Erwin Wickert: Diplomat and writer

The diplomat Erwin Wickert witnessed the war in China, the beginning of change after Mao and faced British student protesters in the turbulent year of 1968.

He was serving at the German embassy in London during the "student revolt". Violent protests followed the wounding of Rudi Dutschke, the spokesman of the German student far left, by a right-wing opponent during a Berlin demonstration on 11 April. Tariq Ali, an Oxford graduate, led a group of angry young protestors to the German embassy.

Wickert was in charge in the absence of the ambassador. He ordered the disarming of the security staff and locked their weapons in a safe. As he later wrote, "The demonstrators could be heard, then seen . . . shouting 'murderers', 'Nazis'. They marched in rows of 10, linking arms when they reached the embassy entrance surrounded by police." Wickert invited a delegation of three for a talk:

I met them in my office. Their spokesman was Tariq Ali, a tall, athletic, dark young man who struck me as not unpleasant . . . Ali spoke for some five minutes, saying that the German government must bear the responsibility for the cowardly attack on Rudi Dutschke . . . I asked him to tell his followers that the German government agreed with them regarding the attempt on Dutschke's life, and that I would pass on the demonstrators' message. They looked at one another and then, having nothing more to say, got up and left.

From the entrance steps of the consular section, Ali spoke of the sharp protest he had made which would be passed on to Bonn. The crowd "seemed satisfied" and marched off. During his service in London, Wickert was sympathetic to the development of German politics studies, then in its infancy, at British universities.

Born in 1915 in Bralitz, Wickert spent his childhood in Wittenberg, Saxony, a town steeped in history where, in 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses against the selling of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. After grammar school, in 1934 Wickert embarked on a study of philosophy and German at Berlin University. In 1935 he won a scholarship to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He opted for economics and politics, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, in 1936.

On graduation, he travelled across the United States, working briefly in a New York travel agency and as a waiter in San Francisco. He then crossed the Pacific to Japan, Korea, Manchuria and northern China. Early in 1937 he returned to Germany and resumed his studies at the University of Heidelberg, where in 1939 he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy.

In September, as war broke out, he was recruited to the cultural department of the German Foreign Office. By then he had taken out obligatory membership of the Nazi Party. He was sent in 1940 to Shanghai as an attaché, with the job of developing a German radio station. In the following year, he was moved to Tokyo. There he remained until the war's end in 1945.

Returning to Germany in 1947 Wickert lived in Heidelberg, earning his living as a freelance writer of radio plays and documentaries. When West Germany regained its sovereignty, in 1955 he applied to join the new diplomatic service. He was duly recruited and sent to Paris and then to Nato. Between 1960 and 1968 he worked at the Foreign Office in Bonn heading the department responsible for the Warsaw Pact states.

During this time he worked closely with the Foreign Minister Gerhard Schröder. In the spring of 1966, Schröder sent a "peace note" to all the states including those of the Soviet bloc, expressing the willingness to exchange declarations of non-aggression. This, often seen as the precursor of the Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt after 1969, was drafted by Wickert. In 1968 he was sent to London as deputy ambassador, and from 1971 to 1976 he served as ambassador to Bucharest. As ambassador in Beijing, Wickert experienced the phase of China's political opening from 1976 to 1980.

On leave of absence from the diplomatic service, Wickert wrote a good dozen novels, non-fictional works and radio dramas. His China von innen gesehen (1982) was translated into English as Middle Kingdom: inside China today in 1983. His memoirs were published in three volumes: Mut und Übermut ("Courage and Arrogance", 1991); Die glücklichen Augen ("Fortunate eyes", 2001); and Das Gipfegespräch ("The Summit Meeting", 2003). A collection of letters entitled Das Muss ich Ihnen schreiben. Beim Blättern in unvergessenen Briefen ("I had to write to you about this – browsing through unforgotten letters") was also published in 2005.

David Childs

Erwin Otto Humin Wickert, diplomat and writer: born Bralitz, Germany 7 January 1915; counsellor, German Embassy to Nato, Paris 1955-60; staff, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bonn 1960-68; Minister Plenipotentiary to London 1968-71; ambassador to Romania 1971-76; ambassador to the People's Republic of China 1976-80; married 1939 Ingeborg Weides (died 1999; two sons, one daughter); died Remagen, Germany 26 March 2008.