Obituary: Egon Franke

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Egon Franke, politician: born Hanover 11 April 1913; Minister of Inter-German Affairs 1969-82; died 26 April 1995.

Egon Franke was one of the key figures in post-war German Social Democracy and in the reshaping of inter-German relations at a time when the restoration of German unity seemed unlikely in this century.

Born in Hanover in 1913, the son of a music teacher, Franke joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1929 at the age of 15, when he was an apprentice carpenter and chairman of the Social Democratic youth organisation in Hanover. After the Nazi take-over in 1933 he was part of the SPD underground, the Socialist Front, working as a courier and distributing illegal leaflets.

In 1935 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to two and a half years' imprisonment for "preparing to commit high treason". Because of this he was at first deemed unfit to serve in the German armed forces but, with mounting losses, even political unreliables were called up.

From 1943 to the end of the Second World War he served in the notorious punishment Battalion 999, a unit that was given the most dangerous pioneer assignments in the front line and suffered very heavy losses. Wounded after a brief period in an American POW camp in Braunau am Inn (Hitler's birthplace), he was on his way home. It is remarkable that he and so many others like him found the strength to take up politics again in the defeated and devastated Germany. He was lucky that Hanover was the headquarters of Kurt Schumacher, the fiery SPD leader, himself a former concentration camp inmate who was then trying both to rebuild Social Democracy and keep it free of Communist influence.

Two days after his return from captivity, Franke was Schumacher's right- hand man and one of his four helpers. By 1947 Franke was working full- time for the SPD and was a member of its executive committee. He rose to prominence via his strong base in Hanover, becoming the chairman of the party there and the chairman of the SPD in Lower Saxony. Having already served in the regional parliament from 1947, he was elected to the Bundestag in 1951, and remained a member until 1987.

Egon Franke was, by instinct, a moderate and was a leading light in the so-called "canal workers' wing" of the SPD. These were mainly trade union and party officials as opposed to the more left-liberal and intellectual wing. He was a member of the party praesidium between 1954 and 1973 and as such he helped to formulate SPD policy. After 1973 his fellow "canal workers" had lost control of the party apparatus, giving way to more leftist elements. Franke had been in contact with the remaining Social Democrats in East Berlin, before the raising of the Berlin Wall in 1961 made that impossible, and from 1967 to 1969 was chairman of the committee of the German parliament dealing with Berlin and inter-German questions.

When Willy Brandt's Social-Liberal coalition of SPD and FDP was formed in September 1969, Franke was appointed Minister for Inter-German Relations. He held this ministry until the fall of Helmut Schmidt as Chancellor in 1982.

During Franke's period in office, relations between the two German states were transformed. The signing of the Basic Treaty between them in 1973 paved the way for better relations between West Germany and the GDR. The Federal Republic agreed to recognise the GDR as a second German state but not as a foreign country. Franke took part in all the encounters between Brandt and Schmidt and the East German leaders Willi Stoph and Erich Honecker.

As minister, Franke worked hard to improve the lot of ordinary East Germans and helped to buy the release of those held in East German prisons for political reasons. His ministry was responsible for research on the GDR and millions of marks were poured into this. Much excellent research was done but later there was much criticism that researchers had not been able to anticipate the fundamental instability of the GDR.

Franke himself was somewhat disappointed that the GDR leadership did not show more desire for good neighbourly relations on the frontier during his period in office; the shooting of would-be escapers continued. Yet the policy of the government of which he was a member had made it easier for millions of Germans to visit their relatives in the GDR. The improvement in inter-German relations made it increasingly difficult for the GDR to present West Germans as warmongers and revanchists. Ultimately this was a factor in the fall of the East German regime.