Obituary: Karl-Uwe von Hassel

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Kai-Uwe von Hassel was regarded as an outstanding representative of the Protestant majority of the north German Christian Democratic Union (CDU). His first top job was as Minister-President, or head of government, of Schleswig- Holstein, in 1954-62. He was campaign manager in the election of 1961, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's last, in which the Christian Democrats lost ground due to the Berlin Wall crisis of August. But when the overweight, highly intelligent Catholic Bavarian Franz Josef Strauss was forced out of office as Defence Minister in 1962, the slender, averagely intelligent northerner replaced him. Von Hassel had a good military pedigree which must have been some comfort to the traditionalist wing of the West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Von Hassel's grandfather Friedrich Hassel distinguished himself as a Lieutenant-General in the Prussian army in the war against Denmark in 1864. For this he was ennobled gaining the coveted "von". Uwe-Kai von Hassel's father, Theodor, served in the German colonial army in Tanganyika, East Africa, then a German colony, before becoming a planter in 1909. Theodor von Hassel had his three farms expropriated when Britain took over Tanganyika at the end of the First World War. The family had to leave East Africa, where Uwe-Kai was born, the third of five children, in 1913.

Later Uwe-Kai von Hassel followed his father back to Tanganyika after completing grammar school and agricultural management training in Schlesweg- Holstein. There he worked as a plantation trader until he was interned after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

In 1940 he was exchanged and returned to Germany, where his knowledge of languages led to his recruitment into the German army intelligence corps evaluating British radio signals. As a lieutenant of the reserve he served in Italy, where he was awarded the War Service Medal First Class, and where he was made a prisoner-of-war of the British after the German surrender in 1945.

He was soon on his way back to Germany to work in the housing department in Flensburg. He joined the CDU in 1946 and climbed the ladder to political success in an area which was naturally conservative, and had to cope with large numbers of refugees from the lost territories. In many places the refugees out-numbered the natives. In 1950 33 per cent of the population of Schleswig-Holstein were expellees and a further 5.2 per cent were refugees from the Soviet Zone. He and his wife, Elfriede, a German from Samoa, could understand their misery. They soon elected him Mayor of Glucksburg and, in 1953, their MP.

As Minister of Defence von Hassel attempted to improve the poor image of the armed forces. He took over a force which had expanded too quickly and was suffering from an identity crisis. Which of the old German military traditions could the new, democratically controlled Bundeswehr endorse and promote? The politicians pushed strongly for the idea of the soldier as the citizen in uniform who could take his grievances to a Parliamentary Defence Commissioner. They honoured the names of the July 1944 plotters against Hitler. Many of the generals seemed to want a continuation of the Wehrmacht's way of doing things.

A tidal wave hit the Establishment in 1964, when Vice- Admiral Hellmut Heye, the Parliamentary Defence Commissioner and former CDU MP, raised serious doubts about where the Bundeswehr was going. He thought there was a danger of its becoming a "state within the state". He exposed the brutal treatment received by some national servicemen. Like von Hassel, from a distinguished military family, the Admiral did not get the support he expected from the Defence Minister and resigned.

On 1 July 1965 von Hassel published his decree, largely written by officers and civil servants, on military tradition and came under attack from Right and Left. It was a compromise compelled by the origins of the new armed forces.

As this controversy was going on another hit von Hassel. The German air force was equipped in 1961 with US- designed, but German-built Lockheed F-104G fighter-bombers. Over a four- year period 66 crashed and 36 pilots were killed. Up to 1973, 157 crashed and half their pilots, including von Hassel's son Joachim, did not survive. There was much public debate, with von Hassel being blamed for purchasing them rather than the French Mirage. He narrowly avoided being forced to resign. The air-force chief, General Heinz Panitzki, resigned to protest about the failure to improve the safety equipment of the F104. The Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, the highest-ranking officer, General Heinz Trettner, went in August because he disagreed with the concept of the citizen in uniform. The final straw for him was a decree allowing the public service trade union to recruit members among soldiers and civil employees of the MoD.

The fall of Ludwig Erhard's Christian Democratic / Free Democratic coalition led to the setting up of the grand coalition of Christian Democrats with the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD), in December 1966. In this new government of Kurt Georg Kiesinger (CDU), von Hassel served as Minister for Refugees and Expellees. This was no easy ministry. By December 1960 25 per cent, over 13 million, of the West German population, excluding West Berlin, were expellees or refugees. Their integration was a miracle. The Far Right NPD, a rising force at the time, sought to exploit their resentment. Von Hassel's job was to recognise their concerns without tipping over into nationalism. He did reasonably well in navigating this minefield of legitimate grievances and unrealistic aspirations watched carefully by the foreign media.

The fall of the Christian Democrats in September 1969 did not end von Hassel's career. He was elected President of the Bundestag, a position he held until 1972, after which he served as Deputy President until 1976. He failed in his bid to seek re-election to the Bundestag in 1980 by which time he had already been delegated to the European Parliament, 1979-84.

Although von Hassel was keenly interested in the European Community he maintained an interest in the wider world. He served for many years as President of the German-Iranian Foundation, and as President of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Tropical and Sub-Tropical Agriculture.

Kai-Uwe von Hassel, politician: born Gare, Tanganyika 21 April 1913; Minister-President of Schleswig-Holstein 1954-63; Minister of Defence, Federal Republic of Germany 1963-66, for Refugees and Expellees 1966-69; President of Bundestag 1969-72, Vice-President 1972-76; President, European Union of Christian Democrats 1973-80, Vice-President 1980-84; MEP 1979-84; married 1940 Elfriede Frohlich (died 1971; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1972 Dr Monika Weichert (one son); died Aachen, Germany 8 May 1997.