In the fall of 1944, Aachen was the first major city in West Germany to be liberated by the Allied Forces. While war and persecution continued in other parts of Germany until May 8, 1945, a spirit of optimism became evident in Aachen. After the years of Nazi rule, new political and social ideas began to take hold. Although everyday life was still plagued by material hardships, people were looking for a new moral and spiritual direction.
The Allies’ collaboration in the late 1940s did not provide a plan for how Europe could work together in the future. Instead, Germany and Europe were divided into eastern and western halves. The bitter experiences of two World Wars were followed by the Cold War, which shaped initial attempts at European cooperation.
Even before 1949, early organizations were formed in which the Western European states worked together on an economic, political and military level; these included the Council of Europe, the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) and the Brussels Pact. However, when the British broke off negotiations in 1948 for a customs union with the French government, and stopped development work on the Council of Europe in the following year, efforts toward West European integration were plunged into a deep crisis.
These were the conditions that inspired a group of Aachen citizens to send out a widespread call for European unity on December 19, 1949. The founder, Dr. Kurt Pfeiffer, cleverly took advantage of the symbolism of the approaching Christmas season, and the Jubilee year that had been announced by the Pope, to suggest an ‘annually awarded prize for the most valuable contribution to West European understanding.’
Pfeiffer’s idea was a success. Within a few days, the proclamation of the prize appeared, and the Charlemagne Prize Society was created in March 1950. The prize was first awarded on May 18, 1950, to the founder of the Pan–European movement, Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi.
The Charlemagne Prize was the first political prize granted in the recently established Federal Republic of Germany.