmenges does not give a more precise description, who took part in the mee ting. WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 264.
4 WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 269.
5 WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 267.
6 WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 268.
7 A representative from Bavaria objected: “ As far as I know, Professor Heuss ’ s attitude toward the Church is not exactly friendly …” “ But he has a very devout wife, ” Adenauer replied, “ and that should be sufficient. ” The remark aroused general hilarity. The hu- morous interlude had served its purpose in further mellowing the general mood, and once again Adenauer was quick to take advantage of that. WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 268.
8 Adenauer’s version does not mention the person who nominated Adenauer either speaking of “somebody” ADENAUER, KONRAD: Memoirs 1945-53, translated by RUHM VON OPPEN, BEATE. Chicago 1965, p. 180.
9 The translated edition of Pferdmenges’s report in in Paul Weymar’s Adenauer bio graphy , leaves like Adenauer’s description no doubt, that the opposition was lead by Altmeier: The next speaker voiced the views of this opposition. He was Peter Altmeier, Minister President of the Rhine-Palatinate, who spoke in favour of entering a coalition with the Social Democrats (WEYMAR, PAUL (1957), p. 266.). In contrast to this version Pferd- menges explained in original citation, that he “believe[s]” it had been Altmeier: Mit dem nächsten Redner kam die gegenteilige Ansicht zu Wort. Ich glaube , der rheinland- pfälzische Altmeier trat als erster für eine Koalition mit der SPD ein. (DREHER, KLAUS: Der Weg zum Kanzler. Adenauers Griff zur Macht. Düsseldorf, Wien 1972, p. 342; WEYMAR, PAUL: Konrad Adenauer. Die autorisierte Biographie. München 1955, p. 428.) It is arguable, if the difference ist he result of a careless translation, or a re interpretation that accused Altmeier to be the head of the opposition in Rhöndorf. In this manner Pferdmenges’s version concurs with Adenauer’s, who took it for certain that Altmeier was the voice of those who favoured a great coalition.
10 ADENAUER, KONRAD (1965), p. 178.
11 Such as Georg Schröder’s picturesque biography of Adenauer SCHRÖDER, GEORG: Kon- rad Adenauer. Portrait eines Staatsmannes. Eine Bilddokumentation. Gütersloh 1966, p. 31.
12 The interview was held by Terrence Prittie himself, who was a reporter of the Manches- ter Guardian in that time. The fact that Adenauer gave this interview can be regarded as a sign of Adenauer’s confidence to become elected as Federal chancellor.
13 PRITTIE, TERENCE: Konrad Adenauer. 1876-1967. Chicago 1971, p. 141.
14 PÜNDER, HERRMANN: Von Preussen nach Europa. Lebenserinnerungen. Stuttgart 1968.
15 GEREKE, GÜNTHER: Ich war k ö niglich-preu ß ischer Landrat. Berlin (East) 1970.
16 DREHER, KLAUS (1972), p. 349-360.
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- Adenauer Nachkriegszeit Bundestag Kanzler CDU SPD Rhöndorfer Konferenz Germany democracy Altmeier DP FDP chancellor Erinnerungen memoirs Pferdemenges Morsey Social Market Economy Soziale Marktwirtschaft Franz Josef Strauß Strauß Wahl election Regierungsbildung Mythos Carlo Schmid Frankfurter Koalitionsgespräche Christian Democrats Social Democrats post-war Deutschland Ludwig Erhard Bonn Berlin Great Coalition Allies Besatzungsmächte 1949 Conference of Rhöndorf British Sector Britischer Sektor Britische Besatzungszone Demokratie Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung Konrad Adenauer