Remembering our Friend Walther Leisler Kiep

“I am left with great confidence.”
Walther Leisler Kiep, January 5, 1926
May 9, 2016

The Board of Directors and the members of Global Bridges are united in deep sadness over the death of Walther Leisler Kiep. Saying farewell to the founding father of our organization leaves us with painful wounds and deep gaps that will be hard to fill.

The guiding principle of Walther’s life was to build bridges between cultures, nations, and people from many different backgrounds. Many of us have become close friends as we got to know each other through him. Everything he did throughout his life set standards for business entrepreneurship, political leadership, and civic engagement. He will be missed.

Together with his comrade-in-arms, Dr. Beate Lindemann, Walther guided first Atlantik-Brücke and then Global Bridges on their way to becoming singularly successful institutions. Our thoughts and compassion in these difficult hours and days are with Walther’s family, as well as with Beate, who is committed to continuing his work. Especially the Young Leaders Network, created and nurtured through their cooperation, will remain as a living legacy long after Walther’s death. Generations of Young Leaders saw Walther as their idol. Countless high-level Americans, Chinese, West Europeans, and now – particularly important to him after 1989 – East Europeans consider their membership among the most exciting, impressive, and forming experiences of their lives. Those who have shared this experience proudly proclaim: “Once a Young Leader, always a Young Leader.” Walther received many distinguished honors in his long life. But he was especially proud to be our “Honorary Forever Young Leader.”

Walther, born into a patrician Hamburg-Hanseatic family and coming of age in turbulent times at the end of the Second World War, succeeded early in becoming financially independent, combining his entrepreneurial skills with hard work, polished demeanor, and a good dose of luck. He then used his well-earned wealth to support a wide variety of causes, and to provide exceedingly generous help to those in need. When he decided to enter politics, his financial freedom allowed him to exercise his mandates and offices with an unusual degree of independence. He always acted in accordance with his personal values and convictions, rather than merely follow party discipline. His political home was the Christian Democratic Union, where Richard von Weizsäcker – later Germany’s President – was his closest friend and ally. Yet being the free spirit that he was, and the free actor he could therefore be, he gained broad respect and recognition beyond all party lines. Theo Sommer, in his DIE ZEIT obituary, tellingly and rightly called Walther Leisler Kiep “the best foreign minister we never had.” Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder – both SPD Chancellors – relied on Walther for delicate diplomatic missions, often involving Turkey. Walther felt especially close to Turkey; after all, he had spent a happy childhood there when his father had been tasked with rebuilding Turkey’s maritime fleet. Global Young Leaders in Erbil had a jaw-dropping surprise when Walther told them – speaking Turkish no less – that his father had introduced him, the little boy, to President Atatürk!

To travel with Walther was always a privilege and a pleasure. On the many trips he helped to fund and organize for Atlantik-Brücke and Global Bridges, those lucky enough to be included would never tire to listen to his witty, concise and exceedingly well-informed comments, often until late at night. But he was also a good listener himself, and then able to offer pertinent advice, drawing on his rich experiences in business and politics. His refined and delightful sense of humor never failed to amaze and to entertain. And one thing was certain: however late the previous evening’s discussions had been, the next morning Walther would be the first to appear on deck, impeccably groomed and dressed. He was a gentlemen’s gentleman, characterized by Hanseatic worldliness, genuine human warmth, and irresistible charm. Everyone privileged enough to get to know him felt forever enriched.

Wherever around the world we went with Atlantik-Brücke and Global Bridges – be it China, the United States, Turkey, Israel or many other countries – as long as Walther was in the group we could count on being received as friends. Doors usually closed were opened for him. Talks generally couched in diplomatic niceties or meaningless phrases turned into spirited and informative exchanges, which eventually resulted in substantial long-term dialogues.

This was especially the case in China, which Walther had gotten to know just as it was about to reemerge as a world power. In the middle of his life, while he was out of politics and back in business, Walther had privately undertaken an adventurous trip on the trans-Siberian railroad to the Middle Kingdom, which at the time was still a backward country dominated by Mao’s doctrines and characterized by uniformly dressed people riding bicycles and not driving cars. Walther realized, however, that a new giant was in the process of re-awakening in East Asia. He used the occasion, and his connections, to help Volkswagen (where he had served on the Supervisory Board) to broadly expand its joint venture investments in China, thereby contributing to Volkswagen’s establishment as the premier car maker in China (and by now its most profitable market). Walther’s unceasing efforts over many years to establish a respectful and meaningful dialogue between China and the West was greatly appreciated at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership. As his long-time friend Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently: “Our cooperation is valuable and conducive to promoting the friendship of the people in our countries.”

It was typical for Walther that he put human concerns above all economic and political interests. Torsten Krauel, in his obituary in Die Welt, highlighted Walther’s humanitarian idealism with this telling episode: “Only someone like Kiep, driving through Beijing, could notice a woman with her sick child begging in an underpass, force a reluctant Chinese chauffeur to stop, take mother and child to a hospital, and convince similarly reluctant doctors to begin treating the seriously ill child by promising to pay all costs. Only someone like him could include this daughter of a migrant worker, now healed, in his will. And only someone like him could leave an Atlantik-Brücke conference in Washington to fly to China in order to free this child, living in a dirt-poor village, from the claws of the village mafia.”

The sad news of Walther’s death reached many members of Global Bridges during a field trip in Israel. Spontaneously the group organized a memorial service in the protestant Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem, conducted by the head of the protestant church in the Holy Land. We felt some solace in the knowledge that we had properly honored Walther as the deeply religious Christian that he was, and that we had offered him a special blessing right there in the Holy Land.

Walther was strongly committed to building and strengthening a friendship with Israel. When Prime Minister Shimon Peres asked Walther for help in the course of particularly difficult negotiations with Arafat, Walther agreed without hesitation and secretly met with the Palestinian leader. Walther never forgot the horrors of the Nazi regime that he had personally experienced growing up in Hamburg. His uncle, Otto Carl Kiep, had been brutally executed by Nazi henchmen for his membership in the resistance organization Kreisauer Kreis. Walther’s political lesson for Germany therefore was unwavering: “Never again, and never alone!” Never again should Germany be the source of crimes against humanity. And never again should Germany remain isolated from the Western community and its shared values. The fact that many Israelis, including former ambassador Avi Primor, received us as friends in the Holy Land appeared to Walther almost as a miracle, given Germany’s history. It is a miracle due in no small measure to an unrelenting emphasis not to forget and to the constant efforts of engaged Germans such as Walther.

For the same reasons Walther considered a close partnership with the United States a matter of primary importance – even a matter of the heart. Or, as he put it: “America helped us generously and decisively when we needed such help in our darkest hours. The closeness we developed then must remain topic number one in our foreign policy.” And he liked to add, jokingly, that friendship with America was presented to him in his crib. His middle name, Leisler, is a family tradition honoring a forefather of the Kiep family, Jacob Leisler, who, as a political figure in New York, was an early advocate of American independence from Great Britain, which hanged him for his insurrection in 1691. Walther was an always welcome guest in the highest circles of America; among his friends he counted President George H.W. Bush and Henry Kissinger. Washington readily listened to him, even, as was his wont, when he raised difficult and sensitive issues. “My wish is that my generation will pass on to the next generation the overwhelming importance of good German-American relations,” Walther offered as one of his legacies. He, perhaps more than anyone else, made sure that his wish would be fulfilled.

After the Iron Curtain had been lifted in 1989, Walther found it equally important that the goal of good relations with the West be imparted to the young leaders of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He pursued this new emphasis in his work with the well-established help of conferences, seminars, and study tours. In addition, Walther and Beate, immediately after the fall of the Wall, established the Youth for Understanding Foundation which enabled several thousand high school students from East Germany a year of study in the United States, and underprivileged students from the U.S. an opportunity to live and study in Germany. Thus new bridges were built between the New World and the new states in the unified Federal Republic of Germany. To support this rapidly growing program, Walther and Beate organized an annual gala benefit “Enchanted Holiday Evening” in pre-Christmas New York City.

The liberalization and democratization of Russia through a friendly dialogue among partners was a project dear to Walther’s heart, to which he remained firmly committed until his dying days. In his very last public interview Walther called for a revitalization of the modernization partnership between Russia and Germany. In honor of his 90th birthday Beate Lindemann has organized the first Walther-Leisler-Kiep Symposium on “Germany’s Russia Policy at the Crossroads?” It will take place on June 23, 2016, now honoring his death while celebrating his life. His voice will be thoroughly missed.

“I am left with great confidence” was Walther’s summary of his life when he published his diaries – a highly revealing document not only of a personal life well lived, but also of historically lively times. It reflects Walther’s unshakeable optimism, his firm belief in the good of man, and his guiding conviction that individual action can contribute to a better world.

We are left with immense gratitude. Every one of us will try to live in the spirit of Walther’s life-long aspirations and achievements and thus continue his work. Albert Schweitzer once said that whatever good man contributes to the world will not be lost. Our task now is to maintain, to further, and to pass on all the good that Walther has done throughout his life. We are deeply grateful to our friend, mentor, example, and companion Walther Leisler Kiep. We will honor his life by living up to his life’s work.

Dr. Hans Albrecht and the Global Bridges Board of Directors