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A tribute to Germany’s singing president, Walter Scheel

A tribute to Germany's singing president, Walter Scheel

Walter Scheel, the German president from 1974 to 1979 and liberal politician, has died at 97 following a long illness. He recorded a folk song in the 1970s, and more important he helped Germany weather tough times.

“Being liberal also means being open to change,” Walter Scheel wrote in his 2004 memoirs. That philosophy showed in his political work.

Walter Scheel, who has died aged 97, changed the course of Germany’s postwar politics and was an influential architect of east-west detente while serving as Willy Brandt’s foreign minister between 1969 and 1974. Scheel’s singular contribution to history stems from his courageous decision after Germany’s 1969 general election to throw the weight of his small Free Democrat party (FDP) behind Brandt, enabling the Socialist Democrat party (SPD) leader to scrape through with a tiny parliamentary majority and form a coalition government.

For the first time since the second world war, the Christian Democrats (CDU) were out of power. As chancellor, Brandt was then free to pursue Ostpolitik, his policy seeking reconciliation with Germany’s eastern neighbors and a relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union. And with Scheel as foreign minister and vice-chancellor, he had a loyal and enthusiastic negotiator at his side.

The decision to join a coalition with Brandt had been a high risk one for Scheel, who was well aware that the FDP was far from united over joining a coalition government under the Social Democrats. But the gamble paid off: Scheel’s stock rose at home and abroad.

As foreign minister, he won plaudits around the world for his diplomatic skills and equable temperament; not least from Edward Heath during the negotiations for Britain’s entry into the European Community in 1972. In Germany itself, Scheel was able to make a smooth transition from government to the presidency, and serve as a well-respected head of state from 1974 until 1979.

Scheel was a Rhinelander, born in the city of Solingen. He planned a career in banking, but was conscripted into the German Luftwaffe in 1939 and became a lieutenant in a nightfighter squadron. After the war he went into business, first as a junior executive in the steel industry and later as independent industrial consultant. But like the younger Helmut Kohl, Scheel decided to combine his business career with a gradual climb up the political ladder.

Unlike Kohl, who joined the CDU, Scheel did not opt for one of the major parties. Instead he became a member of the small Free Democrats in 1946, first becoming active in municipal and later Land (state) politics in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1953 he was elected to the national parliament, the Bundestag, steadily rising in the party and becoming a member of its executive.

After the 1961 election, the FDP became the junior member of the federal government in coalition with an alliance of the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU). Konrad Adenauer appointed Scheel as minister for economic co-operation and development and deputy foreign minister. He retained these portfolios under Adenauer’s successor, Ludwig Erhard, from 1963 to 1966.

During the three years that followed Germany was ruled by a grand coalition, led by a CDU chancellor, Kurt Kiesinger, in alliance with the SPD. Scheel, out of government, used this period to reinforce his position within the FDP and was elected party chairman in 1968. Soon afterwards it became more obvious that Scheel’s inclination was to break his party’s links with the CDU. As a first move, he opted to support the SPD’s candidate for the presidency, Gustav Heinemann.

In the following year, when Germany was gearing up for autumn elections, Scheel had an informal meeting with Brandt, the SPD’s candidate to be chancellor. The two men reached an understanding that they might form a post-election coalition. Brandt indicated that he would offer Scheel the post of foreign minister. None of this was revealed in public until a television debate three days before the September 1969 election. Brandt asserted that the SPD and the FDP were much closer to each other than either party was to the CDU-CSU, while Scheel declared quite openly that he was in favor of a coalition with the SPD, if between them the two parties could secure enough seats.

The FDP did not do well in the election; partly because of rank and file opposition to alliance with the SPD. But even so, the SPD and FDP together had five more seats than the CDU-CSU. Tense party bargaining followed. Brandt described in his 1989 memoirs Erinnerungen (My Life in Politics) that he had to overcome opposition in the SPD, some of whose leading members initially preferred continuation of the grand coalition.

But, after much debate, Brandt was given a free hand: “Kurt Kiesinger was becoming nervous and sent his young protege Helmut Kohl to his friend Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the FDP’s deputy chairman, to win the Free Democrats over.” Kohl came back from his exploratory talks, apparently confident that enough Free Democrats opposed coalition with the left to prevent Brandt’s election. For once, Kohl’s political instinct proved wrong. Scheel won the day with his party; they joined Brandt – and the rest is history.

Scheel’s position as foreign minister in the years that followed was not easy. Brandt’s political passions were directed towards the easing of tensions with the communist bloc. Besides, he himself had served as foreign minister in the previous, grand coalition government. But after a few months, Scheel was able to show that he was no lightweight on the international scene. He was equable and fair without a trace of pompousness. He knew his briefs, and could be tenacious. He rarely allowed the minutiae of negotiations to divert him from the larger strategic goal. This was well illustrated during the fraught UK Common Market entry negotiations, when Scheel consistently fought for compromise solutions.

Towards the end of his five-year tenure as foreign minister, Scheel had begun to toy with the idea of standing for the presidency in 1974. When Brandt was forced to resign over the Guillaume affair, which exposed the existence of an East German spy among his assistants, Scheel was able to make a dignified departure from government, and with the help of Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, was elected head of state.

As president, Scheel lost none of his informality and accessibility, and commanded wide respect. After his term as head of state ended, he gradually withdrew from political life.

Scheel’s first wife, Eva (nee Kronenberg), with whom he had a son, Ulrich, died in 1966. In 1969, he married Mildred Wirtz, with whom he had a son, Simon, and two daughters, Cornelia and Andrea. She died in 1985, and in 1988 Scheel married Barbara Wiese, who survives him.

Walter Scheel, politician, born 8 July 1919; died 24 August 2016


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field