Walter Scheel, who was born in Bergisches Land on 8th July 1919, worked on many political levels between 1949 and 1979: As President of the Federal Republic of Germany between 1974 and 1979, as Foreign Minister between 1969 and 1974 and as the first Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development in the cabinets of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard between 1961 and 1966. Scheel was a local councillor in his hometown of Solingen and a member of the provincial parliament of Nordrhein-Westfalen, of the German Bundestag and of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the European Parliament.
In 1957, he was the only member of the FDP group in the Bundestag to vote for the “Treaty of Rome”, the birth certificate of today’s European Union. Thanks to his programme of opening up and modernising the FDP during his period as Party Chairman after 1968 – and his support for Gustav Heinemann’s candidacy as President – Scheel paved the way for the Federal Republic’s first social-liberal coalition and the election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor.
As Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Walter Scheel helped to shape the realignment of German foreign policy, especially in the areas of peace and Eastern Europe, and, in 1971, became the first German Foreign Minister to visit Israel. His term coincided with the admission of the Federal Republic to the UN and the opening of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Scheel earned huge popularity from a television appearance in 1973 during which he sang the popular song “Hoch auf dem Gelben Wagen” in aid of “Aktion Sorgenkind” – and the recording went on to sell 300,000 copies to raise money for this good cause.
He delivered many important speeches during his Presidency, as exemplified by the words that he spoke at the state memorial ceremony for Hanns Martin Schleyer in 1977 or by the speech marking the 30th anniversary of the end of the war, in which he became the first German Head of State to refer to 8th May 1945 as a day of “Liberation”.
As his period in office came to a close, Scheel turned down requests to stand as a candidate for a second presidential term. However, he spent several more decades as a, in his own words, “freelance employee of the Federal Republic”, playing an active role in society, receiving many honours and fulfilling many honorary roles, including as Honorary Chairman of the FDP and as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. Walter Scheel passed away in his adopted home of Southern Baden on 24th August 2016