Walter Scheel, who helped negotiate closer relations with the Soviet bloc as West Germany’s foreign minister in the early 1970s and who later served five years as his country’s president, a largely ceremonial position, died Aug. 24 in Bad Krozingen, Germany. He was 97.
His death was announced by the office of German President Joachim Gauck. The cause was not disclosed.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Mr. Scheel (pronounced “shale”) was at the height of his influence, his country was divided between the democratic state of West Germany and communist-controlled East Germany. As foreign minister in the coalition government of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt from 1969 to 1974, Mr. Scheel was a proponent of closer relations between the two Germanys and helped negotiate treaties with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries.
Viewed as a free spirit who enjoyed cigars and a night on the town, Mr. Scheel became an unlikely singing star in 1974, when his recording of a German folk song unexpectedly became a No. 1 pop hit throughout Europe. Even earlier, he had been criticized by the Financial Times newspaper of London as “an attractive and amusing man who cannot help looking lightweight.”
“What is hardness?” Mr. Scheel responded. “Isn’t it perhaps more important that a person achieve in the end what he sets out to do? And most of the time I’ve succeeded.”
Even though he had been a decorated member of the Luftwaffe during World War II, Mr. Scheel was considered one of postwar Germany’s more liberal mainstream political figures and called on Germans to repudiate their Nazi past.
He was elected to the West German Bundestag, or federal parliament, in 1953. As he rose in the small Free Democratic Party, he became a power broker by building political alliances.
In 1961, his party joined forces with the Christian Democratic Union to form a governing coalition under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Mr. Scheel was West Germany’s minister of economic cooperation from 1961 to 1966, developing an expertise in foreign affairs. He published a book in 1965 about the provision of aid to developing countries.
Mr. Scheel’s party later formed a cooperative arrangement with the Social Democratic Party, helping Brandt take office in 1969 as chancellor, or West Germany’s governmental leader. As foreign minister, Mr. Scheel helped implement Brandt’s policy of “Ostpolitik,” easing tensions between West Germany and the Soviet bloc.
Mr. Scheel led negotiations that resulted in treaties normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and Poland. He took part in diplomatic efforts with other Eastern European countries and also worked to strengthen ties with the United States and the NATO countries of Western Europe.
In May 1974, Brandt resigned as chancellor when one of his top aides was exposed as a spy for East Germany. Mr. Scheel briefly served as interim chancellor before Helmut Schmidt was elected to the post.
In a vote by members of the federal and state legislatures, Mr. Scheel was elected to the office of president. With little political power, he became a voice of moral authority, urging Germans to take responsibility for horrors perpetrated under the country’s Nazi regime.
In 1970, he became the highest-ranking West German official since World War II to visit Auschwitz, the death camp run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. During a solemn tour, he left behind two wreaths and was heard to say, “Words escape me.”
Mr. Scheel also repudiated the mythic status that some Germans attached to 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, whose grandiose music was a cultural touchstone of the Nazi era.
“All words of national dignity and self-esteem remain hollow, if we don’t take upon ourselves the whole — often oppressive enough — weight of our history,” Mr. Scheel said in a 1975 speech observing the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II. “It’s about our relationship with ourselves. Only if we don’t forget, can we call ourselves German again with pride.”
Walter Scheel was born July 8, 1919, in Solingen, Germany, where his father was a carriage maker and wheelwright.
During World War II, he served in the Luftwaffe as either a fighter pilot or navigator, according to varying accounts. After the war, he worked in banking and as an economic consultant in Dusseldorf. He entered local politics in the 1940s, then served in a state legislature before his election to the lower house of the Bundestag.
When his term as president ended in 1979, Mr. Scheel had a 77 percent approval rating among the West German public. But political splintering among the legislators who voted for the office of the presidency blocked any chance he had for reelection, and he retired.
His first wife, Eva Kronenberg, died in 1966. His second wife, Mildred Wirtz, died in 1985. In 1988, he married Barbara Wiese, who survives.
Mr. Scheel, who was a member of a men’s glee club in Dusseldorf, was proud of his baritone voice and occasionally burst into song at birthday parties for Brandt and other political leaders. In 1973, he was persuaded to record a German folk song called “High Up on the Yellow Wagon,” about bouncing through the countryside on a farm wagon.
“It was about as likely as Henry Kissinger’s warbling ‘On Top of Old Smoky’ with choral accompaniment by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians,” a Time magazine writer quipped.
Yet the song somehow caught on, supplanting rock-and-roll on the European pop charts for several weeks in 1974. Mr. Scheel donated his earnings to charity, but he was forever known was the “Meistersinger Minister.”
Source: Matt Schudel/ Washington Post