In 1992, Germany and Europe were on the cusp of a new beginning. The world of two blocs had been consigned to the past, the present was riddled with change, the future uncertain. That was the year Klaus Kinkel became German Foreign Minister. Looking back, it is clear how good this was for Germany. After all, Klaus Kinkel had something which was and remains rare in politics: a clear compass.
This compass helped him to reposition the reunified Germany. Germany’s future, for Klaus Kinkel it was clear, was to be found in a united, free and globally minded Europe. For him, this was the lesson drawn from the horrendous aberrations of German history in the 20th century. But for him it was also an imperative for forward looking policy. You know this if, like me, you have filled his shoes twice. In 1993, he wrote, “It is only if we are firmly anchored in Europe that Germany can find domestic balance and full capability to act”. His ability to reach out to Germany’s neighbouring countries, particularly the new neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, paved the way. Klaus Kinkel saw himself as a harbinger of trust given the all too understandable concern that a larger, united Germany triggered amongst European neighbours. For him, it was always clear that the united Europe did not halt at the Oder or the Neisse rivers. The peaceful unification of the continent after decades of division that was what guided his politics. That was what kept the firm believer in Europe going when burning the midnight oil at meetings in Brussels to rally support for the enlargement of the European Union to include Austria, Sweden and Finland.
For Klaus Kinkel it was clear: Germany, a country that owed its peaceful reunification to a Europe that was moving closer together, to the transatlantic partnership and its integration in multilateral structures, needs to further peace in the world. This was the vision Klaus Kinkel followed when redefining the foreign policy of united Germany: The first Bundeswehr missions abroad were conducted during his time as Foreign Minister. The fundamental decision taken by the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe on the compatibility of such missions with Germany’s Basic Law was one he saw as a mandate for Germany to shoulder its global responsibility. The failure of the international community in the face of genocides in the Balkans and in Rwanda, failures which pained him to the end of his days, led him to work tirelessly for the establishment of an international criminal jurisdiction.
The saying goes that people are shaped by the positions they hold. And often, all too often, it is true. The life of Klaus Kinkel proved the opposite. His warm-heartedness left its mark on all the positions he held – whether Deputy Chancellor, Foreign Minister, Justice Minister, Party and Parliamentary Group Chair or President of the Federal Intelligence Service. Upright and principled, upstanding and approachable, a man of clear words that is how his contemporaries describe Klaus Kinkel. The stories of the Minister lifting the phone in the middle of the night to ask colleagues how things were at times of crisis are stories that live on. He, a man who was not a career politician and always viewed the pomp of protocol with suspicion, had a special gift of reaching out to people openly and frankly.
This gift is one we will sorely miss in times of escalating polarisation in our society. In Klaus Kinkel, Germany has lost a passionate champion of a globally minded Germany, a great European and an advocate of Germany’s responsibility in the world. His legacy is one we need to uphold.