Walter Scheel, the German president from 1974 to 1979 and liberal politician, has died at 97 following a long illness. He recorded a folk song in the 1970s, and more important he helped Germany weather tough times.
"Being liberal also means being open to change," Walter Scheel wrote in his 2004 memoirs. That philosophy showed in his political work.
Scheel was a member of Germany's classically liberal Free Democrats (FDP) since 1946. He first represented the FDP in the city council of Solingen, then in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia and later in the Bundestag. In 1968, he was named the head of the federal FDP.
On the eve of Germany's 1969 presidential election, he managed to convince fellow FDP legislators to vote for the Social Democrat Gustav Heinemann - even though the SPD and FDP didn't agree on much at the time. Scheel later said he considered that feat his most important political success.
It was also the catalyst for a change of party ideology: The FDP was starting to look at the SPD as a potential coalition partner over the conservative Christian Democrats.
The results of that change were visible in the 1969 parliamentary elections, which led to the first social-liberal government, with Willy Brandt (SPD) as chancellor and Walter Scheel as vice chancellor and foreign minister.
A couple of years prior, Scheel had been economic cooperation and development minister under Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard.
'Humor and relentlessness'
Scheel was born on July 8, 1919, in Solingen, the son of a handyman. He trained at a bank before he was conscribed by Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht in 1939. During World War II, he participated in the campaign against Russia, survived a bout of typhus and flew night sorties for the Luftwaffe, the Nazi German air force.
After the war, Scheel worked as an economic consultant and joined the FDP. Scheel exuded vitality and was said to always be in a good mood. The late Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former head of the FDP and foreign minister, said Scheel's personality was a mix of "humor and relentlessness." He said that behind Scheel's constantly smiling facade was a cold, calculating power strategist.
In 1973, Scheel took an unusual step in a campaign for the aid organization Aktion Sorgenkind, now known as Aktion Mensch: He recorded a version of the famous folk song "Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen" (High Up on the Yellow Cart), which rose to No. 5 on the German charts.
For the liner notes of a 2012 CD of famous folk songs that included his hit, Scheel wrote that his stint as a singer had made him so famous that when he visited Mali as president his hosts welcomed him with "Wagen" instead of Germany's national anthem.
Unity over conflict
In his inauguration speech as president on July 1, 1974, Scheel said he would seek unity.
"I will do what I can as president to help nourish a feeling of community through conversations and encounters and also to promote the growth of the individual," Scheel said.
Compared with his presidential predecessors, Scheel is considered something of a lightweight - less political and less formative. His contemporaries said, however, that he did a great job of representing Germany abroad and he brought rhetorical style and statesmanlike dignity to the presidency. The historian Arnulf Baring even called Scheel "Mr. Bundesrepublik."
When Germany was in a recession and facing militant attacks from the homegrown Red Army Faction (RAF), Scheel offered a steady hand.
"During the difficult weeks of the German Autumn, he gave Germans a sense of courage and orientation," President Horst Köhler said on Scheel's 90th birthday in 2009, referring to kidnappings and a hijacking by the RAF. "He defended the free democratic basic order against its detractors and at the same time made it clear that even these enemies of the constitution mustn't be caught using unlawful methods," .
After five years as president, Scheel left the office on June 30, 1979. Following his term he did charity work and frequently commented on FDP policies.
Scheel's last days
In poor health and afflicted with dementia, Scheel made few public appearances in the the past couple of years, during which he lived in a nursing home in Bad Krozingen, in southern Germany.
Scheel, Germany's second liberal president, died at the age of 97 on Wednesday.
In a letter to Scheel's widow, Barbara, Joachim Gauck called his long ago predecessor a "highly regarded president and a politician who for many years played a special part in shaping our country's fortunes."