Walter Scheel Optimistic bridge-builder, tough negotiator

Conference for regional heads with Walter Scheel and Klaus von Bismarck, 1978, Bonn
Conference for regional heads with Walter Scheel and Klaus von Bismarck, 1978, Bonn | © Jupp Darchinger

Walter Scheel characterised East German politics in the sixties and seventies as Foreign Minister, and made cultural activities into the “third pillar” of foreign policy. He died on 24th August 2016 at the age of 97.

It has been a long road from ruined post-war zone to the Germany of today. Walter Scheel played a key role in paving this road. Scheel was leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and in 1969 he became Foreign Minister. In collaboration with Chancellor Willy Brandt he significantly changed the course of Germany’s foreign policy and East-West relations. But as party leader of the liberals he also shared responsibility for radical reforms that prepared the country for women’s emancipation, liberal justice, more equal opportunity in education and a hitherto-unknown cultural diversity. 

That was how Scheel and his generation of FDP and SPD politicians shaped the Germany we know today. His policy was controversial to begin with, contested even. Today it belongs to a part of the past of which the nation is proud. You might say that the German federal government’s foreign policy had three major milestones: Western alignment as practised by the first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the treaties concluded by Brandt and Scheel with Warsaw Pact states Poland and the Soviet Union, and then the success of the coalition under Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher. None of these things would have been possible without the events that preceded each. 

Well-mannered and sincere – unlike many politicians

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Federal Republic – which started out in 1949 as a semi-state occupied by the Western Allied forces – would be so successful. It was eyed with suspicion and kept under guard by neighbours in both West and East, and was distinctly separated from the Soviet-controlled GDR. Scheel was a soldier during World War Two. In 1939 at the age of 20 he joined the Wehrmacht and then spent years in service on numerous fronts, including against the Soviet Union. His final deployment was as a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe, where the chance of survival was especially low. He was a highly-decorated war veteran, yet unlike many German politicians he came across as well-mannered and sincere. Scheel had a cheerful optimism rarely seen at that time.

Optimistic and tough, that was the kind of politician he was. The man from Solingen who trained as a bank clerk after leaving school joined the FDP in the post-war years. In those days it was the party of independent people and free spirits, but there were also a few old comrades-in-arms. Scheel aspired to liberal values – and his views prevailed. Starting out in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state of his origin, he gradually climbed the ladder of national politics. At first he kept one foot firmly in the world of business, but later he became a full-time politician and member of parliament.

Germany’s first Social Liberal Coalition

Anyone who assumed that this cheerful-looking man was a lightweight was underestimating him. Scheel was engaging in manner and resolute in action. These attributes were valued highly by his coalition partner Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). After the election in September 1969, Scheel joined forces with Brandt to take a chance on Germany’s first Social Liberal Coalition between the SPD and FDP. Together with Brandt and his colleague Egon Bahr, Scheel earned the trust of the Soviet administration and was able to conclude treaties and agreements in Moscow and Warsaw, as well as with East Berlin, with the aim of improving neighbourly relations and achieving a peaceful coexistence. Scheel was the kind of person who opens doors and to whom people listen. He had accumulated international experience previously as minister of economic cooperation and development: Scheel was the first to hold this office.

However Scheel, an art connoisseur, saw German foreign policy as more than just paragraphs. There was something else for which Germany – in spite of its past – was loved and respected throughout the world: its culture and language. You only need to marvel at his library, which is stored in the FDP headquarters in Berlin, to realise how intensively Scheel read and thought. Cultural exchange was an integral element of German foreign policy for him – as it still is today, including in the shape of the worldwide Goethe-Institut network.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut, issued the following statement on the death of Walter Scheel:

“As Foreign Minister, Walter Scheel was a reformer and moderniser. He was the first to set out a basis to assure the future of the Goethe-Institut as an independent cultural communicator by drawing up a general agreement with the Foreign Office. This structure still stands today. With an extended cultural concept that pushed the boundaries aesthetically and academically, he made it possible for the Institute to address social and political themes of a critical nature, and he pre-empted the modern concept of “learning community” with the dialogic principle of cultural exchange. Our global presence of 160 Goethe-Institut offices is a deliberate continuation of the participatory pattern put in place by Walter Scheel, a pioneer in this field”.

He stood for a new, changed Germany

During Scheel’s term of office as Foreign Minister, international cultural work came to be defined as the “third pillar” of German foreign policy. In 1974 Scheel became German President. It was also during this time that he recorded a song that became a hit: “Hoch auf dem Gelben Wagen (Up on the yellow car)”. Even now, many people associate it with him. That may not be very political, but it has secured him a place in the hearts even of people who are not very interested in politics.

President Scheel, with his family and approachable manner, stood for a new and changed Germany. His then wife, Mildred Scheel, set up the German Cancer Aid foundation, which continues its important work today. When Scheel stepped down from office in 1979, he became a retired president at the age of just 59. In Germany, being in this position calls for great restraint – in political and also professional terms. For an active man like Walter Scheel, a politician through and through, that must have been a difficult test. He passed it though – cheerfully and elegantly, with the occasional interjection to express his opinion on affairs relating to his FDP or politics in general. He died on 24th August 2016 at the age of 97 after a long illness.