Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the official ceremony in memory of Walter Scheel

07.09.2016 - Speech

Dear Mrs Scheel,
Dear Scheel family,
Mr President,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The day Walter Scheel moved into the Federal Foreign Office in October 1969, he made perfectly clear to his colleagues what their new boss’s focus would be: Have the courage to bring about and embrace change – while maintaining a subtle sense of humour! “I’m all for getting rid of a few outdated habits,” the new Foreign Minister declared to his assembled diplomats, “but I’ve always taken great care not to give anyone a complete makeover. This should apply to [our] relationship, as well!”

Ladies and gentlemen,

He did, indeed, get rid of quite a few outdated habits during his long carreer – but he gave our country much more than a makeover – he helped reshape its very identity!With the passing of Walter Scheel, we are losing a great German and European. We are losing a far-sighted politician who was willing to take risks and possessed extraordinary courage. Walter Scheel was willing to embark on new paths. Paths he knew would be rocky, and along which he would have to overcome considerable opposition, also among his party’s ranks. However, he argued and fought for his convictions, because he believed they were the right and good thing to do for Germany.


Walter Scheel was one of the architects of Germany’s Ostpolitik in the SPD/FDP coalition government headed by Willy Brandt. He helped pave the way for German reunification and an end to the division of Europe. We know that today.

Back then, however, few believed in the power of this conviction. Many were furious with Scheel about Germany’s policy of détente, as well as calling into question the finality of the division between East and West through dialogue with the adversary; they believed he was breaching a taboo. That became more than clear both in public debate and in the German Bundestag. Staying the course and fighting for these goals required great determination and tenacity. Scheel had both.He himself had seen the horrors of war, and he described his innermost motivation in a very personal way when he delivered his arguments for the Eastern Treaties to the German Bundestag in 1972: “We ... are driven by the conviction that took shape in us men of a certain generation who experienced the insanity of the Second World War – the conviction that, for us, borders, territorial claims, violence and war have forever lost their meaning.”

These words were spoken more than 40 years ago. Yet, today, their warning again rings loud and clear. In our day and age, now that the question of war and peace has returned back to our continent. In our day and age, when great forces are undermining our European Union, when the apparent irreversibility of European integration is by no means certain. When nationalist rhetoric and calls for putting up walls are threatening European integration.

Already a half-century ago, Scheel knew that, and I quote, “a sustainable, peaceful order in Europe is not feasible without European society and its dynamics”.What a visionary idea Scheel expressed in Tokyo as far back as 1970 – I wish this idea were in many European citizen’s heads today!


“It is fascinating to be one of the architects of Europe while the new Europe is being built,” Scheel once said. And yet, he was not a completely abstract thinker. Rather, he said, “I am guided by what is possible.”Determining what is possible, and attempting, step by step, to make it reality – that is what Scheel skillfully and with full dedication set out to do. At the Foreign Office, former colleagues still recount with deep respect how Scheel attended countless meetings in Brussels that often lasted late into the night, and how he remained fully attentive to the minutest details, never losing his patience, his concentration or his sense of humour. Once, when the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries were for many hours entangled in an unrelenting debate over fishing rights in their coastal waters, he is reported to have said, with feigned seriousness: “Since I believe there may be a lobster off the shore of Heligoland, I demand protection, as well, of fishing rights for the entire German coastline.”


However, immediately behind Scheel’s warm, cheerful manner lay a strong conviction about the seriousness of matters. In the EC Council of Ministers in Brussels, at NATO, as well as in Washington, Warsaw and Moscow, he earned a reputation as a tough and tireless negotiator. This becomes very apparent in a note made in a file in the summer of 1970, during the most critical stage of the negotiations for the Moscow Treaty, a note that I came across deep in the archives of the Federal Foreign Office. At the time, Scheel had met in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Andrei Gromyko. And Gromyko, a cunning diplomat, had invited Scheel to join him on an informal trip to Leningrad – a collegial, relaxed break from the diplomatic treadmill. Scheel gratefully declined. In his opinion, the top priority was to make political headway. Instead of Leningrad, he called the next meeting! Immediately pulling out his agenda, he said to Gromyko – and this was noted in the Foreign Office’s official minutes – that they should reconvene “tomorrow morning, at 10 o’clock”. So, even grumpy Gromyko had no choice other than to consent to his wish.


In foreign policy, Scheel showed great perseverance and courage.

Also at home, he took no fewer political risks. He undid his FDP party’s strong ties with the CDU and instead formed a coalition with the SPD, even though many believed this was a very risky move.

Yet he was determined, in and with the new SPD/FDP coalition government, to achieve social change and openly confront the past. Ossified, outdated structures bothered him; his objective was an open society. He was willing to fight for this goal, both outside and, if necessary, within his party. Scheel’s fellow FDP member Hans-Dietrich Genscher once described 1969 as the year the Federal Republic of Germany grew up. If that is true, then Walter Scheel accompanied our country from adolescence to adulthood. The fact that he even serenaded his country on its reaching of adulthood – with the ditty of a stagecoach driver – warms our heart to this day!


Ladies and gentlemen,

Walter Scheel was one of those who helped pave the way for a new, enlightened, globally-minded and tolerant Germany. However, we can feel today that – unfortunately – this journey is not yet complete.

That is why, now more than ever, we should be guided by his convictions, core values and policies!

We still need strong commitment to a united Europe, as well as the courage to fight against all fear and discontent – in the spirit of Scheel’s European policy!

And we need, today again, to summon the necessary strength for an exchange of views between East and West. The courage to build bridges across divides that have again grown deeper.

I think that Walter Scheel would agree.

He leaves a great political legacy.We thank him for that. And we mourn the loss of a great liberal democrat. The loss of a German patriot and of a convinced European.

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