Ludwig Erhard - the personalized myth of the economic miracle


The myth of (the actual conservative politician) Ludwig Erhard (CDU) has become an integral part of political rhetoric in the Federal Republic of Germany: Before the World Economic Forum in Davos German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) uses the name Ludwig Erhard to evoke a second “Gründerzeit” (Bundesregierung, 2006). The Greens argue that a carbon tax is a market-based instrument which Erhard would have supported, while the Left Party is striving to make Erhard's slogan “prosperity for all” a reality for all (Giegold, 2019; Wagenknecht, 2011).

Ludwig Erhard was the first Minister of Economics (1949-1963) and second Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (1963-1966). As the father of the economic miracle and the social market economy, he is firmly anchored in the national collective memory. His name serves – especially in political debates – as a nostalgic reminder of the miraculous economic rise of the Federal Republic in the 1950s. However, the memory of Ludwig Erhard today is a distorted image: While his ministerial period is glorified, his chancellorship seems to be deliberately pushed into oblivion.

This contribution presents an ongoing research project which deals with the genesis of the political myth of Ludwig Erhard combining historical research with the perspective of communication science. Starting from the assumption that through official self-representation political actors gain and at the same time lose the confidence of the members of the public, the study focuses on the political communication and public relations work of Ludwig Erhard. The aim is to extract the connection between his person/habitus on the one hand and his political ideas/concepts on the other hand and examine how this connection has affected his official self-representation as a politician.

The project is based on mainly four components: Firstly, official governmental documents from the Ministry of Economics and the Federal Press Office; secondly, personal documents of Ludwig Erhard; thirdly interviews with contemporary witnesses and, lastly, scientific literature (biographies (e.g. Hentschel, 1998; Koerfer, 1987; Caro, 1965), literature about political history (e.g. Hildebrandt, 1984; Löffler, 2002), literature regarding political communication (e.g. Sarcinelli, 1998; Kamps, 2007; Jarren, 2002), political PR (Kunczik, 2010; Köhler, 2006)).

The analysis shows that the official self-representation of the politician Ludwig Erhard was highly tailored on his person creating a political brand for economic growth and prosperity – the “father of the social market economy”. Although Erhard was not the actual creator his “image-makers” succeeded in personalizing the policy of the social market economy: With “prosperity cigar” and “prosperity belly” Erhard embodied, both externally and habitually, the concept of the social market economy and at the same time symbolized the conservative tradition in post-war Germany. An icon that has endured until today.

At a higher level, the evaluation of the documents also makes an important contribution to the analysis of the development of government communication in the Federal Republic of Germany. It can be shown that political actors in the 1950s and 1960s operated in an area of conflict between factual information work and personalized, emotionalized advertising.