“Without Walter Scheel’s pioneering work during his time as Development Minister, his farsightedness as Foreign Secretary, his integrative power as German Federal President and especially his courage as party chairman, present-day Germany would not be the same country.”
federal chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP)
Walter Scheel was born the son of a cartwright near Solingen in the Bergisches Land region. After taking his Abitur he started a banking apprenticeship. However, he was drafted into the military as early as 1939 and had to serve until the end of the war. In 1945, he was released as a first lieutenant and began working in the industry. One year later, he joined the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Walter Scheel started as a municipal councillor in Solingen. After that, he became a member of the Landtag (German state parliament) of North Rhine-Westphalia and worked as a member of the German Bundestag until 1974. Moreover, Scheel was the Vice President of the German Bundestag for two years. At the same time, he was a member of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community and, from 1958 to 1961, also a member of the European Parliament. In 1961, Scheel became the first Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation under Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. He retained this position when Ludwig Erhard was elected chancellor. In 1968, Walter Scheel took the position of head of the FDP.
By supporting the SPD candidate Gustav Heinemann during the election of the German Federal President in 1969, Scheel laid the foundation for the first social-liberal coalition in the fall of the same year. After the formation of this coalition, he became both Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs and Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt’s deputy. These positions allowed Scheel to restructure German foreign politics towards more active participation in eastern and peace politics. Despite severe resistance by the opposition, the German parliament ratified the Treaty of Moscow in 1972 – an achievement which wouldn’t have been possible without Scheel’s outstanding commitment.
In 1971, Scheel visited Israel, which no German Foreign Secretary had done before him. After his visit to Peking, diplomatic relations were established between the People’s Republic of China and the German Federal Republic in 1972.
One of Walter Scheel’s most striking attributes as both a person and a politician was his cheerfulness and joyful way of life on the one hand – and his political determination on the other. When he supported the German charity organisation “Aktion Sorgenkind” by singing “Hoch auf dem Gelben Wagen” on the German TV show “Drei mal Neun” on 6 December, 1973, Scheel gained massive popularity. By early 1973, more than 300,000 copies of the non-profit vinyl record had been sold for charity. At the same time, he dared a highly controversial political reform by advocating a coalition with the SPD. Ignoring the massive public criticism, Brandt and Scheel initiated their policy of détente and thus reformed German politics.
In 1974, the Federal Assembly elected Walter Scheel as the fourth President of the German Federal Republic – and the second liberal president after Theodor Heuss. Despite his straightforward nature, Scheel’s presidency was marked by his striving for balance. He advocated better participation rights for the German people, demanded their full commitment and always emphasised the importance of a united Europe for sustainable peace and democracy. In 1977, the Federal President was awarded with the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen.
Towards the end of his term, the SPD and FDP asked Scheel to run again as Federal President. However, he declined. In 1979, Karl Carstens became his successor. After his time in office, Scheel remained socially active and became involved in a number of honorary posts and committees. Besides other voluntary roles, he took the position of Honorary Chairman of the FDP and also became the head of the advisory board of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
After Walter Scheel had died in his home in southern Baden on 24 August, 2016, German Federal President Joachim Gauck honoured his predecessor at the occasion of an act of state in the Berlin Philharmonie. The following paragraph is an extract from Gauck’s speech:
“Throughout his entire political career, Walter Scheel has proven and maintained a keen instinct for the necessities and chances of his time. He had the courage to act on his own judgement, even when actions entailed uncertainties and risks. Walter Scheel seized opportunities wherever they arose. He was a leader when others tried to hide away. He was bold whenever he had to be. (…) It is only when we look to the past that we recognise the full scope of his ideas and the lasting implications of their political implementation. Walter Scheel was a pioneer of our era of reform. He paved the way for our modern republic.”