Walter Scheel, German President Who Rued Nazi Period, Dies at 97

  • He led the country in confronting its World War II history
  • Former Luftwaffe officer became moral conscience for nation

Walter Scheel, a former West German president who encouraged the nation to come to terms with its World War II legacy and battle the wave of terror unleashed by the Red Army Faction during the 1970s, has died. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by German president Joachim Gauck in an e-mailed statement from his office. Scheel died Wednesday after a long illness, the Associated Press reported, citing the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. He had been living in a nursing home in Bad Krozingen, near Freiburg, the German publication Spiegel said online.

Serving from 1974 to 1979, the country’s fourth president called on West Germans to remember the Nazi regime’s horrors at a time when the younger generation felt increasingly removed from the atrocities perpetrated more than three decades earlier. In a 1976 speech, he also rejected the myth associated with composer Richard Wagner, whose works were used to embody Teutonic grandeur during the Third Reich, according to the German presidency’s website.

“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,” he said in a 1975 speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the war’s end. “It’s about our relationship with ourselves. Only if we don’t forget, can we call ourselves German again with pride.”

Moral Guardian

Through speeches that define the largely ceremonial post, the president acts as the nation’s moral guardian and conscience. The officeholder helps steer political and social debate, signs federal laws before they take effect and represents Germany when treaties with foreign countries are concluded.

Scheel also played a leading role in helping the nation confront the Red Army Faction’s terrorism at its peak. In 1977, the radical leftist group hijacked a Lufthansa plane and murdered Dresdner Bank Chairman Juergen Ponto, Attorney General Siegfried Buback and industry leader Hanns Martin Schleyer.

In his speech at Schleyer’s funeral, Scheel asked the family’s survivors for forgiveness after the German government, under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, had refused to secure Schleyer’s release through a prisoner exchange with the militant group.

“The destruction, the confusion, fear and horror -- that’s what terror is and it’s what they want,” he said of the RAF members. “At the root of it all is a deep hatred for the world and for themselves. They are not just enemies of democracy. They are enemies of every human system.”

Brandt’s Deputy

A former chairman of the Free Democratic Party, Scheel was foreign minister and vice chancellor in the government of Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat whose “Ostpolitik” ushered in a period of detente with the communist countries of Eastern Europe. The establishment of formal relations between West Germany and East Germany was enshrined in the Basic Treaty of 1972. Scheel’s tenure as foreign minister ended nine days after Brandt resigned over an East German spying scandal.

Scheel was born July 8, 1919, in Solingen, a western German city near Dusseldorf. He was a bank trainee before serving in the Luftwaffe as a first lieutenant during World War II. Scheel flew with the air force’s “night fighters,” which battled Allied bombers in the skies over Berlin and lost at least a quarter of its fleet every night, according to a 2004 profile in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

After the war, Scheel worked at his father-in-law’s steel factory before becoming a business consultant in Dusseldorf in 1953, according to the German presidency’s website.

Political Life

His political career began in 1946, when he joined the Free Democrats. Scheel became a town councilor in Solingen two years later and a member of parliament in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1950. During the 1950s, he was also in the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, a forerunner of the European Union.

Scheel served Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard as minister for economic cooperation and development before becoming Brandt’s foreign minister in 1969. He was chairman of the Free Democrats from 1968 to 1974.

In 1973, he enjoyed popular appeal for singing the folk song “Hoch auf dem Gelben Wagen” as part of a charity campaign raising money for disabled people. The record sold more than 300,000 copies by spring of the following year.

Scheel was first married to Eva Charlotte Kronenberg, who died in 1966. His second wife, Mildred Wirtz, was a radiologist and the mother of his four children. After her death in 1985, he married Barbara Wiese.

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